In December of 1977, I had the distinct honor of becoming a 5 year old. At the time, I considered it to be quite the achievement. Now, as anyone who has a December birthday can tell you, it sucks. And the closer your special day commemorating how many times the Earth traveled around the sun while you happened to be on it is to the big day itself, the more it sucks.
You run the risk of many various Birthday/Christmas pitfalls and dangers, such as getting a birthday cake with Santa Claus on it because that’s all the grocery store had, or getting a card that is likely going to sport glitter-glued angels on the front with a lovely holiday wish inside and a quickly scribbled, “…and happy birthday, too!”, or the single most criminal occurrence any December baby can be forced to face, hearing the dreaded words, “Happy birthday! Now pick out one of your Christmas presents to open early.”
For the record, and mostly because my mom is likely to read this, I need to make clear that she always made every effort possible to make my birthday separate from Christmas. In fact, she was a mom of many motherly superpowers, one of which was the amazing ability to make both my birthday and Christmas their own separate unbelievably magical moments. Anyway… back to the story…
This particular Christmas, in the chill winter of 1977, I was not only a newly minted 5-year-old, but I was also the victim of my birthday falling on a weekend. And as many of us now know, the weekend before Christmas is traditionally reserved for grown-ups going to Christmas parties. And my parents were no exception that year.
As my parents got ready to go out that night, in between my mom fixing her hair and my dad splashing on an exorbitant amount of English Leather cologne, all to the dulcet tones of Bing singing “White Christmas” in the background from the family record player, they explained to me that although they felt bad for having to go out on the night of my birthday, I was still going to have an adventure with my uncle Kevin. Looking back, I seem to remember my mom feeling especially guilty about this, but in all honesty, I didn’t care at all about them going out on my birthday, and now they upped the ante with an adventure with Uncle Kevin? I was all in.
My uncle Kevin was hands down one of my favorite uncles. He was the “gentle soul” on my dad’s side of the family. Our resident soft-spoken hippie with a quick sense of humor and a capacity for child-like silliness. My favorite aspect about him, back then anyway, was how effortlessly he could get down on my level, always happy to watch whatever dumb cartoon I wanted to watch, or hunker down on the carpet with me and my Army men for an epic battle over control of the living room, and always shot from the hip when it came to the pinnacle of childhood humor; poop, fart and booger jokes. So as I remember it, I was all for my folks going out that night if it meant getting to hang with Uncle “Kob”, as we called him.
Soon, it was almost time for my folks to go and Uncle Kevin had arrived. They began to tell me what was in store for me that evening, and it all added up to an epic night of two bachelors out on the town. My uncle would be taking me to the “big city” of Adrian, Michigan, for a night of cheeseburgers and toy shopping at the local mall, followed by a sleepover at Uncle Kevin’s place.
I should probably take a bit of a sidebar here to talk about the town I grew up in and its much cooler nearby town of Adrian. We lived in a very small town in lower Michigan called Blissfield, just north of the Ohio border. And as far as I’m concerned, you couldn’t find a better town for a boy to grow up in throughout the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Imagine if the Leave It To Beaver town was painted by Norman Rockwell. It was your typical cozy everybody-knows-everybody kind of place, with the bare basics of everything you’d need; a bowling alley (where i first played Pac-Man), a pharmacy (where i kept myself well supplied with Star Wars trading cards, comic books and small candy containers shaped like cartoon characters’ heads), little league baseball fields, a town pool, quiet neighborhood streets lined with plenty of sidewalks for bike riding, and towering, sprawling maple trees perfect for climbing or nailing squirrel feeders to. But every now and then, if you really wanted some adventure, you’d have to take the 15 minute drive down highway 223, past the old barns and odiferous fields of dairy cows to the somewhat larger nearby Adrian, which had a mall and a McDonald’s and even bigger bowling alleys and a YMCA. But… more about both of those towns in future stories.
All you need to know for this story is that Uncle Kob was taking me to Adrian, and the endless possibilities of a “big city” adventure swelled in my budding imagination like a birthday balloon (that had reindeer on it).
But before we could go, my dad handed me an envelope that had come in the mail that very day. This stopped me dead in my tracks. I had never gotten a letter in the mail before, and here it was in my hand. It had a stamp and those squiggly ink lines over it and everything. This thing was official. And although I couldn’t read everything on the front of the letter, I could at least make out my first name, dead front and center. It WAS for me! I ripped it open and it turned out to be a birthday card from my grandparents. I don’t recall if it had a snowman or North Pole elves on it or not, but what it did contain was a well-worn, yet still very spendable, five dollar bill. And that was also for me. That’s pretty mind-blowing to a 5-year-old in the late ‘70s. Five dollars may as well have been an Uncle Scrooge-level vault of swimmable gold coins as far as I was concerned.
