Remember When VCRs Were the Thing?

Remember when VCRs were the thing in home entertainment?

I do.

I was at a friend’s house the first time I ever saw a VCR (Video Cassette Recorder).  I did not know about the tape.  All I saw was that my friend could push one button on the remote and make the characters go backwards, and push another button to make them go forwards, into the future.  I thought that the device allowed you to see shows before they were aired.  I felt like a time traveler.

On the ride home from my friend’s that night I imagined that I had a “VCR” and a remote.  I imagined holding in the fast-forward button and watching shows that were years away.  I wondered why my friend had not done this.  Perhaps he was not that bright.

When I learned that the “fast-forward” was just through a tape of shows that already aired, I was disappointed.  How were you supposed to know ahead of time what you wanted to watch, and then set up the VCR to tape it?  We were not exactly the first family on the block to get a VCR.

But technology has a way of worming its way into our homes.  On the day – oh triumphant day – that we got a VCR, we went to the video store and rented Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.  I had seen it in the movie theater but wanted to see it again.  I think we rented that movie the second time we went to the video rental store, too.

The first thing I ever planned to tape was Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I arranged for my father to drive me to PC Richards for a blank VHS cassette.  On the way home he said to me, “Mark, what you about to do tonight is illegal.”  I wanted to tell him that he was wrong because everyone taped things off television.  But he would not have understood.

When I got home I unwrapped the tape, pushed it in, and pressed record.  What a luxury it was to be able to get up during the movie and go into the kitchen for something to eat and not worry about missing something because it was being taped.  For the first time in my life I was thankful for being born in the 20th Century.

The instant the movie ended I rewinded the tape.  And when I pressed play, I saw that all I had taped was snow.

Remember When Fruit Roll-Ups Were Popular?

Remember when Fruit Roll-Ups were a popular snack?

I do.

Every morning of elementary school the class was given fifteen minutes to eat a snack.  You could bring any snack you wanted.  In the beginning I was given snacks like apples or carrots or apricots.  The apricots were okay.  But I noticed that some of the other kids were eating a gelatinous substance that they peeled from a plastic sheet.  I asked these kids what was the name of their strange and exciting snack.

“It’s a Fruit Roll-Up.  Would you like some?”

I replied that I would..

“Well you can’t have any.”

That night I lobbied my parents for Fruit Roll-Ups.  At first they were skeptical, but when you are a kid you can afford to be persistent because you have nothing else to do.

Fruit Roll-Ups came in a variety of flavors.  The first one I got was strawberry.  The first morning I brought a Fruit Roll-Up to class was the proudest of my life.  I will never forget the moment that snack time was called and I was at long last able to congregate with the other Fruit Roll-Up eaters.

“Hey there, Kaplowitz.  I see you’ve got a Fruit Roll-Up.”

I replied that I had.

“What happened to the apple?”

I replied that I did not know what he was talking about.

“Well do you want to trade with me?  I’ve never had a strawberry one before.”

I told him to go to hell.

Some people would peel off their Fruit Roll-Ups all at once and twist them up and eat them.  I never did that.  I liked to peel off a piece at time and savor the gelatinous treasure.

I don’t know if they still sell Fruit Roll-Ups.  I have heard that some teachers require kids to bring “healthy” snacks.  Liberty loses another battle in its war with Health.

Remember When Cell Phones Did Not Exist?

Remember when cell phones did not exist?

I do.

Our home had two land-lines, but we called them “telephones,” or just “phones,” for short.  I would be in my room and the phone would ring.  Everyone could hear it.  My mom would pick up in the kitchen.

“Mark!” she would shout from downstairs.

“What?” I would shout from my room upstairs.

“So-and-so is on the phone.”



“OH.  OKAY.”



I would go into the master bedroom, across the hall, where the other phone resided.  I would pick up the receiver.


I would wait for the click and then begin speaking.  That was how calls were received.

Making a call was a little more complicated.  Time had to be reserved in advance.

“Mom, I have to make a telephone call.”

“Um..okay.  Just don’t stay on too long because I’m expecting a call from Grandma Sylvia.”

“Well, when is she supposed to call?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  But she won’t be pleased if she gets a busy signal.  Remember that time she got a busy signal?”

“I know, I know.  Okay, I’ll keep it short.  I promise.”

I would go into the master bedroom, away from the din of the television and dishwasher.  A minute into my phone conversation, I would hear someone pick up the phone.

“Hello?” said my mom.

“Mom!  I’m on the phone!”

“Oh…sorry.  I thought you were off.  Okay, g’bye.”

