The decline of modern society began circa 1992 when kids stopped playing the computer game Oregon Trail. Some people may quibble with this fact, but they can quibble all they want because they are wrong.
Kids today are wusses. Remember way back in the 1980's when going to elementary school meant getting picked on, laughed at, occasionally beaten up, always getting pegged with dodgeballs and occasionally dying on the Oregon Trail? Now it means playing musical chairs with the same number of chairs available as players, not even playing dodgeball because it is too exclusionary, engaging in artwork where everything is beautiful even when the kid only uses black crayons, not making fun of the kid who starts to cry or wets his pants, having put-up contests instead of put-down contests, and not playing Oregon Trail anymore. This is not a coincidence. In fact, if you are in your twenties and don't have an Oregon Trail story from elementary school there is a 100% chance I have no interest in talking to you.
For those of you I have no interest in talking to, here is a rough description of the original Oregon Trail featuring the language that garlanded the beginning of the game:
"Try taking a journey by covered wagon across 2000 miles of plains, rivers, and mountains. Try! On the plains, will you slosh your oxen through mud and water-filled ruts or will you plod through dust six inches deep?
How will you cross the rivers? If you have money, you might take a ferry (if there is a ferry). Or, you can ford the river and hope you and your wagon aren't swallowed alive!
What about supplies? Well, if you're low on food you can hunt. You might get a buffalo... you might. And there are bear in the mountains.
At the Dalles, you can try navigating the Columbia River, but if running the rapids with a makeshift raft makes you queasy, better take the Barlow Road.
If for some reason you don't survive -- your wagon burns, or thieves steal your oxen, or you run out of provisions, or you die of cholera -- don't give up! Try again... and again... until your name is up with the others on The Oregon Trail Top Ten."
The Oregon Trail taught you much more than how to survive a computer trip west in a covered wagon; it fortified your character. If America ends up winning the war on terror, it will be because most of our younger officers honed their leadership skills on the computer generated landscape of the mighty American frontier. During this time, they learned important life lessons such as:
If you run out of bullets, you cannot kill buffalo and this probably means you or your family will starve, ergo always buy more bullets than you think you will need.
Ferries are safer to take when driving a covered wagon.
The weakest members of your family die first.
Use the mouse not the keyboard when attempting to shoot turkeys.
Always buy at least four sacks of flour.
Prices in St. Louis are much cheaper than prices once you leave Independence, Missouri.
Naming someone in your group naughty names can get you suspended.
You can never have too many oxen or yokes.
Bankers have more money than either carpenters or farmers.
Death can come via dysentery, drowning, starvation, shooting death, or many other violent and unnatural means.
Tombstone inscriptions are easier on a computer than in real life.
There is always someone funnier than you are; if you make fun of this person he will make fun of you worse and you will have to deal with it.
So here's my Oregon Trail story. Towards the end of the fifth grade at Brick Church Middle School, I was quite confident in my Oregon Trail skills. I could deftly ride the rapids, complete the journey even with a farmer's meager financial resources, and generally arrive with my entire party intact although robberies and broken axles were always unpredictable calamities.
At that time among my best friends was Neil Burns who was known as quite the ladies man (he had kissed a sixth-grade girl while holding her hand at the same time) and had a spectacular spiked hairstyle that was the envy of northern Nashville. Basically he was the Mike Seaver of Brick Church Middle School.
So it came to pass one lazy May afternoon that the two of us set out to conquer the Oregon Trail for approximately the one-hundred and fifty-first time of fifth grade. (Brick Church Middle School was not renowned for its academic rigors.) We then entered into a dispute about who should be the "leader" of the expedition. For some reason this dispute attracted an inordinate amount of attention and before long we were both standing in front of the antiquated computer asserting our right to lead. I don't remember the particulars of our argument, but I do remember my verbal coup d'etat. At one point Neil Burns slammed down his foot on the floor to emphasize his point and the Oregon Trail computer screen flickered. I chose this moment to pounce,
"Even the Oregon Trail is scared of your buddies." ("Buddies" were expansively defined in elementary school Nashville as any shoes which were not Nikes.)
