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Dakota Christmas

From the December 2002 issue of First Things: A holiday memoir.

11:00 PM, Dec 11, 2002 • By J. BOTTUM
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A CHILDREN'S TOY CATALOGUE came in the mail the other day--or, rather, an adult's toy catalogue, filled with the opportunity for grownups to buy at outrageous prices the toys of their childhood. There were Sting Ray bicycles with banana seats and giant U-shaped handle bars trailing multi-colored streamers from the plastic hand grips. There were Slinkies, pogo sticks, cap guns, and the kind of open-springed, bouncing nursery horses no liability-conscious manufacturer would dare offer children anymore.

All those toys I hungered for when I was young--just hearing their names is like listening to an ancient, half-forgotten litany of secularized Christmas. Tinker Toys, Erector Sets, and Lincoln Logs. Creepy Crawlers, Flexible Flyers, Raggedy Anne, and Raggedy Andy. They have the rhythm of plainchant, of paeans lifted up to Santa Claus. Silly Putty, Superballs, and Matchbox cars. Duncan yo-yos, paint-by-number sets, and 3-D viewers. Aggravation, Stratego, Trouble, and Operation. Etch-A-Sketches and Spirographs. Model spaceships, antique cars, and Billy Bishop's World War I biplanes. A German Fokker triplane I snapped the wheels off while trying to glue on the third wing.

I can't remember now exactly why I so desperately wanted Rockem Sockem Robots and A Barrel Full of Monkeys, Pivot Pool and Battleship, or anything made by Wham-O. Few of them came. We were not wealthy, and insofar as my parents held much of what passed for advanced ideas in those days, they believed in that vague kind of middle-American progressivism that expressed itself in Scandinavian furniture, subscriptions to the New Yorker, and "educational playthings." And of the few widely commercialized toys we did receive, none survive. Did they wear out? Were they victims of the brutal triage--the hurried abandoning of the incidental, the unnecessary, and the overlooked--that always happens just before the moving vans come? (Three moves is as good as a fire, my grandmother used to say--paraphrasing Ben Franklin, I learned years later.) Or were they simply too disappointing to care much about once they came: cleaner, sharper, more memorable to desire than to obtain?

In a box at the back of my closet, a few last things remain: odds and ends sent on to me in Washington by my mother, for the most part, as she came across them here and there in long-unopened moving cartons stacked in the basement or old shoe boxes hidden for years on the shelves behind the winter coats.

The desire for list-making is overwhelming, as though by careful inventory I could somehow draw again upon the feeling once invested, like a savings account, in those toys: a stuffed tiger, one eye askew, its ribbon shredding in age. (But where is the enormous bear my grandfather gave us when I was three, taller than either my sister or me?) A paperweight of Indian-head pennies mounted in clear plastic, a loose wheel off a model airplane, a small set of toy cars. A handful of mounted knights, the stones of their painted castle long since overgrown and tumbled down. A gold-braided military bandsman in a red tunic, the sole survivor of a regiment of plastic soldiers I once tried to march down the hall and across the living room of my grandparents' house in Rapid City during the middle of a party to raise money for Korczak Ziolkowski, the mad sculptor who was trying to carve an entire Black Hills mountain into a 500-foot-tall statue of Crazy Horse. When the first high heels and the huge black wing-tips of the lawyers and the businessmen came smashing down on the soldiers, Korczak suddenly stooped down and gathered me up on his lap, his stiff beard sweeping back and forth across my head while he laughed and drank, waving his arms and shouting at the guests to watch where they stepped until at last my grandmother took me up to bed.