These days, if I bother to reflect on what I might want for Christmas, I’m rarely able to stay on topic for any length of time. After all, at my age, I’ve been around the block at least four thousand times (arrested a time or two on some of those circuits, details of which may or may not follow) and I’ve had plenty of years to amass the things I want and/or need. I had a decently-paying job for decades. After a while, you have a lot of stuff and you don’t need anymore.
But in my childhood? Well, that’s an entirely different matter, of course. When you’re a wee urchin with no revenue stream, you have to depend on the kindness of parents and other relatives who don’t fully comprehend your life goals. As any youngster will tell you, The Old People are clueless, insisting on proffering you things that no decent child would ever want instead of recognizing and rewarding your true worth. Such being the case, a child with vision must shove that vision down the throat of all potential gift-givers in a three-state radius if they have any hope of redemption come Yuletide Morn. And herewith I present a list of Things That Made the Youthful Me Wet Myself with Anticipation (And Possibly Demean Myself with Incessant Groveling Maneuvers)…
ONE. A typewriter.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who has actually read the musings on my blog instead of just clicking follow because they are a stat tramp. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I shot out of the womb, breathing on my own for a mere five seconds before I snatched a pencil away from a slow-to-react nurse and etching a poem on the delivery forms about my journey from womb to daylight. Naturally, this meant that I must have a typewriter in my possession as soon as possible. (Dear Millennials: Way back before there was free Wi-Fi at McDonald’s, you had to compose your literary efforts on a mechanical contraption that physically imprinted your thoughts on a thing called “paper”. True story.)
Just as naturally, no one over the age of ten looked upon my yearning for a typewriter with any degree of respect. Despite year after year (okay, maybe it was only one year) of begging for a typewriter at Christmas, nothing clunky and weighty was ever found under the tree. (Unless you count that one aunt who would suck down the brandied eggnog like a Hoover vacuum and then would pass out under the branches, her rough snoring causing the tinsel to flutter in an angelic but worrisome manner. I didn’t want her for Christmas, and apparently nobody else did, either, which is why the brandy had become a focal point.)
Luckily, or perhaps not so, somebody finally paid attention to my melodramatic aspirations (“The muse is in me! I must write or I must perish!”) and decided that the only way to shut me up was to give me exactly what I was bitching about, albeit in the form of a fossilized machine that would deter anyone other than Imelda Marcos on a quest for a new pair of shoes. We were at my Granny’s house, where I was most likely rending my hair in a gay-subtext, off-Broadway manner (“The words are dying in my soul!”) when somebody walked up and plunked something on Granny’s coffee table. (I don’t remember who it was, as I was fully invested in my performance and I was not paying attention to the bit players.)
The something looked like this:
It was an ancient device that had most likely been primitively-manufactured long before Oklahoma was admitted in to the Union. Still, I now had the ability to semi-professionally capture my thoughts for all time. I lunged at the device with the insistence of Dorothy Parker in her prime, and the clacking words began to flow. Yes, my tiny fingers would often plunge between the keys and become ensnared, resulting in the loss of skin on said fingers when I yanked them out. And yes, the slender letter-stems that were supposed to harmoniously strike the ink ribbon in a pleasing manner would often bunch up and then have to be physically separated, thus delaying the inevitable unleashing of my words on the world. Still, the process had begun, and there was no turning back.
(Side note for those long-term readers who vaguely recall me babbling about my “first” typewriter upon which I banged out my “first” novel. (I also would furtively peck out thinly-veiled erotica concerning a certain economics teacher that I had a crush on in junior high, but we’ll discuss that in another time and place.) This typewriter is not that typewriter. This decrepit clack-box was merely the tool I used to learn how to type at a very young age. It was far too cumbersome and functionally-undependable to writer anything longer than a paragraph or two.)
TWO. The Bugs Bunny Alarm Clock.
This was actually a post-merriment obsession, one that I didn’t realize I had until I was in the midst of it. After all, I never really cared for Bugs Bunny. (I always found him to be far too nonchalant and irresponsible with his lackadaisical attitude. How could he just stand around, accomplishing nothing, when there were so many libraries in the world yet to be explored?) In any case, one Christmas morn, I ripped open one of my glittery packages and found within this alarm clock, one which promised to awaken you with a limited selection of phrases made infamous by the Looney Tunes character, magically captured in scratchy analog snippets. (Back then, we didn’t know digital from a hole in the ground.)
