I really hadn’t intended to write a follow-up to last year’s “Christmas on First Street.” There was something about that house and that time (1978-81, for me ages 4 through 6) that seems to exist in its own special memory bubble, and as I mentioned in the piece, those memories are starting to fade. So I thought I’d better write something for posterity before it’s all gone.
What I hadn’t counted on was that post’s popularity with a lot of folks, close family particularly…and a request for more (which has never happened for any other post for any reason.) So who am I to deny the requests of dozens of readers? Well, not dozens — some readers. Okay, two. Anyway, let’s continue. It’s a different house, I’m a little older, but Christmas still rules…
As noted in that earlier post, we moved a lot from house to house, and that’s why First Street was so important: it was the first house where we stayed for a few years, and I was able to build a little continuity. When we left our house on First Street in August of 1981, we resumed our gypsy ways, living on West Keystone Avenue for two months, where I started first grade at Beamer Elementary, then moving a few blocks to East Keystone Avenue for another two months…
East Keystone Avenue was where Christmas of 1981 went down, so it will serve as our opening taste…
I remember it raining a lot that December. Keystone Avenue (east and west) was bisected in a few places by wide, shallow gutters that would channel rainwater. These mini-canals would silently beg certain seven-year-old bicyclists to ride their blue bikes with the knobby tires right up the middle, sending up great sheets of dirty water on either side of them, and soaking their Pro Wing velcro sneakers and the cuffs of their Rustler jeans quite thoroughly…
Luckily, there was usually a fire burning in the East Keystone house’s fireplace to dry off by, but you’d have to stand awfully close. That was the year our family discovered Duraflame logs – compressed sawdust mixed with paraffin wax – which burned merrily for several hours, providing lovely ambience but precious little heat.
We didn’t really go looking for a Christmas tree that year or for a few subsequent years. Dad knew someone who cut fresh trees up in Oregon, and always dropped one off for us, so it was always a fun day when I got home from school and there was a tree propped against the back porch.
The new-fangled concept of cable television (acquired by us only the previous year) and the Christmas season now went firmly hand-in-hand, and Home Box Office still ruled the tube. Remote controls were still in their infancy – ours at the time was a shoebox-sized contraption with an individual button for each channel, attached to the TV with a long wire. That year’s Most Frequently Viewed award went to Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas. Concocted by Jim Henson and his fellow Muppeteers based on an obscure children’s book by Russell Hoban, the special made its first appearance on HBO in 1978 (before we had it), bounced around the networks for a few years, then ended up back on HBO where I saw it for the first time over the holidays of 1981. The O. Henry-derived plot involves sacrifice, gift exchanges, washtubs, toolkits, and talent shows. The songs were fun, except for the usual mawkish ballad performed at about the halfway point that was used by me as a bathroom break and a chance to snag a snickerdoodle from the kitchen.
Because we were red-blooded American kids, my sister and I would usually dash out to get our stockings and presents in the pre-dawn darkness. For some reason, in ‘81, Mom and Dad decided to invoke a rule that prohibited us from beginning our Christmas morning until the ungodly late hour of 8:00 am. All that resulted in was us perching on the foot of their bed and staring at them until the precise stroke of 8:00. The rule was never brought up again.
Like any couple who got together in the 70s, my parents had a pretty fair-sized collection of 8-track tapes, few of which were of any interest to me. (Phoebe Snow and Neil Sedaka did not have a lot of fans whose age was in single digits.) The one I did listen to over and over back on First Street was the Elvis compilation called Twin Set (pictured at right, “2 Records on 1 Tape!”), sold only via 800-number TV ads. I got my very first long-playing record that Christmas of 1981, the soundtrack to the Andrew Solt documentary film This Is Elvis, which itself became an HBO favorite later on.
If the pictures are any indication, 1981 marks a temporary end to my Star Wars fixation of the previous year, and a return to my first love, Hot Wheels.
