Saturday, September 21, 2013

Christmas, 1965--a home movie in words

I call this my Timothy McVeigh Christmas.  I was eight.  In all of the other Christmas home movies my father shot, my mother shows her penchant for dressing my brother and I in matching or coordinated outfits—reindeer sweaters, matching bathrobes, red button down shirts.  Although I don’t actually remember, I still feel a distant mental rumbling every time I imagine waking up on Christmas morning and having to get dressed in some kind of outfit in order to look good for the posterity of the camera.

Not in 1965.  That Christmas, I burst onto the scene wearing full camo.  That wouldn’t have been an easy thing to find in those days, and I’m certain my father tracked it down.  Mine was not hunting clothing; I had a camouflaged Marine uniform, complete with a Gunny sergeant’s cap.  Did I wear it to bed, visions of sugar plums and weapons in my head?  Did I get up and put it on first thing?  Was it the first present that I opened and then I went upstairs immediately and changed?

In the movie, the first present I open is a rifle, a carbine, and I immediately pick it up, aim it at the camera and fire.  Not a real gun, it is one of the dozens of realistic-looking weapons that crowded the toy shelves in those days.  Every boy that I knew had guns, maybe some girls, too.  And despite the fact that our activities in Vietnam were beginning to increase, the gear and weaponry associated with that escalation had nothing to do with the toys we held.  No, World War II still supplied the weapons of choice, and if not those, the guns and rifles of the old West cowboys.  When we were running through the neighborhood killing each other (for what else do you do, even with a toy gun?), the guns all mixed together.

The other present you would see me open, if pressed into watching, is an airplane.  It is a WWII fighter plane of some sort, maybe a Thunderbolt, a classic battery-operated toy that when activated, makes the sounds of the engine, plus the flashing lights and staccato bursts of the wing-installed machine guns.  With this baby, I can strafe pretty much anyone I want to.  All it requires from me is to fly it around the sky.  Which I do.  For the camera.

But the real gift, the main gift, which you won’t actually see me open is a massive set of plastic soldiers, trucks, tanks, and cannons.  I mean, a massive set.  Half of them are green, the color of the American troops; half of the are gray, immediately identifying them as the dreaded Wermacht, the German army.  And this, this menagerie of cheap plastic is the greatest toy of my childhood, the most sustained source of solitary play, the development of my imagination.  I am certain of it.

Who knows how the mind of a child nurtures its own interior life?

For me, it was the pitting of green plastic against gray, with complete control over the outcome, and with a sense of the underdog, for in the scenario I played out over and over, the green American troops would either initially be overwhelmed by the Germans and have to use resourcefulness to persevere when they were outgunned, or they would start out as a small group taking on a much-larger force.  After all, I was watching The Rat Patrol on television—two-man jeeps with machine guns taking on the entire Afrika Korps.
What is embarrassing is that I allowed my father to film me putting on one of these battles, recreating the whole assault with explosions and destruction and my new airplane attacking from above.  I’d like to hope that he filmed it secretly, but the movie camera was too obtrusive for that to be possible.  I doubt that I had much choice in the matter.  Instead, while the Germans invaded, the camera invaded, too.

None of us can use ourselves as proof of a larger anything, but this Christmas and my larger all-consuming obsession with guns, soldiers, war movies, and my father having served in the war, and even the “violent toy” culture that surrounded me and that later parents and consumer watchdog groups and psychologists condemned and dismantled, certainly had little impact on my adult politics or positions on guns, war, or violence.  For me, it was, indeed, child’s play, and that was all.

Looking back at these movies, I’m also jarred by the larger context.  It is 1965.  I am dressing as a soldier and playing imaginary games.  But my brother and I are just as likely to be putting a Beatles album on our portable record player and listening to it over and over, internalizing songs about love and love lost that should mean nothing to boys wrapped up in Little League and playing in half-built houses in the subdivision going up around us.   But, year by year, the guns and the bats will end up in dusty piles in the garage until my mother throws them out, and the Beatles will lead us onward.

1 comment:

troutking said...

Your post reminded me of one Christmas--yes Jews love Christmas too--when I wanted "Pork Chop Hill" for my present. My favorite aunt schlepped (see, still Jewish) all around town to find it. I bet it was similar to your present. Plastic mountain with dozens and dozens of plastic army men. I unwrapped it with excitement--though not surprise, I was after all the favorite nephew--and proceeded to spend hours that Christmas day setting up the army men. Then the battle ended in a 3-4 minute conflagration that left everyone dead a.k.a. knocked over. And...that was the last time I ever used it. It's kind of like setting up those long rows of dominoes to make a chain reaction. Too much set up, not enough pay off. At least for kids who had an Atari 2600 to turn to. Fire up that Pitfall! cartridge!