I was 14 years old in 1972 when astronaut Harrison Schmitt aimed a Hasselblad camera out the window of the Apollo 17 spacecraft on its way to the moon and took a photograph of the full earth from 25,000 miles up. NASA dubbed that photo “The Blue Marble.” It showed the world the world, with surprisingly sharp edges against the even more surprising darkness of space. White clouds and blue water. Stark, round, real.
That was also around the time when small appliances began to breed and evolve into wondrous species such as the digital radio alarm clock. Digital still meant digital back then, as in “with digits,” as in, numbers, as in “Look mom, no hands!” My folks had one. The appeal for my dad was no more squinting at toothpicks on a dial, and for mom it was waking up to music.
It was Christmas morning by the tree. A big cardboard tube had my name on it. I pried off the plastic cork and pulled out a giant roll of stiff paper that unspun itself briefly upon birth. Then it resisted any further unrolling as if shy. My brothers took the corners and held it so I could see.
It was a picture of Planet Earth, southern hemisphere, African side. There’s the north coast of the Sahara Desert, and the entire Saudi Peninsula, looking just like on a map, and lots of white streaks below that. Must have been a clear day in Madagascar because there it is, right where it belongs, and below that is the huge white smear of Antarctica, and all over the world is water, and clouds, all a swirl, timeless, like it really is raining, and sunny, somewhere, everywhere, always.
The next gift I opened was a digital radio alarm clock. This was not just any digital radio alarm clock. This one had a light in the top that shined up, projecting the time, in digits, on the ceiling. I didn’t have to fake that I liked it.
Saving bests for last, as was our custom, mom handed me a box. “It’s for all of us, but you open it,” she said. I opened the box and pulled out the gift that bent my young path toward a deliciously derelict life of poker.
It was a brown cylinder, squatty, a little smaller than a soccer ball, with a handle on top poking through the cover. I removed the cover. Inside was a rack of poker chips that spun around. Eight column-shaped slots held eight stacks of poker chips, four white, two red, two blue, still wrapped in clear plastic. Two rectangular slots in the center of the rack held two decks of cards, also wrapped in plastic.
I unwrapped a stack of chips. They were the super-cheap ultra-thin chips, with the shark-toothed edges that lock together after a slight rotation. They even sounded cheap, like a kid’s toy, but I adored them anyway.
I opened the box and pulled out the gift that bent my young path toward a deliciously derelict life of poker.
I unwrapped a deck of cards. They were nothing at all like a kid’s toy. They were top quality, made of 100% plastic. It said so on the ace of spades. And they were washable. It said so in the instructions. This was some severely modern space-age shit. I had never seen or heard of anything like these all-plastic playing cards. For me, for us, back then, a deck of cards was a good deck if it was all there. Marks? Of course. Rips? No problem. Spots worn off from playing endless hours of Euchre at the park on a picnic table made of concrete? Standard. Cards was cards and they were not expected to last.
(This was roundabout the time I realized that Euchre was a dumb game. First, there’s the name. Euchre, pronounced Yooker. What’s up with that? Trying to hide a lame game behind a chic name? Henceforth it shall be called Yooker, a silly name for a silly game. And what’s up with the jacks? The bowers. The what? Left and right? Huh? And the dumbest thing of all, Yooker uses only half the deck, thereby filling the world with decks of cards that are half-pristine and the other half worn out.)
But these new all-plastic cards, these Christmas cards, they had a special feel, in my hands, a stiffness, when shuffled, a satisfying flexing resistance. And with each shuffle came the perfect-riffle sound, much louder than paper cards, with a distinctive ending. And you could shuffle them end to end, endlessly, without trashing the edges. I even liked the smell.
By then I had become the greatest card player in the world, so it seemed right that I should now have the best cards in the world. I will care for these cards like a pet. They will be the immortal indoor cards. Their faces will not get roughed up. They will get put away. And they will not be used for Yooker.
At noon, the gifting was all done and the big meal was hours away. I was in my room, energized, with my presents. Poster, got it, tape, got it, wall, which wall, that one, the main one, down comes the cork bulletin board, up goes the poster, slowly, carefully, as I was taught, with reinforcement taping on the back for longevity. I stood back. Yes.
Try to understand. Walter Cronkite was the President of the Actual Universe, and the space program was the next best thing to Star Trek reruns. And here was the Earth, on my wall, just as it looked to the lunar-mission astronauts from three diameters away, spectacular and bright, surrounded by the flattest of blacks.
I sat the digital radio alarm clock on my bedside table. Just how does this thing work anyway? Get screwdriver, which kind, flat one, undo screws, remove bottom casing, more screws, top comes off. Check it out! It’s got thick plastic ribbons inside, with numbers cut out of them, stencils, that turn, passing above the light bulb, sending the time, in digits, eternally into space, or, more mundanely, onto a ceiling, if one happens to be in the way.
I could not resist tinkering with those ribbons of numbers. I pulled on them and stretched them and generally tormented the ribbons until time stood still on this clock, for good. So I yanked the ribbons of numbers all the way out. Now I had a tinny-sounding radio with a flashlight on top.
I put the casing back together, and, oh my, what is this? Without the stenciled ribbons to block most of the beam, the bulb projects a perfect circle of light onto the ceiling, a circle that is remarkably similar in size to the Blue Marble, and, here we go again! Remove poster from wall, get tape, stand on bed, can’t reach the ceiling stably enough, move the bed, get stepladder, climb ladder with tape and poster, struggle, but eventually successfully tape poster to ceiling, carefully, to last. Remove ladder, reposition bed, place thin book under edge of the alarm clock and adjust arrangement until the beam shines directly on Earth. It doesn’t look like much right now. It’s too bright in here. But tonight.
That night, I lay in bed awake. My eyes were fixed on the big picture, Planet Earth, as it hung on my ceiling as if in space, with blackness everywhere except for directly on the blue marble, lit by the alarm clock’s solar rays, my brain convincing itself into space. I was shuffling a deck of cards on my chest, end to end, without looking, finishing with a perfect brick of plastic every time.
Staring at the Blue Marble seemed to help me see things better. If my vision got too narrowly focused, if I got too carried away, with a thing, or an event, or a game, I always had the Blue Marble, waiting for me at night, to bring me back to earth. Now, the alarm clock is long gone, and the cards didn’t really stand a chance of surviving an entire adolescence. But thanks to cardboard tubes, I still have that poster of Earth. It’s buried in the basement somewhere, but never too far out of mind.
I’m going to go dig it out right now, to get another glimpse at just how small the big picture is.
Photo: “The Blue Marble — Earth as seen by Apollo 17 in 1972,” Public Domain.
An earlier version of this story can be found in Tommy’s collection A Rubber Band Story and Other Poker Tales, available in print or as an ebook by clicking here.
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