IN ANGRY RED block letters, the slogan gleamed out like a neon sign from the big white button: DISARM THE TOY INDUSTRY. That's what it said. There was no question about it. The button was worn by an indignant little old lady wearing what looked like an upturned flowerpot on her head and, I suspect, a pair of Keds on her feet, which were primly hidden by the Automat table at which we both sat.
Toying moodily with my chicken pot pie, which is a specialite de fa maison, I surreptitiously examined my fellow diner. Wiry, lightly powdered, tough as spring steel, she dug with gusto into her meal: succotash, baked beans, creamed corn, side order of Harvard beets. Bad news-a vegetarian type. No doubt also a dedicated cat fancier. Silently we shared our tiny table and shoveled it in as the great throng of pre-Christmas quick-Iunchers eddied and surged urgently around us. Finally I could contain myself no longer.
"Disarm the toy industry?" I asked.
She sat unmoved, her bright pink and ivory dental plates working over a mouthful of beets, attacking them with a ravenousness usually associated with the larger carnivores. The red juice ran down over her chin and stained her white lace bodice. I tried another opener:
"Pardon me, madam, you're dripping."
Her ice-blue eyes flashed angrily for a moment and then softened.
"Why, thank you, sonny."
She dabbed at her chin with a paper napkin and I knew that contact had been made.
"Disarm the toy industry?" I asked again.
"It's an outrage!" she barked, causing two elderly gentlemen at the next table to spill soup on their vests.
"It's an outrage the way the toymakers are forcing the implements of blasphemous war on our innocent children, on tiny babes who are helpless and know no better! It's all a Government plot! I know what they're up to! Our committee is on to them, and we intend to expose this degenerate Communist conspiracy!"
She spoke in the ringing tones of a true believer, her whole life obviously an unending fight against the forces of evil. Standing suddenly, she spun on her left Ked and strode militantly out into the crisp, brilliant Christmas air-and back into the fray.
I sat rocking slightly in her wake for a few moments, stirring my lukewarm coffee medItatively, thinking over what she'd said. As if the toy industry had any control, I reflected. over the eternal fascination of the human being with the implements of warfare. It's a fascination that begins early in life.
I began to mull over my own youth and its unceasing quest for roscoes, six-shooters and any other sort of blue hardware - simulated or otherwise - that I could lay my hands on. Outside in the spanking December breeze, a Salvation Army Santa Claus listlessly tolled his bell, huddled in a doorway to avoid the direct blast of the wind. I sipped my coffee and remembered another Christmas, in another time, in another place-and an unforgettable gun.
* * *
I remember clearly, itchingly, the first time I laid eyes on it, pictured in a smeared three-color ad on the back cover of Open Road for Boys, a publication which at the time had an iron grip on my aesthetic sensibilities, and on the dime that I had to saatch up every month to stay with it. It specialized in illustrations showing gigantic Kodiak bears charging out of the page at the reader, to be gunned down in single hand-to-hand combat by U-year-old killers armed only with a boy scout knife and nerves of steel.
Early in the fall the first ad appeared. It was a magnificent thing of balanced copy and pictures, superb artwork and subtly contrived catch phrases:
BOYS! AT LAST YOU CAN OWN AN OFFICIAL RED RYDER CARBINE-ACTION TWO.HUNDRED-SHOT RANGE MODEL AIR RIFLE!
This in red and black block letters beside a large balloon coming out of Red Ryder's own mouth, his jaw squared, staring out manfully and speaking directly to me, eye to eye. In his hand was the knurled stock of as beautiful, as deadly looking a piece of weaponry as I'd ever laid eyes on.
YES, FELLOWS, Red was saying, THIS TWO-HUNDRED- SHOT CARBINEĽ ACTION AIR RIFLE, JUST
LIKE THE ONE I USE IN ALL MY RANGE WARS CHASIN' THEM RUSTLERS AND BAD GUYS, CAN BE YOUR VERY OWN. IT HAS A SPECIAL BUILT. IN SECRET COMPASS IN THE STOCK FOR TELLING THE DIRECTION IF YOU'RE LOST ON THE TRAIL, AND ALSO AN OFFICIAL RED RYDER SUNDIAL FOR TELLING TIME OUT IN THE WILDS. YOU JUST LAY YOUR CHEEK 'GAlNST THIS STOCK, SIGHT OVER MY OWN SPECIAL-DESIGN CLOVERLEAF SIGHT, AND YOU JUST CAN'T MISS. TELL DAD IT'S GREAT FOR TARGET SHOOTING AND VARMINTS, AND IT WILL MAKE A SWELL CHRISTMAS GIFT!!
