Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Boy Toys

Remember when you were a kid and Christmas seemed like it would never get here? To make it worse, they let you out of school for Christmas break, and you didn’t have anything to do to pass the time except wait for Christmas to come. Sure, Mom would try to come up with activities to keep us out of trouble. Popping corn and forcing us to sit for hours with a needle and some string to make garland. You count ten popcorns and then you string on a cranberry. Of course your big sister would rat on you and you’d get in trouble for eating two popcorns for every one you managed to string on without sticking your finger. I can hear her now, “Mom, he’s eating the popcorn!”

Mom’s next project would be to cut strips of red and green construction paper and instruct us how to glue together endless paper chains to be used to decorate the living room. Red tissue paper bells that folded out from two flat bell-shaped pieces of cardboard that clasped together were hung in between the arches of paper chain. We had been making paper chains for years, but there always seemed to be a need for more. “Mom, he’s using too much glue!” In my defense, the glue came in little bottles with rubber tops and if you pressed a little too hard on the paper with the rubber top you couldn’t control the flow of glue very well.

When we finally got to decorating the tree, the only thing I was allowed to put on the tree, along with the smaller kids, was the tinsel. Seems I had logged too many broken ornaments to be trusted with that task. We had to wait for the lights to be put on, and then the garlands and the miles of paper chains and the ornaments and then we tinselers were put into service. We were expected to put one strand of tinsel on a branch at a time. The shorter ones would work on the bottom and the taller ones worked the higher branches. Even though I’m sure it looked better, I’m just as sure Mom made us do it one strand at a time because it took longer. Putting tinsel on a tree, one strand at a time can take hours even with five, six or seven of us doing it as the tinseler population increased over the years. “Mom, he’s clumping it!” You don’t see tinsel on Christmas trees much anymore.

Needless to say, I ultimately got into trouble anyway, numerous times, and not just for wasting glue, eating popcorn meant for garland, or clumping the tinsel. I was threatened with Santa not even bothering to fly over the house, let alone leave me that special present I had been waiting for all year. I can’t tell you the number of times I was afraid that Santa wasn’t going to show, but somehow, he always did. I think my mother either lied about that naughty and nice list or Santa didn’t have a good memory. Or maybe on Christmas Eve you just got a commutation regardless of what petty crimes you might have committed. Parents start the “threatening” the first day of Christmas vacation though. “Santa Claus is watching you. He knows what you did and he’s marking it down.” Total crap, but we were afraid not to believe it. Funny how we were only reminded about this Santa tallying stuff during the final two weeks before Christmas. I think it would have been helpful to point this out at other times during the year as well.

When you’re an adult you spend the month of December trying to figure out how you’re going to pay for everything, and Christmas is always the day after tomorrow. Whatever happened to Christmas Clubs? You know that special bank account that you would start in January and deposit a little each week in anticipation of a small Christmas fortune available in December. I guess if I would have had a Christmas Club account this year I would have cashed it out in August to make the car payment anyway, and I’d still be trying to figure out how I was going to pay for Christmas. Christmas has become a major expense item that needs a year of careful planning. Something I have never been able to do. Christmas, with luck, gets paid off just in time for Christmas to come again. When we were kids we saved our meager allowances, or shoveled walks, or did extra chores to fund our Christmas gift giving. I wonder if anyone needs their sidewalk shoveled.

What do I want for Christmas? When you’re a kid that thought process starts long before the temperatures drop, the snow falls and you have to break out the rubbers. Yeah, we called them rubbers, and if you had the kind with a zipper up the middle, you were a sissy. You had to have the buckle rubbers to be cool. My mom, of course, bought me zipper rubbers. I’m sure she got a hell of deal on them, but her excuse had been that they were the only kind they had left. Girls wore zipper rubbers that came in yellow, or red, or green. Guys wore buckle rubbers that came in black. At least my zipper rubbers were black. I avoided wearing rubbers as often as I could. I still remember the taunts I received about the zippered rubber boots even from my “best” friend.

The method of closure wasn’t really that important anyway because you left them unbuckled (or unzipped) most of the time because it was easier to stuff your pants legs into them. Even if someone didn’t notice that you had on zipper rubbers though they’d find out because you could buckle together buckle rubbers and sling them over your shoulder on the way home from school. You couldn’t do that with zipper rubbers. You had to carry them in your hand. You were less likely to lose a buckle rubber for the same reason. You buckled them together in the cloak room to keep the pair intact. A zipper rubber could get separated from its left or right and you could spend a lot of time trying to match up a right or left zipper rubber with the other sissy’s rubbers in the cloak room.

I still marvel today that my parents were able to afford Christmas. I have three brothers and three sisters. We didn’t have three-page lists of what we wanted for Christmas like my clever grandson, Connor Michael Burton. In his phone message to Santa you could hear him turning the pages as he reeled off the things he wants for Christmas this year. My favorite item on his list was “any type of boy toy”, kind of covering all the bases for anything he might have left off the list, and it got me to thinking about those special Christmas gifts I had gotten over the years. We were allowed to pick one thing. We always got more, but we got to ask for one special “big” thing.

One year it was a bike of course. The coolest 26 inch Schwinn, two tone beige bike on the block. That was when bikes had fenders and headlights that worked on C batteries. In the summer we would add a motor sound to our bikes with playing cards and clothespins. You could get six or eight cards on each wheel and get a fair chuck chuck sound. Mom would start having trouble winning at Solitaire and realize that a few cards were missing from the deck. That usually didn’t go over well.

I spent a lot of my lawn mowing money on patch kits and inner tubes for that bike. I always seemed to have a flat tire. I got pretty good at changing bike tires over the years. You had to use two screwdrivers in tandem to stretch the tire back over the rim without sticking one of them through the brand new inner tube, which happened a time or two. If that happened, you started over and got out the patch kit.

