When I was a kid, I must have been aware that Christmas had some sort of religious significance. I knew about the birth of Jesus, both from endless hours of church, not to mention Linus’s little speech at the end of the Peanut’s Christmas special. I was also aware that Christmas was all about giving.
But, let’s get real. Until I was well past puberty, Christmas for me was about getting. And I don’t mean getting socks or a new lunch box. It was about the toys. I’d lay awake all night, my stomach knotted, imagining the awesome things that might be contained in the gift-wrapped boxes under the tree. There might be trains, or Lincoln Logs, or science kits with microscopes and little pre-made slides of fly wings. And there had better be some cars. Saturday morning cartoons had promised me Hotwheels and the corresponding miles of looping tracks on which to race them. Even better would be a radio-controlled car. Or a radio-controlled plane! Really, not getting my own motorized go-cart would certainly qualify as child abuse.
Alas, I never got my go-cart. I suppose there was a lesson to be learned about handling the disappointment of not getting everything you wanted. Christmas also taught me the disappointment of getting exactly what you wanted. I did get a toy train set. I set up the oval track in my attic, sliding all the little rails together with tiny metal clips and figuring out the weirdly elaborate mechanism for one car to hook into the next. Then, I plugged in the transformer and let the train fly! Or, if not fly, at least roll along at a respectable pace. Around the oval, then around again. And around again, then again. About ten minutes after setting my train in motion, I’d pretty much lost all interest in trains. I tried to revive my Christmas morning excitement by finding interesting things that the train might crash into. A Matchbox car mysteriously broke down right in the center of the tracks as the train was approaching at full speed. And the train’s brakes have failed! This was going to be the most horrifying crash ever!
Then the train nudged the car aside and whirred on as if nothing had happened. It wasn’t as if I lacked the imagination to pretend that the car had been scattered across three states. It was that my imagination was superior to the reality. Toys seemed designed to teach me that real life would never be as spectacular as daydreams.
Despite my instinct to simulate collisions, I wasn’t a particularly violent or destructive child. I don’t remember having much interest in toy guns. When I did get cap guns, I ignored the gun and triggered the caps by smashing them with rocks on the sidewalk. As for destruction, the primary thing destroyed on Christmas mornings was our living room. My sisters and I were not patient unwrappers who neatly folded back the paper to slowly reveal the secrets within. We would tear into those wrappers like sharks taking down a sea lion. Five minutes after we were unleashed, the floor was completely hidden by shreds of paper and the remains of cardboard boxes. Except for the tree rising from the clutter, our living room looked as if a violent but curiously localized tornado had struck.
While I may not have been destructive by nature, I was intensely curious. While I never set out to destroy a toy for pure meanness, from time to time, I’d steal into my father’s workshop and help myself to screwdrivers and pliers to reduce a toy to its component parts. Sometimes, I was even able to put them back together. I was especially fluent with bicycles. To this day, I could probably take one apart then put it back together blindfolded. But, I also wasn’t shy about taking wrenches to things like clock radios and lamps. I often explored the inner workings with the power cord still plugged in. That was the only way to see how things worked. My failure to electrocute myself is probably something of a Christmas miracle. Usually, I was able to reassemble my experiments, leaving my mother none the wiser.
I do remember one toy I couldn’t put back together. When I was about nine, I got a toy doll, or, to use the proper gender attribution, an action figure. It was of Captain America, evidence that my mother really didn’t understand comic books. Captain America was Marvel, and I was a DC guy. Superman or Batman would have been worthy fuel for my imagination, but the Captain? The Captain was just a cold lump of plastic to me. I discarded him almost the second I unwrapped him, and would have forgotten about him forever if he hadn’t slipped into the couch cushions where I accidentally sat on him.
I took a moment to study the Captain. He was made of blue plastic, with red and white stripes and just a tiny touch of flesh color dabbed on for his chin. The limbs were stiff, but articulated at the hips and shoulders. His head could turn a full 360 degrees, and his hands bent at the wrists, with one hand permanently making a fist and the other frozen into a karate chop that could slide into the little handle on the round plastic shield.
Examining the wrists closer, I found they were held on with tiny bolts with screw heads. I’d already started wearing glasses, and knew my father had an eyeglass repair kit in the desk drawer. Despite my fondness for taking things apart, I was wise enough to know better than to disassemble my glasses. But this toy… would my parents notice? Would they care?
In less than five minutes, I had both hands off and had already lost the nearly microscopic nuts that had held the bolts in place. Unable to hold his shield, the Captain had little reason to continue his existence, so I decided to satisfy my curiosity and find out what held his head on. As it turns out, not much. It popped off with just a little pressure, revealing a little plastic peg with a ball at the end that snapped into a corresponding hole on the torso. About what I expected, but the arms and legs were more mysterious. They had a wider range of motion, and tended to snap back in place when I let go. I could tell that the tops of the legs were rounded and sat in little cups in the hips, but why didn’t they just fall out?
Some mysteries are best solved with brute force. I twisted one of the legs until it snapped free. When I did this, the other leg instantly fell off. When I looked into the hollow cups that spanned the hips, something like a little brown worm fell in my lap. It was a snapped rubber band, small enough that it wouldn’t have fit around my pinky. The legs had little metal hooks screwed into them that the rubber band had been stretched between, holding them in place.
Were the arms held on by the same configuration? I pried one up and twisted with a little less force. Sure enough, peering into the gap, I could see the tiny metal hook holding a rubber band. I wanted that rubber band, and I wanted it intact. Action figures were a plentiful commodity, but a tiny rubber band would be a treasure worth showing off.
I slipped the eyeglass screwdriver into the joint and carefully poked it through the loop. A few minutes of prodding and twisting freed it from the hook. I let the rubber band slip from the tip of the screwdriver and the arm on the other side fell off. The rubber band disappeared into the hungry gap between the couch cushions. Luckily, I found it, and held it into the light for closer examination like a precious gem.
Action figures are meant to stimulate imagination. For me, it was this rubber band that set the wheels of my mind in motion. If I had taken this rubber band off, that meant that someone, somewhere, had put it on. Captain America’s butt was stamped “Made in China.” When I imagined the factory, it was the elves workshop from Rudolf the Red Nose Rain Deer, populated by Chinese people in straw hats. It impressed me that this rubber band had been touched by someone on the other side of the planet. I couldn’t help but be a little awed that this toy had crossed an ocean to reach me, only to be taken apart a little under a half hour.
I found my mother in the kitchen and showed her the rubber band. When I explained that I’d taken apart the doll to retrieve it, she looked a little hurt that I’d destroyed yet another gift. She sighed. “What did you do that for?”
At the time, I didn’t have an answer.
From the perspective of adulthood, I do. I took the doll apart because I’m driven by a need to understand how things work. It’s why I took apart my bike and the lamps, and hinted at my future when I would be driven to more sophisticated bouts of creative destruction. I’ve taken apart friendships, even marriages before I could understand what made them work. I’ve aimed my curiosity at my own mind, analyzing the mystery of why I am who I am, figuring out my own clockwork, solving the mystery of what makes me tick. While I was never able to put Captain America back onto his feet, I like to think that I’ve bolted myself together in an improved configuration. I’m an adult who’s never let his imagination wither. To this day, I can still look at something as mundane as a rubber band and find myself thinking of foreign lands.
My parents never smothered my curiosity by putting an end to my destructive explorations. That, I think, was the greatest gift they ever gave me.