THE CHRISTMAS SHIRT
My kid brother Ed and I could hardly contain ourselves. The big Christmas box from the family out in New Castle, PA just came in the mail and, it sure was huge. Now, most of it wasn’t just for us. There was probably a thing or two in there for the folks. Still, it always worked out that the bulk of this huge box sitting on the kitchen floor in front of us was mostly ours and, life was good. Christmas was just two weeks away. Grandma Gribben, Aunt Barbie, Aunt Alice, Aunt Colette never disappointed at Christmas time. Their Christmas gifts were the stuff legends were made of.
Heck, once about five years earlier, they all pitched in and got my brother and me this giant civil war battle set. It had everything. Hundreds of infantry and cavalry toy soldiers from both North and South. There were authentic miniature cannons and mortars that actually shot real plastic cannon balls. The set had an exploding bridge just like the one at Antitiem. There was a ruined Southern Mansion made of tin and plastic that we could surround with busted up trees and picket fences. When we’d have it all set up it could easily take up a whole eight by ten rug. There was even a plastic Jefferson Davis and Abe Lincoln. We’d get to playing so hard with that set that we might not even hear the folks screaming for us to come get supper. Even on meatloaf night, there’d be a good chance that we miss the first two calls to the table. It was that good of a set. Ed, to this day, still has some of the pieces.
The folks told us to take the box upstairs to the living room and just place it near the sofa. We were under strict orders to leave the box intact. Of course that didn’t mean we couldn’t try our best at deductive reasoning and simple analysis. We put the big box on the coffee table and put on our thinking caps. The box weighed thirty five pounds. That was a good sign. Thirty five pounds of clothes wouldn’t fit in a box that size. Oh, there might be a shirt or a few socks in the big box but, this box held mostly hard goods. That meant toys and lots of them.
Ed got his toy doctors set out from under the bed and whipped out the stethoscope. He attached it to his ears and placed the sound pickup cup on the box as I shook the package. He listened carefully and stroked his chin. He was lost in thought. He moved his hand for me to shake the box one more time. His eyes lit up. “I hear metal. It might be an Erector Set. Shake it again.” I shook the box ever so slightly. Ed spoke like one of those detectives on TV. “I’m sure. This is definitely an Erector Set. Let me heft this side of the box. Yes! It’s a model 6.5. Here you try.” I did just that and had to agree with Ed’s premise. For further proof, we found a magnet and it stuck like chewing gum to the side of the big box. BINGO!
I could also hear, thanks to the stethoscope, a dense mass to the left of the Erector Set that sounded a lot like it might be a book of some sort. I told Ed of this finding. This had us stumped. Grandma and her daughters never sent books, unless, unless, this was perhaps a stamp album. Only time would tell. We both decided that we’d only know for sure on Christmas morning. That would be soon enough. We bounded downstairs to the kitchen. It was spaghetti night and rumor had it that Mom may have put sausage into the sauce and was last seen making garlic bread too.
Christmas morning came. Both Ed and I didn’t sleep a lick. There were so many boxes for us that came out of the New Castle load. The shipping box was almost like one of those clown cars you see at the circus. The gifts just kept falling out of the crate. We were forbidden to shake any of the gift boxes. Of course no one said anything about an accidental foot tap to hear if there was a rattle sound coming from within. Rattles meant toys and, there were good toys to be had from the folks in New Castle.
The alarm rang at six sharp. Actually, it was 5:30 am. Ed and I set the clocks ahead a little bit every day from Thanksgiving on. No one seemed to notice. After Christmas, we’d slowly set them back. By the end of January the house was back on regular time. Mom later in life, told me that she was on to our trick and she would wait till we were at school and move the clocks back to normal and then some. So, I guess in truth we were really starting Christmas at 6:30. Mom said it was her gift to our father.