Dad explained to me that Uncle Kob (his younger brother) was going to take me into Adrian for dinner and to the Woolworth in the mall, in which I can spend that five dollars on ANYTHING I WANT. I don’t know how my young heart handled the excitement, now that I think about it. A flood of images passed before my little mind’s eye of all the possible things five dollars could buy. Hot Wheels cars, handfuls of candy bars, a private Learjet. The possibilities were endless.
We said our goodbyes, mom peppered me with a few more guilty smooches and hugs, I grabbed my little bag filled with my pajamas and a change of clothes for the next day and soon I was in Uncle Kob’s car, cruising through the December slush down highway 223, onward toward destiny.
We parked, crunched through the parking lot snow and entered the Adrian Mall through the main entrance. We took a sharp left, walked by the fountain with the weird, groovy 60s sculpture in it and entered Woolworth’s. Woolworth’s in the 1970s was an amazing place. A true five-and-dime general store that stocked just about anything a family could need. But I beelined past the rows of hair curlers, electric irons and sewing kits to the one aisle that drew all kids in like ants to a melting Jolly Rancher on a hot summer sidewalk, the TOY AISLE. This single stretch of shelves and pegboards was a multi-colored, sparkling, magical realm, every visible inch jam-packed with plastic excitement. The die-cast toy cars, bags of Army men and plastic space helmets all called out to me and my red-hot burning five dollar bill tucked safely inside the front pocket of my deer-hide tan corduroy pants. And as I perused all of the gleaming playthings, I suddenly felt myself stopped in my tracks, like a giant invisible hand of fate had hit my chest and glued my feet to the tile floor.
There before me was a brilliant display of figures. Each one nestled inside a clear bubble on a vibrantly colored cardboard backing, promising never-ending adventure in the eternal struggle of the protection of the innocent and the triumph of good against evil. There are some things children just innately understand, as a part of survival; stick food in your mouth when you’re hungry, stick your head in the sprinkler when it’s hot out, and that SUPERHEROES ARE AWESOME. I scanned the rows of hanging figures, drinking in their genuine cloth costumes and heroic faces, their plastic removable boots and flowing capes. And then my little eyes fell on the one character that I knew like a best friend. The Caped Crusader himself. The protector of Gotham City. The one and only Batman.
I may not have been on the Earth for very long at this point, but I had been on it long about to know Batman, mostly thanks to his show being aired in two-part installments every day at 3 o’clock on the local UHF channel out of Detroit. Also thanks to a babysitter that preferred me quiet and staring at a glowing screen as much as possible, I dove deep into an hour’s worth of adventure with Batman every single weekday before my mom picked me up. His adventures were seared into my young mind, with their ridiculous traps and hammy villains, their technicolor bursts of BAM! POW! and their roaring Batmobile tearing down the road into the thick of the fray.
Seeing Batman in all his action figure glory sent a shockwave through me. A sudden realization that the physical representation of my very first hero sat before me within arm’s reach. And the wave pulsed in my chest again when I saw his trusty sidekick Robin right next to him. There they were, The Dynamic Duo. Ready for action. And there I was, a birthday boy with money to spend. This was it. This is what I wanted for my birthday. All the other toys around me fell away into nothingness.
After a quick lesson on math and economics from my uncle, it became clear that at $2.50 each, I had exactly enough to get them both, my uncle assuring me that he had the few cents in his pocket to cover the tax. With that, a quick cash register transaction later, two brand new eight-inch-tall Mego Batman and Robin action figures were mine. Happy birthday, indeed.
The two of us grabbed a burger and fries at the attached Woolworth’s diner, with its dark brown wood decor and burnt orange turn-of-the-century lights hanging above, and between bites I would steal the occasional glance into the bag next to me, anticipating opening them up and imagining what adventure they would go on first. We finished our food while Uncle Kob kept me in a state of the giggles by pretending not to understand the names of my two newly-acquired action figures, calling them “Buttman and Robert”. (He would, years later, have a slightly older version of me in absolute stitches over referring to Boba Fett as “Blubber Fat”.)
As we drove back to Blissfield, it began to snow again, blanketing the countryside in a fresh white powdery layer. In the passenger seat, I settled back, clutching my shopping bag and watching the snowflakes zip by the window like a meteor shower, still abuzz with the feeling that I had just opened a secret door into a whole new world unknown to me until now. Soon we were in Uncle Kob’s small apartment on the second floor of his old building, which stood at the edge of our small village’s downtown area.
