Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Crapbook: 1987 edition

The Christmas season of 1987 was the year that a sneaky trend of ours went into overdrive: tearing holes in our presents’ wrapping paper. I remember first doing it the year before, at my grandmother’s house, to a toy that wasn’t even mine. It was an off-brand remote-control car for my cousin Shawn, and the sheer genericism of the toy made me more and more curious, so I kept stripping away. Subtly. In my eyes, anyway. You know how a small group of presents seems huge when you’re a kid? Well, the inverse is true for holes in giftwrap. What children process as being tiny nicks in the corners, parents and grandparents see as nothing left but the ribbon.

In 1987, Colin and I finally thought to apply this sneaky move to our own presents. At our house, Mom had wrapped our Christmas Eve presents well ahead of time, and Colin and I would steal wayward glances during commercial breaks on “You Can’t Do That on Television” and “Nick Rocks.”

Guessing the contents of a present was a lot like playing Pictionary (there’s some foreshadowing for you) in terms of how your guesses get more and more specific as time passes and shapes get bigger and more defined.

The first thing you’d see was the color of the box. “It’s...it’s blue! It’s a blue thing!” Of course, if the gift was in a cardboard or gift box, or was packed in a box for another item (as it sometimes was), that could totally throw you off the scent. (This would later happen on my ninth birthday, when I got a bunch of gifts that were obviously Hardy Boys books, then a shoebox that turned out to be another Hardy Boys book. Nice.)

After a few afternoons of ever-so-slight chipping (at the rate of one or two pinches a day), you might see a letter or two on the package. This, for me, was always the most exciting discovery, because even if you couldn’t read enough letters to comprehend any words, you could hazard a guess by the font. “Hmmm...this letter looks robotic! Eh, this one’s Helvetica. It’s probably socks.”

Leave it to one particular gift in 1987 to throw me off the trail entirely. After enough afternoons of Swing Out Sister and Belinda Carlisle videos on “Nick Rocks” (and probably about the time they began showing Run-DMC’s clever “Christmas in Hollis” video), I had made letter-level headway into a blue, rectangular gift (and decided to go no further, lest Mom catch on). The letters I could see across the side of the box were, “LDS.” It never occurred to me that this could be a Mormon toy, so I spent the rest of the season trying to think of words that ended in “LDS.” Golds? Welds? Gelds? Felds? Helds? Olds? Guilds? Uncle Geralds? That piqued a curiosity that would last for weeks.

At the YMBC Christmas party, Santa came out with a huge stack of presents assembled in order of size. He gave them out in order from smallest to largest. Colin's G.I. Joe car and bad-guy action figure was one of the first. Mine, to my complete surprise, was the biggest! A toy parking garage for Hot Wheels cars, complete with working elevator and free-standing signs. Holy cow! I faked at least one illness just to say home from school to play with this thing. I loved it so much that, when I saw the exact same toy at Eckerd sometime when I was in college, I almost bought it out of nostalgia.

(Update 2011: I'm still looking for these pictures. They're good.)

On Christmas Eve, we huddled at my grandparents’ house as always. I recall the house (which had brown wooden walls and no overhead light to begin with) being dimmer than usual. But the good kind of dim, like you see at a fine restaurant. Mom, Dad, Colin and I were there, along with my grandparents Mom Mom and Pop and great aunt Boo. Boo had become obsessed with walking and had bought a digi-pedometer, and she got an upgrade and a blood-pressure cuff as presents. She was geeking out.

I received the Transformer Blurr. On the cartoon show, he was voiced by John Moschitta, the legendary fast-talking pitchman my generation also knew as the Micro-Machine man. Likewise, I always talked very fast when playing with Blurr. When my 5-year-old cousin Brandon later had him say, “Robot,” slowly, I got mad at him. He really should have known better. Blurrblurrblurrblurrblurr!

But the gift that had the most impact on me that night may be the one that most explains who I am today. A $5 bill from Mom Mom. Or, as I put it while leaping up and down, “A FIVE-DOLLAR BILL!!!!!!!!!”

Two things you should know about this transaction: 1) The month before, my cousin Micah had had a birthday party at Wendy’s. Free Frosties, oh yeah! She got a $5 bill in a card as a gift. I remember feeling very jealous, because 2) I had never so much as touched a $5 bill at that point.

Technically not true, as it turns out. But it was Colin's birthday, so it doesn't count.
I had seen fives, tens, twenties and even $100 bills, but those were for grown-ups. The only money I’d ever been given to handle was change and $1 bills that I’d get to spend on potato chips and/or candy whenever we went to our camp in Butte La Rose. Back when $1 bought that stuff. Heh. So seeing my cousin — who was 6 months younger than me, or 12 adult years — get a $5 bill was, in my mind, a sign that I was fiscally irresponsible.