The family bedrooms were above the living room. I guess Ed and I awakened first. In the dim morning light I’d whisper loudly to see it he was awake. He was. In fact, he had already gotten into his bathrobe. I slept in mine. We both wore our slippers to bed. We double checked the clock and bolted across the freezing wood floor and barged into our parent’s bedroom. Ed jumped in between Mom and Dad. I stood there on the floor and hollered that it was six. Ed and I were told to go downstairs but, to not start messing with the gifts. We didn’t have to be threatened. Whatever the folks wanted was just fine with us. All we asked was that they’d just hurry up with getting on those bathrobes.
From the top of the steps, we could easily overlook the living room in the morning light. We had a huge living room. You could play a small game of basketball in it and have room left for a bowling alley. In the middle of the floor sat our Christmas tree. The tree lights were out but, the tinsel amplified the morning light nicely. Earlier Christmas week, I had used some kind of pink window cleaner spray along with stencils to create this huge flock of angels on all the living room windows. I think the window cleaner stuff was called Glass Wax. The morning sun made the angels glow with an odd grey light. The angels flew in a holding pattern over two kids wearing pajamas and praying. Ed and I knew that our prayers were answered. On the floor spreading out from and around the tree we saw that there were even more presents on hand than there were the night before. The folks must have put them there. Ed and I looked the scene over. We had hit pay dirt. We did a minutes worth of gawking and then the cold air in the living room caught up to us. We ran into the bathroom as fast as we could. There was no time to waste.
Ed and I ran out of the John and down the hallway to the living room. We probably looked like sailors running down a gangway for battle stations. We ran past our Father who was going the other way heading for the bathroom. Mom was right behind him. They both went in and shut the door behind them. Heck, we thought, they were going to be in there for hours. We pounded on the bathroom door and, yelling for them both to hurry up. Mom told us to mind our own business and get in the living room and plug in the tree lights. Our Father hollered that we better not open anything till they got there. We turned and flew into the living room. Of course he didn’t say anything about shaking anything.
We could hear the toilet flush and then the bathroom door opening. The folks were about to make their entrance. I was always a bit of a showman. I waited for them to walk into the living room. The second they came through the door and, at just the right moment, I stuffed the tree light plug into the socket and the tree cut the morning darkness to pieces. The folks hollered Merry Christmas and gave each other a smooch. My father hollered, “One! Two!! Three!!! Go!!!!” The feeding frenzy commenced.
To describe the way it looked when Ed and I opened presents on Christmas morning, it would be best to refer you to any movie or documentary you may have seen pertaining to the Amazonian jungle. We’ve all seen scenes in these movies when perhaps the bad guy in the movie comes to a shallow stream that blocks the jungle trail. The villain stands on the shore and instructs one of his newer henchmen to cross the water and report what’s on the other shore. The new guy gets to about midstream and is about waist deep in the muddy water and gets his boot stuck in the mud as curious little rivulets in the water approach. This is a Christmas story I’m telling so, I’m not going to tell you what happens next. Suffice to say that it’s not the stuff visions of sugar plums are made of. All I will say is that starving piranha fish had nothing on my brother Ed and me.
The giant pile of presents were expertly decimated in five minutes at the most. Mom was in charge of keeping track of the gift tags. It was a thankless job. Still, she did it well. Sitting under the tree with us she’d snag the gift card and tape it to the present as fast as she could. Heaven help us if we didn’t send out thank you letters to all the family. I’m afraid that her pleas for us to slow down and quit ripping the, to and from, tags apart fell on deaf ears. It would be like asking a blood crazed aligator to pause and say grace. On a good Christmas morning, mom would go through at least two rolls of scotch tape. She kept it all under control.
Mom would also take a look at the gifts and size them up as we jumped on and tore apart the next victim. A chemistry set would bring a plea to only play with it in the basement and don’t blow up the house. A bike would get a, now you ride this carefully and don’t ride your friends on the handle bars. You get the idea. It seemed that every gift came with a forecast of doom. Usually, the prediction was very well founded. Mom, I think liked it when we got clothes.
In fact, Mom was rather happy with a shirt I got from my Aunt Alice out in New Castle. I didn’t even notice it during the frenzy. I saw the gift was a shirt and handed it to Mom while ripping a ribbon off the next gift with my teeth. I hardly even noticed when Mom stretched the shirt along my shoulders to see if it would fit. According to her, it would do just nicely. She mentioned how pretty it was. I didn’t even hear her. Grandma Gribben had sent me a huge stamp album and a big box of stamps of the world. All that I remember was Mom saying how the shirt would be perfect for school.