In the next issue, Red was even more insistent, now implying that the supply of Red Ryder BB guns was limited and to "order now or see your dealer before it's too latel" It was the second ad that actually hooked me. It was late November and the Christmas fever was well upon me. I thought about a Red Ryder air rifle in all my waking hours, seven days a week, in school and out. I drew pictures of it in my reader, in my arithmetic book, on my hand in indelible ink, in crayon, on Helen Weathers' dress in front of me. For the first time in my life the initial symptoms of genuine lunacy set in. I imagined innumerable situations calling for the instant need of a BB gun, great fantasies where I fended off creeping marauders burrowing through the snow toward the kitchen, where only I and I alone stood between our tiny huddled family and insensate evil-masked bandits attacking my father, only to be mowed down by my trusty cloverleaf-sighted weapon. In an act of selfless chivalry, I saw myself defending Esther Jane Alberry from escaped circus tigers. A miraculous crack shot, I saw myself picking off sparrows on the wing to the gasps of admiring girls and envious rivals on Cleveland Street. And there was one dream that involved my entire class getting lost on a field trip in the swamps, from which I led the tired, hungry band back to civilization,
using only my Red Ryder' compass and sundial. I didn't just want that gun; I had to have it.
* * *
Early December saw the first of the great blizzards of that year. The wind howling down out of the Canadian wilds a few hundred miles to the north had screamed over frozen Lake Michigan and buried Hammond in huge drifts of snow and festooned eaves with story-high icicles. Streetcar wires creaked under caked ice and kids plodded to school through 45-mile-an-hour gales, tilting forward like tiny furred radiator ornaments, lumbering stiffly over the barren, clattering ground.
Preparing to go to school in weather like that was like getting ready for extended deep-sea diving: long johns, corduroy knickers, checkered flannel lumberjack shirt, four sweaters, fleece-lined sheepskin helmet, goggles, mittens with leatherette gauntlets and a large red star with an Indian chief's face in the middle, ,three pairs of socks, high-tops, overshoes, and a 16-foot scarf wound spirally from left to .right until only the faint glint of two eyes peering out of a mound of moving clothing told you that a kid was inside.
My mother would simply throw her shoulder against the front door, pushing back the advancing drifts and stone -ice, the WInd raking the living-room rug with icy fury for an instant, and we would be launched, one after the other, my brother and I, like astronauts into space. The door slammed shut behind us and that was it. It was make school or die!
Scattered over the icy waste around us could be seen other tiny dots of wind-driven humanity, waddling under the weight of frost-stiffened clothing like bowling pins with feet, all toiling painfully toward the Warren G. Harding School, miles away over the tundra. An occasional piteous whimper would be heard faintly, then lost in the whistle of the eternal wind. But' over it all was a faint but unmistakable drum-roll fanfare of mounting excitement. Christmas was on its way. Each day was more exciting than the last, because Christmas was one day closer-lovely, beautiful, glorious Christmas, around which the entire year revolved.
Downtown Hammond was prepared for its yearly bacchanalia of peace on earth and good will to men. Across Hohman A venue ana State Street, the gloomy main thoroughfares - drifted with snow that had lain for months and would remain until well into spring - were strung strands of green and red Christmas bulbs, and banners that snapped and cracked in the gale. From the streetlights hung plastic ivy wreaths surrounding three-dimensional Santa Claus faces.
For several days the windows of Goldblatt's department store had been curtained and dark. Their corner window was traditionally a major high-water mark of the pre-Christmas season. It set the tone, the motif of their giant yuletide jubilee. Kids were brought in from miles around just to see the window. Old codgers would recall vintage years when the window had flowered more fulsomely than in ordinary times. This was one of those years. The magnificent display was officially unveiled on a crowded Saturday night. It was an instant smash hit. First-nighters packed ear muff to ear muff, their steamy breath clouding up the sparkling plate glass, jostled in rapt admiration before a golden, tinkling panoply of mechanized, electronic joy. This was the heyday of the Seven Dwarfs and their virginal den mother, Snow White. Walt Disney's seven cutie pies hammered and sawed, chiseled and painted while Santa, bouncing Snow White on his mechanical knee, ho-ho-ho'd through eight strategically placed loudspeakers - interspersed by choruses of "Heigh-ho, heighho, it's off to work we go." Grumpy sat at the controls of a miniature, eight-wheeled Rock Island Railroad steam engine, and Sleepy played a marimba, while in the background, inexplicably, Mrs. Claus ceaselessly ironed a red shirt. Sparkling artificial snow drifted down on Shirley Temple dolls, Flexible Flyers and Tinker Toy sets glowing in the golden spotlight. In the foreground, a frontier stockade built of Lincoln Logs was manned by a company of kilted lead highlanders who were doughtily fending off an attack by six U. S. Army medium tanks. (History has always been vague in Indiana.) A few feet away stood an Arthurian cardboard castle with Raggedy Andy sitting on the drawbridge, his feet 111 the moat, through which a Lionel freight train burping real smoke went round and round. Dopey sat in Amos and Andy's pedal-operated fresh air taxicab beside a stuffed panda holding
a lollipop in his paw, bearing the heart-tugging legend, "Hug me." From Huffy cotton clouds above, Dionne quintuplet dolls wearing plaid golf knickers hung from billowing parachutes, having just bailed out of a high-flying balsawood Fokker triplane. All in all, Santa's workshop made Salvador Dali look like Norman Rockwell. It was a good year.
