Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmas Crapbook: 1991 edition

Christmas 1991 was one of those years I really got into the holiday spirit. It was also a year of last times.

I remember our family shopping trip in which we bought a magnificently plump Christmas tree in a lot that would later turn into a branch of my mom’s bank, and we ate at Sonic afterwards. It would be the last time we ever bought a live tree.

It would also be the last Christmas for my great aunt Boo, as what had been a bout of pneumonia turned into a diagnosis of lung cancer in November. I remember the day I found out, which was the same day the Dallas Cowboys snapped the Washington Redskins’ undefeated streak with a field goal. I watched the highlights in the hospital room with her that afternoon. Yes, football is my frame of reference for pretty much everything. Boo braved chemotherapy and various stays in the oncology ward in the months that followed, eventually staying with my grandparents until her death on April 18, 1992. Nevertheless, throughout Christmas and New Year’s Day, she remained an active participant in our festivities.

At my mom’s office Christmas party, the last one where I got a present (my sister, then 1, would later become the primary focus), I got a baseball sticker scrapbook, complete with all of the 100-plus stickers in a pack. I think I placed them all that night. When I finished, I noticed I was missing two stickers. Instead, I had two duplicates. Packaging glitch! NOOOOOOO!!!! This was not going to help my collector’s OCD.

Finally, Christmas 1991 would be the last for two years in which Santa came. In yet another departure from tradition, and perhaps as a way to keep Santa alive for Keely as his believability slid out of my and Colin’s minds, Mom and Dad wrapped all of our presents (for both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day) and put them under the tree. They were there when we arrived home from school one day, and it was a lot of fun seeing these larger-than-usual giftwrapping jobs and wondering what lied beneath.

From that summer forward, when a display had caught my eye at our local Kmart, I had coveted the Sportcraft ice hockey table game. I envisioned it as the centerpiece of my bedroom, and any future gameroom I would have. Decals along the side sported the names of major American cities, and by the time Christmas rolled around, I had already created teams, lineup and backstories for each city, calling it the SHL (Sportcraft Hockey League). I wrote a story about the league in my English-class journal. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a game and get the real league rolling!

My hockey game. SPOILER ALERT: I got it.
On Christmas Eve, our cousin Mitch came to visit us on leave from the Navy. He had been a fixture at my grandparents’ house from childhood up until he moved to Houston when he was about 17. By this point, he’d been to Africa and several other countries overseas, and had grown a mustache. The mustache scared me a little bit, as they often do, but otherwise I was ecstatic to see him. Even though he was 10 years older than me, we had a lot of good times together when we were young. I believe this was the first time he’d ever seen my sister, and I remember him saying, “I don’t even know YOU!” Dad, Colin and I had recently seen “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey,” and I remember my Dad talking to Mitch and Pop about the flick and laughing about it as if Dad had been the target audience. I loved it.

My cousin Mitch meets Keely, while Boo watches. Mom Mom, meanwhile, is cringing over my resemblance to a young Jeffrey Dahmer.
The party spilled over to our house, where Dad cranked up a Nintendo bowling game he’d rented and had been playing incessantly. We exchanged presents — all of mine being sports-related, of course. But I think what I remember most about Christmas Eve is that I sat around contentedly devouring off-brand nacho chips and Zapp’s barbecue chips while reading TV Guide and Tuff Stuff Magazine.

Two out of three McGibboney children agree: Christmas is awesome!
We all knew what Colin’s present was going to be well before Christmas Eve. In what had to be the most hilariously inept attempt ever to disguise a gift, Dad had purchased a Patsy Cline CD for Mom, and wrapped it with one of my sister’s rectangular puzzles to throw off the shape. This would have been brilliant, except that two days before Christmas (or thereabouts), everybody got to unwrap a gift. My mom opened the CD, and as we all laughed at Dad’s cleverness, my mom expressed her desire to put it in constant rotation.

But we couldn’t, just yet. Because we didn’t have a CD player. Oops!

At this point, Dad no longer worked in radio. But just prior to leaving his last radio job, he had brought home about 12 CDs, which he kept in a chest (mostly playlists designed for radio use only, but also a couple of albums from Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Cockburn and Paul Carrack, as well as TV themes and commercials). Us kids would occasionally (and secretly) break them out just to gawk at them. We handled them like plutonium. “Compact discs! Wow!”

