In A Simpler Time, the belief in Santa among elementary school children was very widespread and longer lasting perhaps than in the modern digital world. For most of us, learning that the big, bearded fat guy was our parents was a particularly traumatic time in a young life.
As number eight of 10 children, I must admit my older siblings did a fairly good job keeping the magic in Christmas. When the youngest woke early each Christmas morning and talked excitedly of hearing Santa’s voice and reindeer hooves on the roof the previous evening (hot chocolate may have been slightly hallucinogenic), our older, wiser sisters and brothers grinned and just nodded their heads in agreement.
For me, finding out the “truth” about Santa did not happen in a single, earth shattering event. Instead, over a period of months leading up to Christmas one year I could no longer drown out (or punch) the numerous fellow classmates claiming the man in the red suit was a fraud. I was probably among the last of my grade to admit the idea of a lone man in a sled delivering gifts to the entire world in a 24-hour period was just a tad unbelievable. Never mind the whole magic deer with an electric light for a nose thing.
I do remember how Christmas was never the same once I found out the secret. An event that had seemed so totally magic suddenly became like a normal birthday party. A great BIG birthday party, mind you, with everyone celebrating at the same time and bigger than average presents, but not the awe-inspiring event it had once been.
My own son found out the awful truth about Santa in one fell swoop. At a Christmas Eve neighborhood party in which children were present, a slightly inebriated neighbor dad was unaware (as was I) any children were in the room when he loudly announced he had to get home early and do his “Santa duties”. Later that evening as we were getting ready for bed, our son came into our bedroom and with a few tears trickling from his eyes and his voice wavering, said softly, “Dad, I know the truth about Santa. I heard Bob talking about it”.
Next to the “Birds and the Bees’ conversation, this is a talk most parents dread the most. My wife looked at me with trust in her eyes (she knows better now) and asked me to go into his room to explain things. I think she had watched “Father Knows Best” many times as a youngster and might have thought all males instinctively know how to say just the right thing to children once they slip a wedding band on their middle finger. Like I said, she’s a little wiser now.
As my wife hovered just outside the room to eagerly await parenting pearls of wisdom, my son and I sat down on his bed.
“I’m really sorry you had to find out this way,” I started in a quiet, knowledgeable TV dad sort of voice, “but you must have heard kids at school talking about Santa not being real?”
“Yeah”, my son responded, choking back tears, “but I just didn’t listen to them and told them they were wrong. Or hit them.”
“The the idea of a big fat guy getting down the chimney and being able to deliver all those presents in one night with magic flying reindeer does seem a little hard to believe when you think about it now, right?” I explained. “It doesn’t change the fact that you get really cool presents.”
“Yeah, I guess I was kind of figuring it out anyway,” said my son, sitting up straight and gathering himself as if this news wasn’t really the end of the world. It was like seeing my little boy turning into a young man before my very eyes.
Had the conversation ended there, I would have been recommended for a “Father of the Year” merit award for acting maturely and defusing a volatile situation. But it did not.
“Good!” I exclaimed, wrapping my arms around his shoulders and giving him a big hug. “I mean, you’re a smart kid and growing up quick. You would have figured it out on your own, just like the idea of a big rabbit bringing colored chicken eggs or a flying fairy giving you cash for an old tooth would eventually seem kind of silly!”
“You mean….?” His lips trembled and water started to pool again in the corners of his eyes. “You mean…the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy aren’t real either??!!” Eventually, after the sobbing had died down somewhat and I bravely ventured into the hallway to face an incredulous wife, I realized that night had brought a cold splash of reality to two of my family members. Santa, and my wife’s image of me as a wise TV dad, went down in flames together.
Red Ryder, Red Ryder
Living currently deep in the heart of suburbia—with perfect grass lawns, 2.5 kids and one dog per household—I’m struck by how few of my male neighbor friends have ever hunted.
Growing up in a small rural farm town in the Midwest, hunting was to the average boy what water was to a fish. I was trudging rows of dry corn stalks with my father and brothers in the fall, searching for colorful ring-necked pheasants with our pudgy, out of shape springer spaniel…long before I was old enough to carry anything but a crude gun shaped stick.