I lovingly placed this contraption next to my bed and a beautiful relationship developed, wherein I was warmly greeted at dawn with a repeated phrase from Bug’s repertoire. This intimate friendship lasted roughly three days before everyone in the house, including me, was sick to death of arising to the strains of a pre-hipster rabbit whose pithy snark essentially contributed nothing to society. The glory of the arrangement quickly faded.
What didn’t fade was my growing interest in how this thing worked, from a mechanical perspective. I was old enough to realize that Bugs did not actually live in the little plastic housing, a theory strongly supported by my younger sister, to the point that she was a little leery of being alone in the room with Bugs’ dwelling. My musings on the matter reached a critical point one clearly-unsupervised afternoon, when I snagged a screwdriver from the verboten tool chest in the garage and dismantled the chatty abode in a frenzy of investigational dismemberment.
Inside, much to my surprise, I found what looked like a tiny record player, with a plastic disc and a little stylus that navigated said disc. This was amazing, and I had to share. I tried showing my discovery to everyone who couldn’t get away from me fast enough, but I quickly learned that their investment in my findings did not extend much beyond the relief that Bugs had been silenced, however temporarily. It was a teaching moment for me, in that I realized there would often be times when what infatuated me would bore the hell out of everybody else. Dismayed, I eventually put Humpty Bugs back together again so that he could resume his duties, although from that point on his voice had a roughened edge, as if he had a carrot of truth stuck in his throat.
THREE. The skateboard.
This obsession was almost completely derailed by a lack of foresight and planning. Earlier that year, when we had all been dragged to a summer family reunion at one of the many lakes in Northeastern Oklahoma, the absolute boredom that sets in with children after the first few days had begun. (How long can you just stand there and watch the Old People sit around the campfire, drinking beer and telling raunchy jokes that we weren’t going to understand until junior high?) Then, in a magical vision, two of our fancy cousins came traipsing out of their fancy camper, sporting fancy skateboards that probably cost more than the rusty van that had transported our poorer tree branch to this shindig.
The cousins did that impressive thing where they basically threw down the skateboards and then nimbly hopped on the already-moving platforms with nimble, effortless grace. The two of them were soon zooming along the dips and valleys and curves of the asphalt pathways meandering through the campground. They appeared to be having the most fun ever had by anyone since the nascent invention of fun, way back when they had pyramids and dinosaurs. Naturally, my sister and I yearned to join them. Just as naturally, we were not allowed to do so, as we had not been “trained”. (What possible training could there be? You get on the damn thing and it rolls and you try not to fall off. I had frankensteined Bugs Bunny by this point, surely I could handle a wheeled balance beam.) But it was not to be.
Thus began six months of whining and begging and manipulative plotting to convince our parents that they would not be blessed with a “good” rating on their performance reviews if we were not blessed with skateboards. We were fully aware that past tactical campaigns such as this had failed miserably, often resulting in bedroom-confinement servitude when we pushed the bar too far. Still, we gamely pursued our goal and, lo and behold, skateboards appeared under the tree that year. (To be fair, we were probably not being rewarded for our angelic behavior. It was more of a sanity-keeping move on the part of our parents, sick as they were of us constantly babbling about the damn skateboards. No one wants to wake up each morning and hear Bugs and Lola Bunny saying the same phrase over and over.)
Then the dark cloud rolled overhead, in the form of the previously-mentioned poor planning. We lived in the country. The “good” roads were composed of gravel, the “not so good” roads were mere dirt, and the “really crappy” roads were simply wheel ruts crossing a pasture. Skateboards were not going to do well with any of these options. We needed surfaces that were harder, less flexible, and preferably did not feature cow pies as potential speed bumps.
We had two choices. We could schlepp a few miles to the nearest blacktop roads, but that involved the schlepping and the fact that those roads were very busy and we would probably be flattened by a dump truck before we could even set the skateboards on the pavement. The other, much closer choice was the brief stretch of sidewalk that ran from our front door, along the front of the house, and around a corner to the gravel driveway. Of course we chose to shop local. Sadly, the sidewalk was old-school construction, three-by-three squares that had very noticeable fault lines between the blocks. This meant that every three feet, the wheels of the skateboard would slam into the mini-crevices with a brutal shock to the system. By the time you made it to the driveway (or back to the front door, if you had any desire to try that mess again), your ankles would be wrenched and wobbly (future disability claim!) and your teeth would be chattering.
Suffice it say that the skateboards we couldn’t live without were soon being lived without, tossed into a corner of the garage, wheels rusting and dreams dying.