Like a swelling Christmas balloon, the excitement mounted steadily until the whole town tossed restlessly in bed - and made plans for the big day. Already my own scheme was well under way, my personal dream. Casually, carefully, calculatingly, I had booby-trapped the house with copies of Open Road for Boys, all opened to Red Ryder's slit-eyed face. My father, a great john reader, found himself for the first time in his life in alien literary waters. My mother, grabbing for her copy of Screen Romances, found herself cleverly euchred into reading a Red Ryder sales pitch; I had stuck a copy of ORFB inside the cover of SR.
My little brother, occasionally emerging from his hiding place under the day bed, was already involved in some private persiflage of his own concerning an erector set with motor, capable of constructing drawbridges, Eiffel Towers, Ferris wheels, and operating guillotines. I knew that if he got wind of my scheme, all was lost. He would then begin wheedling and whining for what I wanted, which would result in nobody scoring, since he was obviously too young for deadly weapons. So I cleverly pretended that I wanted nothing more than a simple, utilitarian, unpretentious Sandy Andy, a highly symbolic educational toy popular at me time, consisting of a kind of funnel under which was mounted a tiny conveyor belt of little scoop-like gondolas. It came equipped with a bag of white sand mat was poured into the funnel. The sand trickling out of the bottom into the gondolas set the belt in motion. As each gondola was filled, it, moved down the track to be replaced by another, which, when filled, moved down another notch. And endlessly they went, dumping sand out at the bottom of the track and starting up the back loop to be refilled-on and on, until all the sand was deposited in me red cup at the bottom of the track. The kid then emptied the cup into the funnel and it started all over again--ceaselessly, senselessly, round and round. How like life itself; it was the, perfect toy for the Depression. Other kids in the neighborhood were embarked on grandiose, pie-in-the-sky dreams of Lionel electric trains, gigantic Gilbert chemistry sets and other totally unimaginable impossibilities.
Through my brain nightly danced visions of six-guns snapped from the hip and shattering bottles - and a gnawing, nameless frenzy of impending ecstasy. Then came my first disastrous mistake. In a moment of unguarded rashness I brought the Whole plot out into the open. I was caught by surprise while pulling on my high-tops in the kitchen, huddled next to the gas oven, me only source of heat in the house at that hour of the morning. My mother, leaning over a pot of simmering oatmeal, suddenly o asked out of the blue:
"What would you like for Christmas?"
Horrified, I heard myself blurt:
"A Red Ryder BB gun!"
Without missing a stroke with her tablespoon, she shot back:
"Oh, no, You'll shoot out one of your eyes."
I was sunk! That deadly phrase, invoked countless times before by countless thousands of mothers, was not surmountable by any means known to kiddom. The boom had been lowered and I was under it. With leaden heart and frozen feet, I waddled to school, bereft but undaunted.
At recess time out in the schoolyard, little knots of kids huddled together for warmth amid the craggy snowbanks and the howling gale. The telephone wires overhead whistled like banshees and the trapeze rings on the swings clanked hollowly as Schwartz and Flick and Bruner and I discussed the most important thing next to What I'm Going To Get For Christmas, which was What I'm Getting My Mother And Father For Christmas. We talked in hushed, hoarse whispers to guard against security leaks. S'chwartz, his eyes darting over his shoulder as he spoke, leaned into the wind and hissed:
''I'm getting my father ..."
He paused dramatically, hunching forward to exclude unfriendly ears, his voice dropping even lower. We listened intently for his punch line:
"...a new Flit gun!"
The sheer creative brilliance of it staggered us for a moment. Schwartz smiled smugly, his ear muffs bobbing jauntily as he leaned back into the wind, knowing he had scored. Flick, looking suspiciously at a passing female first grader who could be a spy for his mother, waited until the coast was clear and then launched his entry into the icy air:
"For my father I'm getting . . ."
Again we waited, Schwartz with a superior smirk playing faintly on his chapped lips.
". . . a rose that squirts!"
We had all seen these magnificent appliances at George's Candy Store, and instantly we saw that this was a gift anyone would want. They were bright-red celluloid, with a white rubber bulb for pocket use. At this point, luckily, the bell rang, calling us back to our labors before I had to divulge my own gifts, which I
knew did not come up to these magnificent strokes of genius.
I had, not yet made an irrevocable choice for my mother, but I had narrowed the field down to two spectacular items I had been stealthily eying at Woolworth's for several weeks, The first was a tasteful string of beads about the size of small walnuts, brilliant ruby in color with tiny yellow flowers embedded in the glass. The other and more expensive gift - $1.98 - was a pearl-colored perfume atomizer, urn-shaped, with golden lion's feet and matching gold top and squeeze bulb. It was not an easy choice.
For my father, I had already made the down payment on a family-size can of Simoniz. One of my father's favorite proverbs, one he never tired of quoting, was:
"Motorists wise, Simoniz."
He was as dedicated a hood-shiner as ever bought, a fourth-hand Graham-Paige, with soaring hopes and bad valves. I could hardly wait to see him unwrap the Simoniz on Christmas Eve, with the light of the red, yellow, green and blue bulbs on the tree making that magnificent can glow, like the deep flush of myrrh and frankincense. It was all I could do, a constant tortured battle, to keep myself from spilling the beans and thus destroying the magnificent moment of stunned surprise, the disbelieving delight which I knew would fell him like a thunderclap when he saw that I had gone all out.