Back then, boys were given a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun along with simple instructions (“don’t point it at anything you don’t want to shoot”) soon after having their pacifiers forcibly removed for the last time.
The Red Ryder lever action BB rifle is like many objects in a middle-aged man’s memory significantly grander in retrospect than it ever was. Small brass BBs were propelled so slowly from its barrel that it’s possible throwing them would have done more damage to any intended target. In our borderline illegal “hunting” forays into the countryside, we soon learned that any animal over the size of a sparrow treated our BBs like pesky mosquitoes.
We did find other fine uses for our new toys though. Ironically, most of them were included in the long list of “don’ts” outlined on the side of the cardboard box our Red Ryder had come in:
Do not Aim at Others! I’m guessing the rest of this warning (…Eyes!) must have got accidentally cut off the box. We pretty much knew that, even at such a low velocity, those little brass balls could do damage to our friend’s pupils. After all, we’d been getting warned about “putting an eye out” while participating in stick sword contests and snowball fights for as long as we could remember. But when it was discovered (by trial and error) that a bb hitting bare skin would only leave a tiny bruise from over 20 feet…well let me tell you that our games of Cowboys and Indians just got a whole lot more realistic!
NOTE: Before one of you even thinks “OMG! How could their parents let them shoot BB guns at each other” (they didn’t…they had no idea), let me tell you this; My own son went through a phase where every boy in the neighborhood had an arsenal of Air Soft guns that shoot plastic pellets and are designed to be shot at each other (with eye protection, of course). And I can tell you that just one of his friends with a high-capacity automatic air soft gun would have had our entire gang of Red Ryder toting wannabe hooligans waving a white flag in five minutes.
Do NOT use Indoors! Again, probably an error on the box. Fairly sure our BB guns were part of a shipment that was supposed to ship to Arkansas, or Florida…or some other state where the temps in winter could never reach nearly 40 degrees below zero. Besides, there were few small critters above ground to aim at in a Minnesota winter, and if we really wanted to propel things at each other outside, snowballs gave off a much more satisfying “thump” and were in plentiful, cheap supply.
We violated this faux warning with the blessings of our parents, who probably feared being subjected to a gang of bored boys stuck indoors on a snow day much more than one of them losing an eye or two. So, they allowed us to set up a shooting range in our unfinished concrete walled basement, with “forts” made of wooden blocks. Plastic army men were perched on top, and thick blankets stacked behind to keep ricochets to a minimum.
Mom checked out our safety precautions, made sure we were each wearing a pair of Dad’s safety goggles…and then went upstairs, never to be seen on the gun range again. Which, in hindsight, was probably not a spectacular idea. Eventually over time, a series of events happened (a few blankets went to keep our dog warm in her insulated doghouse, dad needed his safety goggles, etc.), until we were pretty much plinking green plastic soldiers with no eye protection and a solid concrete background.
While not as safe, the new game was much more fun! We would fire from behind wooden benches overturned to serve as a rest, and then quickly duck behind after shooting, as ricocheting BBs rocketed back off stone walls. It was almost like the bad guys were shooting back at us!
In general, the overall attitude towards guns in our town was fairly laissez faire. Every one of the King children took their turn toting Dad’s antique Civil War musket to elementary school and proudly displaying it to awed classmates during “Show and Tell”. Typically, the heavy, uncased (and I’m assuming unloaded) long gun was carried by a nine-year-old one block to school, through the front door, by the Principal’s office and up to the classroom, past admiring teachers and administrators who never failed to pull us over for a closer look. Not to say, “what the h*** are you doing carrying a GUN into a school!!??”, but rather to ask how old the gun was, or if we had ever fired it. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the experience for my own children carrying a firearm to school might not have been so positive.