This was me in 1987.
So getting a $5 bill on Christmas Eve, man, that was a stunner! Validation City! I couldn’t wait to stick it in my vintage cash register, which I had commandeered from my grandparents that summer (they’d used it their restaurant, the Coney Island, in the 1950s). I kept all my money there, which probably wasn’t the most stealth thing to do. By New Year’s Day, I amassed $15 in bills and change, which I was so proud of that I played with the wad of cash like it was a toy.

Pop took a picture of our family, in which everyone’s looking good and I look like four toothpicks jabbed into a Star Crunch. That picture now sits in a frame in my mom’s living room:


Afterward, the four of us went to our house, where we opened our entirely undisturbed presents (cough). The tree was along a wall in the middle of the den, the same place it was in 1986. This made the room, already pretty long, seem even larger than it was normally for a tiny stick of a child.

Remember that “LDS” present? It was a space-explorer set, with astronaut action figures, moon rovers and a plastic mat of the moon. What I had read as “LDS” or, more accurately, “lds,” actually said something like, “SPACE PLAYSET” in a robotic font. I had been reading it upside-down. No wonder my reading teacher at the time said I had comprehension issues.

The next morning, I awoke to a Fisher-Price Magic Vac, a police-car playset, the board game Go to the Head of the Class (which I at first thought was a TV tie-in but wasn’t), a huggable Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man doll and — holy Melmac — a full-size official ALF doll!

This was before I stopped wanting things.
They really made me vacuum.
Colin received several presumably expensive toys from pretty much the entire Thundercats universe, including villain action figures (but no good guys) and the big bad-guy claw car, which was about half the size of my body. Oh, and Pictionary. Yay! He also received a Laser Tag set, which...well...

Earlier, Colin and I had asked Dad how Santa Claus gets all of his toys. Does he really make Transformers and Fisher-Price toys on a workbench? No, Dad said, he buys some of the items. So how does he pay for them? “He doesn’t need money! He just goes in and they let him have what he wants.” Man, that sounded cool!

Well, the Laser Tag set was an off-brand, so Dad’s explanation led to the possibility that it was one of toys that had had its genesis in Santa’s workshop. And he certainly reinforced that impression when he had trouble breaking open the plastic blister pack holding in the laser guns. “Damn elves pack it tight,” I remember him saying.

(One of the guns still resides in my parents’ garage. It still has the original 9-volt Duracell battery attached.)

After a while, Dad walks into the kitchen and goes, “What’s this?” Sure enough, it’s another present! We’re veering into climactic “A Christmas Story” material here. Alas, it was just another Thundercats bad guy, and it appeared to have fallen under the table by accident. And, of course, it was for Colin. It had his name on it in Santa’s handwriting. Which looked a lot like my grandmother’s.

I have lots of pictures of that morning, including one where I’m showing off my toys to my grandparents as my dad watches, and one where I’m “vacuuming” the floor while Colin hovers several feet above me with one of his toys. In all of them, my dad’s wearing a white “Reebok” T-shirt, and I’m wearing a cowboy hat T-shirt from his 1970s radio days. On me, it looks like a dress. Someday, you’ll see them. I promise.

A Christmas Day trip to Nona’s was a must. I brought my ALF doll, and my older cousin Donna had also brought hers! Great minds. I made sure to write my name on my ALF’s tag, lest there be any confusion. For all I know, though, I wrote it on hers. Later, I suddenly got bored and wanted to go home. Hey, at least it was for an understandable reason:

“I want to go play with my Magic Vac!!”

It was about this time that I had hung up a giant Budweiser bar clock with digital numbers and a neon bar light in our bedroom. My mom hated it, mostly for its perceived impact on her electric bill. But it conjures up fond memories of me playing with my new toys and hearing George Michael’s “Faith” for the first time.

In the days that followed, two of my dad’s brothers came to visit, along with my cousin Conor, who was then 6 years old. While the adults (and sometimes us as well) played Pictionary, Conor played an endless loop of his new Michael Jackson “Bad” cassette. He tried to convince me Michael was 40 years old. His evidence? The two numbers in the middle of the cassette’s barcode were 4 and 0. I disagreed at the time, but I would learn in 1998 that Conor was right! That’s Dan Brown material right there.

Got a picture of the three of us kids on the couch from that time as well. Well worth the laffs.

Next time in the Crapbook: 1988, one of the best times ever. And not just because of the Nintendo.

1 comment:

venessalewis said...

BLUR!!!! AGHHHHH!!!! I think I mentioned this once on FB, but I freaking hate that Transformer! I've gotten to where I can pretty much tune it out as Layden now watches them both in the car and in his room all the time. But, be damned if I don't get jerked into Cybertron when Blur comes on because that voice...THAT VOICE is just so freaking ANNOYING! It's gotten to where I know know which episodes he is in and I will fast forward past them to save my sanity.