"Two Christmas Toys" - An Actual Christmas Story from My World - 1 of 2 December Tales
Recently, I got the idea to offer up to you, a few Christmas stories. Real Christmas stories, stories of my own, and not out of the Hollywood movies, carols, and cartoons you see or hear every year.
You know the ones; the traditional favorites with the fuzzy animated reindeer with a light bulb for a nose, small-hearted ugly grouches who – yeah that one— and the little fat kid with a pathetically scrawny tree that everyone thinks is endearing, and the movie in black and white that gives that guy a second chance at life and turns out perfectly for everybody in the end. Merry Christmas! Such is tradition.
No, I’m not a Grinch. I have loved and embraced all of the above-mentioned annual seasonal fixes to my morale. We adults, like the trained gift-hungry children that came before us, still anticipate the arrival of our “united in spirit and conspiracy” yearly escapist ritual, right? Sure, why not? This little bit of seasonal tradition is almost magical with regards to our emotional state: it keeps us happy and smiling for almost one entire month before, and at least a week after the actual event. Embrace it. The mood doesn't last forever, unfortunately, though we should “keep the spirit of Christmas in our hearts” every day. As an alternative reality to this self-imposed well-intended holiday, there’s this…
Sometime in the early 1960’s there existed a small cracker box house on a small alley in a small town in Pennsylvania, with a small family living inside. The family consisted of a mom, a dad who worked two jobs, an occasional pet, and two kids – an older boy and a younger girl. Though the family was poor, the children didn’t know it, and everyone was happy, enjoying life through that “protected illusion”, especially during that magical time of Christmas – when the mystical and unexplained became reality for a few short morning hours – all due to the hard work and extended finances of the parents of the unsuspecting youths. (As adults, my sister and I are now eternally grateful for the sacrifices they made for us.)
Even at the young age of only five or six, the boy was a ponderous, imaginative and analytical little being, spending the days of summer and holiday vacations in creative freedom from the confines of school. Lacking many commercially manufactured toys, he manufactured “worlds” with the contents of a kitchen drawer. Unusually shaped and unknown utensils served to fuel his imagination on many afternoons: a nut cracker became an alligator, an aluminum colander a space helmet, the rubber plunger bottle stops some sort of mysterious, unknown imagined water creature that lived under the tablecloth. The vinyl tablecloth itself was the bottom of a deep ocean spread across a gray laminate kitchen table with chrome legs.
Under the table was the deepest, darkest part of the imaginary world that only dropped items from the drawer went, suffering the permanent fate of disposal, never to return to the world above. Such was life for the boy on any given day – unless he ventured outside to wander the dried-up creek beds in search of treasures such as railroad tie spikes and shiny rocks and crayfish caught in the small pools of water under concrete walking bridges across a nearby, seasonally intermittent stream. In winter, his imaginings were more frequent, being cooped up inside due to bad weather or illnesses. Such was the boy’s mindset, making a large world out of a small place.
Then there was the girl, The Little One. One who had nothing in common with the little boy, other than the pet, save for their common parentage. She did not like the things the boy did, and did not go where he went when he went outside (because of her age), and she therefore lacked any real connection to the boy and his BoyDom – until Christmas, that one magical year.
There came into the house by way of a mythical human creature (who, incredibly, entered by way of a fireplace chimney that didn’t exist) two unique toys that year. One was a boy’s toy, a fabulous cannon - a glorious, wheeled plastic facsimile of a Civil War weapon* that actually fired cannonball projectiles -- and a doll. A talking doll, that is to say. Her name was Cathy. Chatty Cathy**.
A talking doll? Yes, this was high tech for the 1960’s and undoubtedly a financial burden*** to the parents, a fact oblivious to the children then. Unlike earlier dolls that whimpered “mama” and opened and closed their eyes when tilted, Cathy “spoke” when a string on the back of her neck was pulled. The recording had a finite number of phrases, and they played at random from a speaker in her chest after each pull of the ring. In a scratchy, tiny girl voice she said things like, “Where are we going?”, “Please brush my hair,” and “Tell me a story”.