I had not yet decided on what to get my kid brother for Christmas. It was going to be either a rubber dagger or a Dick Tracy Junior Crimefighter Disguise Kit, containing three false noses and a book of instructions on how to trap crooks. I was a little doubtful about the Dick Tracy Kit, since I sensed vaguely
that there might be trouble over one of the noses, a large orange job with plastic horn-rimmed glasses attached. A darkhorse possibility was a tin zeppelin with red propellers and blue fins. I figured this was something you could really get your teeth, into, and it was what I eventually decided on, not realizing that one of the hardest things to wrap in green tissue paper with Santa Claus stickers and red string is a silver zeppelin. Zeppelins are not easy to disguise.
It was now the second week of December and all the stores in town stayed open nights, which meant that things were really getting serious. Every evening immediately after supper we would pile into the car and drive downtown, for that great annual folk rite, that most ecstatic, golden, tinseled, quivering time of all kidhood: Christmas shopping. Milling crowds of blue-jowled, agate-eyed foundry workers, gray-faced refinery men and motley hordes of open-hearth, slag-heap, Bessemer-converter, tin-mill, coke-plant and welding-shop fugitives trudged through the wildly pulsing department stores, through floor after floor of shiny, beautiful, unattainable treasures, trailed by millions of leatherette-jacketed, high-topped, mufflered kids, each with a gnawing hunger to Get It All. Worried looking, flush-faced mothers wearing frayed cloth coats with ratty fox-fur collars, their hands chapped and raw from years of dishwater therapy, rode herd on the surging mob, ranging far and wide into -the aisles and under the 'counters, cuffing, slapping, dragging, whiners of all sizes from department to department.
At the far end of toyland in Goldblatt's, on a snowy throne framed with red-and-white candy canes under a suspended squadron of plastic angels blowing silver trumpets in a glowing golden grotto, sat the Man, the Connection: Kriss Kringle himself. In northern Indiana Santa Claus is a big man, .both spiritually and physically, and the Santa Claus at Goldblatt's was officially recognized among the kids as being unquestionably the Santa Claus. In person. Eight feet tall, shiny high black patent-leather boots, a nimbus cloud of snow-white beard, and a real, thrumming, belt-creaking stomach. No pillows or stuffing. I mean a real stomach!
A long line of fidgeting, greedy urchins wound in and out of the aisles, shoving, sniffling and, above all, waiting, waiting to tell him what they wanted. In those days it was not easy to fully disbelieve in Santa Claus, if only because there wasn't much else to believe in, and there were many theological arguments over the nature of, the affirmation and denial of his existence. However; ten days before zero hour, the air pulsing to the strains of We Three Kings of Orient Are, the store windows garlanded with green-and-red wreaths, and the toy department bristling with shiny Flexible Flyers, there were few who dared to disbelieve. As each day crept on to the next, like some arthritic glacier, the atheists among us grew moodier and less and less sure of ourselves, until finally in each scoffing heart was the floating, drifting, nagging suspicion:
"Well, you never can tell."
It didn't pay to take chances, so we waited in line for our turn.
Behind me a skinny - seven-year-old girl wearing a brown stocking cap and gold-rimmed glasses hit her little brother steadily to keep him in line. 'She had green teeth. He was wearing an aviator's helmet with the goggles pulled down over his eyes. His galoshes were open and his maroon corduroy knickers were damp. Behind them a fat boy in a huge sheepskin coat stood numbly, his eyes watering in vague fear, his nose red and running. Ahead of my brother and me, a long, uneven procession of stocking caps, mufflers, mittens and ear muffs inched painfully forward, while in the hazy distance, in his magic glowing cave, Mister Claus sat each in turn on his broad red knee and listened to exultant dream after exultant dream whispered, squeaked, shouted or sobbed into his shell-like, whisker-encased ear.
Closer and closer we crept. My mother and father had stashed us in line and disappeared. We were alone. Nothing stood between us and our confessor, our benefactor, our patron saint, our dispenser of BB guns; but 297 other beseechers at the throne. I have always felt that later generations of tots, products of
less romantic upbringing, cynical nonbelievers in Santa Claus from birth, can never know the nature of the true dream. I was well into my 20s before I finally gave up on the Easter bunny, and I am not convinced that I am the richer for it. Even now there are times when I'm not, so sure about the stork.
Over the serpentine line roared a great sea of sound: tinkling bells, recorded carols, the hum and clatter of electric trains, whistles tooting, mechanical cows mooing, cash registers dinging, and from far off in the faint distance the "Ho-ho-ho-ing" of jolly old Saint Nick. Inching our way past the last landmark on our trek - the tricycle department - and my brother and I finally stood at the foot of Mount Olympus itself. Santa's
enormous gleaming-white snowdrift of a throne soared 10 or 15 feet above our heads on a mountain of red and green tinsel carpeted with flashing Christmas-tree bulbs and gleaming ornaments. Each kid in turn was prodded up a tiny staircase at the side of the mountain on Santa's left, as he passed his last customer on to his right and down a red chute-back into oblivion for another year.
