By Anthony Deyal
Dedicated to Professor Kenneth Ramchand who shared the Steinbeck idea with me
In 1952, the author John Steinbeck, who seven years later won the Nobel Prize for his writing, sent a letter to his friend, Adlai Stevenson the Second, a Democrat, who in trying to become president of the USA twice suffered massive landslide losses to Dwight Eisenhower.
By that time, Stevenson, whose father Adlai Stevenson the First had quipped, “It is not the years in your life but the life in your years that counts”, was the US ambassador to the United Nations (UN), one of John F. Kennedy’s early appointments as president. Steinbeck wrote, “Adlai, do you remember two kinds of Christmases? There is one kind in a house where there is little and a present represents not only love but sacrifice. The one single package is opened with a kind of slow wonder, almost reverence…Then there is the other kind of Christmas with presents piled high, the gifts of guilty parents as bribes because they have nothing else to give…”
My parents had one child and up to, including, and beyond his seventh birthday in 1952, he got only one gift every Christmas and settled for whatever it was, even though he might have given broad hints about what he wished, prayed and hoped for, but never really expected. One year it was a fire-engine which whirred and had a spinning red light. Another year, he got a little boat that very quickly went down the ravine behind the house and never returned.
Without ever knowing anything about Steinbeck until many, many years later, the package I opened slowly and with great wonder, almost reverence, turned out to be exactly what as a reader of Western Comics featuring Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter and even the Earp Brothers, I dearly wished and pleaded for. I had made many, many promises that I am sure, looking back, the dear Lord had surely taken with a pinch of salt but my parents didn’t.
It was what we called, “A gun-and-sack.” Even more amazing, it turned out to be two guns and holsters (a.k.a. “sacks”) with enough caps to blast to Tombstone Territory any cowpokes who dared to face me on Main Street. “Boot Hill for you,” I would proclaim, making sure that the trigger I pulled was not Roy Rogers’ horse. I liked Phantom and his Skull Cave, his dog Devil and his horse Hero, but was too young to really appreciate Diana although the similarly named dinner-mints were not bad. However, neither Phantom nor my other hero, Mandrake, used guns, and although Dick Tracy was a cop, he did not have the flair that you would expect from a man with a two-way, wrist-radio that was way before its time.
I have always wondered what prompted my mother to decide I would get the Christmas gift I always wanted. I did not know at the time that she was only 15 years older than me and that the childhood she missed with a first marriage at the age of 12, would be relived in me. She never had dolls when she was growing up and always gave them to her nieces, nephews and grandchildren. She tried that once with me, but once was enough. I spelt “doll” with a “u”.
While she was a self-taught reader of both English and Hindi, and went through all my comics and novels, even devouring a Jack Reacher novel on her Kindle the night before she died, my mother used to get upset with me and the make-believe games of Cowboys vs Indians with my cousin Joe, each of us with a ruler, grasping the other’s wrist and fighting to the death; shooting cane arrows with bows made of twine and bamboo at the cowboys; or using the multi-purpose rulers to be the Three Musketeers fighting Cardinal Richelieu’s dreaded guards and shouting “For King and Country” loudly enough that the teacher thought I was using an obscenity and not only beat me, but worse, told my parents.
Fortunately, my mother never saw that the paper she used to wrap my gift of guns read, “Peace On Earth.” It is very much like the time, much later in life, when I bought the wrong gift-wrapping paper. Instead of “Merry Christmas” it said, “Happy Birthday.” I was very tempted to write in the word, “Jesus” after each “Merry Christmas” but knew that it was doomed to fail the eagle eyes of my family.
In the early days even though we envied the rich kids who got real bicycles, watches and cars with pedals for Christmas, I believe we were happier for two reasons. All of us got guns, some a bit better than the others, but they ensured that we would have much more than a blast or two or three being Western heroes or villains. The other was that we never learned, used or complained in the language of some petulant kids, uttered with a pout under a paper-strewn Christmas tree, “That is all you give me?” One thing I was never sure of until I was older was what Boxing Day was about. I didn’t know if it was the box my fire engine came in or the guns, or if it was the blows with which I was threatened for being so noisy when my father, friends and family were celebrating in a big way with rum, music, singing and staggering from house to house.
Fortunately for me, none of my four children was ever like that. They all helped with the lighting and knew that at midnight on Christmas Eve we would each open at least one gift and then go to bed to wake up a bit late on Christmas Day and have a really good breakfast together. This was always followed by the opening of any other gifts and trying things on. Of course, I always quipped that they were not only trying, but very trying, and got the same response of mock disgust and cries of “Again?” For many years now, my kids have given me “Brut” every Christmas and from the time I see the bottle it is my turn to complain noisily, “Again?”
Of course, I am aware that the winds of change are constantly blowing and, as King Solomon said about the impermanence of life and all that we cling to or hold dear, “This too shall pass away.” What I hope will happen is that my children would have learnt by now that the wind of change blows most freely through an open mind and if you can’t change the direction of the winds, you must adjust your sails.
*Tony Deyal was last seen saying, “Sometimes the best Christmas present is remembering what you’ve already got.”