Talking on the phone to third persons was turned into a family activity.  Today, these steps have been truncated.  You just take your cell phone out of your pocket, or pick it up off your desk, and dial the number.  If it is a number you use a lot, you can dial with just a couple buttons instead of seven or ten.  Receiving a call is even easier.  You just pick up the phone and say, “Hello?”  Or if you want people to think you are cool, you say, “Hey.”

The cell phone is much more convenient.  But somehow I miss all the shouting.

Remember When Email Did Not Exist?

Remember when email did not exist?

I do.

When my friends and I wanted to get together and do something we would call each other on the telephone.  Or they would just come over to my house and sit on my couch and say, “So what do you want to do?”

When my friends wanted to tell me something they would call me on the telephone.  Or they would tell me on the school bus on the way to school.  Sometimes they would tell me things on the way home from school.

When my friends wanted to show me something funny or disgusting or inappropriate they would have to show me while I was at their house, unless they happened to have whatever they wanted to show me in their schoolbag.  But bringing anything to school entailed risk.

When my friends wanted to invite to their birthday parties they would mail me an invitation.  Sometimes they would bring the invitation into school and hand them out.  I always felt awkward when they handed out invitations in school because not everyone got an invitation.

When strangers wanted to sell me something I did not need they would send me marketing materials to my mailbox.  They still do this.

When someone wanted to tell me a joke, they had to tell me in person.  They could tell right away if I thought it was funny.  They could also tell right away if I did not think it was funny.

And now all of these go through one channel called email.  Who says people don’t read anymore?

Remember When People Did Not Walk Around With Bottles of Water?

Remember when people did not walk around with bottles of water?

I do.

Bottles used to be just for babies and soccer players.  If these individuals got thirsty, the bottle was there.  The rest of us had to wait until the appropriate meal times.

Then sometime in the late 80s the French figured out that Americans would be stupid enough to pay for water just because it was in a bottle.  First it was Perrier and Evian and then other brands made their splash.

I was in the eighth grade when I first noticed people around me carrying bottles of water.  I thought to myself, “There are water fountains placed throughout the school.  Why are they carrying around water?  They are not babies.  They are not playing soccer.”

But it did not matter.  As I was to learn, they needed the water because they needed.  And after two decades of carrying water in bottles, the medical community has decreed that everyone should drink more water.

Even the bottles themselves have changed.  For a long time plastic was the rage.  But then too many health and environmental issues arose so that now people are buying aluminum bottles with designer labels.  There are websites weighing the relative merits of different brands of designer aluminum water bottles.

Last year I saw a water fountain in an old courthouse.  It was the first water fountain I’d seen in ten years.  I went over to it, leaned down to sip, but when I pulled the lever nothing came out.  The fountain had run dry.

Remember When No One Had a Peanut Allergy?

Remember when no one had a peanut allergy?

I do.

I and everyone I knew ate peanuts in every form.  Peanut butter.  Peanut…well, I guess it was just peanut butter.  The whole Asian cuisine juggernaut had not yet risen, and beer (with bowl of peanuts annexed thereto) was also years away.  But peanut butter was a staple.  I ate peanut butter plain, and I ate it as an ingredient in many, many foods, although I did not know or care about things like ingredients.

No one I knew was allergic to peanuts.  I knew plenty of people who were allergic to cats, but none who were allergic to peanuts.  And then one day I turned around and there were more people allergic to peanuts than cats.  And not just a little allergic – more than just a few sniffles and headaches.  No, these peanut allergies were lethal.  I had to start walking around with the knowledge that the free bag of peanuts they gave me on the airplane was a mortal weapon.  Although soon they stopped giving out those peanuts, too.

Where did this mortal allergy come from?  Why so suddenly?  Did it come from another planet?  Was it genetically engineered by a pretzel company?  We’ll never know the answer.

All I know is that I have to be careful where I open jars of peanut butter.  The 21st Century is a dangerous place.

Remember When The Term “Surround-Sound” Did Not Exist?

Remember a time when you did not hear speakers described as “surround sound”?

I do.

Speakers used to be just speakers.  Sometimes the speakers were built into a particular device, like a television or a boom box.  Other times speakers were connected as separate devices of their own.

And then one day I told someone about a stereo that I had gotten, and was asked, “Is it surround sound?”

“Is it what?” I asked.

“Surround sound.  You don’t know what surround sound is?  Surround sound is the best.”

I think I first heard the term in relation to movie theaters.  Certain movie theaters had this wonderful surround sound.  The term actually described the product well:  You felt as if you were surrounded by the sound.

But then it got to be so that every stereo or television had to have surround sound.  The phrase “with surround sound” was appended to the name of the main product so often that I began to think it was part of the product itself.  Big screen TVs…with surround sound, I heard on commercials.

