Some of you wanted to read the rest of my daughter’s essay, so here it is. A glimpse into my world, but as a parent, this is a glimpse into your world too. This is the universal language of love of parents and children. Although it’s long, I promise this will bring about the Christmas spirit.

A warm breeze ripples over my shoulder as I make my way out of my dad’s prized white pick-up truck and through the parking lot. If there had been a crowd I would have done anything to shove, claw, push my way through, and I know he would have done the same. I finally break free from the cracked asphalt of the parking lot that emits heat from the ground, echoing the heat of the scorching Scottsdale day, to the sandy white cement of the sidewalk. Grass pokes up from along the cracks, a welcoming sight as if they are beckoning one closer as they sway together with the summer heat pushing around them.

I grab my dad’s hand tightly as we reach the doors, red pillars swirling up on either side, a bold “CRACKERJAX” painted above the door in bright gold and red letters big enough to read from a mile away. The paint is new, fresh, crisp. The letters are carefully aligned, a perfect computer font of a script. The sun leans down on us as we walk through the entrance. It’ll be lower when we come out, the mark of hours spent inside, transported into a memory. My dad pushes the door open for me, and I am engulfed in the cool air conditioning washing over us, wrapping me in a familiar hug as I transition from the bright light of a hot Arizona summer to the cool, dim indoors of the arcade lit by colorful flashing lights from each game.

Nestled between upscale Scottsdale shopping districts, the average run-of-the- mill arcade is a hotspot for families as well as a breeding ground for bored teenagers, and my dad and I somehow find ourselves continually drawn back to it. “CrackerGurm’s” as he calls it, pinning the affectionate nickname he gave me since birth on to the end as if symbolizing that it was for me. I am young, too young to even remember when we start coming to Crackerjax, and this is the place where I form my relationship with my dad. I am young, growing up in the illuminated glow of the air hockey table, the vibrant tracks of putt-putt golf. This is an easy, effortless place where I have no second guesses or doubts that follow me throughout my childhood.

Bright lights, brilliant blues and reds and every color in between shine down at us from their respective spots on arcade games, greeting us with a wink as we walk further inside. The air whooshes around us as the air conditioner constantly pours out new air, creating goosebumps on my skin, partly from excitement, partly from the cold. Children’s voices flutter around like bird songs, distinct squeals, and hoots of excitement, the sound of basketballs bouncing off the backboard of a free throw game, the hard sound of a skeeball sliding at top speed into openings, resonating with a loud thud mingle in the air. Animated voices mix with the sound of zombies being shot and cartoon Doings! and Whams! being brought to life brought to you by your favorite video game character.

CRACKERJAXOur first stop is the coin dispenser, my dad slipping in bills like it is the only thing he’s ever saved up for. The amount of money he has forked over for an endless number of tokens has most likely funded the Crackerjack’s stock, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is their most prized customer. Shiny coins tumble into my eagerly outstretched hands, soon to be stuffed into pockets of my dad’s oversized parachute pants. Every so often I’ll still come across a few of them when cleaning my room, memories beckoning me back.

Gliding down the sloping ramp into the belly of the arcade always held the best feeling when I was a kid. Becoming enveloped in the chaotic awe – the wonder one feels as a child when memories seem the ripest, almost larger than life. Walking down the ramp into a wonderland of shimmering lights and entrancing music dancing in between the different games
forms an atmosphere solely created for moments like this. The lights bouncing around seemingly shine from the reflection of my own happiness. It was a walk I never took alone, always accompanied by my best pal.

The air hockey table, given its own space, as if reserved solely for its two most important clients, is adjacent to the ramp on the left side of the arcade. The average run of the mill air hockey table, adorned with blue and black paint worshipping its pristine deck, was our equivalent to some sort of holy shrine, always visited. Four coins promised the game of a lifetime, soon adding up to 8, 12, 16, 20 before the afternoon was done.
“Ready to lose?” Ever the competitive one, my dad never backed down.

After a few rounds of letting me beat him, we would play all or nothing, no holding back. The slick sound of the thin yellow puck sliding across the table faster than expected bounced back and forth, providing its own commentary. Focus was intense. Stakes were high. Dad versus his youngest daughter. I’d like to think that the more I played the better I got, but recent visits have informed me that my rusty skills are no match for my dad’s jaguar like speed.

Although he normally won, I won’t forget the look he had that was reserved for when I snuck in an extra goal awarding me a win, shock slapping him in the face as he gave a wide-eyed look followed by a surprised grin, his stunned expression always followed by a laugh, commending me for my game. The pride that accompanied his praise always rose up in my belly like a fire finding its way out, a warm and cliché fuzzy feeling exclusively given to me by my dad. A pride that I would do anything for, always striving to earn a laugh and a praise from him.

A man of tall stature, ponytail and scruffy beard, my dad always stood out of a crowd. He wore baggy Gold Gym’s brand sweatshirts of assorted vibrant primary colors along with what strongly resembled parachute pants or baggy shorts with a hat on backward over remarkably long hair. My dad’s appearance spoke for him, displaying his character. A man who chose comfort over looks, who didn’t want to show off with materialism. Who grew his hair out to donate to Locks of Love, always tied back into a long ponytail.

