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In Pursuit of Red Ryder

December 26, 2012

Another Christmas has come and gone, my sixty-fourth one (but who’s counting). As has become tradition, I viewed Jean Shepherd’s now-classic A Christmas Story for the two-hundred-somethingth time (but who’s counting). I am glad for this, for both Christmas and the story of Ralphie’s quest for his perfect gift never grow old.

In real life, these perfect gifts are hard to come by. My niece, who is now twenty-two (and a big fan of A Christmas Story), recently found a Christmas list to Santa from when she was a very young girl. Beauty accessories and pets seemed to be on her little mind. She didn’t get items #1 – 4 (though she has made up for the missing “glamer gear” many times over in the intervening years), and the absence of the horse and cat eliminated the necessity for the “allergic meadicen.” I’m not sure what she actually did get, but the dog that arrived years later made up for the undelivered horse in the driveway (almost).

Emma's list

Emma’s list

I got to thinking about my own perfect gift and if I ever received it. I’m not sure if my passion for any one particular item ever rivaled Ralphie’s desire for an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle, but there are two presents that stood out.

As a boy, I never had a dog. I liked dogs (still do) though I don’t remember pestering my parents for one, probably because I knew it would be a losing battle. Instead, one Christmas I got a large, brown stuffed pooch which I, in a fit of unbridled creativity, named Brownie. Brownie became my best friend and confidant in times of need when I got my own room. He waited for me each day nestled by the pillows on my bed, watched over me in times of illness, and participated in my many flights of fanciful make-believe throughout my boyhood. Even after I left for college, he was a welcome sight — a genuine sign of home — whenever I would return. That is until my mother unceremoniously (and without my knowledge or consent) tossed him in the trash. Otherwise, I’d probably have him still to this day (that groan was from my wife).

my Brownie Christmas

my Brownie Christmas

The other became a thread that extended through many of the Christmases of my youth: model trains. We lived near train tracks, and the sound of the late night whistle as freight trains rolled through town was a constant backdrop in my life in Bergenfield. My father’s annoyance at not having made it past before the gate fell at the New Bridge Road crossing was offset by my fascination with the huge, colorful cars that rumbled by — tankers, coal cars, livestock, equipment carriers. A train seemed to be the most powerful and majestic creation of man to this little guy.

One Christmas morning, I rushed down to our rumpus room to find a simple oval track attached to a plywood board lying there on the linoleum floor. On the track stood an eight car Lionel train set all ready to go. I could not have been more thrilled had it been one of Neill Young’s multilevel extravaganzas. Oh, to feel the ecstasy again of being that young boy manning the controls of that baby as it choo-chooed around and around, through the plastic tunnel, past the water tower, and over the trestle bridge, fake smoke billowing from the sleek black locomotive’s small stack. This is the stuff of nostalgic memory.

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As the years passed, I graduated to HO trains, and the tracks and surrounding environment became more and more complex. A small town grew up around the twists and turns of the smaller gauge track complete with a farm and its grazing livestock, a station house with working lights, and an assortment of homes and buildings. I spent hours down there on the damp floor playing with those trains, and many more planning and building the accessories. Eventually, I got older and my interests changed, and the trains went first into storage and then out of my life. Except, that is, for the memories.

These days the glory of getting Christmas presents has lost most of its luster (unless, of course, it involves witnessing children get theirs). But that, too, is as it must be. It is enough, though, to watch each year as Ralphie suffers setback after setback until he finally gets his Red Ryder. It is enough that it stirs memories of my own childhood dreams, and for that I owe eternal thanks to Jean Shepherd. So long live Christmas, and may the pursuit of children everywhere for their own perfect gift continue, for even though most years that horse won’t be left in the driveway, every so often something wonderful does arrive, and our innocent longings are indeed fulfilled.

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