Pretty ladies dressed in Snow White costumes, gauzy gowns glittering with sequins, and tiaras clipped to their golden, artificial hair, presided at the head of the line, directing traffic and keeping order. As we drew nearer, Santa seemed to loom larger and larger. The tension mounted. My brother was now whimpering steadily. I herded him ahead of me, while behind, the girl in the glasses did the same with her kid brother. Suddenly there was no one left ahead of us in the line. Snow White grabbed my brother's shoulder with an iron grip and he was on his way up the slope.
"Quit dragging your feet. Get moving," she barked at the toiling little figure climbing the stairs.
The music from above was deafening: JINGLE BELLS, JINGLE BELLS, JINGLE ALL THE WAY ... sung by 10,000 echo-chambered, reverberating chipmunks.
High above me in the sparkling gloom I could see my brother's yellow-and-brown tasseled cap as he squatted briefly on Santa's gigantic knee. I heard a booming " Ho-ho-ho," then a high, thin, familiar, trailing wail, one that I had heard billions of times before, as my brother broke into his primal cry. A claw dug into my elbow, and I was launched upward toward the mountaintop.
I had long before decided to level . with Santa, to really lay it on the line. No Sandy Andy, no kid stuff. If I was going to ride the range with Red Ryder, Santa Claus was going to have to get the straight poop.
"AND WHAT'S YOUR NAME, LITTLE BOY?" His booming baritone crashed out over the chipmunks. He reached down and neatly hooked my sheepskin collar, swooping me upward, and there I sat on the biggest knee in creation, looking down and out over the endless expanse of toy land and down to the tiny figures that wound off into the distance.
"Uhhh ... uhhh ... uhhhh ..."
"THAT'S A FINE NAME, LITTLE BOY! HO-HO-HO! And now . . ."
Santa's warm, moist breath poured down over me as though from some cosmic steam radiator. Santa smoked Camels, like my Uncle Charles. My mind had gone blank! Frantically I tried to remember what it was I wanted. I was blowing it! There was no one else in the world except me and Santa now. And the chipmunks.
"Uhhh ... ahhh . . ."
"WOULDN'T YOU LIKE A NICE FOOTBALL?"
My mind groped. Football, football, without conscious will, my voice squeaked out:
My God, a football! My mind slammed into gear. Already Santa was sliding me off his knee and toward the red chute, and I could see behind me another white-faced kid bobbing upward.
"I want a Red Ryder BB gun with a special Red Ryder sight and a compass in the stock with a sundial," I shouted.
"HO-HO-HO! YOU'LL SHOOT YOUR EYE OUT, KID. HO-HO-HO! MERRY CHRISTMAS!" Down the chute I went.
I have never been struck by a bolt of lightning, but I know how it must feel. The back of my head was numb. My feet clanked leadenly beneath me as I returned to earth at the bottom of the chute. Another Snow White shoved the famous free gift into my mitten-a barely recognizable plastic Kriss Kringle stamped with bold red letters: MERRY XMAS SHOP AT GOLDBLATT'S FREE PARKING-and spun me back out into toyland. My brother stood sniveling under a counter piled high with Raggedy Ann dolls, and from nowhere my mother and father appeared.
"Did you tell Santa what you wanted?" the old man asked.
"Did he ask you if you had been a good boy?"
"Ha! Don't worry. He knows anyway. I'll bet he knows about the basement window. Don't worry. He knows."
Maybe that was it! My mind reeled with the realization that maybe Santa did know how rotten I had been and that the football was not only a threat but a punishment. There had been for generations on Cleveland Street a theory that if you were not "a good boy" you would reap your just desserts under the Christmas tree. This idea had been largely discounted by the more confirmed evildoers in the neighborhood, but now I could not escape the distinct possibility that there was something to it. Usually for a full month or so before the big day most kids walked the straight and narrow, but I had made a drastic slip from the paths of righteousness by knocking out a basement window with a sled runner and then compounding the idiocy by denying it when all the evidence was incontrovertible. This caused an uproar that had finally resulted in my getting my mouth washed out with Lux and a drastic curtailment of allowance to pay for the glass. I could see that either my father or Santa, or perhaps both, were not content to let bygones be bygones. Were they in league with each other? Or was Santa actually a mother in disguise?
The next few days groaned by. Now only three more school days remained before Christmas vacation, that greatest time of all the year. As it drew closer, lona Pearl Bodkin, my homeroom teacher, became more and more manic, whipping the class into a veritable frenzy of yuletide joy. We belted out carol after
carol. We built our own paper Christmas tree with cutout ornaments. We strung long strings of popcorn chains. Crayon Santas and silver-paper wreaths poured out of our assembly line.
In a corner of the room, atop a desk decorated with crepe-paper rosettes, sat our Christmas grab bag. Every kid in the class had bought a gift for the grab bag with someone's name, drawn from a, hat, attached. I had bought for Helen Weathers a large, amazingly lifelike, jet-black rubber tarantula. I had cackled fiendishly as I wrapped it, and even now its beady green eyes glared from somewhere in the depths of the Christmas grab bag. I knew she'd like it.