After a while friends stopped coming over to watch television at my house.  They always had a polite excuse – the dog got sick, the toilet had to be plunged – but I knew the truth.  They did not want to come over because I did not have surround sound.

I never understood what was so great about surround sound.  So the sound surrounds you.  After a minute you get totally used to it and the sound is no different than it was before.  But when people get used to something, there’s no going back.  The only sound is surround sound.

Remember When “Starter” Jackets Were Popular?

Remember when those “Starter” jackets and hats were popular?

I do.

I had never been into sports very much and so I was well into my teens when I learned that a “starter” was someone who played at the start of a game.  It had seemed to me that it was better to not have to start.

One day I noticed other boys wearing these enormous jackets – coats, really – with the logo of a team and the word “Starter” emblazoned on it.  The coats were quite grand looking.  Their wearers strutted around as if they were the starters, as if by merely donning the coats or hat they would be magically transported to the line of scrimmage or whatever it’s called.

There was a commercial, too.  There was always a commercial to go with things like this.  I don’t remember the image, but I do remember the word, “Starter,” spoken in a loud whisper.  The clear implication was that the wearer would walk through the halls and people would say to each other in whispered tones, “That guy over there.  He’s a Starter.  You can tell by the coat he is wearing.”

There was a guy in my math class who was particularly fond of his Starter jacket, giant coat, whatever.  Sometimes he added a Starter baseball cap to his ensemble.  He would stand at the black board and write out sines and cosines and with his back turned other boys in the class would mock him by saying “Starter” in the same loud whisper from the commercial.  I felt a little bad for him.  This feeling did not stop me from participating in taunt.

And then, one day, the Starter gear disappeared.  Vanished from history, like the Huns.  All that remains is a lingering memory of the days of giant jackets.  And sometimes, when the wind blows and rustles the leaves, I think I can almost hear the whisper:  “Starter!”

Remember When “The Clapper” Was A New Invention?

Remember that invention called “The Clapper” and the commercials for it?

I do.

We were sitting around, watching television one day, when all of a sudden a commercial came on for this thing called “The Clapper.”  It was a device that you affixed to your lamp.  By simply clapping  your hands you could turn the lamp on.  Clap again, and the lamp turned off.

There was even a song that went with the commercial.

Clap-On [clap, clap]

Clap-Off [clap, clap]

Clap-On, Clap Off

The Clapper [clap-clap]

The purpose of the Clapper was that you could turn the light on and off without getting up.  The commercial showed people this – turning lights on and off without leaving the couch.

The last segment of the commercial was of an elderly woman in bed who claps off a television that is glowing blue snow.  She claps and collapses back into slumber.  What convenience!

I have yet to meet a person who owns a clapper.  In fact, I have yet to meet a person who has any device that turns lights on and off remotely.  Despite all the devices that have come our way in the last few decades, people still turn light on and off the fashioned way.

Except for Orthodox Jews on the Shabbos.

Remember Box Drinks?

Remember when box drinks were the beverage of choice for a bag lunch?

I do.

In the summers I went to a day camp in my town.  The campers had to bring their lunch everyday.  Virtually all the lunches were in brown bags, and everyone brought a box drink.  The box drink was a little box containing a very sugary fruit juice in it.  Orange and grape were the most popular flavors.  A plastic straw shrink-wrapped in clear plastic was glued to the back of the box drink.

I loved box drinks.  By lunch time I could see the condensation that had collected on the cold box drink seeping out through the paper bag.  Lunch was fairly typical for that time – peanut butter and jelly, baloney, and always on white bread – but the box drink was what I really waited for.  I would save it to the very end, and then enjoy the rush of sugar before returning to the drudgery of kickball or soccer.

The box drinks had brand names like “Ssips!” or “Motts” or “Juicy Juice” or “Hawaiian Punch” or “Capri Sun.”  Capri Sun was not really a box; it was an aluminum pouch that required special skill to pierce properly with the draw.  The few times I had to do the drink got stabbed so many times that I knew I could never be a doctor or a nurse.  I needed a box to pierce the foiled aperture.  What a satisfying feeling it was, driving that plastic straw through that little circle of foil into the sugary drink within.

I don’t know if box drinks are still in use today.  If they are, people are drinking them when I’m not around.  Kids today probably bring real juice drinks bearing names like “Naked” or “Vitamin Water” or “Nantucket Nectars” or maybe even the occasional “Snapple”.  And their parents have to take out a home-equity line of credit to buy these drinks that, I am sure, are healthier and tastier and bigger.

But until you’ve drained a Ssips! in one sip, or pierced a Capri Sun on the first try, you have not really lived.