Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Crapbook: 1988 edition

Christmas 1988 began a new tradition for me: It was the first time I recall seeing “A Christmas Story.” My dad told me it was the hilarious story of a little boy who looked a lot (hell, exactly) like me who wanted a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. And not a football. To backtrack a tad, here’s what one of those often-annoying Christmas newsletters would have mentioned if we’d done one:

• In April, a month after a visit from my dad and his relatives from Texas, my brother Colin suffered appendicitis while he and I were doing homework. He had his appendix removed. “It was green and had a hole in it,” he told me. Ewwwww. In the months that followed, I would ask him repeatedly if he had an appendix. He would tell me no. I got a kick out of that, because I had never known anyone who was missing a body part. Dentures aside. It was during this hospital stay that someone bought Colin the current issue of Cracked magazine. It was the first time I ever saw it and the last time I didn’t see it. I then got into MAD magazine as well, and I was officially on the road to abnormal aspirations.

• On her way to visit my brother in the hospital, my great aunt Boo got in a car accident and was herself sent to the hospital with eye injuries. According to the accident report, a silver 1984 Reliant K-car crashed into her blue 1985 Reliant at a stop sign, taking out the stop sign with it. The other driver was not seriously injured, but by Boo’s account suffered from being an ass. Boo’s eye healed, but she never had a car after that.

• I got absolutely and autistically obsessed with VCRs. I found every owner’s manual to every VCR my mom, dad and grandfather had and memorized every function and connection. I taped literally everything I watched, even if I was just going to tape over it with the next program. Once I taped something called the Konica Cup, which was some kind of ice competition involving streamers, over part of a crime show my dad had asked to tape for him, and he threatened to blow up the machine. “Why would you tape this?” he asked half-angrily, half-perplexed. I didn’t have an answer.

• Speaking of Dad, he moved back in with us in either May or June. This marked the first time that I could recall that he lived with us full-time. We were very excited about this. Even after one of the first rules he laid down was that us kids couldn’t curse with abandon anymore and we had to stop eating the entire bag of chips every time we got back from the grocery store. A ball-buster!

• Oh, and Mom dyed her hair blonde. It made me cry at the time and laugh hysterically later.

So anyway, one afternoon Dad told me “A Christmas Story” was coming on TBS and I should tape it. You know I did. I even paused out the commercials and everything. The right way. My grandfather would stop his tape when he wanted to block out commercials (his favorite things to tape were James Bond films and Miss America pageants). He said pausing the tape strained the VCR. I think this was the only disagreement he and I ever had.

We probably watched “A Christmas Story” 36 times between then and Christmas Day. I’m probably really lowballing that number. I wanted to meet Ralphie! I figured he was a very old man by then, because the movie was set in 1940 and looked like it been shot then. But when I learned that it had actually hit theaters in 1983, I wanted to send Peter Billingsley a fan letter. But if he was really “a kid of nine” in the film, then he had to be at least 15 now. Eh, he’s too old to play with now, I figured. Years later, I would repeat this thought process with Saved By the Bell’s Elizabeth Berkley.

“A Christmas Story” vs. “The Christmas Story”

My third grade class at Woodvale Elementary, 1988-89. I am one of the tall, dashing fellows at the top. No I'm not.
At school, my homeroom teacher, Mrs. Kees, went all-out for Christmas. We all made scrolling TV-like things out of tissue boxes, a loop of paper and wooden sticks. She told us “The Christmas Story” and had us write and draw, panel by panel, what she put on the board. We did this a little each day until it was finished just in time for the holidays. The story was the biblical one, with Mary and Joseph, the Three Wise Men, the star and the baby Jesus. George Bush had just been elected president.

I didn’t even get to draw the north star, which I had looked most forward to doing, because I fell behind in my classwork that day. Some girl had to draw it and write the text for me. Then she wound it up too much, so there was a blank panel in the middle of the strip. That always bugged me. Otherwise, it turned out perfectly. Oh, except for the title card, which was supposed to be “The Christmas Story.” I had written, “A Christmas Story.” Gee, I wonder why?

