Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas With George

Since I'm Van Winkled, I can't know for sure, but I imagine this lull before the new year once again is a slow one for the media. In lieu of natural disasters or political upheaval,  much of the TV talking heads' palaver is likely about the holidays and how the shopping is going and what products are "hot" gifts and what everyone is going to give and get.

Well, if they can do it, I can too, right?

So as we stand on the eve of Christmas 2010 , I am led to offer up the memory of the most humble, yet possibly best gift Santa ever brought me.

A Room Littered With Critters
Stuffed animals have figured in a large way in our son's life. Since he's now 12, last week he decided he ought to take stock of his holdings and possibly thin the crowd. He pulled down all the friends from his loft bed and set them in the floor. A photo shoot ensued.

Part of our son's collection...
This proclivity for stuffed animals is not something he got from dad. I never owned such a large herd of fluffy, furry, or terry cloth creatures. For one thing, my parents were minimalists, always citing this thing called a "household budget" which meant no one person in the family could have too much of anything and the best way to get something was for free. Like the baseball cards I scissored off the back of the cereal box or the comic books I found in the neighbors' trash.

Besides the thrift gene, I wasn't the type of child who cuddled and slept with his make believe friends. Not that I didn't believe in make-believe friends. There was George who arrived in my stocking on Christmas morning when I was six years old.

Downtown Magic
The fantastic new May D&F dept. store circa 1958
In those pre-shopping mall days of America, the place to go to meet Santa and reassure him that I had been a good boy all year and tell him what I wanted him to bring me for Christmas was the department store.

That year we were living in Denver, Colorado, so my brothers and I were taken downtown to May D &F. I had no idea why it was called May D & F; I just loved the name, so rich in initial consonants and long vowels. I couldn't have been more excited if we were headed for a moon landing.

Walking along city streets our breath streamed out in front of us in the cold air. Men and women passing us by on the sidewalk wore long overcoats and gloves and mufflers. Bus rumbled past and I smelled the diesel fumes. My middle brother spotted Santa up ahead on the sidewalk. Brother ran ahead and started jabbering along the lines of "This is what I want for Christmas, Santa!" working hard to be heard over the noise of the red coated one's ringing bell. Our mother had to pull him away and explain about the Salvation Army and the kettle to collect coins. You see there are Santas (sort of like fake Santas) and there is the Santa. No problem. We resumed our family sidewalk stride, window shopping along the way. That was when it happened.

...At First Sight
George in 2010.
He was in a window along with a lot of other stuff that I don't remember. That I even saw him is rather remarkable. But there he was. I thrust out my little boy arm, pointed, and to my parents I said these words:

"There's George!"

This was funny in one obvious way. How had I instantly named this item which I had never seen before? And why George? The only George I knew was George Washington.

The other amusing thing was my choice of stuffed animal to fall in love with. I should have been drawn to a Raggedy Andy or a Mickey Mouse doll. Instead, my heart was all tied in mushy knots for what appeared to be a rendition of the world's homeliest horse. With his twisted, knock-kneed legs he looked like he was suffering from rickets. His neck was too thin and his head implied he had some eggplant in his lineage. To underscore that this little 7" horse was ready for the glue factory the poor soul had multiple cloth bandages applied to his torso and legs.

At this point a declaration was made.

"I want George for Christmas."

The Santa Shock
My brothers and I with dept. store Santa.
Our thrifty mother sewed the matching red shirts.
Further adventures followed that afternoon. I remember arriving at the entire block occupied by May D&F. What a 1950's marvel! There was an ice rink beneath the triangular roof structure out front. Then there was the multi-floored store which went on forever. We made our way past the glossy modern furniture which competed with traditional plump couches.

As we got beyond these American living room ice floes we came upon another new modernist statement. An aluminum Christmas tree. The whole thing was dazzling silver. As I walked past I had to reach out and touch. At that moment I was struck by cosmic forces.

The spark was visible, exploding in front of me, blue, yellow and bright. And the pop was audible. I nearly fell down. My family gathered around and slowly an explanation was delivered to me. We'd been shuffling along over dry carpet and I had just received the greatest static electricity shock of my young life.