My last three years of elementary school were spent in a turn of the century, three story brick structure that had once served as the town high school. Probably the closest thing to a majestic building our little town had—sporting a copper covered top that we considered a dome but was closer in size to a large cupola—the building had been bequeathed to the little people in Grades 4-6 when a brand new sprawling one story high school was built a few blocks away on the outskirts of town.
It seems that the old high (now elementary) school wasn’t quite up to modern fire standards, even those in the 1960’s. It had been built before World War I, when the philosophy on fire safety seemed to be something like “Don’t be stupid enough to start a building on fire, and if you do, run like hell or jump out a third story window and take your chances.” The new high school, with every classroom allowing for easy exit in case one of the teachers dropped a lit heater in the teacher’s lounge, was a place Ralph Nader could have endorsed.
Our circa early 1900 school, on the other hand, had no fire escapes and beautiful hardwood stairways and floors. Beautiful wood floors and stairs that had dried out enough to make pretty good kindling in the roughly 60 years since the school had been built. In sixth grade during fire drills, we were instructed to hold hands while going down the stairs in single file, with the last boys (seems kind of sexist now, but they were always boys) given the job of closing windows so oxygen wouldn’t feed the fire. Only then were the supposed to join the caboose of the orderly fire drill child train. Or more accurately (if there had been a real fire) to become the lit fuse of the elementary school children fuel.
The under 5-foot crowd was seemingly not as valued, or at least as coddled, in those days. Money was tight in our small town, and most of us came from large families, where tiny reinforcements were being brought into the world nearly every year. With fewer families involved with farming, they didn’t need extra hands to shuck corn or feed the cows. “Extra” children became…well, extra mouths to feed. So, the beautiful fire trap of a building that wasn’t quite large (or safe?) enough for teens was deemed plenty adequate for younger, more expendable siblings.
There were other daily occurrences that, in retrospect, probably should have given all of us a sense of our place in the world.
In sixth grade, we were let out of class one at a time to go downstairs to the cafeteria for some mandatory health vaccination. By ourselves! While none of us were fond of shots, our dislike for sitting a classroom was far greater, and a boy with even a tepid imagination could turn the three minute walk to the lunch room into at an extended 20 minute excursion on even the worst day. No teachers in the hallways meant serious handrail sledding and long side trips to the gymnasium, where stray basketballs were often lying around.
Unfortunately, one of my friends and I were nominated by our teacher to accompany a particular female classmate who had a bad habit of fainting even at the sight of a needle. The fact that an actual reasoning adult entrusted two 11-year-old boys with the welfare of a classmate should have been considered a high honor. But considering both of us still drew x’s on our hands to ward off girl germs and had contests to see how far back we could hit the urinal, well, in retrospect it was really a pretty severe indictment of the rest of our class.
So our fun (well, except for the sharp spike being plunged into our shoulder by the school nurse) rambling escapade was turned into something that resembled a chore…with pain and actual responsibility mixed in. Leave it to adults to ruin everything.
We did an above average job, all things considered. We got her to the table, cajoled her into rolling up a sleeve through fairly minor pinching, whispered threats and forceful squeezing of her arms, and held her firmly in place for a good 2-3 minutes after the shot was over. Then we slowly marched her up the three flights of stairs, still each holding an arm, walked her proudly to her desk, helped her to her seat, turned with smiles on our face to receive our rightful acclaim from the proud teacher…only to watch her promptly go limp, pitch sideways out of her desk and hit her head on the floor with aloud thump. Oops.
While the girl lived (albeit with a temporary large lump on her head), I’m guessing her parents were never told about the adolescent untrained EMT’s who had done their jobs pretty darn near close to perfection. There was no lawsuit, and no new regulations about the proper means of inoculating school kids that I’m aware of.
Growing up on a small-town block miraculously consisting of ten families that had somehow spawned boys in about a 10-1 ratio over girls, I was a young boy understandably confused by matters concerning the fairer sex. While that’s not exactly changed over the decades—despite being married and fathering twin daughters—in my formative years I was blissfully unaware of any deficiency in this area.