This amazing gift from the invisible visiting stranger the night before made the little girl very happy – for a few minutes. Then Cathy stopped talking. And try as they might, neither the little girl, nor her parents could not get Cathy to say anything more. Her Christmas morning chatter had ended after only a few quick pulls of her “vocal cord”. The little girl cried and cried. And she cried some more, which was more annoying to the little boy than Cathy’s scratchy girl talk. Tears flowed like rain through the creek bed, down the little girl’s cheeks. The doll was angrily (but painfully) tossed aside, like so much torn wrapping paper lying on the floor. The little girl ran from the enclosed porch that served as a playroom at the little house and made her way, in her footie pajamas, inside and across the slippery linoleum kitchen floor. She sought consolation in the form of another toy (which was not to be) or cookies (which there were plenty of) or sitting on the grown ups’ laps (which was inevitable).
Non-Chatty Cathy lay there still and quiet, face up, eyes wide open and staring blankly at the Homasote ceiling. To the little boy, she seemed a soon-to-be forgotten and abruptly hated remnant of that Christmas Day. She was an unwanted thing, an un-working thing, a castoff that his sister threw there. She was also…a willing target, an enemy to be conquered, a toy of his own to be re-purposed in an imaginary scenario of a glorious battle that was about to unfold.
With his imagination in full swing (and admonishments about aiming his cannon at people freshly in mind) he was now - by his parents’ own rules - able to play with his toy this Christmas morning. Though they were only a few feet around the corner in the next room, no one was watching him. He could get off a quick shot, and no one would be the wiser. If he did get caught he had his excuse already planned:
She is not a real person. She is only a doll!
The little Rebel pulled his toy cannon into place at the opposite end of the porch and walked back across to the other side. He gave a sneaky and quick sideways glance through the archway leading to the kitchen, to his right. The parents and grandparents were consoling the little girl. No one saw his stealthy move. He picked up the silent new girl toy and propped it against their shared toy box. It stood perfectly straight, eyes open looking forward across the room, ready for the fight!
The little boy made his way back across the opening to the kitchen, looking left, undetected yet again. It was as if he wasn’t even there, a ghost of Christmas Present with a great new toy to be tested – finally! He picked up a plastic cannonball, inserted it into the barrel and used the aluminum ramrod to lock it in place against the resistance of a formidable spring. It clicked once, ready for firing.
He carefully positioned himself behind the wheeled artillery piece, pointed the barrel down at the “enemy soldier across the river” - the "river" being the door to the basement that was between them on the floor. He pulled the string.
“KABOOM!” was the sound he heard in his head.
*Srrrrring* of the toy’s spring uncoiling, and *smack*, plastic-on-plastic, were the actual sounds that happened in that instant. And then almost immediately, one more sound, a tiny, scratchy little girl voice that said…
“I love you.”
The recorded words that came from the doll’s belly weren’t very loud, but were loud enough and unnaturally new enough that the grown up voices stopped. From the kitchen came the parents, the grandparents, and the little girl, who wasted no time picking up her resurrected toy and pulling the string on the back of her neck. It spoke again: a phrase now-forgotten because the little boy was in shock and awaited his inevitable fate, which was certainly only seconds away from happening.
Is punishment on Christmas morning even possible?! Whatever comes, it was worth it. Only one shot was fired, perfectly aimed and successfully wiped out the “enemy across the wide river” over a mile away!
Still crouching behind the dually powerful destroying / life-giving cannon, he looked up to the parents standing in the archway, who looked down to the little girl, who, with doll in hand, ran across the little room and hugged her big brother. The parents and grandparents smiled. The little boy was safe from reprisals. It was a happy Christmas, after all. Quickly, he thought of a backup excuse to his backup excuse and took great pride in saying to all the happy people in the little room:
“I thought that would fix her!”
*The Johnny Reb Cannon, manufactured by Remco, was a popular toy at the time, most likely due to the hit TV show, The Rebel, starring Nanticoke, Pennsylvania native, Nick Adams (born Nicholas Aloysius Adamshock). The show ran two seasons from 1959-1961.
**The Chatty Cathy doll was manufactured by Mattel from 1959-1965 and was the second most popular doll of the 1960’s, next to Barbie, another Mattel creation.
***The cannon sold for $11.98 in 1961, which had the same buying power as $95.09 in 2016. Chatty Cathy sold for $10.99 in 1961 which is about the same as $87.23 in 2016, according to Saving.org
Author's note: As of this writing, the cracker box house still exists, but has stood empty for decades. The author still has his Johnny Reb Cannon but his sister “has no idea what happened” to Chatty Cathy.