26 December 2011

Other Christmas Stories

I knew already that guns and Christmas were a volatile combination.

On the worst morning of my brother’s life, we awoke with a start and scurried from our beds toward the living room of my grandparents’ house in Goliad. Christmas! Who knew what treasures and delights were in store for us at the foot of the twinkling tree? But there was our grandfather in the doorway, shaking his head sadly.

“Boys,” he said, “I have bad news. I heard a noise in the night: something was on the roof. I got up to see what was the matter, and I saw a burglar coming out of the fireplace. So I shot him.”

Yes, Pa had shot Santa, who perished on the spot and was taken away before he had a chance to distribute the presents. Solemnly, our grandfather announced, “There won’t be a Christmas this year.”

If I live to be 100, I won’t forget the expression of horror and outrage on my brother’s little face. He was about 5 at the time, and he couldn’t contain his distress. Pa didn’t mean to be cruel, and as soon as he saw Linc’s reaction, he tried valiantly to make it right — it was all a joke, the presents were there, all was right with the universe. His reassurances flowed freely. But he couldn’t stop laughing, and really, the damage was done: emotional scarring for life.

I’ve been thinking about that morning as I watch a movie unspool — again and again — on TV. The gifts are opened, the big holiday meal prepared and eaten and well on its way to digestion, and the annual marathon of Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story (from 1983) has commenced its umpteenth iteration of the day.

This means that I have commenced the perennial philosophical inquiry as to why, in a movie in which so many period details are so right, Melinda Dillon couldn’t be persuaded to wear her hair in a way that didn’t look like the cover of Redbook, circa 1978. Seriously. Maybe she didn’t want to wear a wig, or cut her hair, but couldn’t she have pulled it back? Darren McGavin is at least two decades too old to play the Old Man (the nickname is meant to be ironic, not accurate), but nobody played beleaguered fury quite so well, and I give the filmmakers a pass on that one.

Melinda Dillon and her hair contemplate the Major Award.
With Peter Billingsley (Ralphie) and Ian Petrella (Randy).

I was a Shepherd fan already when the movie came out. In my teens I’d listened to his late-night radio show, which always sounded so terribly sophisticated, as if he held a highball in one hand and a microphone in the other.* I’d read his collected stories, with titillating titles like Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss. Many of those “other disasters” had been published first in Playboy, which heightened my sense that there was something adult and even subversive about them. By the time A Christmas Story opened, I’d even visited Higbee’s, the Cleveland department store that dominates the opening montage, and that’s where Ralphie meets Santa.

Thus versed (thoroughly, or so I believed) in the master’s œuvre, I was somewhat disappointed when A Christmas Story came out: it’s a kid’s movie. The big screen effectively washes away Shepherd’s most acerbic humor, and I missed it. I still do. Several of his other short stories had been adapted, somewhat more tartly, for American Playhouse on PBS, and in the course of filming, Shepherd was said to have taken aside the actor playing the Old Man and to have whispered, “In three years, you’re going to walk out on the family.”

Jean Shepherd:
On the radio, he always sounded as if he were speaking
from some secret, still place inside your head.

The rosy nostalgia of A Christmas Story has no room for such dark undertones, though they would help to explain why it’s Dad who breaks down and buys Ralphie the present he craves. Set in 1939 or shortly thereafter (to judge by the presence of Wizard of Oz characters in Higbee’s), the movie doesn’t even acknowledge the Great Depression, historical context that could lend poignancy to Ralphie’s yearning for such an expensive toy, and to the Old Man’s persistent attempts to strike it rich — or at least to win a Major Award — by entering cockamamie contests.

So be it. The movie earned Shepherd’s seal of approval — it’s he who narrates the tale — and brought him the greatest mainstream success of his career. What’s more, over the years the movie has proven its mettle as a trigger to nostalgia for our own Christmases. Heck, since the movie is playing in the background on TV a gazillion times a day, we’ve probably attached nostalgia to it, in and of itself.

Our own memories are unlikely to assemble themselves quite so tidily as Shepherd’s do: in fact, the incidents in the movie are taken from several different Shepherd stories, not all of them Christmas-related. Watching the movie, I begin to construct my own memoir of the night Santa was gunned down, a true-life incident that’s pretty clearly Shepherdesque, and other Christmas memories soon begin to emerge.

I wasn’t the sort of boy who wanted a BB gun, not least since I was mindful that my great-grandfather really did have his eye put out with one (fired by someone else), and was blinded for life. As an adult, I’ve forgotten the presents I didn’t receive, but many of the ones I did get are fresh in my memory. Consider the Disney castle with its collection of tiny plastic Disneykins, a few of whom actually survived Christmas morning. (Bambi’s tiny legs were the first casualty, but Huey — or Dewey — or Louie — lived past my college graduation.) How I wanted that castle! How thrilled I was when I got it! And I was still playing with it, or bits of it, years and years later.

Disneykins. The castle (clear plastic, with little trees, a pirate’s cave, and other accessories) came with about 50 characters, from Snow White to Pecos Bill, in individual boxes like these.

Other memories are more fragmentary: the year Linc had a part in the school Christmas pageant, but I had to miss it, because I’d already graduated from preschool to elementary; the way our mother used to sing along with Christmas carols on the car radio, keeping time with her foot on the accelerator; the way our grandmother each year assigned me the task of setting up the centerpiece (a scrawny Santa in a wooden sleigh, with a team of six silver reindeer hitched by a gold ribbon) as if it were a mission of national security — and it may have been. The procession of aunts and uncles, who resolutely called Linc by my name and me by his. The way the kitchen smelled while Bessie and my grandmother were cooking. And so on.

Very often I’ve spent the Christmases of my adult years in trying to pretend the holiday is just another day. It’s hard to maintain any Yuletide traditions at all when you’re childless, godless, far from home, and very often in somebody else’s home for the holidays. Complete avoidance is the only sure way to keep from feeling sorry for yourself.

This weekend, though, A Christmas Story virtually forced me to keep the season bright. I’m not sure that’s what Jean Shepherd planned, but it’s no small achievement.

Little did Santa Claus suspect that, even then,
our grandfather was stalking him.

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