At least it cleared my head for Santa. A few minutes later my brothers and I got on his lap for the requisite photo. I remembered to tell him about my new love that I had added to my list which also included Elgo Co. American Plastic Bricks in a can.

Santa, oh, please, Santa, I want George for Christmas!

The Day Arrives
Kodachrome moment: I meet George who is hiding
in my stocking while little brother goes flying
out of the picture in pursuit of his own loot.
Maybe I was savvy and knew not to ask for high ticket items, but Santa always worked pretty infallibly for me.

Sure enough, on this Christmas morning Santa delivered right down the chimney. The brown head and big eyes and fringed mane peeked up from my stocking that hung from the fireplace mantel. I was ecstatic. George!

Over the years I would be very particular about George. I noted that he was fragile and so took care to display him where he would be difficult for me or visitors to touch. I just wanted to see him and know he was watching over me.

All these years later George's fragility remains evident. Flipping him over for a close inspection I detect that  he's made on the inside of wires and straw. Yes, straw. He's very dry, he's very brittle, but he's still hanging around.

Feeling George-ish
What can I say? I loved George. Years later I would read that awful early scene in Crime and Punishment in which Raskolnikov dreams of walking along with his father and encountering a man beating a horse with a whip and then a wooden shaft while a drunken crowd looks on. The boy begs his father to save the horse to no avail. I couldn't help myself. I thought of George: Please, just because you're more powerful, you have no right to treat the innocent this way.

George is frail and his innards show...
wire and straw.
I look at George now and perhaps I understand my attraction to him better than my younger self ever could. Like Dostoevsky's boy in the dream, I pitied him and felt protective toward him. Most of all, I appreciated him for who he was. No derivative of a TV or movie character, George was simply George and, as such, he deserved an honored place in this world.

This deeper enrichment of my understanding of the significance of George is similar to how today I can look up information about the May D&F store and enlarge upon my childish attraction to that structure.

I learn that it was designed by the I. M. Pei. Really? I had no idea. This is so exciting! I love Pei's buildings. But who was I. M. Pei back when I encountered that store? Not yet the famous architect who is so well known today. I could only sense I. M. Pei at that point, through his ability to create a structure that evoked a sense of awe in me.

As for the May D&F company, they have now been subsumed by Foley's, one of the few lingering remnants of the great age of the department store.

Worse, my research tells me that the wonderful structure we visited that day is no more. It was torn down in the 1990s and replaced by a black glass cube that belongs to a hotel chain.

Someone beat that that beautiful example of 1950's modernist architecture to bits with a wrecking ball. Then they sent what was left to the glue factory.

And "God Bless Us Every One"
I like to call how I tend to relate to humanity the Tiny Tim Effect after that great piece of literature by Mr. Dickens. In A Christmas Carol even someone as hard-hearted as Ebenezer Scrooge is deeply moved by the cheerful little crippled boy. Likewise, from an early age I've had a tendency to empathize with the mistreated and the marginalized,  the people that don't look glamorous and are never the recipients of praise and awards, i.e.,  the people who have a much tougher life than me.

Why am I this way? Well, I admire their endurance in a way I can never admire people who are born with advantages and have things come easily to them. And there's the fact that they appeal to my curious nature. There are fewer mysteries to comprehend among people who are just like oneself. It's something the narcissist never figures out.

Just like me = boring.

The Tiny Tim Effect was furthered in me as I grew a bit older and became an inveterate reader, particularly of novels. The most interesting characters were almost always the ones who were not dealt the best cards in life, but nevertheless struggled. Looked at this way, George is straight out of  the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath or he's a war wounded Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises or he could even be a manifestation of how Nick Caraway feels out of place walking into a room full of Jay Gatsby's easy going rich friends.

Or, in another really great story, the one a lot of people have been talking about for going on 2000 years, George could be one of the cast of animals quaterered in a stable. He's peering across at people that are in nearly as humble of condition as him.  All George is hoping for this Christmas, I think, is a little love and, really, how can you not love a face like that? - V.W.

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