With eight kids, 11 grandkids, and an ever-fluctuating number of in-laws, my parents were on the hook for a lot of gifts over the years. I still remember the enormous piles of Christmas presents “under” the tree each year. This was due in no small part to the efforts of my mom.
This isn’t to say Dad didn’t play his part; it certainly wouldn’t have been possible without his efforts. He was the benefactor; Mom was the organizer. For two weeks before Christmas, the dining room table was converted into a wrapping station. Paper, ribbons, tags, tape, and scissors were strewn about the table’s surface, with various shopping bags underneath — some empty, some still hiding gifts yet to be wrapped.
Every night, she’d sit at that table and wrap diligently, somehow keeping track in her head of which kids still required purchases in order to keep everything even. By Christmas Eve, the pile of wrapped gifts had practically overtaken the tree, surrounding it with an impenetrable wall of color and joy. Here are two old pictures from the same year, showing two sides of the tree:
This is what we came downstairs to every Christmas morning, and it was a little sad to see it all undone in a matter of minutes. I remember one year, we tried to draw out the unwrapping process by having one kid open one gift at a time, while the others watched and grew impatient. That tradition failed to take off, and the next year, we were back to the chaos of a living room full of wrapping paper, noise, and love as everyone dove in at once.
Mom made Christmas great; I’m convinced to this day that no home had better Christmas mornings than we did. And to anyone reading this and mentally uttering a tsk-tsk because they think I should know Christmas isn’t about gifts, I can only say, shut up. I’m hearkening back to my youth, when gifts reigned supreme. No matter how you interpret Christmas, there’s an element of giving in there somewhere, and I’m talking about someone who knew how to give — in material ways and otherwise.
Receiving gifts isn’t nearly as important to me now, but earlier this month, I was reminiscing about some of my favorites from the days when I enjoyed it more. I’d been surfing online, and found a site full of old wish books.
Remember those? The Christmas catalogs that came in the mail from various department stores and outlets, and that somehow always got things wrong, because the first person to grab that catalog was a child, but the toys were almost never the first things to see. Nope, it took minutes of flipping through clothing, fruitcakes, appliances, and other practical things before a kid could strike gold in the Toys and Games section.
As I flipped through more and more of the scanned pages on that site, I remembered more and more of my favorite gifts through the ages. And I decided to post some of them on my Facebook page. It almost started as a joke, with a quip about a ventriloquist dummy, but the feedback was immediate and gratifying enough to make me want to post more. As the season progressed, I was humbled and happy to receive great comments from friends on every morning’s post.
I started on St. Nicholas Day, and as the posts continued, I realized they were a bit of a tribute to my own Santa. She’d really done right be me and my siblings, and I thank her for these memories:
From the 1975 Sears Wish Book. Someone gave me item 1. What kid wouldn’t want a doll called Willie Talk for Christmas? Not only was it an authentically creepy ventriloquist dummy, it had a name that made boys giggle. “Willie Talk” sounds like a chat show for men. “Welcome to Willie Talk, where we talk willies!” Weird, sure, but I wanted one, just the same. And I got it. I also spent hours practicing, saying “D” for “B” and “T” for “P” — but I still moved my lips. Such is life. My career path lay in a different direction.
The Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle — I think every boy in my class had one. Some of the luckier ones also had the Dragster, the Canyon Rig, and/or the Fast Tracker. Many races took place in driveways, front yards, and school parking lots. Just insert Evel’s vehicle into the groove on the “energizer,” start cranking its arm like crazy, and once the vehicle’s tire(s) were spinning at an adequate speed, stop cranking — Evel would zoom down the ramp of the energizer and engage in whatever race or stunt he was pointed toward. But if you slow down while cranking, he’d take off too soon, and wouldn’t be going at the right speed. The perils of premature ejection….
The king daddy of all gifts, G.I. Joe dominated my Christmas and birthday lists for at least three consecutive years. I have such great memories of the Sea Wolf and one of the helicopters, plus a Jeep. I had one of the original Joes, with molded plastic hair, plus some later models, with the fuzzy “realistic” hair (and beard), not to mention Kung Fu grip. The hand on that one was more pliable than others, but it eventually dried up into a hard plastic grip that no longer worked. The same for the squid that attacked the Sea Wolf — they went on many a bath time adventure with me, but the squid stopped being able to attack and cling to the sub when its original rubbery texture turned into hard, stiff plastic. Then they shrank Joe into a mere four-inch action figure, but as any boy can tell you, 12 inches is better than four inches any day.
Mattel’s overcompensating answer to G.I. Joe, Big Jim liked to strut his stuff. He was made of molded plastic except for one arm made of rubber, so his muscles could flex in that arm. He had a button on his back that made him give a karate chop. The kung fu studio came with a board that broke easily when he chopped it. Jim’s sexuality was questionable, but you know me — I didn’t judge.
