And Kids, here's a dandy suggestion for Christmas.
Your dad would love a Dyna-Pop fully transistorized, automatic, electrically operated (batteries not included) personal beer can opener under his tree. Yessir, Kids, it's the ideal gift for the dad who has everything!"
The TV Santa Claus grinned maniacally as he graphically popped the top of a can of beer with his fully transistorized
top-popper. Cartoon elves danced about his feet, all swigging cartoon beer.
"Ho Ho Ho! Here's mud in your eye, Kids. And have a merry transistorized Christmas Ho Ho Ho! "
With a burst of Jingle Bells played offstage, he disappeared, and the late movie came back on; fuzzy, gray, flickering
chaotically as any 42-year-old film has a right to do. Alan Hale, who appears continually on my television screen, was
piloting some sort of biplane, underwater. At least that's the way it looked on my set. It's academic anyway, since late, late movies are not meant to be watched, but to be stared at glumly by those who feel they have led wasted lives.
There was something about the scene that troubled me. A deep pang of ancient embarrassment fluttered through what's left of my mind. I sipped moodily at my Jim Beam (on the rocks, no water). Good God, I thought (l tend to become apocalyptic when I speak to myself) - Good God, I wonder how many poor kids are going to run out and actually buy Dad a Dyna-Pop for Christmas, squandering their hard-earned pennies on a piece of junk that will not only be immediately consigned to the basement, but will probably not work anyway.
Grimly, I tried to get interested in Alan Hale's plight . His biplane appeared to be on fire, and he seemed to be under
attack by either a large dirigible or some sort of whale. It was no use. That Santa Claus had hit me where I lived. For years I've tried to forget that Christmas, and now it all came back.
My Old Man was truly in love with his car. I don't mean he liked his car, or he enjoyed his car. You must understand that I mean the word "love" in its truest sense. It was an Oldsmobile; pristine, gleaming rich black paint, which he kept truly spotless winter and summer, using endless cans of Simonize, chamois skins, cheesecloth and infinite tender loving care. He kept seat covers on the dark oxford gray mohair upholstery, the better to protect the gorgeous fabric.
The seat covers were removed only for state occasions - a wedding, a funeral, the time he got promoted to assistant
cashier at the office and we all went out for a formal chicken dinner to celebrate the event. Its hood was long and tapered, and he kept the chromium of the grille and bumpers so brilliantly polished that one's eyes hurt if one stared too long at their dazzling fire. It was a truly elegant, dignified work of art.
At the time of the disaster I, was midway through my fifteenth year, a dangerous period for a male. It is a time of mysterious inchoate urges, exploding acne, and sudden unaccountable flashes of moodiness or romanticism. No longer truly a boy; not yet a man. It is a time that can scar one for life. That TV Santa Claus had opened an old wound.
Christmas had taken over our northern Indiana town. Plastic Santa Clauses grinned from every lamppost. Snow and ice lined the curbs. That year I decided to go all out and give the Old Man a gift he would never forget. I am afraid that I succeeded.
Now, most kids really knock themselves out over a gift for Mother, but for some reason that year I decided that the Old Man deserved more than the usual tie, or socks, or Aqua Velva. Like I say, it was my fifteenth year. That is a
particularly unpredictable year.
I was coming home from school on a bitter gray day with my friend Schwartz. Christmas was ten days away. It was a little after four o'clock, and already dusk, a chill winter twilight, was coming down like a silent curtain of invisible ice. A few lights were on here and there.
"What are you gonna give your mom for Christmas this Year?" Schwartz asked, his breath hanging before us like
soft puffs of antiaircraft fire.
"l don't know. Maybe a manicure set."
We plodded along in our sheepskin coats, wrapped in our own thoughts for a few moments.
"I'm gonna really do it for my Old Man this year, though," I muttered, kicking at a clump of hard gray granite ice in which was frozen, like a fly in amber, the chewed butt of a White Owl.
"No kiddin' ?" Schwartz asked, after blowing his nose in his mitten.
"Yep. I ain't decided, but it's gonna be something big'"
That night our family - my mother, the Old Man, my kid brother, and l - squatted around the kitchen table, downing our meatloaf as the white plastic radio on top of the refrigerator brought us the dulcet tones of someone or other, dreaming about a White Christmas.
"Listen to that-singing about how great snow is. Only a guy who lives in Beverly Hills in California would sing about how great snow is."
My Old Man ladled up another scoop of mashed potatoes to go with his canned peas. He never missed the chance to throw a harpoon at Hollywood characters, especially if they played priests who befriended freckle faced boys.
My mother sniffed significantly and said in her quiet voice: "l think that's a beautiful song."
The Old Man cackled, and tossed his next grenade: "Well, the next time we got six feet of snow covered with blast
furnace dust out in the backyard, why don't we invite him to come over and help shovel it out. He could sing to us while we work."
I laughed wildly, spilling my Coco malt. At fifteen, I was a Profound admirer of my father's caustic wit.
The next day, which was a Saturday, my entire life's savings jammed down into my jeans, twenty-seven dollars and eight cents, the result of long, dismal hours on my paper route and many hard shots to the shins setting pins at the bowling alley, alone and unafraid, I set out for some serious Christmas shopping.
I polished off my kid brother's present first, since it was the easiest, a set of bright red and brilliant white plastic false teeth and a rubber nose with attached heavy black-rimmed glasses. I knew what the kid wanted.
My mother took a little more thought. I traipsed from store to store until finally there it was, just what she needed, a cherry red perfumed pincushion made in the shape of the State of Indiana, with a Yellow flower made of soft felt at the point on the map where our hometown lay under grimy steel mill snowdrifts.
Somehow that pincushion made more sense to me than a manicureset. Why, I don't know. It was lavender-scented
and the lady behind the counter gift wrapped it for me in gold paper with little green pandas eating ice-cream cones all over it.