Miss Bodkin, after recess, addressed us:
"I want all of you to write a theme .. ."
A theme! A rotten theme before Christmas! There must be some kids somewhere who love writing themes, but to a normal air-breathing human kid, writing themes is a torture that ranks second only to the dreaded medieval thumb-screw of Inquisitional fame, A theme!
". . .entitled 'What I Want for Christmas,''' she concluded.
The clouds lifted. I saw a faint gleam of light at the other end of the black cave of gloom that had enveloped me since my visit to Santa, Rarely had the words poured from my penny pencil with such feverish fluidity. Here was a theme on a subject that needed talking about if ever one did! I remember to this day its glorious winged phrases and concise imagery:
What I want for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time. I think everybody should have a Red Ryder BB gun. They are very good for Christmas. I don't think a football is a very good Christmas present.
I wrote it on blue-lined paper from my Indian Chief tablet, being very careful about the margins. Miss Bodkin was very snippy about uneven margins. The themes were handed in and I felt somehow that when Miss Bodkin read mine she would sympathize with my plight and make an appeal on my behalf to the powers that be, and that everything would work out, somehow. She was my last hope.
The final day before vacation dawned dank and misty, with swirling eddies of icy wind that rattled the porch swing. Warren G. Harding School glowed like a jeweled oasis amid the sooty snowbanks of the playground. Lights blazed from all the windows, and in every room the Christmas party spirit had kids writhing in their seats. The morning winged by, and after lunch Miss Bodkin announced that the rest of the afternoon would be party time. She handed out our graded themes, "folded, with our names scrawled on the outside. A big red B in Miss Bodkin's direct hand glowed on my literary effort. I opened it, expecting Miss Bodkin's usual penciled corrections, which ran along the lines of "Watch margins" or "Check sp." But this time a personal note leaped up, flew around the room and fastened itself leechlike on the back of my neck:
"You'll shoot your eye out. Merry Christmas"
I sat in my seat, shipping water from every seam. Was there no end to this conspiracy of irrational prejudice against Red Ryder and his peacemaker? Nervously I pulled out of my desk the dog-eared back page of Open Road tor Boys which I had carried with me everywhere, waking and sleeping, for the past few weeks. Red Ryder's handsome orange face with the big balloon coming out of his mouth did not look discouraged or defeated. Red must have been a kid once himself, and they must have told him the same
thing when h e asked for his first Colt .44 for Christmas.
I stuffed my tattered dreams into my geography book and gloomily watched other, happier, carefree, singing kids who were going to get what they wanted for Christmas as Miss Bodkin distributed little green baskets filled with hard candy. Somewhere off down the hall the sixthgrade glee club was singing "O little
town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie..."
Mechanically my jaws crunched on the concrete-hard rock candy and I stared hopelessly out the window, past cutout Santas and garlands of red-and-green chains. It was already getting dark. Night falls fast in northern Indiana at that time of year. Snow was beginning to fall, drifting softly through the feeble yellow glow of the distant street lamps, while around me unbridled merriment raged higher and higher.
By suppertime that night, I had begun to resign myself to my fate. After all, I told myself, you can always use another football, and anyway, there will be other Christmases.
The day before, I had gone with my father and mother to the frozen parking lot next to the Esso station where, after long and soul-searching discussion, we had picked out our tree. Now it stood in the living room, fragrantly, toweringly, teeteringly. Already my mother had begun the trimming operations: The lights
were lit, and the living room was transformed into a small, warm paradise.
From the kitchen intoxicating smells were beginning to fill the house. Every year my mother baked two pumpkin pies, spicy and immobilizingly rich. Up through the hot-air registers echoed the boom and bellow of my father fighting the furnace. I was locked in my bedroom in a fever of excitement. Before me on the
bed were sheets of green and yellow paper, balls of colored string, and cellophane envelopes of stickers showing sleighing scenes, wreaths, and angels blowing trumpets. The zeppelin was already lumpily done-it had taken me 45 minutes-and now I struggled with the big one, the magnificent gleaming gold and pearl perfume atomizer, knowing full well that I was wrapping what would undoubtedly become a treasured family heirloom. I checked the lock on the door, and for double safety hollered: "Don 't anyone
open this door!"
I turned back to my labors until finally there they were-my masterworks of creative giving piled in a neat pyramid on the quilt. My brother was locked in the bathroom, wrapping the fly swatter he had bought for the old man.
Our family always had its Christmas on Christmas Eve. Other, less fortunate people, I had heard, opened their presents in the chill clammy light of dawn. Far more civilized, our Santa Claus recognized that barbaric practice for what it was. Around midnight great heaps of tissuey, crinkly, sparkly, enigmatic packages appeared among the lower branches of the tree and half-hidden among the folds of the white bed sheet that looked in the soft light like some magic snowbank.
Earlier, just after the tree had been finished, my father h ad taken me and my brother out in the Graham-Paige to "pick up a bottle of wine." When we returned Santa had been there and gone! On the end table and the bookcase were bowls of English walnuts, cashews and almonds and petrified hard candy. My brother circled around the tree, moaning softly, while I, cooler and more controlled, quickly eyed the mountain of revealingly wrapped largess-and knew the worst.