Why didn’t Johnny West make the color pages of the wish books? That collection was seriously cool, with each figure coming in a rustic-looking box to capture the frontier theme, tons of accessories, and a wide range of characters — maybe more than Barbie had. Heroes, villlains, cowboys, Indians, and horses. The buckboard horse had wheels in its hooves, so the entire unit could roll smoothly along the ground. Of course, it was downright creepy to watch the horse sort of hover along like a ghost, but it was still a cool feature. This collection rocked, and I wish I could find a wish book image with everything it offered. I had Johnny and Geronimo, plus the buckboard. Another kid on my street had Sam Cobra, all of the Indians, and Custer. Lucky!
One of the best gifts I ever received was also one of the most basic — Hot Wheels Cutoff Canyon. It was the shortest race ever, but I ran it time and time again. I might have even let my baby brother race his cars against mine, but I never gave him the privilege of pressing the Fair Start button. The track was attached in a modified figure-eight configuration to a cardboard “canyon” and included a lane switcher near the start of the race, when there was still a good chance of collision. But it also ensured neither car would have the unfair advantage of running on the inner loop. This thing even taught me a little about physics and geometry. And it included a kickin’ supervan. Check out the corny commercial.
Santa brought me the Bozo Punch-Me when I was really little. It had a nose that squeaked when you hit it. At that age, I didn’t catch the same creepy vibe off clowns that I do now, but on some deep level, it was probably pretty satisfying to punch a clown and hear him squeak. That’s Christmas spirit!
The eight siblings received so many View-Master reels and viewers over the years, I can’t remember who got what for which holiday. But I loved every one of them, especially the projector. They sold a screen, but nobody needed that — a blank wall was perfect. I still remember the sound of that projector, and the smell of the dust burning on the bulb. And there were so. Many. Reels. 3D, illustrated, educational, whatever — unless they were bent or the film was sliding out of the slot, they were all great.
The cool designs! The one-of-a-kind smell! The fire hazard! The extensive injuries! Ah, the woodburning set….
They were a little late to the party, but one Christmas, I was still enough into toys to be completely captivated by the Micronauts. Cool figures, vehicles, and playsets with interchangeable parts and weapons that actually fired little projectiles, plus their own back story, these guys had my rapt attention for a little while. They wound up being responsible for the start of an ever-evolving science fiction series that I still carry in my head — maybe some day, I’ll write it down.
I have only the vaguest of memories of this game, but I know it was a blast. I’m not even sure it was mine, but Santa brought it to one of the Bain kids, and therefore it belonged to all of us. Snoopy and the Red Baron, shooting marbles at each other — could it get any better? Only if you listened to “Snoopy’s Christmas” by the Royal Guardsmen while playing it.
So many Lite-Brite products graced chez Bain over the years, from the original 1967 version that some of the kids received, to the cubes and flat versions given to various grandkids. Then there were the refill packs, which started as a few generic pictures but expanded to have themes from movies, TV shows, toy lines, and other things kids wanted to “draw” with light. I remember recycling the used sheets — on the second or third run, you could still somewhat read the color code on the tag of paper that was barely hanging onto the hole that had already been made, but it became futile from there. Then there were the blank sheets; I was never creative enough to come up with my own designs. (I had the same curse with plain Lego bricks; if they didn’t come with instructions, they were useless in my hands.) I still remember the feel of a completed Lite-Brite drawing — the smooth pegs, barely radiating the heat from the lightbulb behind them — as well as the smell of a new sheet and the look of the finished drawing when I plugged in the unit in a dark room. A classic!
Simple to operate, difficult to master, and fun to own. Pull the T-Stick as hard as possible to get that single wheel spinning like mad, put the vehicle down, and watch it take off! Kenner ruled the 70s with their SSP Racers, releasing dozens of attainable models and following up with variations like the Speed Screamers and Smash-Up Derby. There was even an inexplicable Star Wars panel van in 1977. These things were constant throughout the better part of a decade, and the single cars fit perfectly into Christmas stockings. I can still hear the sound of one wheel running.
Vertibird was one of the first toys that made kids say, “Awesome!” Two levers controlled the pitch, throttle, and altitude of a little helicopter attached by cable to a central spindle. You knew you were cool once you had mastered the infinitely adjustable levers enough to make the helicopter hover in one place rather than moving in a circle. It seemed really high-tech in the early 70s, and yes, it was awesome. Santa brought the police set one year, and the Coast Guard ship another year. Both were endless fun. The helicopter had a little hook attached, and each set came with lightweight accessories that it could pick up and “rescue.” That’s pretty much it — fly around in circles and pick up a couple of pieces — but that was enough. Kids could (and did) play with it for hours, stopping only when the batteries ran out of juice.
