Just like the 86 year “Curse of the Bambino” that the Boston Red Sox suffered through after selling Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, I too suffered through my own curse as a kid. Unlike the Red Sox, mine did not have to do with not being able to win a World Series, while the New York Yankees dominated in the fall classic. No, mine had to do with getting Christmas presents that didn’t exactly do what they were supposed to do! I think of it as my Christmas Curse!
The first time it happened was when I was too young to even remember, but through the years, I heard the story so much that it is ingrained in my memory as if I did remember. It might have been my second Christmas and “Santa” had gifted me a red pedal car fire truck. On Christmas Eve of that year, my folks came home from doing a show at the Met, and my Dad launched into assembling this fire truck. He opened the box, and rather than the 4 wheels it was supposed to come with, he only found three! Knowing that, at the very least I should be able to sit in the truck in the living room of our Jackson Heights apartment the next morning, after putting the rest of the truck together, he fashioned a 4th wheel our of a cigar box. Of course, with a square wheel, I couldn’t ride it, but he had made sure that at least I could sit in it! And so it started!
When you are a kid (still one in my mind), one of the most important parts of Christmas morning is being able to play with your newly delivered toys! Be it a sled, a skateboard, or an erector set, your full enjoyment is only reached the first time you are able to use the gift. Sadly, the three wheeled fire truck was not the last of my Christmas morning disappointments! There was the year I got my first two-wheeled bike. That year, an important part was missing, and all I could do was look at the pieces, as it wasn’t even assembled enough so I could sit on it! But the one that stands front and center in my mind, is the year in the 60s when I was gifted a brand new Lionel HO Scale Slot Car track with two race cars. I unpacked the box, carefully set up the track, plugged in the controllers, and was all set to enjoy some slot racing when I discovered that sadly, only one of the cars worked! Oh No!! The Christmas Curse had struck again!! I have sad memories of my friend Barry Meade and I playing with just one car, as the second one sat there and just gave us the finger!!
I tell you these sad stories as a preamble to my real story, that took place when our oldest son Billy was about 4 or 5 years old. All three of our kids have November birthdays – Billy the 3rd, and Krissi and Kenny the 20th. Back when they were small, and toys were the major items on their Wish Lists, Susie and I would make a trip to Toys R Us in October, well before the Christmas rush. We’d buy both Birthday and Christmas gifts then, so we could avoid the crazy rush that started right around Thanksgiving, and lasted right up to December 25th. That year for his birthday, Billy’s main gift was a Teddy Ruxpin talking “bear”. If you don’t recall, Teddy was an early animatronic children’s toy, who’s eyes and mouth moved in response to an audio cassette tape that you inserted into a player built in his back. One track of the cassettes was used for audio and the second was a data stream that facilitated the animation of the the doll. It was a marvel of engineering for a kid’s toy at the time, and one of the hot gifts, ads for which flooded the TV.
It was an instant hit with Billy, and he took it everywhere. When Susie’s brother Don and his wife Diane saw it on Thanksgiving, they decided to buy Billy Teddy’s companion Grubby for Christmas. By means of a supplied cable, Grubby plugged into Teddy, and when you inserted a cassette that featured both of the characters, Grubby and Teddy would interact. Incredible for the time, or so it seemed to us! Of course, without Teddy, Grubby was no more than an expensive stuffed animal, and that takes us to the crux of my story!
Just a couple of days before Christmas, Teddy stopped working. No matter what I tried, I could not get him to work, and knowing that Grubby needed Teddy to work, I saw that my Christmas Curse was about to be passed along to our son! Of course, when you are a parent, you will do anything you can to secure your children’s safety and happiness, and with memories of my childhood disappointments in mind, I made the ultimate sacrifice! I went to Toys R Us just 2 days before Christmas!
I told Susie that I was not going to let him suffer as I had as a kid, and since Toys R Us was open till midnight the week before Christmas, after he was asleep that night, I headed out to the Toys R Us near us in Carle Place. I pulled into the parking lot after 10 PM, and from the cars there, it might as well have been a Saturday afternoon. There were absolutely no shopping carts available, so I ventured into the store ready to carry out my one purchase. There were people everywhere, trying to find the perfect gift before it was time for Santa to come down the chimney. As quickly as I could get through the crowd of shoppers, I went to the spot in the store where I knew the Teddy Ruxpin display had been, praying that there were still some available. I was rewarded by seeing at least a dozen still on the shelf, and quickly grabbed one. Satisfied that the box was in good condition, and that Teddy looked complete, I cheered my good fortune, and made my way to the front of the store and the checkout counters! I didn’t get far!
This particular Toys R Us had about 20 checkout stations, and the lines for each of them snaked around the front of the store and then up the aisles. Getting on any of the lines, you were about halfway up the aisle in the middle of the store. I was resigned for a long wait! Thank God I was in my 30s, and standing a long time was doable, because believe me when I tell you, I stood a long time! As I slowly waited for my line to move, I checked out my fellow shoppers surrounding me. There were people with kids asleep in their carts, there were folks with more than one shopping cart, and the vast majority of folks had shopping carts overflowing with games, and puzzles, and dolls, and all manor of toys! Turns out that Toy R Us, just days before Christmas was as much of a nightmare to be avoided at all costs as Susie as I had always thought!
My story though, does have a happy ending! After spending hours on line (I got checked out after the doors of the store had closed at midnight), I got back to the car, and headed home. At home, we loaded new batteries in Teddy, put in a cassette and he worked! YES!! Then it was just a simple task to switch this new Teddy for the broken one and tell Billy the next morning that we’d fixed him! Two days later, at Susie’s Mom and Dad’s house on Christmas Day, Billy opened Donnie and Diane’s present, plugged Grubby into Teddy, and they both worked, and our young son was happy and none the wiser!
That little boy is now 39 years old, and for the past few days we’ve had a post Christmas visit from Bill and his wife Lori, and our three Grandkids…Layla (age 7), Henry (age 6) and Annabelle (age 2 1/2), traveling up to us from their North Carolina home. The toys that our three Grandkids showed us they got from Santa this Christmas are much more sophisticated than a bear named Teddy and his friend Grubby, but thankfully due to my emergency trip to Toys R Us, Bill never had to suffer through the Christmas Curse of broken toys, and therefore did not pass it along to Layla, Henry, and Annabelle! That late December visit to Toys R Us also confirmed to Susie and I that shopping there in October was definitely the better plan, and we continued to do so until their wish list gifts started changing from toys to electronic gadgets like CD Players, Video Games, and TVs! This year, with the exception of a new shirt that was a bit too snug, I’m happy to say that I’ve been able to keep the ghosts of Christmases Past at bay, and play with everything under the tree on Christmas morning!