We moved out of the East Keystone house a week after Christmas, in the first few days of ‘82…but not to the Woodland Avenue house just yet. First was a ten-month residency in a little townhouse off Cottonwood Street. Then, finally, the big move to Woodland Avenue just in time for the 1982 holidays, and here we finally settled for a record-breaking four years…
It was a big, gray-shingled two-story house, with a massive tree-filled yard and a swimming pool (and it was just around the corner from Keystone Avenue, actually.) As beautiful as it was on the outside, the inside looked as if it had been decorated by Tony Orlando and Dawn in about 1972. My bedroom wallpaper consisted of massive blue cornflowers and assorted paisley swirls that would have looked garish even on the Laugh-In set. My sister’s flowered wallpaper was fuzzy velour buttercups. The den had fake wood-paneled walls and lime-green shag carpeting two inches deep. Everything in the kitchen was various shades of orange and brown.
Since we were renters, we couldn’t change a goddamn thing. It looked like the Brady Bunch had just moved out.
The only parts of the house that didn’t look embarrassing were the little-used formal living room (where the stockings would be hung with care on the mantle of a never-used gas fireplace) and a massive family room, obviously added on some time after the original construction. With big picture windows overlooking the pool, a wet bar, and wood-burning stove dominating one part of the room (no more Duraflames), this was the main activity area of the household. The Woodland Avenue house was where I had my 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th birthdays, and where we celebrated the Christmases of 1982, ‘83, ‘84, and ‘85.
The first year, we set up our tree near the family room picture windows, and as usual we lost a few Christmas balls to the cat, Tom Kitty, who viewed every Christmas tree as his personal plaything. (I wish I could claim the cat’s name was a tribute to Tom Petty, but it’s just a happy coincidence as no one in my family was that cool.)
I found three new passions in 1982 that would impact many Christmases to come. While I was living in that little townhouse over that summer, I began listening to the Beatles, and became a hardcore Garfield aficionado (the two are not necessarily connected). And not long after moving to Woodland Avenue, Dad bought me my first two G.I. Joe action figures at the TG&Y downtown. Not the old-school Barbie-sized G.I. Joe beloved by an earlier generation, but the all-new “A Real American Hero” toy line introduced just that year, featuring the smaller new-generation action figures and vehicles galore. My first two action figures were Laser Rifle Trooper (Code Name: “Flash”) and the generic Cobra Soldier, in case you were wondering.
We are now in the realm of something on which thousands of gallons of pretend virtual ink have been spilled across countless nostalgia websites here in Internet Land – the realm of 80s toys…
The dining out on Christmas Eve continued, with a change of venue – 1982 ushered in a few years of us going to Cattlemen’s steak house in Dixon, a couple of towns over. Once we were done with our New York strip steaks and baked beans served in a ceramic cowboy boot, we would usually stop by and visit Grandma and Grandpa at their little house on Clover Street, featuring their tiny Christmas tree on top of their TV. I always felt a little bad that they didn’t have a bigger tree. It didn’t seem to bother them. Now I realize when you’ve burned through 70-plus Christmases and your last kid moved out two decades prior, it might feel like overkill to bring in a seven-foot tree into a 500 square foot house. (And now, of course, my Mom is the Grandma in the little house with the tiny tree – or as of this year, just a big poinsettia behind Dad’s chair.)
We must have been at Grandma and Grandpa’s house around 8:00 that night, because I remember seeing the very beginning of The Muppet Movie there, which had been the featured movie on HBO over Christmastime of 1980. Some network suit must have decided it was ideal Christmas Eve viewing, despite having absolutely nothing to do with Christmas, because it ran at 8:00 on CBS on Christmas Eve in 1982 and 1983, probably 1984, and possibly 1985. Enough to become, through sheer force of repetition, indelibly associated in my mind with the night before Christmas.
The drive between Grandma and Grandpa’s house on Clover Street and our house on Woodland Avenue was literally two minutes (I just checked on Google Maps), but I was on pins and needles the whole time because I was missing the goddamn Muppet Movie! – but I think we actually made the entire drive during a commercial break.
So 1982 was my first G.I. Joe Christmas. There were also more than a few Garfield items (including a sleeping bag labeled “Nap Attack Sac”), and a really cool collection of monster action figures from the old Universal Studios horror films.