“Be a Champion in the Bout of the Century!” That was the promise on the box lid of this game. That might not have been entirely accurate, especially with these bouts lasting about a minute, and there could be a lot of one-minute bouts in an entire century. But this gem delivered on excitement. Up to four contestants could play, each winding their top on a piece of string attached to a key, which was inserted in the side of the arena. After a mutually agreed-upon countdown, all players would pull their keys as hard as possible, starting their tops spinning into the arena. These things looked like some sort of mean little animals, skipping around with a furious kinetic energy that fueled the contestants’ excitement. They would collide and careen off in different directions, knocking each other down and sometimes jumping right out of the arena (in which case, that top’s player lost) to add to that feeling of not knowing what the heck they were going to do next. The last top standing was the winner, and the next battle would start. Some battles took less time than it took to actually wind the strings and get ready, but no matter — this one was fun to play, anyway. Some tops had names; my favorite was Dizzy Dan. This game came out in 1968, so it must have belonged to an older sibling, but I have good memories of playing this with them once I was old enough to get a good spin on. It’s such an elementary concept, coupled with what had to be low manufacturing cost, but for some reason, this game didn’t last. You just don’t see it in the stores anymore. That probably means someone, somewhere was hurt while playing it, and the game became history.
Mattel scored big with their electronic football game in 1977, and they might just have changed the world forever. Ours was the first generation to lose themselves in a handheld device, walking along without seeing where we were going, because we were too busy staring at our hands. Little red blips with tinny electronic sound effects — one of which made it into Supertramp’s “The Logical Song” in what was probably another first for pop culture. This game literally rocked.
Now for the other “electric football” game. I think this was a gift to my older brother, but it might have belonged to our older brother George. Regardless, it’s a classic. Line up the players with their little strands of plastic under them, flip the switch, and a small motor begins to vibrate the metal “field,” sending the 22 players off in every direction. I never figured out quite how to determine whether the quarterback had thrown the ball that was permanently affixed to his hand, who had received it, and whether they had made a first down, but it didn’t matter — this thing was big and loud, and it had cool pictures of the helmets of the then-16 teams in the NFL. Also, there was a risk factor — big metal plates with electricity humming through them! What could possibly go wrong? It turns out, it didn’t take long for this game to develop a short (probably for the better, allowing all of the Bain boys to survive). That didn’t stop us, though; we figured out all we had to do was repeatedly tap the field with our fingers to convey the same level of non-precise vibrations to scatter the players again.
Rock ‘Em-Sock ‘Em Robots appeared under the tree one year, and as simple as it is, it’s been one for the ages. Not much footwork to the boxers; they were pretty much in each others’ faces by design, and not able to move too far from that. Each boxer has two buttons — one for a right uppercut, one for a left. It was just a matter of pounding each others’ chin until one block was knocked off — and you hear that unforgettable “Raaaahhg” sound of the metal “neck” unzipping. It always took a couple of tries to reset — push down the first time, and the head only pops back up again. Push again until it locks into place, then resume block-knocking. Because nothing says “Christmas” like two robots trying to behead each other.
One night in early December during the late 70s, Dad came home late from work, toting this as an early Christmas gift. I didn’t know what it was, exactly, or what it was supposed to do, but I would find out that evening, and immediately be lost to the rest of the family. I spent the next few weeks engrossed, thinking about it during school hours and toying with it at night. Of course the TRS-80 Model I is archaic by today’s standards — 4KB of RAM (not GB, not even MB, but KB), memory-mapped keyboard about three inches thick, a cassette drive for loading software, low-res graphics comprised of rectangular dots that required a worksheet to map out, and no operating system to speak of (it just opened in a BASIC compiler) — but man, what a technological wonder it was at the time! I played kick-ass text games, gladly shelled out $20 or $25 every time a new cassette came out with a game with “graphics,” and learned logic and programming. The future had come to the Bain household, and my future had forever changed. Thanks, Mom and Dad! Now, for all of you, here’s a slightly edited version of the first program I wrote from scratch:
20 PRINT “Merry Christmas!”
30 GOTO 20
There were many others, but I’ve run out of days before Christmas. If you want to find more, Retroland has a great list of toys to get your nostalgia going, or you can scroll through catalogs at the wish book site I discovered.
I leave you with one last page, the cover of Sears’ Wish Book from 1985, and with the sincere hope that your Christmas may be filled with the joy seen on the face of the child depicted on it:
Merry Christmas, everyone, and thanks for everything, Mom. (And Dad.)