In my first 8 years of life, girls were a little like background elevator music. Oh sure, I had four older sisters, but since I was so much younger, they were almost like aliens to me. Or at least, aliens who occasionally could be forced against their will to babysit pain in the rear younger brothers. Other girls just wandered through the periphery at home and school, playing with dolls, giggling a lot and…oh, what the hell, I’m not sure exactly what they were doing. It frankly didn’t interest me at the time.
There were a few girls who gravitated into our boy orbit occasionally. Dawn and Mary not only were regulars in our daily pre-school games of dodgeball (in our town we called the game “bombardment”, though the rules were generally the same), but were two of the better players. It wasn’t a shame to get wiped out by a bullet tossed from those two, since they were bigger and had better arms than most of the boys. To me, they were just long-haired boys.
Ironically, it was during this formative period of my life in which I basically ignored girls, that I seemed most appealing to them. How do I know? Well, between random games of football, baseball and dodgeball on the playground, I was often pinched, hit or tickled by one or more of the girls in my class, who usually ran while saying “I hate you” (and grinning) or making up some rhyme with my name that was supposed to make me angry. An early form of school yard rapping, I guess. Even then we were dimly aware that only girls who “liked” us would give us the time of day. Overall, girls seemed much more interested in us than we were in them.
So I copied what most other early elementary school boys of our era did. I acted indifferent and (just to cover all my bases) penned big “x’s” in permanent ink all over my hands and arms to prevent dreaded “girl germs”.
Looking back on those days, despite being small, skinny, and buck-toothed—with a genuine Mom’s “three bowl” haircut and ears that stuck straight out of my head—I had a few qualities that seemed appealing to girls my age. First, I was somewhat decent in sports, not because of any latent athleticism, but because I had older brothers and about a hundred neighborhood boys around to compete with 10 hours a day. Secondly, I was loud, talked a lot, acted confident, and got into trouble fairly regularly with teachers because of these traits. Nowadays I probably would have been labeled as having ADD, but back then I was considered hyper and “squirrely”. Girls seemed to like boys who made people (other than the teacher) laugh, while the whole “girl likes troublemaker” deal goes way back and doesn’t seem to avoid elementary school.
And finally, there was this “ignoring” thing. Unlike some boys in college who purposely ignored the opposite sex as part of some clever plan to appear deep, mysterious and even dreamy, ignoring girls once came quite naturally to me. Unless, of course, they were good in sports.
I’m not what happened in the summer between 4th and 5th grade that changed my opinion of females. Looking back, I’m sure it was biological and involved hormones. But like everything else in my life, this change came a little late to me. Keep in mind our puritan father monitored TV so tightly; even the Brady Bunch was considered contraband if two children of the opposite sex held hands. I might have been the least worldly fourth grade student ever.
All I know is that one year I was playing Dodgeball on the playground, blissfully unaware of anything except the big round red ball coming at me…and the next fall I was slouching in class, staring absentmindedly at beautiful, shiny girl hair, or for the first time noticing how much better girls smelled in the lunch line.
Unfortunately, in a cruel Darwinian set of circumstances, about the time I noticed girls, their team must have huddled up and diagrammed all new rules of the game. It was no longer enough for a boy to run fast, demand to play quarterback at every pickup football game or ignore them 24/7 to catch their attention. No! Now a boy had to be “cute”, have a real store-bought haircut…and (blasphemy!) wear clothes that were at least a little in style! I’ve mentioned my poor qualifications for the first two, and as one of 10 siblings noted for giving new life to hand me downs from past generations, I was never going to score high on style. Especially when your recycled clothes come from an older brother much heavier with shorter legs who wore Sears “Husky” sizes.
To make things worse, my elementary school only had about 80 kids in the entire grade. With at least half being guys, and 70% of the small-town girls sporting similar attire and haircuts to mine, the number of qualifying females available to create desire in even the most hormonally unbalanced young boy was minimal. Cross out all the fairly attractive ones who were taller, stronger and more athletic than me, and there were a total of three crush-worthy girls in the 5th grade.