I could probably name a few more things from that Christmas…but no one remembered to take any pictures that year. There are a few poorly-framed shots of the Christmas tree (as seen above), an out-of-focus action shot of the cat playing with the Christmas ornaments, and a picture of some green and red cupcakes, all taken by 8-year-old Yours Truly. These are the only 1982 Christmas pics in my archives.
Although a lot of elements of the Woodland Avenue Christmas were locking into becoming a tradition (see Muppet Movie), there were a few changes in store for ’83. First of all, we moved the tree to the other side of the room, away from the windows overlooking the back patio. Now it was framed in a street-facing window, visible to passersby rather than just backyard prowlers. Second of all, Grandma and Grandpa left their little house on Clover Street and moved to Paradise. (That’s not a euphemism – it’s a small forest town in the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Chico, about a 90-minute drive from Woodland.)
I was so into Christmas I wanted to literally live inside the Christmas tree. I did the next best thing, watching all my Christmas specials and other programming laying flat on my stomach under the tree (joined by Tom Kitty when he was feeling magnanimous.) This was also the position from which I did the 100-piece “Santa’s Workshop” jigsaw puzzle (shown below) over and over on a big wooden cutting board. The tree itself was decked out with popcorn strings this year – fake plastic popcorn strings, that is. What can I say, it was an era when fake plastic things were in.
There were two newcomers to Christmas morning this year – my sister’s boyfriend Jeff, who had been dating her since late ’81 (I remember her talking to him on the phone back on East Keystone), and the dog we acquired that fall, Huffer. Knowing I would be lathered up in excitement to get the festivities under way, Jeff was kind enough to show up before sunrise for several Woodland Avenue Christmas mornings, dressed up in his standard “collegiate prep” look. Between that and his football-playing every fall and running track every spring, he looked vaguely like a villain from an 80s high school comedy, the kind of guy who’s always beating up the nerds. But he was actually very nice, and when I was a little older, he introduced me to the wonders of Late Night with David Letterman, for which I’m eternally grateful.
Huffer was a stray that kept turning up at the body shop where Dad worked. When he showed up three days in a row, Dad brought him home, gave him a bath, and discovered he had white fur, not brownish-gray. He was some kind of schnauzer/West Highland terrier mix. I insisted on naming him “Huffer” after the semi-truck Transformer. The other family members did not love the name, and even tried out a few others for a week or so, but Huffer seemed to suit him, and it stuck. As far as I know, he stayed away from inhalants.
G.I. Joe continued to be a running theme under the tree (the big, unwrapped “From Santa” presents were the Headquarters Command Center and the X-14F Skystriker jet), but I was also cultivating a growing interest in books and the Beatles (and books about the Beatles – I received a really nice coffee-table one by Geoffrey Stokes that year.) Evidently it was still OK to have candy cigarettes in 1983, because a pack of Kings were right there in my stocking (and they were delicious.)
This was also the year where people rioted in the stores over Cabbage Patch dolls. My sister received one as a “collectible,” then violated every rule of owning “collectible” toys by taking it out of the box almost immediately.
For a lot of people my age, this was their Return of the Jedi Christmas, the final film of the original trilogy having been released that May. I had left Star Wars cold by then, so nary a speeder bike nor an Ewok was to be found under my tree that year. (I would return to Star Wars fandom permanently by ’86 or so.)
And oh, holy crap, look what I’m wearing. I got
attached to certain pairs of pajamas, refusing to discard them long past their expiration date. The pajama bottoms I’m wearing here are part of the same set (one pair yellow, one red) I wore back in 1981. The original pajama top ended at the bottom of my ribcage by then, so I replaced it with one of Dad’s t-shirts, but the bottoms remained, and they were practically a second skin, compressing my thighs like Spanx for nine-year-olds. (They’re still there in these photos, but I eventually cut the “foot” portion of the pajamas off because my feet were exploding through them, and just wore socks.)
Late on Christmas afternoon, we made the hour-and-a-half car ride up to Paradise to visit the grandparents. I took my Skystriker jet, but it’s kind of hard to play with one G.I. Joe toy in isolation from all the others. I’m pretty sure I had to pretend that Ace (the pilot) was on a “scouting mission” far away from the rest of the team.