On the last day of school before Christmas vacation, Mrs. Kees threw us an all-out party, with treats and stories and relay races and everything. Oh, and presents! In addition to our newly completed TV-scroll thingys, she gave the boys small plastic boxes marked “Ian’s allowance” (you get the idea) and the girls what I presume was some icky, germy, girly thing. She also gave us cards and those plastic #1 key rings that said, “You’re No. 1 with us!” Mrs. Kees told us to explain to our parents that the key-ring message referred to them (the parents) being No. 1 with the school. I made sure to diligently lay out this distinction on Christmas Eve.

Gold, frankincense and mirth

At the YMBC party, I got a toy airplane. A cheap plastic one, not a Transformer. Hey, free toy!

All Colin wanted was a playoff berth. We all did. Thanks, Joe Montana!
On the home front, Mom and Dad went all-out, decorating our dining-room windows with lights, which I said made it look like a game show. They bought a fresh tree and, instead of putting it in the back den as they had done for the past two years, they placed it in the front room next to the main door. Why? Because we were going to have company. Griswold-level company.

In the meantime, the parental units had shopping to do. Colin and I were long past the point where they could slip presents by us (though Santa remained real), so they just straight up told us when they were bringing them into the house. So that’s when we took our baths. We could hear them carrying heavy stuff upstairs into the attic. “Do you think that was the Nintendo?" "No, THAT was!”

I was particularly excited, because my Uncle Mike’s family was coming in from Arkansas. I hadn’t seen his son Damon since we visited them in 1982, when I was two years old (and he was five). I had a vague idea of what he looked like, and assumed he’d look and act the same at 11. Hey, why not? Along for the ride would be Uncle Mike, Aunt Joanne, daughter Dana (about 20), her boyfriend and future husband and Damon.

I don't have any pictures from 1988, so here's pretty much all the same people in 2005, plus some wives, fiances and other freeloaders who weren't even born yet in 1988. Also, this is a different house.
When they called our house to tell us they were lost about a half-mile away, I could barely contain my excitement. I waited eagerly at home as my dad drove over to guide them, occupying my time by rapping Weird Al Yankovic’s “Fat” (as I often did). When they showed up, it was like vaguely remembered good times again. Damon looked a lot older. In fact, I thought he sort of resembled Skut Farkus, the villain from “A Christmas Story.” Still, the three of us instantly launched into unceasing fun and horseplay.

My Uncle Mike was and is known for some of the driest, funniest wit in my family. He asked me what I wanted for Christmas. After I told him, he said in his monotone drawl, “Damon tells us what he doesn’t want.” And that was it. With my sister Keely yet to be born, I was too young to understand the joke. But I laughed anyway, because it was just the kind of nonsensical, absurd thing he was always saying. It wasn’t the last time he’d do it here.

All About Eve

On Christmas Eve, my mom had to work. Bummer. But with a full house, there was lots of fun ripe for having. The adults declared that we could open presents at 5:30 p.m. By 4 p.m., there was unbearable agony among us kids. We predicted, accurately, that the next hour and a half would be the longest of our lives. But a light bulb went off over Colin’s head. “Check this out!” he said excitedly, pulling out a videotape. “Geraldo gets his nose broken!”

Yes, we had taped the infamous episode of “Geraldo!” titled “Young Hate-Mongers,” where a massive brawl had ensued, resulting in a chair to Geraldo Rivera’s face. Instead of bleeping all the cursing, the censors simply dubbed out the offending words. Which gave the brawl an oddly proto-techno soundtrack. None of the adults in the house found it even slightly odd that an 8-year-old, 10-year-old and 11-year-old were whiling away their time on Christmas Eve by watching the trashiest race battle in modern memory. Neither did we.