Out of the kitchen came my mother, flushed and sparkly-eyed, bearing two wineglasses half filled with the special 'Walgreen drugstore vintage that my old man especially favored. Christmas had officially begun. As they sipped their wine, we plunged into the cornucopia, quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice. In the background, on the radio, Lionel Barrymore's wheezy, friendly old voice spoke kindly of Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim and the ghost of old Marley.
The first package I grabbed was tagged "To Randy from Santa." I feverishly passed it over to my brother,
who always was a slow reader, and returned to work. Aha!
"To Jeanie from Aunt Min" - on a largish, lumpy, red-wrapped gift that I suspected to be the crummy football. Frantically I tore off the wrappings. Oh no! OH NO! A pair of fuzzy, pink, idiotic, cross-eyed, flop-eared bunny slippers! Aunt Min had for years labored under the delusion that I was not only perpetually four years old but also a girl. My mother instantly added oil to the flames by saying:
"Oh, aren't they sweet! Aunt Min always gives you the nicest presents. Put 'em on; see if they fit."
They did. Immediately my feet began to sweat as those two fluffy little bunnies with blue button eyes stared sappily up at me, and I .knew that for at least two years I would have to wear them every time Aunt Min visited us. I just hoped that Flick would never spot them, as the word of this humiliation could easily make life at Warren G. Harding School a veritable hell.
Next to me in harness, my kid brother silently, doggedly stripped package after package until he hit the zeppelin. It was the jackpot! Falling over sideways with an ear-splitting yell, he launched it upward into the middle branches of the tree. Two glass angels and a golden bugle crashed to the floor, and a string of lights winked out.
"It's not supposed to fly, you nut," I said.
"Aah, what good is a zeppelin that doesn't fly?"
"It rolls. And beeps"
Instantly he was on his knees pushing the Graf Zeppelin, beeping fiendishly, propellers clacking, across the living room rug. It was a sound that was to become sickeningly familiar in the months ahead. I suspect even at that moment my mother knew that one day the zeppelin would mysteriously disappear, never to beep again.
My father was on his feet with the first blink of the dying tree lights. He loved nothing better than to track down the continual short circuits and burned-out bulbs of Christmas-tree light strings. Oblivious, I continued to ravage my gifts, feigning unalloyed joy at each lousy Sandy Andy, dump truck and Monopoly game. My brother's gift to me was the only bright spot in an otherwise remarkably mediocre haul: a rubber Frankenstein face which I knew would come in handy. I immediately put it on and, peering through the slit eyes, continued to open my booty.
"Oh, how terrible!" my mother said. "Take it off and put it away."
"I think it looks great on him," my father said. I stood up and did my already famous Frankenstein walk, clumping stiff-legged around the living room and back to the tree.
Finally it was over. There were no more mysterious packages under the tree, only a great pile of crumpled tissue paper, string and empty boxes. In the excitement I had forgotten Red Ryder and the BB gun, but now it all came back. Skunked! Well, at least I had a Frankenstein face. And there was no denying that I had scored heavily with the Simoniz and the atomizer, as well as the zeppelin. The joy of giving can uplift
the saddened heart. My brother lay dozing amid the rubble, the zeppelin clasped in one hand and his new fire truck in the other. My father bent over from his easy chair, his eighth glass of wine in his hand.
"Say, don't I see something over there stuck behind the drapes? Why, I think there is something over there behind the drapes."
He was right! There was a tiny flash of red under the ecru curtains. Like a shot I was off, and milliseconds later I knew that old Santa had come through! A long, heavy, red-wrapped package, marked "To Jeanie from Santa" had been left somehow behind the curtains. In an instant the wrappings were off, and there it was! A Red Ryder carbine-action range-model BB gun lay in its crinkly white packing, blue-steel barrel graceful and taut, its dark, polished stock gleaming like all the treasures of the Western world. And there, burned into the walnut, his level gaze unmistakable, his jaw clean and hard, was Red Ryder himself coolly watching my every move. His face was even more beautiful and malevolent than the pictures in the advertisements showed. Over the radio thundered a thousand-voiced heavenly chorus:
"JOY TO THE WORLD! THE LORD IS COME . . ."
My mother sat and smiled a weak, doubtful smile while my old man grinned broadly from behind his wineglass.
The magnificent weapon had come equipped with two heavy tubes of beautiful Copproteck BBs, gleaming gold and as hard as sin itself. Covered with a thin film of oil, they poured. with a "ssshhhing" sound into the 200-shot magazine through a BB-size hole in the side of that long blue-steel tube. They added weight and a feeling of danger to the gun. There were also printed. targets, 25 of them, with a large bull's-eye inside concentric ' rings marked ' "One-Two-Three-Four," and the bull's-eye was printed right in the middle of a portrait of Red Ryder himself.
I could hardly wait to try it out, but the instruction booklet said, in Red Ryder's own words:
Kids, never fire a BB gun in the house. They can really shoot. And don't ever shoot at other kids. I never
shoot anybody but bad guys, and I don't want any of my friends hurt.