Unfortunately, they all had crushes on well-dressed “normal eared” boys with good teeth who got their hair cut at the mall. At fancy “salons” that cut women’s hair too—by “stylists” who knew how to scissor hair in different lengths to give a cool layered, feathery look girls seemed to really like. My mom, bless her heart, could also cut hair in different lengths…depending on the bowls and clipper used.
Then, one day it happened! While waiting in the cafeteria line for a fine lunch of crunchy pasta with oily orange colored sauce, expertly paired with overcooked, mushy, ten-year-old peas (did anyone in any school ever eat peas?). I saw her! A tall (well, taller than me, as most of the girls in my class were) blondish new girl with a dreamy, cute face, and, uh…, and…Did I mention she was NEW?!!
She was in my grade, but she wasn’t in my class (in more ways than one). And it’s not like I could sidle up to one of my jock buddies in her class and casually ask for an introduction. NO girl was worth that embarrassment. And even if he did introduce me, what was I going to say? “Hey, you want to come over tomorrow. We can throw a big red ball at each other as hard as we can, and then maybe you can sit and watch mom trace a bowl around my hairline with a kitchen shears?”
Walking the one block home after class one day, I noticed “the new girl” riding a pink, long handled “stingray” type bike with a white wicker basket decorated in plastic flowers. She pedaled past me and turned at the end of the side road onto Third Street, which went right by my house! From then on, I usually managed to blow off the after-school game of Dodge-ball (“my ankle hurts”, or “I think I got botulism from the pizza” usually worked) and delay the start of my afternoon paper route late enough so that I could be “casually” hanging out in our front lawn.
I’d race home breathless, grab a rake, broom or shovel (occasionally even the tool appropriate for the season) from our detached garage in the backyard and quickly sprint to the front yard. Often the new girl would show almost before I could arrive, slowly pedaling her pink bike with the flowered basket, mere seconds after I had started with faux leaf raking or anthill sweeping. I’m not sure if she thought I was sweating from exertion—in fact I’m not confident she ever knew I was alive. I tried to not look up until she was past—wouldn’t want her to think I was interested after all—and never once caught her looking back. And boy, I wished she would with all my might.
At school I managed to hang out near her at lunch recess (try acting casual being the only boy near a game of hopscotch while your gang is playing baseball 100 yards away), and walk (stalk?) behind her as she bounced up the wooden stairs of our century old school, I probably knew her schedule better than she did, and had all of this happened when we were adults, there probably would have been a restraining order in my immediate future.
Eventually—I’m not sure how—I learned she lived on a small hobby farm just outside town past the high school. When summer came, I’d sometimes see her at the baseball and softball fields near her new home. I don’t think I’ve ever watched more youth teams playing sports involving a bat than I did that summer, in the slim hope of spotting a certain blonde girl on a pink bike.
When fall arrived and school was back in session, I actually looked forward to going! Me, the boy who had been known to hold Mom’s cigarette lighter near a thermometer in hopes of feigning illness (a temp of 140 degrees will not fool mom if you’re standing nearby grinning, by the way) was actually excited to go to the first day of school. I arrived early, and eagerly watched as each student arrived and chose a desk, until there were no more empty chairs. With my typical Jeff luck, I reasoned she wasn’t assigned to my room. Oh well, I’d still get to see her at lunch and at recess. This was going to be the year we met! We’d hold hands, stare at each other, and I’d give her my best Keith Partridge look while I sang a carefully rehearsed version of “I Think I Love You.”
I never saw her at lunch that day, or any other day for that matter. Eventually, after thinking maybe she was ill or had a late summer vacation, I only half-heartedly scanned the cafeteria at lunch. It became clear that she and her family had moved. I never asked anyone where they went, and since I had never known her name, it would have been an awkward conversation anyway.
I assume every boy remembers his first crush, his first kiss (not counting a “practice” volleyball, of course), his first date. It just seems odd that a late middle-aged man, who has been known to forget he’s already talking on his cell phone while frantically looking under car seats for same phone, can so vividly remember a blonde girl slowly pedaling her pink bike through a fresh raked leaf pile on a warm Indian summer day.