A few months prior, Coca-Cola had a promotion where they hid four mini-CDs, each featuring four or five songs from then-contemporary Epic and Columbia artists, in Coke cases. Boo, who was an avid Coke drinker, managed to land two of them, and gave them to us. We gawked at those as well. In retrospect, it seemed like destiny.

It seemed even more like destiny on Christmas Eve when Colin got CDs from Garth Brooks (Ropin’ the Wind), Michael Jackson (Dangerous), C&C Music Factory (Gonna Make You Sweat - which became Mom's soundtrack) and, as a final gift from Boo the CD queen, “Rapmasters 2.”

I didn’t get any CDs, but I did get the Simpsons Scrapbook and Tuff Stuff magazine — two very divergent publications that would both have profound effects on my life. The Simpsons Scrapbook (which, last I checked, is still available) was a fully immersive look into what Marge had to work with from America’s favorite cartoon dysfunctional family. I’m not sure I can describe what it is about this book that redefined how I saw comedy and storytelling, but I liked how every page was densely layered (you’d never get it it all even with a dozen readings), and how it used actual print fonts to make packages and cards look real. Even amid scads of throwaway jokes, it told a story without any kind of narrative structure. Oh, and it was funny. Tremendously funny.

Tuff Stuff was one of many, many sports-card magazines I was eating up at the time. But this one was thicker and even involved cards outside of sports (the most striking was an ad for missing-kids cards that featured Jaycee Lee Dugard, a girl my age who had just disappeared and was only recently found alive). Tuff Stuff also had in-depth sports stories (the cover touting the biggest story of the day, Magic Johnson’s recent HIV disclosure). It got me interested in sports journalism. I still have both books.

Keely got a Mickey Mouse doll. It was so upscale, even I wanted it.

Not pictured: Team loyalty.
Colin and I went to bed that night as Christmas music continued to blare around the house. When I woke up about two hours later, everyone (except for Keely) was already up. I walked into the den to the sweet opening strains of C&C Music Factory’s “Let’s Get Funkee.” Doot-doot-doot-doot-doot-doot-do-DA-do-doot-da-DA-do....

Colin had gotten his stereo. A Sharp CD player with X-Bass, an equalizer and a dual cassette deck so that we could make high-speed copies of Hammer’s “Too Legit to Quit.” Sweet! As we swapped CDs, Dad continually marveled at the sound quality, falling into expert mode when he thought he was getting too giddy. “Wow, that knock in the intro of ‘Black or White’ sounds like it’s right here! [Voice drops] So, uh, yeah, CDs reproduce crystal clear because they’re digital.”

I got a Magna-Doodle, a toy best described as a white Etch-Sketch that’s way easier to manipulate. My wide-eyed parents kept going, “How does it work?”

In that case, they were trying to lift my spirits. Because I did get the hockey game I so desperately wanted. But it was broken. Broken! Not fair, Jesus! Did Ralphie’s air rifle jam? Hell no! This is not how the story’s supposed to go! Months of anticipation! Agggh!!!!

Specifically, one of the spinning players was not on track, and sagged underneath the rink. We weren’t able it to snap it into place, and Dad countered my repeated pleas to let us play anyway, saying we’d simply exchange it at Kmart the next day. In the meantime, we couldn’t play it so they wouldn’t pin the defect on us. Well, that’s one way to make Christmas last forever.

He stashed it in the dining room. Later that day, I would sit by my defective game, caressing it to the sounds of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” as family revelry continued in the other room. Wonderful Christmastime, indeed.

But aside from that short emo period, I managed to have a lot of fun. Of course, Colin and I never went to back to bed, though my parents did. As Colin repeated Garth Brooks ad nauseum, I alternated between drawing up sports-themed logos on my Magna-Doodle and absorbing myself in the music-themed issues of Disney Adventures and Request that Colin had gotten in his stocking, while making very short work of the Life Saver storybooks I’d gotten in my own stocking. To this day, when I taste cherry Life Savers, I taste the early morning hours of Dec. 25, 1991.

