The Wide Angle: Childhood is won in the trenches of a catalog

Published 7:01 am Sunday, October 8, 2017

The other day, I was talking with my co-workers in the composing department, Colby Hansen and Susan Downey about a very special moment in my life.

Colby, at the time, suggested I write a column about it because it was that special.

The conversation was ultimately about the J.C. Penney Christmas catalog. Honestly, I have no idea just how important the catalog is anymore in the age of social media and instant gratification, but back in my day, the coming of the catalog was heralded as a holy day for children.

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And, I’m keenly aware that I used the phrase, “back in my day.” I think my hair just grayed in a matter of seconds.

At any rate, the J.C. Penney catalog wasn’t anything inherently special. A thick, glossy book with all of its holiday deals including clothes, small appliances and other various items that may, at some level, be good for a Christmas gift.

I, being a child of varying age, had no need for clothes and such silliness because I was about to embark on a journey of imagination that was the last quarter of the book — toys.

It was the single most time-consuming part of the year in regard to Christmas because it was everything I was about at the time: Toys. Oh, magical, glorious toys which, if I must be honest, I’m still pretty enraptured with. No kidding and I’m not talking about “Man toys,” lawnmowers, chainsaws, cars, etc. I’m talking “toy” toys. I have several on my desk I offer as proof and I may or may not have a Nerf gun at home.

Either way, I love toys now, but they were pretty much a religion with the appearance of the toy bible —the J.C. Penney  catalog — in the mail.

I had become so expectant that I knew approximately when the catalog might come so I would stake-out the mail each day, hoping to see the familiar bundle with the day’s drop-off.

My mom, bless her heart, would always let me know when it came — partially because I think she knew it would occupy my wildly imaginative  mind for a couple hours.

And make no mistake. This was a process that required pen and paper to expertly craft a list few have seen to this day, sometimes complete with charts, descriptions and page numbers so mom knew exactly what page to go to for my dream toy.

This, of course, required concentration and study on my part. You just didn’t flip through, make mental notes of a few items here and there and then report to the parents. They might get it wrong. They might decide on something else. They might, I shudder to think, buy the  knock off toy.

As a kid you had a certain reputation among your friends that marked your status as cool for your age and knock-off toys did you no good in that respect.

My friends and I would get together with our armies of G.I. Joes or Transformers to conduct military campaigns in one another’s yard, but how could you be taken seriously if you had a knock-off. Your hard-earned kid status would take the ultimate hit.

No, it had to be me.

You just couldn’t take chances and so I directed myself to formulate an overly compiled list of those exact toys I wanted.

So, when the catalog came I swiped it from the kitchen table and bolted for the solitude of my room. Nobody was allowed in the room, per the instructions of the stickered letters on my door or you paid the five cent fee, which honestly nobody paid because,  you know, parents.

It was me with my pad of paper, pen and probably my cat Angie because I didn’t do much in those days without her. I’ve long suspected she was a spy for my parents.

I knew, ultimately, where I would spend a majority of my time. The boy toys. I had no time nor use for girl toys. So much pink, so many frills and sparkling things. No, I needed the manliness of boy toys: Transformers, G.I. Joe, Star Wars … THINGS THAT WENT BOOM!

I also had a realistic approach. Nobody really buys bikes from a catalog so I was able to skim past that mess and of course the girl toys, stopping momentarily at board games. I always liked board games in those days and to a certain degree still today, so they were worthy of a quick glance just in case.

And then the first page of those items that were marked as the holy grail would appear. I read intently, studied furiously, committed to memory those things that I not only I wanted but those things I ‘might’ want. No point taking chances.

You see, you didn’t commit right away. You strategized. Each decision required thought because Christmas was as much a mental war with your parents than anything else. What did you want compared to what you could get.

There was a price level I surmised early on  that my parents wouldn’t broach on any single object except for rare occassions and so I found that target — usually around $25 — an often aimed a little below that so as to appear the team player with the family.

A war of attrition if you will.

Really, lowballing was the way to go because action figures in those days rarely cost more than $5 and the vehicles usually maxed out at around $20, or at least the ones I wanted. I wasn’t a greedy boy. I was overly calculating.

Then, once I decided on the most important items, I went back for a second and third read and started  transcribing like a medievil monk my list so my parents could find things easier.

Once composed, I walked confidently into whichever room they were in, boldly handed them the paper and asked if they could read it okay because in this struggle for childhood dominance among friends, there was no room for sloppy, indecipherable handwriting. The stakes were too high.

Always, earn that reputation.

Ultimately, I’m not sure how much my mom and dad chose from my list. Usually, all that was forgotten during the frenzy of present unwrapping Christmas Eve and Day, but in my mind the effort was worth it.

There are no breaks when it comes to the childhood superiority that comes with owning the Transformer Grimlock one fateful year.

Grimlock was a special Transformer who changed from a robot into a T-Rex. Highly coveted to be sure and when my mom bought it for me from the Holy Bible that is the J.C. Penney catalog, I won the block.

I was … the superior kid.