In retrospect, it seems stupid that we were so eager to see what our parents had bought us for Christmas, when we already knew. You see, 1988 was the year that our proclivity for tearing tiny holes in our presents completely jumped the shark into extreme overdrive. Colin and I had lasered our focus on Transformer-shaped presents, tearing away, seeing what we could get away with. With our parents’ hands full with party preparations, we were getting away with a lot. By Christmas Eve, we knew not only that our gifts were Transformers, but that they were Pretender Transformers. And that mine was Landmine and Colin’s was Sky High. And that mine had the shell of a dark-haired man and his had blond hair. Because we pretty much ripped the wrapping paper wide open. Make no mistake — it was all still there, able to flap over and cover the surprise within. Give us some credit. But yeah, we knew exactly what we were getting. After Mom got home and before present time, I saw her and Dad examining my clever damage, talking to each other about what I assumed would be consequences. But I guess they figured my lack of surprise was punishment enough in itself, because I don’t recall any punishment coming out of it. That could have turned out badly in life, but it didn’t. My parents are awesome.

Uncle Mike’s family gave us dinosaur T-shirts that had glow-in-the-dark skeletons, as well as cartoon videotapes. My grandparents gave me three blank videotapes and a head cleaner. I don’t think I have to qualify at this point how geeked out I was over that. Let’s just say I immediately went and cleaned the heads of my favorite VCR, notching a check on the checklist and taking mental note of when I had to do it again. Had to? More like, get to!

Then we read the “Cajun Night Before Christmas,” which had become a holiday tradition, in our lit-up dining room. It starts thus: “‘Twas the night before Christmas / And all t’ru de house / Dey don’t a t’ing pass / Not even a mouse." Good times, yeah.

With the party in full swing, with wine and Pictionary flowing, I made a decision to go to bed early. For most of my childhood, our bedtime was at 9 p.m. At the time, Colin and I shared a box spring and a mattress that were situated on the floor. My mom blamed me for breaking the bedframe by jumping on it so much. She was right, too. Anyway, I called it a night at 8 p.m. Everyone said, “Good night,” but there wasn’t a chance in hell I was about to nod off at 8, or 9, or 10...

At one point, my cousin Dana passed by in the hallway and asked, “So, Ian, how’s that early bedtime going?” Well, between the Pictionary chatter going on in the dining room and the fact that the overhead light still blared in my bedroom because Colin and Damon were running around squealing, eh, pretty good. I’m pretty sure I heard the theme to that new show, “COPS,” at some point. Bad boys, bad boys. Whatcha gonna do?

And did I mention my house had no doors between virtually any of the rooms?

But at some point, as it always does, the party died down and we all crashed. Colin would tell me later that he snuck into the front room and saw all of the adults taking out and arranging Santa’s presents. I didn’t believe him. And not just because he sucks at both lying and being sneaky, but because Santa Claus is real.

Now We’re Playing with Power

Come morning, I was the very first person to wake up. I tiptoed to the tree and freaked out. There, laid out of its box like a store display, was a Nintendo Power Set, with Nintendo, Zapper gun and Power Pad.

I immediately bolted back into the bedroom and wrested Colin and Damon awake. They seemed hung over.

“COLIN!!” I screamed, waking up the entire house. “YOU GOT THE NINTENDO POWER SET!!” It sat in the middle of the room, between our respective toys, but of course I figured it was his. I knew the self-imposed pecking order.

The rest of the morning centered around the Nintendo, with my dad struggling to hook it up and refusing my repeated offers to help him (did I mention VCR manuals were my porn at the time?). His struggle is especially funny because he told me later that he’d been hooking it up and playing it every night for two weeks prior to giving it to us.

We discovered, to our chagrin, that Duck Hunt didn’t work on our TV. The Sony Linytron that we had at the time had lots of glitches that would eventually fry it the following summer. But despite the fact that the screen hiccuped every time we shot the Zapper, making it virtually impossible to shoot a duck on purpose, we still played a lot of Duck Hunt that day. Super Mario Bros. also got a ton of airplay.

But the Power Pad and World Class Track Meet were the stories of the day. This was the genesis of my obsession with sports. I ran track for seven years (and managed for seven more in college) because of this game. The Power Pad, for the unfortunately uninformed, was a proto-Dance Dance Revolution attachment for the NES. Here’s the commercial that BLEW OUR FREAKING MINDS:

The commercial sort of misleads you into thinking four people can play at once. Not really. But when more of my dad’s brothers and their families showed up at our house later that day, all of us kids tried.