Other cool stuff also kept my tears from melting the ice. I got a tabletop basketball hoop, with a tiny plastic basketball that you could bounce and try to make the basket. I also got a Classic baseball game with a diamond spin dial, complete with a set of baseball cards with trivia questions on the back. The pieces were even smaller versions of the cards, featuring Todd Van Poppel and other apparent future stars of the age. I lost a couple of the plastic stands for the pieces, but didn’t realize it until after I’d chucked the strange pieces of plastic that were randomly turning up in my other toys. Oops. Other than that, I still have this game completely intact to this day.

And this being the peak of my baseball fanaticism, I also received the complete set of 1991 Topps cards. “40 years of baseball,” the box and every card screamed. Not only did I enjoy this set as much as the previous year’s, but I also (mostly) managed to keep Keely from jabbing the box with darts. Speaking of darts, my grandparents got me a Sportcraft dartboard. One of the first things I did with it was tape a picture of Atlanta Falcons head coach Jerry Glanville over the bull’s-eye and use it for target practice. Peace on Earth and good will toward men.

My last three sports-themed gifts were an NFL welcome mat, another basketball game, where you pressed numbered buttons to rocket the ball in the air (I had been playing with it relentlessly every time we went to the Real Superstore) and a USA Olympic bag (a timely gift, given that the 1992 Olympics were imminent).

The zipper on the Olympic bag broke that very morning, the very first time I zipped it. Before I had a chance ask God why he was trampling on my otherwise wonderful day, my grandmother, a seamstress, took the bag to her house next door and fixed it with a single piece of thread in about three minutes. “There you go,” she said. The zipper never broke again, and it still works perfectly. Thanks, Mom Mom!

Oh and I also got an ant farm. I’d always wanted one. I got the ants in a tube through the mail a few days later. How about that? They ultimately died of starvation, though I did keep them alive long enough to do a really poor-quality science fair project that almost won anyway.

Later that day, I sat on Boo’s porch two houses down, with my Olympic bag full of goodies, and enjoyed a clear, sunny day. Across the street, two young girls enjoyed their new bikes. Simply having a wonderful Christmastime.

The next day, Dad, Colin and I went to Kmart. It was a different location than the one we usually went to (exotic!) and its shelves were bare from all of the shoppers swiping up deals. We brought the hockey game to the return desk, my first-ever experience with customer service. My dad explained the defect, which I reiterated by saying, “The little men don’t work.” The woman behind the desk wrote on a Post-It note, “Little men don’t work.” Then we were allowed to grab another game. Dad asked if we could open this one in the store, just to make sure it was not also broken. The clerk agreed. Good call. The second game had the same problem. Phew! Good thinking, Dad. You know me well. The third game had no issues, and that’s the one that has endured to this day.

Soon after, in English class, we had an assignment to write a letter of complaint to a company. Some were allowed to write letters of praise instead, but I had no trouble complaining. I mailed my letter to the company that made my hockey game for Sportcraft, Bock-Plast of Finland, and urged them to exercise better quality control in their products. It came back insufficient postage. Oh well. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

Back at Kmart, Colin and I had $20 each in cash to buy whatever we wanted. I took the opportunity to purchase my first-ever CD, the “Cool as Ice” soundtrack. It cost $19.95. Worth. Every. Penny. This was when CDs still came in those long rectangular boxes, which I always thought were neat (if wasteful). Colin was more economical, buying discounted old discs from MC Hammer (“Let’s Get It Started,” which we didn’t know existed) and Garth Brooks (“No Fences”).

As for Keely, I have no idea what she got from Santa.

Guidance, maybe?
That night, as Colin and I went to bed, I realized an unfortunate side effect of his new stereo: that he would play it at night, without headphones. Five days later, I’d commandeer another room in the house as my bedroom. In a Christmas season of last times, a whole new era was about to be born.

I’ll always remember 1991 as the last truly epic Christmas, the end of an innocent era. But it was also stoked a lot of interests that keep me going today — sports writing, comedy writing, music and complaining. It also instilled in me the sort of happiness that comes not only from having cool stuff, but also from being with your family through thick and thin, and with the understanding that life is ultimately fleeting. So be grateful, have a good time and love.

Happy New Year!

Next time in the Crapbook: Assorted snapshots from 1992-2006!


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Aman Sony said...
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