It was well past midnight anyway and, excitement or no, I was getting sleepy. Tomorrow was Christmas Day, and the relatives were coming over to visit. That would mean even more loot of one kind or another.
In my warm bed I could hear the falling snow in the cold still air brushing softly against the dark window. Next to me in the blackness lay my oiled blue-steel beauty, the greatest Christmas gift I had ever received. Gradually I drifted off to sleep - pranging ducks on the wing and getting off spectacular hip shots as I dissolved in to nothingness.
Dawn came. As the gray light crept around the shades and over the quilt, I was suddenly and tinglingly awake. Stealthily I dressed in my icy maroon corduroy knickers, my sheepskin coat and my plaid sweater. I pulled on my high-tops and found my mittens, crept through the dark living room, fragrant with Christmas tree, and out onto the porch. Inside the house the family slept the sleep of the just and the fulfilled.
During the night a great snow had fallen, covering the gritty remains of past snowfalls. The trees hung rich and heavy with fluffy down. The sun, soaring bright and brilliantly sharp over Pulaski's candystore, lit up the soft, rolling moonscape of snow with orange and gold splashes of color. Overnight the temperature had dropped 30 degrees or more, and the brittle, crackling air was still and clean, and it hurt the lungs to breathe it. The temperature stood at perhaps 15 to 20 below zero, cold enough to make the telephone wires creak and groan in agony. From the eaves of the front porch, gnarled crystal icicles stretched all the, way Ľto the drifts on the buried lawn.
I trudged down the steps, barely discernible in the soft fluff, and now I stood in the clean air, ready to consummate my great, long, painful, ecstatic love affair. Brushing the snow off the third step, I propped up a gleaming Red Ryder target, the black rings and bull's-eye standing out starkly against the snowy whiteness. Above the bull's-eye Red Ryder watched me, his eyes following my every move. I backed off into the snow a good 20 feet, slammed the stock down onto my left kneecap, holding the barrel with my mittened left hand, flipped the mitten off my right and, hooking my fingers in the icy carbine lever, cocked my blue-steel buddy for the first time. I heard the BB click down into the chamber; the spring inside twanged sharply, and with a clunk she rested taut, hard and loaded in my chapped, rapidly bluing hands.
For the first time I sighted down over that cold barrel, the heart-shaped rear sight almost brushing my nose and the blade of the front sight wavering back and forth, up and down, and finally coming to rest sharply, cutting the heart and laying dead on the innermost ring. Red Ryder didn't move a muscle, his Stetson flaring out above the target as he waited.
Slowly I squeezed the frosty trigger. Back . .. back ... back. For one instant
I thought wildly: It doesn't work!
I'Ve'l! have to send it back! And then:
The gun jerked upward and for a brief instant everything stood still. The target twitched a tiny tic-and then a massive wallop, a gigantic, slashing impact crashed across the left side of my face. My horn-rimmed glasses spun from my head into a snowbank. For several seconds I stood, not knowing what had happened, warm blood trailing down over my cheek and onto the walnut stock of my Red Ryder 200-shot rangemodel BB gun.
I lowered the barrel convulsively. The target still stood; Red Ryder was unscratched. A ragged, uncon trolled tidal wave of pain, throbbing and singing, rocked . my head. The ricocheting BB had missed my eye by perhaps a half inch, and a long, angry, bloody welt extended from my cheekbone almost to my ear. It was divine retribution! Red Ryder had struck again! Another bad guy had been gunned down!
Frantically I scrambled for my glasses. And then the most catastrophic blow of all-they were pulverized! Few things brought such swift and terrible retribution on a kid during the Depression as a pair of busted glasses. The left lens was out as .Glean as a whistle, and for a moment I thought: I'll fake it! They'll never know the lens is gone! But then, gingerly fingering my rapidly swelling black eye, I realized that here was a shiner on the way that would top even the one I got the time I fought Grover Dill.
As I put the cold horn-rims back on my nose, the front door creaked open just a crack and I could make out the blur of my mother's Chinese-red chenille bathrobe.
"Be careful. Don't shoot out your eye! Just be careful now."
She hadn't seen! Rapidly my mind evolved a spectacular fantasy involving a falling icicle and how it had hit the gun barrel which caused the stock to bounce up and cut my cheek and break my glasses and I tried to get out of the way but the icicle fell off the roof and hit the gun and it bounced up and hit me and ... I began to cry uproariously, faking it at first, but then the shock and fear took over and it was the real thing-heaving, sobbing, retching.
I was now in the bathroom, my mother bending over me, telling me:
"There now, see, it's just a little bump. You're lucky you didn't cut your eye. Those icicles sometimes even kill people. You're really lucky. Here, hold this rag on it, and don't wake your brother."
I HAD PULLED IT OFF!
* * *
I sipped the bitter dregs of coffee that remained in my cup, suddenly catapulted by a falling ' tray back into the cheerful, impersonal, brightly lit clatter of Horn & Hardart. I wondered whether Red Ryder was still dispensing retribution and frontier justice as of old. Considering the number of kids I see with broken glasses, I suspect he is.