Everyone erupted in laughter and a chastened Neil Burns accepted my role as group leader. This meant, among other things, that I was allowed to buy supplies, hunt, and name all of the passengers on our trip west. Of course the leader was named Clay and the next in command was named Neil. Then we added in several other names, all of girls who we had crushes on or wished to remain standing near the computer. These girls in order of importance in our pre-adolescent lives were, Lauren Lackey, Holly Chilton, and finally Merry Edwards. Merry Edwards was actually in sixth grade, and I am still not sure why we chose her name as well since we gained no real value from choosing her. In our minds she was the most attractive sixth grader that ever existed. (The rumor was she had a boyfriend who could drive). Perhaps we were vainly hoping that someone would go charging down the elementary school hallway and rouse her from her own classroom to inform her of our computerized attempt at manifest destiny. Alas, that did not happen and Merry Edwards died of dysentery shortly after we left St. Louis.
As a prize for being the number 2, Neil Burns was allowed to append whatever epilogue he chose on the gravestone. Being poetic, for Merry Edwards, he wrote:
"Sadly, gone with the wind." (This was because we had recently watched the entire Gone with the Wind movie in class). All the girls in the class cooed in response to his glorious epitaph. Then we hit the spacebar and continued on our journey leaving poor Merry to wile away her digital life on a pixelated hillside of green.
Nothing much happened in the game until we came to the river. We killed a few buffalo, fixed a broken axle, and replaced a dead ox. At times I pulled my view away from our travels to gaze upon Lauren Lackey and make sure she was suitably impressed with my stewardship of the covered wagon. When we arrived at the water, I acted rashly for neither the first nor last time in an effort to impress a girl.
"We don't need to pay for the ferry," I said.
"Just pay for the ferry," Neil Burns said.
"I can steer the boat."
Neil Burns scooted back from the computer and placed his buddies carefully on the ground lest he provide another opening. "I say we pay for the ferry."
I pushed him aside, "We don't need a ferry," I said with Solomonic gravity.
The first half of the fording went flawlessly and then I hit a rock that was not on the screen. I still have no idea how it happened. Everything was going so smoothly and then the covered wagon was tipped and slowly the cost became known. Somehow, I was the only victim.
"Clay drowned," flashed in white letters along the black screen. Neil Burns leaned forward with a look of absolute glee flitting across his face. He commanded the keyboard. With two strident and confident clicks of the space bar, everyone confronted my blank headstone. Neil Burns left his fingers dangling above the keyboard for just an instant, waiting for inspiration to strike. The crowd around the computer leaned in closer. From the corner of my eye, I caught Lauren Lackey crossing her arms in front of her chest and shaking her head. Then slowly Neil Burns' words spread out upon my tombstone:
"Here lies Clay" (not too bad I'm thinking to myself).
Neil Burns stood and surveyed the room. Somehow our teacher, Mr. Whittle, had chosen that moment not to be present. Returning to his seat, he dashed out three words that brought the fifth grade house down.
"Too bad nerd."
Catcalls resounded all around. It did not matter that to be a nerd at Brick Church Middle School you merely had to be capable of writing in cursive and know all the multiples of 9 up to the dastardly 9*9=81. He was I and I was he, the nerd.
In today's classroom, if Oregon Trail were still being played, Neil Burns might have been forced to type a put-up (ex. "Good try chum, you're still awesome at Halo "). If Oregon Trail weren't already absent from the classroom, some loser mother somewhere would have doubtless railed against the bad message that schools were sending by allowing students to shoot buffalo and turkey on a computer screen, much less die of dysentery. But in 1980's America Neil Burns was well within his rights to ridicule me, and I'm a better man for it. Even if sometimes late at night when I can't sleep I still see that looming headstone representing my fifth grade death and have to turn over and pound my pillow in anger and repeat to myself over and over again,
"I am not a nerd...I am not a nerd...I am not a nerd..."
Because somewhere in a pixelated universe far from here, if you're my friend or anyone worth talking to at all, you're dead on the Oregon Trail.
Some of y'all have been reading my online stories since way back at the Deadly Hippos days. This story originally ran on that site in July of 2005.