OK, now the routine work is over. It's time for the big one. I had been thinking about what to get my father for weeks. I had discarded many ideas, such as a Chicago Bears corduroy cap with attached earmuffs in the colors of the Chicago Bears; a bone-handled hunting knife with sheath, designed by Dan Beard, the patron saint of the Boy Scouts; a two-handled crosscut saw; a leather craft set containing enough materials and the instructions for making
a Gene Autry wallet and a pair of Indian mittens with fringe. I turned all of these great ideas down for one reason. They weren't big enough, not spectacular enough.
I was wandering through the plumbing supplies department of Goldblatt's when I was hit by an idea so basic, so clearly logical, so brilliant that it was like a blinding thunderclap or revelation. Of course! What does the Old Man love most in life? His car! What would be conceivably better than to get him something for his pride and joy? Nothing, of course.
At fifteen, all boys are car freaks. I was certainly no exception. I had been plotting endlessly about what kind of car I would one day own, how I would modify it, create it in my own image. A few kids in the neighborhood had already taken the step. Flick, for instance, owned a Studebaker whose previous titleholders, if they were assembled at one time, would have filled the balcony of Madison Square Garden. All of his waking hours were spent working on it. He was proud of the great billowing cloud of inky exhaust that it emitted, the frantic roaring of its worn differential. l, personally, not yet a car owner, spent many happy hours browsing among car accessories at the Pep Boys' (Manny,
Moe & Jack) local outlet. The Pep Boys were to car lovers what the Louvre is to patrons of the arts.
I hurried out of the huge department store and dashed down the street to the Pep Boys. Five minutes later I was talking turkey with the man behind the counter. Tall, thin, with the black suit and dark tie of a Methodist minister, he peered at me through his thick glasses and we talked business as one car expert to another.
For months I had been admiring their window display, featuring an object so magnificent as to boggle the senses.
"Sir," I said with the assurance of a man who knows what he wants and has at least twenty dollars in his pocket to back it up, "how much is that deluxe European-style continental Hollywood customized simulated spare tire kit which you have displayed in your center window?"
" l presume you' re interested only in the best, eh. Kid" The clerk knew his customer well.
"Yeah." I answered suavely.
"Then, naturally, you'll want the iridescent pearl - finish model, with chrome embossing." He paused dramatically.
"Y' mean it comes in a pearl finish?" I could hardly believe my ears. I could not visualize such magnificence and it was almost within my grasp.
"Yes, it comes in black, burgundy, white, and sea green/ but a person of your taste obviously deserves the iridescent pearl. It's only two seventy five extra, and well worth it. The complete kit is yours, on our Christmas special, for only nineteen ninety-five. It comes with instructions, and has a lifelong guarantee."
"Does it fit an Oldsmobile?" I asked.
"Son, this European-style customized Hollywood continental tire kit was designed with the Oldsmobile in mind."
"It's a gift for my father for Christmas."
There was a long, pregnant pause, which I have only recently come to understand.
"Well , I can guarantee, Son, that this will be a Christmas your father won't forget. And to show you that I value you as a customer, I will throw in, absolutely free, a matching pearl-finish triple-chromed gearshift knob in the shape of a human skull, with beautiful sapphire eyes."
He hit me right where I lived. In my fifteenth year, I could imagine nothing more beautiful than a pearl-finish fake continental tire kit and a matching human skull gear shift knob.
Christmas morning was indeed a festive time. Eggnog, fruitcake; my kid brother almost passed out in ecstasy when he tried on his plastic teeth, glasses, and nose. My mother wept over the State of Indiana pincushion.
After all the gifts were opened, dramatically, I presented my father with his huge holly-wrapped Christmas gift. I had kept it a secret from my mother and my kid brother. Only I knew what was in that sacred box.
"Well, what have we here?" My father grinned, sweating profusely, since he was wearing his new checkered woolen shirt that my mother had given him. He was also a little green around the edges since he had been forced to smoke the forty-nine-cent Bakelite pipe my brother had presented him with, complete with a can of fourteen-cent Teamster's Delight tobacco.
The box was so huge I could barely wrestle it into the room. I had kept it hidden in Schwartz' garage until the big day.
"It's for you, Dad." I beamed as only a fifteen-year-old Santa Claus can beam.
"By George, it's certainly big enough." The Old Man carefully stripped the outer wrappings from the giant gift of love. He lifted off the cover. The lights of the tree blazed with glory on the pearl Hollywood finish of the masterpiece. There was a roar of applause. My kid brother's teeth flew across the room in excitement.
"What...what is it?" the Old Man blurted out between puffs of green smoke, his eyes bulging with a curious glazed, stunned expression.
"Why, Dad, it's one of them Hollywood customized continental tire kits. For the Oldsmobile. And take a look at that gearshift knob! Wait'll Uncle Carl sees that! He'll really be jealous."
My father gulped and said, "Y' know, this is just what I've always wanted."
"l knew you'd like it, Dad. Boy, you should know how much it cost!" I was a smash.
The Old Man was curiously silent for the rest of the day, but I figured it was just because he was so overcome by such a great gift.
Every couple of days I'd ask him when he was going to put it on the car, and he'd say: "Well, I have to get the right tools."
We stored it under the steps in the basement till the day when the right tools would arrive. Gradually, the continental tire cover was forgotten. I don't know what finally became of it. I know it never got on the car. My father had the decency, at least, not to throw it out while I was around to see it.
On came a commercial for a decorator-designed vegetable chopper. The pitchman yelled: "And Kids, it
would make a fine Christmas gift for Mom!"
I snapped off the set, poured myself another finger of Jim Beam, and stared out at the city, its Christmas lights blinking seductively far below.