A return and a departure – Grandma and Grandpa moved back from Paradise…in fact, back to Clover Street. Not the same house, but a house literally across the street from where they had lived earlier…My sister had graduated high school and went off to college, but was home for winter break…I finally let pajamas go when I discovered the wonders of track suits, which were an improvement, even if they made me look like a pint-sized Armenian mobster (I just needed a few gold chains.)
As a fourth-grader, I was finally able to join the school band. I became a saxophonist. I don’t think I was any threat to Clarence Clemons, but I learned my way around the instrument without too much trouble, and could honk out a few basic tunes. Being in the band meant playing in the Beamer School Christmas pageant. No more would I be just one of the chorus, shaking some stupid jingle bells and singing a “We Wish You A Merry Christmas/Feliz Navidad” medley. No, I was in the band. My excitement at being part of the elite echelon of Christmas pageant entertainment was tempered by the fact that the pageant was on a Thursday night…and it meant missing The Cosby Show, which had premiered that fall and was the hottest thing on TV. I think we bought our first VCR (at TG&Y) not long after, solving those sorts of problems forever. We had been renting VHS movies for awhile by this point…but we – and a lot of other families – had to rent a VCR along with it! Dozens of bullet-proof, luggage-sized cases with rental VCRs were stacked in the back of every video rental store.
No one knew at the time that Bill Cosby’s story would turn pretty grim in the next millennium. America sure as hell thought he was funny at the time, and I was developing into a bit of a comedy aficionado, thanks largely to our much-mentioned friend, HBO. I saw George Carlin (1982’s HBO special Carlin At Carnegie) and Richard Pryor (the Live on the Sunset Strip concert film, shown on HBO in ’83) when I was probably way too young, but it was a formative experience. I think I was sophisticated enough at that age to look past the swear words (which the school playground was chock-full of anyway) and enjoy the structure, rhythm, and pacing of their brilliant material.
But I was a comedy melting pot. Not only did I love the edgy adult comedy of Carlin and Pryor, my sense of humor was also forged by constant exposure to Looney Tunes, the Marx Brothers, and some of the great 70s sitcoms (Barney Miller, The Bob Newhart Show) that were just starting to enter syndication. Another huge influence was some of the more innocent, old-fashioned comedy shows HBO would air as part of their Standing Room Only series – George Burns, Victor Borge, and especially Red Skelton, whose three Funny Faces specials were eagerly devoured by me. As an added bonus, I could repeat the routines (poorly) in front of adults without getting my mouth washed out with soap.
All of this is a roundabout way to connect missing The Cosby Show because of the Christmas pageant to one of my favorite HBO Christmas specials of the era, 1981’s Freddie the Freeloader’s Christmas Dinner, starring Red Skelton as his hobo clown character, and co-starring Vincent Price and Imogene Coca. The special (and Skelton himself) was overly-sentimental and corny, but I never missed its annual showings through the first half of the decade, usually tucked in my favorite spot under the tree, or with my feet propped on the wood-burning stove. (I would keep them there until I smelled the burning rubber of my shoe soles, remove them until they cooled, then repeated. I was growing so fast the shoes would be too small long before the soles were ruined by this process.)
The tree that year was personally flocked by me, burning through several cans of fake aerosol snow. I also flocked the couch arm, the dog, a random patch of grass in the backyard, and the wood-shingle top of our mailbox. (Woodland is a great walking town, and I often stroll by the old Woodland Avenue house. I’m happy to report traces of my flocking remained visible on the mailbox “roof” until the whole thing was replaced a couple of years ago.)
If ’82 and ’83 were G.I. Joe Christmases, this was the Transformers Christmas. Transformers were all the rage that year, and they were pretty pricey. A G.I. Joe figure would run you three bucks, tops, but a Transformer was closer to fifteen or even twenty, and that’s 1984 dollars. (There was a line of smaller, cheaper Transformers “minicars”, but they were all out of scale with the main toy line. Huffer was one of these.) Because of the hefty cost, my whole collection was basically what I received for that year’s birthday and Christmas. I had Optimus Prime, Jazz, Prowl, Wheeljack, and Sunstreaker representing the Autobots, and my evil Decepticons were Starscream, Skywarp and Thundercracker (all F-15 jets). Enough for a battle, but my collection never really grew beyond that. (They also had a tendency to break easily.)