Humble from his roots, my dad grew up in a family of self-proclaimed “red-necks” from Arkansas. The youngest of two brothers and one sister, my dad learned his place by roughhousing of malicious intent and hard teachings from a hard father. Moving to California, then Arizona as a boy, my dad finished high school and worked as a framer, working on houses throughout the valley instead of attending college.

Starting work from a young age of 13, my dad was instilled with a hard work ethic, rising up in the company he worked at to eventually making his own and being the boss. He passed up on his dream of being a writer and settled for something learned from a young age, but later poured his experiences into writing; his hardships something I still cannot bring myself to read.

With skin splotchy red in most places from sun exposure and scruff that scratched my face whenever he would kiss my cheek or forehead at bedtime, always vigilant to tuck me in. Worn callouses on his hands demonstrated years of hard work and his green eyes always held a glowing warmth, twinkling with wit, constantly looking for his next joke. My biggest fan of all my work, my dad is always the first to tell me how proud of me he is.

A father of two step-daughters and one biological daughter, he was never one to treat any one of us unequally. He embraced my half-sisters as his own children, marrying my mom before I was born. He loved fairly and deeply, more than he had ever bargained for, pouring his heart out into relationships he never expected.

Revisiting my house a few weeks ago in Scottsdale, he opened up to me with a sense of vulnerability that had not been present when I was living at home, one that only opened up once the realization of distance had hit. He told me that before he met my mom, he had sworn to not date women with children. But as he fell in love with my mom, he fell in love with her daughters.
“How could I not?”, he had added. A glimpse into the softness underneath his tough exterior not often shown was revealed to me in that small, warm moment as we sat in the kitchen long after my mom had fallen asleep on the couch in the family room, listening to music that he always insisted on playing for me on YouTube.

He had never expected having a child of his own. Admittedly too preoccupied with work, he had believed that that part of his life had passed.
“But everything changed when I had you. I knew you were the greatest gift God gave me.” Our eyes mirrored each others, both welling up with the feeling of tears that threatened to spill over, tracing down our cheeks as we exchanged matching sniffs in the emotional moment, love bubbling up inside my chest; the returning fuzzy feeling claiming its place.

As we aged so did the building of the arcade, paint beginning to chip from the elaborate entrance, the greens of the putt-putt course turning to a muddy beige. Machines started to become replaced by their new and improved counterparts, entering a more modern age as the old ones lost their beloved gleam, instead only reflecting one’s appearance in the dark nothingness of a blank screen. The pinball machines my dad obsessed over started to dwindle in their number, but the main attractions like air hockey and skeeball remained the same. My dad’s trusty pick-up truck changed to a Hummer. Photo booth stubs show his hair becoming shorter, now resting on his shoulders. Lines began to creep across his forehead and around his eyes, but that twinkle never disappeared from them. Regardless of the changes going on around us, with our age, our enthusiasm only grew. Time after time, without fail, our tradition stood the test of time.

Over the years, however, things began to get busier. Between school and typical teenage moodiness, trips grew less frequent, but somehow more cherished. Or maybe even sad, in a sense.

“Wanna go to Crackerjax this weekend?” he would ask with a bright grin on his face, it slowly diminishing as he heard my response.
“No, dad! Geez, quit asking! I have way too much work.” It would be followed by a curt smirk and an eye roll, one that all thirteen-year-olds seem to have mastered. As I saw the resulting disappointment and quietness grow from him, clearly portrayed on his face whether he was aware of it or not, I’d feel an unfamiliar pang, a torrent of guilt spewing up inside as I began to regret my answer, but controlled by some sort of pride, I couldn’t take that answer back.

“But maybe next weekend…?” I’d try to come up any kind of response that could fix the situation as soon as I felt that pit in my stomach, feeling that in some small way, I let him down. He’d nod and return to his usual self, the window of vulnerability closed off, at least to me. Times like that I’d instantly feel torn between my typical teenage attitude and the feeling that I made my dad upset. I remember almost crying at times, swearing that it wasn’t because I didn’t want to spend time with him and he’d laugh as he gave me an understand hug, assuring me that it was alright.

It’s funny to think how you never know when the last time you do something will be. It’s something I often think about, often accompanied by a sting of missing my childhood and a panicked need to call my dad. You don’t know you’re in the “good old days” until you’ve left them. I didn’t know the last time my dad would tuck me into bed, take me trick-or-treating, or going with him to Crackerjax as a kid until after it happened.

Revisiting now shows an absence of the games we played faithfully and instead, they are replaced by a laser tag arena taking up most the space in the arcade. More modern games have replaced their classic arcade ancestors, the digital presence of the 21st century creeping in little by little. The once-pristine paint that faded to a familiar chip is now restored but is almost foreign.

“Our” Crackerjax is stored away in my memories, safe from the infiltration of change. A change that has invaded our lives in every way imaginable as we grow older, especially present in the transition of my moving to college. Although I’m now only 30 minutes away from my home, it can feel like worlds away.

“Lunch this weekend?” I’m now the one to instigate things, calling my dad whenever something reminds me of him, making plans that I pray he won’t reject like I did as a teenager. It’s different now, our ever evolving relationship. Distance has changed things, made small things like the time we spend more important, more cherished.
“Yeah, that sounds great!”, my dad responds. And when we meet up on a Saturday afternoon to get lunch, he tells me he’s been looking forward to it all week.