Later that day, we were getting ready to go to my Fathers parents house in Elizabeth for a big turkey dinner. Life was so good. My brother Ed did get an Erector Set. It had already cut him in a few places. I had already found a few good stamps from that Stamps of the World box and put them proudly into my new album from Grandma. But, now we had to put all that aside to get dressed for the trip to Granddad and Grandmas house. It wasn’t like we had to wear a suit or anything. The dress code was for Christmas casual. Mom hollered up the steps for me to wear that nice shirt Aunt Alice sent me. I figured why not and hunted for the box.
The box was easy enough to find. I had used it to prop up the far end of my stamp album. I grabbed the box and pulled out the shirt. New shirts always seem to have pins in them and I’d been stuck before. I looked the shirt over just for safety’s sake. That’s when I really noticed the shirt for the first time. My jaw dropped as I unfolded it.
Let me see if I can describe what I saw. It was a long sleeve pullover winter time shirt. It had no collar. There were side slits on the bottom that would line up over my hip bones left and right. The sleeves ended somewhere between my elbow and wrist. There was no collar. There wasn’t even the kind of collar that a tee shirt had. The shirt didn’t have a pocket to its name. There might have been tiny cloth belts over the side waist slits. The shirt had vertical half inch multi colored bands that covered the shirt front, back, and on both sides. Not one color was duplicated. Not one. I didn’t know there were that many colors to where you could even do that kind of thing. I had never seen a shirt like this one before in my entire life. I ran to the Sears Catalog to see if it was in there. It wasn’t. Friends, it wasn’t even in the Sears Catalog. We got all our clothes from there. What was Aunt Alice thinking? I could I wear this to Grandmas and Granddads house. But, worse than that, how could I wear this shirt to school? I was doomed.
My one hope that Mom would hate it too was shattered when Mom came upstairs to see how I was doing. She looked me over and got that look like she was a TV Mom. You know the look. She folded her hands together and tucked them under her ear as she tilted her head to one side smiling and said “AWWW! That shirt looks so good on you! Your Aunt Alice sure has a way with picking just the right thing for you to wear.” Oh, I was so doomed. I dragged my feet to the car like a man to the gallows and went to Granddads house like a man. With a little luck maybe I’d be lucky and spill gravy on the darn thing. Then, I noticed on the label that the shirt was stain proof. Oh, I was so doomed.
At the Grandparents, no one said anything about my new shirt. But, it must have been a topic of conversation among the men in the family. Though Grandma and Aunt Jean liked it a lot, none of the grownup men thought much of it. I could hear them snickering. Aunt Jean made a point of getting me aside and saying how handsome I was and that the shirt made me look just like a movie star. Uncle Don, who was pretty much blind, got me aside and said how he heard the shirt was pretty wild. He showed me a few good punches I could throw if anyone gave me grief at school. That’s when it hit me. School was opening again in just a few days. I was going to have to wear this thing to school. The thought of that almost made me lose my Christmas cookies if you know what I mean.
I know one of the favorite scenes in Jean Sheppard’s Christmas Story is when Ralphy had to put on the bunny suit for his family. To this day that scene still gives me the sympathy shakes. I know how that poor kid feels. But at least after the family had a good laugh, he could run upstairs and take it off and then go outside and shoot his eye out. No one asked Ralphy to wear the bunny suit to school. But, not me. When the sun rose on the next school day, when Christmas vacation was over, and it would eventually end, I would have to walk into class wearing that dog gone shirt. Worse, there was no way out. I could whine and cry, argue, fight, but sooner or later, that shirt would go on and I’d have walk into Mr. Bragg’s eighth grade class room and take my coat off. It would have been better for me if I went to school in my underpants. At least, if I did that, I’d get sent to the principal or maybe the nurse. Soon, I’d be home and getting therapy. But, no with this shirt on my back, I’d have to stay all day living under the cruel glare of my fellow students. The playground was going to be living hell.