The other toy line I was flirting with around this time was Masters of the Universe, but I never really made a full collecting commitment. He-Man and his cohorts were all so muscle-bound and bow-legged they weren’t really a lot of fun, and the fictional world/galaxy/universe (“Eternia”) they inhabited was sketchy and poorly thought out. It looks like I got a Man-E-Faces for that Christmas, and not much else from Masters.
Our last Christmas at Woodland Avenue, though we didn’t know it yet…I was eleven, old enough to ride my bike uptown to Long’s Drugs to buy people small Christmas presents with my own money…or to Payless Drugs, formerly Value Giant…the name had changed, but the man in the giant snowman costume still prowled the aisles, no longer a figure of abject terror to me…Know where I soon wouldn’t be able to ride my bike anymore? Ol’ TG&Y, source of everything from action figures to 8-tracks to VCRs…it was permanently shuttered by early ‘86…the face of Woodland was gradually changing…ground had been broken for an actual mall out near the fairgrounds…
I was certainly capable buying people Christmas gifts on my own initiative, but my funds were quite limited. $5 a week for doing my chores (which consisted of making my bed and emptying the dishwasher) did not add up very quickly. My friend Jeremy, always of an entrepreneurial bent, got the idea of going door to door offering to rake leaves. I don’t remember raking a single leaf, but we got a lot of sympathy money. People loved the idea of two little ragamuffins raking leaves for Christmas money, like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, but no one let us near their yards. (We planned to do it again the following year, maybe even leaving the rakes at home, but I had moved away by then.)
I was by now heartily tired of the saxophone. More accurately, I was tired of carrying the damn thing the three blocks between Woodland Avenue and Beamer School. If I had my sax, it meant I couldn’t ride my bike. I had to walk – trudge – there and back. The sax spent more and more time stashed in the classroom book closet. I don’t think I even played it in the school Christmas pageant that year. My status bumped up even higher: I starred in the pageant’s little Christmas play instead. I played a baseball cap-wearing, wise-cracking reindeer who was tired of Christmas and wanted to stop participating, much as I was tired of the saxophone. Two other reindeer and Santa Claus (played by Aaron, the skinniest kid in my class, who had to stuff his Santa suit with several pillows, yet still looked like malnourished) showed me the error of my ways. With antlers made from a brown paper bag, and a nose blackened by eyebrow pencil, I disappeared into my character and began thinking a life On Stage was for me…
There was a time when my sister was as eager as me to dash down to the stockings and gifts, but now she was a college sophomore who needed her sleep. So when I popped awake at 5:30, I had to kill time, having been given strict instructions not to disturb her until 7:00 (she retained at least enough childish excitement to not want to sleep later than that). I turned on my bedside lamp, and blindly grabbed a random book off my shelf. It was an old flea market copy of the 1959 biography Abe Lincoln Gets His Chance (“for young readers”) by Frances Cavanah. I read it start to finish (it ran about 120 pages). It became another of my weird traditions. I read it every Christmas morning before getting out of bed well into junior high school.
G.I. Joe made a triumphant comeback this year, with the big Killer W.H.A.L.E. hovercraft and the Cobra “Rattler” plane being added to my collection. It would be a few months before I could play with the hovercraft (“It Really Floats!”) in the pool.
After cataloging so many Christmas Eve dinners, what of Christmas Day dinner? With the exception of 1983 (Paradise), I’m pretty sure most of them were at the Huffs (Mom’s sister — as mentioned in the last Christmas post), which was the family hub for a good long while.
OK, I’ve gone on far too long, and I think this will conclude my “Memory Lane” Christmas posts. After 1985, there were still lots of great Christmases to be had, but the toys that are so fun to write about (and find pictures of) got fewer as I got older…and as of June 1986 we were no longer in Woodland. We weren’t that far away, but leaving Woodland closes the door on an era.
Final thought: The River Bottom Nightmare Band deserved to win that talent show. Sorry, Emmet.