I had some pretty good wrecks on that bike. Once when I was riding Jeff Hartman on the back, he got his foot stuck in the spokes and I went flying over the handlebars landing and sliding down the sidewalk on my face. I woke up several hours later lying on the couch with Dr. Booth looming over me. The first words out of my mouth were, “Is my bike okay?” I wasn’t supposed to be riding people on the bike, but the fact that I didn’t suffer any permanent damage probably had something to do with me not getting in too much trouble. As soon as I was allowed outside I went straight to the garage to check on the bike. Some bent spokes and some scratches on the handlebar were all it had suffered.

I got hit by a car once, on the way to school, by one the teachers. She didn’t see me or I didn’t see her as she came out of the intersection in front of the school. I ran right into the front fender of the Buick and went flying on to the hood of her car. I remember looking through the windshield at her shocked face, lying there spread eagle on her car, my face pressed to the glass. I didn’t suffer a scratch. I don’t think Mrs. Redding ever quite recovered.

The most embarrassing mishap on the bike happened on the way home from football practice one fall afternoon. I had slung my cleats over the handlebars and headed down Burkitt Street. As I began crossing Main Street the right cleat caught in the front spokes and locked the wheel. I went flying over the handlebars head first, again, and landed in the middle of the street. The light changed and four lanes of traffic started honking. Some kindly old gentleman jumped out of his car, having seen the entire performance, and wanted to know if I was okay and helped me walk my crippled bike back to the curb. I learned how to straighten spikes a lot when I was a kid, but I don’t think my wheels were ever really round after that.

I rode that bike for well over ten years, but secretly wanted the 3-speed English Racer that I had asked Santa to bring me.

Another year I asked Santa for a miniature tape recorder. My Dad had one of the bigger reel to reel recorders and it had always fascinated me. I remember I said “Grace” for him on one of his “Christmas Radio Shows” that he was always putting together at Christmas. I didn’t think it sounded like me when played back, but everyone else he recorded sounded like them. When I got older we would trade “Radio Shows” at Christmas, instead of greeting cards. We would MC the shows, tell jokes in between recorded acts, interview special “guests” and pretend, for example, that Bing Crosby was in the kitchen after just having sung “White Christmas” on the show. He was, of course, on the record player. But it was fun and had really started those many years earlier when I got the miniature Sony tape recorder.

My first major recording after, “Testing, testing, testing” (you always said it three times for some reason) was the 1968 Sugar Bowl game between the unbeaten WAC Champion Wyoming Cowboys and LSU. I sat in front of the TV and held the microphone in front of the speaker for the entire game. I have it all on tape, somewhere.

I can remember how excited we all were that the Cowboys were in the Sugar Bowl. The game was televised coast to coast in color! We had a black and white set. Wyoming led for most of the game, up 13 to nothing at half-time, then sophomore, Glenn Smith, came off the bench and became the first sophomore in Sugar Bowl history to win the MVP. They beat us 20 to 13. Smith ran for 74 yards in 16 carries and scored the winning touchdown on a 1 yard run. We never scored another point. Glenn Smith finished his career at LSU without ever starting a game. I sat there for two hours holding a microphone to the speaker of the TV and I never played it back. It’s probably still around here somewhere. I lost interest in the tape recorder shortly after.

Another year I got one of those Hockey games where the players are connected to 5 levers on each side of the game. An oversize puck is dropped in the center and by pulling and twisting the levers in turn, the three inch metal players can pass, backcheck, carom the puck and shoot on goal. One of the pucks was magnetic for a more controlled game and the other had a ball bearing in the center for a more fast-paced game. Within a few hours Christmas Day I was deadly with the ball bearing puck. I could control the puck to the Center and slam the shot on goal before anyone could react. Most importantly, before my Dad could react. I beat him game after game. Finally, late that day, in sheer frustration he ripped one of the controls right out of the game trying to block a shot. In fairness to my Dad, he fixed it later, but I was a bit upset that my greatest game of all time lasted less than a day before it was broken….by an adult.

The most amazing gift I ever received from Santa was a photographic enlarger. It was the kind of gift that was clearly out of my parent’s price range. I didn’t ask for it, because I knew by that time how Christmas worked, who Santa really was, and how expecting something as expensive as a Bogen 35mm Enlarger was just ridiculous.

I had built a darkroom in the basement in the old coal room. I was developing my own black and white film and printing test sheets by laying the negatives on a piece of photo paper and exposing it to light. Then developing and fixing the sheet. An enlarger was the next logical addition.

On Christmas morning (we opened presents right after midnight Christmas Eve) I was handed a small shirt box, expecting just that when I opened it, but inside was a folded piece of paper and on it was written in my Dad’s perfect printing “Go To The Dining Room.” I walked into the dining room, flipped on the light, and there on the table was a Bogen 35mm Enlarger. I was absolutely, totally speechless. I couldn’t figure out how in the world this had happened. How in the world anyone knew what I really wanted for Christmas for one thing. How in the world my parents could afford it. I was just amazed. I probably never thanked my Dad near enough for that gift, but I learned later in life, when I managed those same Christmas surprises for my own kids, what that feeling is like. There is no better feeling in the world.

I was in the basement coal room almost the entire day and there was no heat down there. I made it upstairs for Christmas dinner and to say “Grace”. Saying Grace had been my job since I had first memorized it when I was eight.

“Bless us oh Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, Amen.” The same way I said Grace on the reel to reel that Christmas day on my Dad’s “Radio Show” recording and didn’t sound at all like me.