School opened as it always will and I tried one more plea for mercy. Actually, I threw a fit at the breakfast table. I really looked especially stupid screaming and yelling with that darn shirt on. I was kind of new to throwing fits so, it really wasn’t the best one I ever threw. Pretty much, it made Mom cry and got me pulled out of the kitchen and into the dining room by my Father. He was usually pretty lenient but, not this time. Making Mom cry was probably not the greatest thing I ever did. When my father got me into the dining room, he let go of me and put it rather plainly that when Mom starts crying, all bets are off. He said that I had no choice in the matter anymore. I was going to school with that shirt on my back or, I was going to die trying. Then, in a whisper, he said that he didn’t like the shirt either. He also said that some day when I get married, I’ll understand. My father was in the Marines as a pilot. He mentioned something about hitting the biggest guy right in the mouth and don’t stop punching till either he or you go down and out. He also said he’d get me out of reform school as quick as he could. Then he told me to go kiss Mom and say I’m sorry and go to school. I had no choice in the matter. As I left the house Mom was wiping her tears and saying how I looked just like Dick Powell. I had no idea who Dick Powell was. I just left the house figuring there’d be one less plate at the dinner table and it was meat loaf night too. At least if I lived through the day I could gum meatloaf. That was something to cheer me up I guess.
I hatched a plan on my last mile walk to school. All I had to do was say I was cold and leave my jacket on. Yeah, that would work just swell. Sure, I’d be sweaty but safe. Then I got to thinking that the teachers wouldn’t go for it. They were pretty good at smelling a rat.
I walked into class figuring that I may as well rip off my jacket and stand there sort of naked to the glares, giggle, and scorn of my friends. I didn’t have that many friends anyway. I figured that I may as well just resign myself to being a teenage hermit. I looked around the classroom. All the guys were wearing their new Christmas finery. They had flannel shirts on mostly. A lot of them were western style. It looked like I was in the dressing room for the Gene Autry Show. I cussed under my breath and took off my jacket.
The silence was quite loud as I walked to the coat room. A few of the bigger kids were elbowing each other and pointing at me. Mr. Bragg stopped in midsentence. My few friends looked around the room wondering how my end would come. Me, I was in a state of blacked out limbo. Everything was getting kind of swirly. Funny though, the girls were quiet for a change. That was rare. When I came out of the coatroom the girls were kind of smiling at me. I waited for the first of what I thought would be many catcalls but, nothing came. Mr. Bragg spoke first. “Mr. South, where did you get that shirt? It’s amazing. I didn’t know they were available yet.” The girls started screaming like I was Elvis. The guys were looking at me like I was sitting in a 57 Chevy. It turns out that some rock star, wore this shirt a few weeks before on Ed Sullivan or American Bandstand and they’ve been all the rage ever since. They were also very hard to find in stores. I had the only one in school. It turns out that all the high school guys were buying them up and wearing them to high school and college. For once in my life I was in style.
At class break all the girls wanted to dance with me. They were touching my shirt and swooning. I didn’t realize that girls had such mysterious ways of being so nice. God love a duck but, was I ever having fun. There was even talk of my going steady with Betty Lynn the prettiest girl in class. Usually, she’d slug me sooner than look at me. But, for some reason, I had some kind of charm to me all of a sudden. I was a celebrity look alike and, I owed it all to Aunt Alice back in New Castle who somehow dove into a pile of screaming kids and snatched one of those shirts just for me. Aunt Alice was pretty dan good at thinking on her feet.
By the way, it never really worked out for Betty Lynn and me. Our relationship was doomed from the start. By the next day after my debut, the clothing stores got massive emergency shipments of that shirt. Soon, even Mr. Bragg was wearing one and the janitor too. Every guy in school had one or two at least. Back home our German Sheppard Candy chewed my original shirt to just tattered ribbons. I went back to teenage obscurity and polo shirts. But, for one glorious day, thanks to Aunt Alice, and that great Christmas gift, I was a star.