'Birds & Bees' in the 60's
In the late 60’s, I was probably like most young boys when it came to matters of the opposite sex. With a universe consisting of a small-town block filled with dozens of boys and very few girls anywhere near my age, I just assumed my older sisters were longer haired, a little more uptight, versions of the guys I hung with every day.
I never received the “birds and bees” talk from either my mom or dad, although as parents of ten it’s possible they weren’t too sure themselves what was causing the steady parade of little King babies.
Because my four older sisters were considerably older than I, they were never a part of the weekly youngest three brothers communal bath. And let me tell you, they obviously didn’t know what they were missing! Lots of laughs, splashing, and if we were really, truly lucky, some hilarious gas bubbles rising loudly to the surface. Sure it was often cut short by a suspicious yellow tinge to the water which no one ever admitted to—I’m still waiting Nathan—but all in all, for nine months out of the year it was the closest thing to a pool in Minnesota.
By the age of 7 or 8, I had no idea girls did not have all the same body parts we had. I knew they were shaped a little different, wore skirts, smelled better and for the most part disliked sports and building sand piles with Tonka trucks. And that was it.
One day, an older, wiser neighbor…one who had sisters near his own age, gave me an abbreviated version of the talk my dad forever bailed on. Without getting into the horrifying details, most of which I’ve admittedly forgotten over the decades, he basically told me that girls didn’t have one of those. Down there! No wonder I’d never seen any of their names written in snowbanks.
As this same neighbor was not above seriously pulling my leg on occasion, I greeted his claims with considerable skepticism. Even after he reassured me a half dozen times that he wasn’t kidding, I still glanced back over my shoulder—fully expecting to see him laughing uproariously over the great joke he’d pulled on me—as I stumbled home over the limestone gravel alley that separated our yards.
A few years later all the boys in sixth grade were herded into a darkened room of the school, as the only male sixth grade teacher—a nervous sort who looked as if he’d rather be anywhere else—informed us we were about to see a movie on “the facts of life”. Fifteen minutes later, after a very puzzling, grainy black and white film shown on a noisy reel to reel projector had ended, the same teacher seemed even more uncomfortable as he asked for questions—in a manner that suggested he really didn’t want any and was ready for the session to end.
Initially there was silence. After all, we were worldly, tough 11 and 12-year-old boys with budding testosterone and an overwhelming need not to look silly in front of our peers. Hey, nothing in that film was new to us.
Fortunately, there was one boy in the class—a popular athlete with a sense of humor that was far greater than his GPA—who spoke up. It went like this: he would ask a question, we’d all laugh uproariously like that was the stupidest question anyone ever asked, and the petrified teacher would react like he’d just been hit with a brick. Then, as the teacher finally stammered out his very thoughtful, measured response, you could have heard a pin drop. Boys who knew everything already, nevertheless seemed pretty interested in every answer.
My own son reached a similar age just before the dawn of the internet—which I’m pretty sure has eliminated the father-son talk for eternity. In fact, I’m confident the average 12-year-old with a cell phone could probably teach his parents a few things. But my son was not yet Wi-Fi ready, and I dreaded the day I’d have to teach him what my I had learned across the alleyway and in a dark sixth grade classroom so long ago.
Then, one day as we were driving somewhere in our suburban Twin Cities town, out of nowhere he said, “Dad? You know the whole thing about girls and boys and stuff?”
“Yes…” I responded cautiously, as nervous as a sixth grade teacher about to show a sex ed film to 40 boys, “what about it?”
“Well, you don’t have to tell me about that. Brett did”
Brett was his best friend who lived a few houses away, a nice enough kid who looked at least a few years younger than his age. To this day I’m not exactly sure exactly what it was that Brett said. But my son never brought up the subject again, he made it through high school without doing any deviant things that I’m aware of and seems to have a healthy interest (and respect for) the opposite sex.
While I’ve never said it before, I guess this is good of place as any… “Thanks Brett!”