I don’t remember opening my new toys. I wish I had some moment of awe to tell, in which the clouds parted and a heavenly light shown down upon me to the chorus of angels, but most likely I tore into the cardboard and plastic bubble unceremoniously to get at the prizes inside as quickly as possible. This was long before such phrases as “mint on card” or “pristine condition” were invented. All I remember is having them in my hands. I bent their knees and elbows into action poses. I twisted their heads around as if they were looking for any trouble that may be disrupting this otherwise quiet night. I felt the cloth of their capes, took off their shoes and gloves (mittens, actually) and put them back on, and I looked very deeply into their serene, confident faces. The faces of protectors, the faces of heroes. And there was that buzz again. What was this new feeling? Why did I suddenly feel as though I finally made sense to myself?
My uncle’s apartment was small, but warm and cozy, the ancient radiators clinking away at their jobs, filling the room with heat and keeping the Michigan winter outside at bay. He had a small fake Christmas tree up in the living room, strung with multi-colored lights and silver glittering garland that sent the reflected light out in all directions. Near the tree, a giant bay window looked out onto the snowy street below. It was a deep bay window with thick cushions on the ledge for sitting. Or, if you were only the length of your average five-year-old, a perfectly sized bed that jutted out into the night, surrounded by windows on three sides.
Uncle Kob laid an old plaid sleeping bag on top of the cushions, rustled up a spare pillow and I crawled into my camping spot for the night on the kid-sized cushions of the bay window. He made sure I was comfortable and then went around the apartment turning off all the lights except for the Christmas tree, which continued to softly shine and glitter only a few feet from me. I remember him clicking on the living room radio, turning the volume low and turning the AM dial to the local station out of Ann Arbor that played nothing but Christmas music around this time. The small speakers lilted out a gentle choral rendition of “Silent Night”. He came back over to give me one last check. Was I comfortable? Yep. Was I warm in the sleeping bag? Uh-huh. Did I need to pee again? Nope. Okay… sounds good.
He gave me a hug and said , “Happy birthday, kiddo. Take care of Buttman and Robert tonight.” I giggled a sleepy giggle and promised I would. And with that, he went into his room and shut the door.
In the darkness, lit only by the Christmas tree, the small, faint glow of the radio and the warm light of the street lamp outside, I snuggled deeper into my uncle’s old sleeping bag, my belly content with tonight’s cheeseburger and fries, and in my hands, my two new toys. I held them outside of the sleeping bag for a bit, studying them further in the dim street light coming through the bay windows around me. Taking another look at their calming faces. And as I looked at them, I felt something wash over me. Something that made total sense. Something that told me that I had found a path in life, that will ensure that I am never too far away from what felt like friends. I understood, even at that young age, that whatever this feeling was, this comfort of having heroes, it can be with me for the rest of my life if I so choose. It can be a part of what I am. It will continuously and variously feed my imagination and drive it to new heights. And suddenly knowing who and what I am made me feel whole for the first time in my life.
Although I didn’t know how to define it at the time, this was the moment that I became a geek. I loved a fantastical something with all of my heart, and that love could be with me at all times. In the coming years, it would grow and change and manifest itself in countless varying ways. At times it would be difficult to explain to some people, but it would also be celebrated by others. And that love I felt for fantastic worlds and fictional characters would be divided and spread amongst countless fandoms, from schools of wizardry to galaxies far, far away. From whip-cracking archeologists to radioactive spider-powered teenagers. And it would prove to be an inexhaustible source, ready to be shared with new worlds and heroes. And the most shocking revelation out of all of this was that it felt so right. I felt so normal and whole. Finally.
With that warmth nestled deep in my chest, I rested Batman and Robin on my chest, making sure that they got their share of the sleeping bag, too. I then turned to look out the big bay windows, head resting on one of Uncle Kob’s pillows, watching the fat, lazy snowflakes, illuminated by the street lights, flutter down like glowing white embers, to the soft sound of the radio, now playing “O Holy Night”, and drifted off to sleep, knowing that this birthday was the one that would change me forever.
Beautifully written and a spot-on description of the spark that flamed your love of toys. Also just one of the reasons why I love “Uncle Kob”!
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That was a great read, you should like do a book or something!
Just seeing the Woolworth name brings back so many childhood memories. I can still smell the place at the mention of it. The toy aisle wasn’t quite on the level with the local department stores (Bradlees & Caldor) but I remember going there a lot.