The Power Pad as of Dec. 23, 2010. Still works great. The warning decal flaked off long ago, so pregnant women are free to use it now.
The Power Pad said in large letters at the top, “Do not wear shoes.” This led my Uncle Mike to warn me, as dry and mock-stern as ever, “Do not wear pajamas.”

Pop called it "Intendo." So when he said, "You got an Intendo," he was technically correct.

My cousin Joey (also 11) from Baton Rouge came with his family and brought me and Colin some toy guns with rubber-nub ammo. He brought enough for several people, including my cousin Conor (7), allowing us to play a giant, sweeping game of war in the front and back yards with all of our parents’ and grandparents’ cars as cover. I recall we were one gun short, so somebody (probably Colin) stuffed a sock with something that gave him a decided advantage. I remember somebody getting hit in the eye. But then, that’s always a safe assumption with us.

At some point, four of my dad’s five siblings and their families were at our house, having fun while Mom Mom and Pop barbecued in the driveway between their and our house. Boo, who lived next door on the other side of them, also joined in, fully healed from both her accident and from cataract surgery. My dad’s side of the family was spread out geographically and had its share of dysfunction, so having almost everyone together was a rare and happy treat, especially when my mom and her parents were doing the entertaining. It went on long into the night, with more Nintendo and more Pictionary. It was certainly a Christmas to remember.

In the interest of padding this out a little more, here are some additional toy highlights:

• Emerson AM/FM cassette recorder. It replaced my Fisher-Price mic radio from ’85 as my one-speakered radio of choice. I could record my voice on it. You know I did! I used it all the way up until 1992, when I loaned it to Colin’s best friend Michael for the weekend. When I got it back three months later, it was completely destroyed. The battery door was missing, the shell was cracked, the innards didn’t work and the cassette door was completely gone. I didn’t bother to ask.

• I also got a Pound Puppy that, when you clapped at or called it, barked. I named him Clarence, after the villain in Robocop. Cheery!

• Colin got a Larry Bird portable basketball hoop and a pair of Saints sweatpants. He broke the hoop trying to slam dunk, which later compelled my parents to get him a real hoop with a spring designed for slam dunks. He eventually broke that too. As for the sweatpants, I don’t think I need to tell you he eventually ripped a hole in the crotch.

• At some point, I asked somebody why Damon didn't get anything from Santa, and I was told Santa had already visited his home already, because he knew Damon would be here with us on Christmas. Man, that dude's sophisticated!

Next time in the Crapbook: 1989! The historic end to Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s tyrannical reign and life; the death of Yankees legend Billy Martin; and I learn how to play quarterback!

1 comment:

venessalewis said...

Holy shit Ian. Ok, I gotta tell you, you must have the BEST memory of Christmas mornings of any child ever. I mean, no doubt the photo collection you have combined with your love of Christmas helps, but I kid you not I have maybe 10 memories tops from an entire childhood of Christmases. And that just makes me sad. Why don't I remember more? I know they were pretty good....but there is not freaking WAY I'd EVER recall them in this much detail.

The most I can come up with is this:

1984: BEST Christmas and Worst Christmas ever. Simultaneously. I got Rainbow Brite (the large one when I thought I was only getting the little one) AND starlight horse to boot. And then my mom and dad started fighting and my dad lifted up my mom and put her outside the house. Then then fought again later that day at my grandma's. Lovely.

I remember the year I got a Desert Rose Huffy bike with training wheels and a turquoise Sony walkman. Also the year I got a ten speed bike and a Wuzzle. Well, I remember the toys, just not the actual year.

I remember certain ornaments on our tree and my mom's nativity set which I still love. I used to act out the Christmas story with the figures like they were dolls to my mom's horror, as they were heirloom figurines.

Oh, and last, we had a really cool old time train set that even blew real smoke that used to come out only and Christamd. OH! And my mom and I baked gingerbread cookies, which I carry on that tradition myself, now with Layden.

THAT, my friend, is my Christmas memories...pretty comprehensively. I am thoroughly enjoying reading yours!!