FOUR. The Rockem Sockem Robots.
I am not a violent person, although I am not allowed to addend that statement with the phrase “by nature”. I had to fight against having a violent temperament, raised as I was during my early years in an Italian family where random bursts of violence could come out of nowhere. Luckily, I abhorred the violence, and I was determined that I was not going to be “like them”. To this day, I avoid confrontation of any kind unless it’s absolutely necessary or money is involved. Additionally, I am not interested in the least in the sport of boxing. I just don’t see how someone can watch round after round of that and find it enjoyable. Yet, despite these two caveats, there was one Christmas season when I simply had to have a set of Rockem Sockem Robots.
The Robots looked like this:
As you can quickly surmise, a player each would control one of the bots, and the object was to slide the men back and forth and press the buttons to make them whale on each other in some degree of militantly-planned choreography. You won the round if your bot hit the jaw of the other bot in just the right spot so that his head sprung upwards with a victorious ratcheting sound. I think it’s fair to say that Gandhi did not endorse this product.
I gave my mother daily status updates on the availability of my lust item. (I was mostly convinced that Santa would be bringing me the robots, and he didn’t need to know where to find them since he could just have his little elves make a set, back when he had a full contingent of elves before some of them went to work for another company disguised as yellow Tylenol caplets.) Still, Santa had been disappointing in the past, (underwear? what the hell?), and Mom was the backup plan and I had to keep her up to speed. “This newspaper ad says they have Rockem Sockems at Otasco. I know where the Otasco is! Right next to that place where drunk people have breakfast at 3am and then pee in the alley. Let’s go!”
Christmas Eve arrived. We were at Granny’s house, as we sometimes were during those times, and the young uns had already been banished to the bedrooms where we would toss and turn and squeal for a good two hours before sleep finally claimed us. My siblings and cousins were already down, but I couldn’t get there. I couldn’t stand the wait! Breaking protocol, I slipped out of bed, innocently intending to get a possible flight status update for Santa. Instead, I got an eyeful when I peeked around the corner into the kitchen.
One of my uncles was at the table, busily snapping together what looked an awful lot like the yellow stage where the Rockem Sockems tried to kill each other endlessly. Surely not. He must be working on something else. Then my uncle reached into a box and pulled out what was clearly the Red Robot. Wait a minute. Something was rotten in the state of Oklahoma. The only toys that are already put together on Christmas morning on the ones that… and then it all clicked.
I quietly turned and went back to the bedroom, climbing into bed as a different little boy than when I had climbed out. I didn’t sleep for a long time. And I didn’t want the robots anymore.
FIVE. The B. Dalton Gift Certificates.
B. Dalton was one of the once-glorious booksellers who ruled the industry back in the day when I lost my literary virginity and could no longer breathe unless I had a fresh book handy to read. Most of my needs were met in local libraries, because we weren’t awash in money and tiny budgets had to be met. But birthdays and, especially, Christmas brought me the tantalizing prospect of being handed a gift certificate (they were all paper then) to B. Dalton. Once I got past the toy stage, that’s all I ever asked for at Christmas. This greatly relieved many of my relatives, as I had already been branded an odd child and it was so much easier getting something quick and easy rather than trying to figure out what my weird little mind might appreciate.
All it took was a ten-dollar gift certificate and I would be rapturous for a week, giddy about the next trip to a shopping mall that had a B. Dalton. I was self-aware enough to realize that B. Dalton was a little pricey (you could usually do better, fiscally, at the competing Waldenbooks, for instance) but B. Dalton’s was my store. I liked the layouts, I liked the selection, and I usually liked the people who worked there, as they were usually older folks who truly enjoyed books and not the cheerleaders who worked at Hot Dog on a Stick. And even at the higher prices, the overall cost of living was considerably different in the late 70s and early 80s. For ten bucks, I could easily get 4 primo, brand-new bestselling paperbacks. If I was looking for something a little older (and I often was) I could stretch my new inventory to 6 or even 8 books. I would spend all day making my selections, changing my mind constantly until I had just the right mix.
Well, maybe not all day making my selections. Part of the time I would spend in the Fiction section, working my way through the alphabet until I found the Ls, then the right part of the Ls, and finally the actual spot where maybe, someday, one of my own books would be parked, hopeful and waiting. And in that hazy future, maybe some bright young thing like I used to be would clatter through the store doors, waving a gift certificate and grinning in anticipation and then head for this very aisle, where my ghost would step aside so the boy could reach for what he wanted…