A father enjoys giving gifts to his children. That’s in the Bible, spoken by Jesus himself, so it’s not up for debate. I certainly enjoy it and my folks were the same.
That said, when I was a kid, we knew that to expect a new toy other than on Christmas or a birthday was an exercise in fantasy. But I can recall occasional exceptions.
The first occurred on a warm summer night in my fifth year when we had all been outside playing and I walked up on Pop from behind in mid conversation. By chance, he lowered his arm in conjunction with my arrival at his side and the result was a small burn on my forearm from a cigarette he had been holding in his hand.
What resulted next was not unlike what you would see in an emergency room with an arriving heart attack patient. As my wails of agony ensued, I was swept up into Pop’s arms and rushed into the house where Mom had already begun harvesting aloe vera clippings in order to apply its healing salve to my grievous wound. Based on the crescendo of sobbing, they undoubtedly expected a blistering wound over destroyed tissue reaching to the bone. Instead, it was a small red dot, barely noticeable if not looking for it.
After enduring several minutes of agonized writhing and claims that the aloe was not dulling the pain, Pop loaded me up and took me to the closest drugstore to acquire a more effective remedy. I had visited this drugstore regularly and always hit the toy aisle to gaze in wonder at the 1/10th scale 1967 Mustang fastback police car complete with sirens and flashing lights. After months of wistful dreaming, the fantasy was suddenly realized as Pop lowered it from the shelf and placed it gently in my arms. Everything after that is a fog. Pop probably consulted the pharmacist and purchased some super-effective ointment designed to dull the pain, but the shiny new Mustang turned out to be all the medicine I needed.
Ever the fast learner, I began to always approach Pop from behind while he was smoking. I carefully noted in which hand he was holding his cigarette so as to ensure that I approached from that side. I wasn’t necessarily trying to get myself burned but if, in the course of my casual and ever increasing approaches, I somehow managed to incur a small wound, so be it. The payoff had been worth it the first time and I was willing to take the risk.
Wisdom finally got the better of me and I gave up on this uniquely twisted toy solicitation and accepted that my gifts would come twice a year as they had before.
Now books were different. We could get a book anytime we wanted and mom took us on regular trips to the library. I spent summers reading The Hardy Boys and The Secret Seven mystery series.
My sister, a little older, had graduated to Agatha Christie novels, following the sleuthing of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. She became such a fan that she later purchased a collection of every single book Agatha Christie ever wrote. I was amazed. There were dozens and dozens. For a pleasure-writing columnist like me, putting out books in that capacity is unfathomable.
I didn’t realize what great times our library summers were until reflecting back on them.
Still for a kid with an imagination like mine, there was a small void in not having a routine influx of new toys to wage epic battles of army soldiers against super villains.
It wasn’t until we reached an age of deemed responsibility, for us around 10 or 12 years old, that we could begin doing chores and receiving an allowance. My primary chore was yard mowing. We had what seemed at the time to be the biggest yard on earth. Couple that with the fact that riding lawnmowers were a huge luxury and far less common than now, and you can easily see that it was a monumental task. One pass felt like I had just pushed mowed one row of the Serengeti Plains with only about 12,000 square miles of grassland to go.
Once I committed to it, though, it was mine. Pop would not touch the mower, except to possibly help start it when I all too frequently managed to flood the engine. When I started the yard, I had to finish it even if it took days. I would cut the side, rest a day, cut the back, rest another day, and so on. By the time I “finished,” the section I had started on was pretty much ready to start again.
Our neighbors probably hated our checkerboard yard, but Pop didn’t complain about quality. He stressed effort and I was always compensated for mine. On payday, I got to go out and spend my hard-earned money as I pleased.
Of course, I immediately blew it on toys that had been paraded before me between Saturday morning cartoons: The Millennium Falcon, Boba Fett, Legos and G.I. Joe action figures. (To settle the argument once and for all, yes, they are action figures, not dolls.) For however short a time, I quenched those material desires craftily planted by Hasbro and Mattel.
Eventually, though I returned to my first love: Books. Today all three of my kids read regularly and it truly makes me happy. To see them developing a love of reading is probably the greatest gift of all for both them and me. And not a single aloe vera plant gets harmed in the process.
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© Michael L. Collins
* This column appeared in the February 16, 2016 edition of The Mountain Press.