Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Carmen Pool

(I swear, I had the idea for this post long before SNL inexplicably did a Carmen Sandiego-themed spoof this past weekend.  I love that Sasheer Zamata’s borderline resemblance to the late Lynne “Chief” Thigpen has now been used not once, but twice on the show.)

The first time Gamblor grabbed me in his neon claws was all the back in the fifth grade, thanks to the help of PBS.

Thanks to a somewhat uneven split in class sizes, my fifth grade experience was a little unusual.  Myself and five other fellow fifth-graders (actually, it was just four to begin the year, with two more coming to the school during the year) comprised one single table of upper-year students within a class that was otherwise full of fourth-graders.  If you think it’s something of a waste of a teacher’s time and energy to tailor two specific lesson plans for a group of 20-25 Grade 4 kids and six Grade 5 kids, you’d be right!  To this day, I’m still not sure why the full Grade 5 class couldn’t have just added us “extras” into the mix — come on, it’s not like overcrowded classrooms weren’t as much a reality in the early 90’s as they are now! 

In short, the six of us found ourselves figuratively and literally on an island, all contained to our one little table while the teacher spent much of her focus on her much larger complement of Grade 4 students.  Needless to say, we needed something to do to pass the time, which is why we made the natural choice to start a betting pool around an educational game show.

That’s right, this was right in the era when “Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?” was just about the biggest thing on children’s television.  All six of us were obsessed with the show, and at least one of us (ahem) also had the original Carmen Sandiego books and video game.  This led to discussions about the show, a very light increased interest in geography (mission accomplished, children’s educators!) and our daily pool. 

For those of you who aren’t 90’s kids, the concept of the game show was that Carmen Sandiego is this international master criminal who deploys her gang to steal various priceless artifacts and objects* from around the world.  The kid contestants on the show were junior detectives at the ACME Detective Agency (which I assume solved crimes in addition to supplying Wile E. Coyote’s single-minded quest to murder the Road Runner) and “tracked down” the henchperson who committed the crime by answering geography-related trivia questions.  The winner of the show moved onto a bonus round where they could try to catch Carmen herself, and if I recall correctly, this involved running around a giant floor map of a country or continent to try and place as many capital cities or landmarks as you could within 60 seconds.

* = this included things you could actually physically steal (i.e. the Mona Lisa, the crown jewels) to more out-there landmarks like the Leaning Tower Of Pisa, the Statue Of Liberty, etc.  Way to drop the ball, INTERPOL.  If someone is able to stealing a gigantic leaning tower and get away with it, no wonder the international law enforcement has to turn to a private detective agency with a largely-adolescent staff.
It was a pretty great show, all things considered, aside from the inexplicable lack of Canada-themed questions.  These things stood out to us proud Canucks!  What, was Carmen afraid to ever come up here for fear of the RCMP?  Was the world robbed of a Carmen Sandiego/Due South crossover?

Anyway, I’m not sure how the betting pool officially got started, though the idea was that each day, the six of us would bet on which character would be Carmen’s henchperson for that day’s episode.  There was a revolving cast of regular goons with various punny gimmicks.  Off the top of my head, there was…

* Penny Larceny, a kid criminal, ostensibly to counter the ACME detectives
* Top Grunge, a biker with sorry personal hygiene
* Slick Vic, a sleazy salesman type who seemed like a take on Herb Tarleck from WKRP In Cincinnati, a reference that 10-year-old Mark actually got since I was one of the few kids whose TV taste ran more to old sitcoms than cartoons.
* Double Trouble, twin brothers vaguely resembling the old MAD Magazine Spy vs. Spy
* RoboCrook, which I’m guessing MAY have been (call me crazy) a spoof of Robocop
* The Contessa, an upper-class snob that was more or less Donatella Versace, now that I think about it
* I want to say there was a giant anthropomorphic rat that committed crimes?  Maybe with some name like Terence Rat-again with a reference that flew over the heads of any 10-year-old.

It was this bunch and maybe about a half-dozen other crooks, so one could pick from several different options.  We’d all choose one different character each, and put up some minor object (a pen, pencil, ruler, magic marker, whatever) in the wager.  I have some vague memory of one of the girls betting a barrette one day, which the guys objected to on the basis that a barrette had no value to us.  It was a moot point, really, since given that there were only six people involved in the pool, the same objects changed back-and-forth on a pretty regular basis.  That said, it was winner-take-all, so if you guessed the henchman correctly, you collected quite the haul.

My prized victory (from a prediction of Penny Larceny, which I somehow remember) was a red multi-purpose Crayola stencil thing that I won one day in the pool and then never re-bet, since it was such an obvious score.  I used that stencil for years in math classes to trace all manner of parabolas and whatnot.  It’s quite possibly the stencil is still in my parents’ basement somewhere, though the box probably reads MARK’S SCHOOL STUFF rather than MARK’S GAMBLING WINNINGS.

Is it a little ironic that a show about international law enforcement led to children starting an illegal gambling operation?  Probably.  I’d argue that stencils and barrettes were pretty small-time, but then again, I’ve lost track of most of that original Grade 5 group.  For all I know, three of them are on trial at the Hague next week for trying to steal the Eiffel Tower.

That’s all for this post, so DO IT ROCKAPELLA

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