About a year ago Mom gave me a green plastic tub filled with memorabilia from my childhood, salvaged from a cedar chest that had been a fixture of the family living room since I was born. The family dog had broken a foot on the chest and finally it was beyond repair. Mom excavated its contents and set them aside for me and my brother.
Inside were old report cards, letters home from summer camp, the hand-sewn Superman cape my grandmother made for me, all sorts of sentimentalities and embarrassments from times long gone. There was also what is quite likely the oldest surviving specimen of my handwriting, a letter to Santa Claus, my signed name bearing a W that was actually an upside-down M as I had trouble with that concept throughout Mrs. Dudley's five-year-old kindergarten.
The envelope was still sealed.
By fourth grade I learned what the deal is with Santa Claus, and he and I have been good on that since. Yet any sealed letter to him still represents a wish, potentially one that is unfulfilled. The contents of this note could be wonderful or they could be heartbreaking, especially as I am more than 30 years past asking Santa, or really anyone, for a Christmas present.
Curiosity ultimately won out, and I slid a butter knife through the adhesive to learn what I had asked for.
The letter was in purple crayon, on an oatmeal-colored piece of scrap newsprint from the pressroom at the paper Dad published — and he wasn't even a year into that job when this was written. The letter would remind most of an old coloring book page, but it takes me back to the old composing room, its air tangy with photographic chemicals, the thrum and clack of the press and its cutter downstairs.
It was clear this letter was written no earlier than December 1978. The year before, when Star Wars released, Kenner was caught flatfooted by the craze for the movie and had no action figures in the pipeline for Christmas that year. They literally sold an IOU for the holidays and, unbelievably, it sold very well. Also, in my request to Santa, four of the toys were from Battlestar Galactica, and that show did not debut until early 1978.
At the head of the list was "TALL LUKE," the 12-inch "large size action figure" version of Luke Skywalker — with removable lightsaber — my brother and my cousin and I had first spied with holy-shit wonder at a Rose's in Charlotte. Then came "LASER RIFLE," which was the Stormtrooper gun my best friend Richard had, the one with a three-position stock and a black-and-yellow barber pole in the barrel that spun when you held the trigger.
Six toys in all, written down on a letter to Santa Claus that Dad promised to mail, then probably put in his desk, and then later in the cedar chest. Six toys in a childhood plea never delivered to a nonexistent benefactor.
I got every one of them.
That isn't ex post facto sentiment. I have clear memories of playing with all of those toys. Not only did my brother and I get the LASER RIFLE and TALL LUKE, we also got a large-size Chewbacca and Han Solo's dashing pistol. I remember my mother grimacing, still conscientiously objecting to any play weapons in the house three years after Vietnam. For our birthdays earlier that year we were given a set of those those amazingly crappy inflatable lightsabers, and Mom preferred that my brother and I swat each other with those. But the sabers were, literally, a flashlight, a vinyl tube and a patch kit that Dad quickly tired of using. Mom relented to her two boys' need to play hero, and we lurked around corners and hid behind furniture, interrupting The Doobie Brothers or Barry Manilow on the living room hi-fi with our chirping blaster fire.
To Mom and Dad and to all of our parents, on behalf of a grateful generation of girls and boys whose rapid-fire, highly specific and illegible requisitions you could barely comprehend and yet somehow still fulfilled to the letter, from the bottom of all our excited little hearts, now so old, thank you.
And may the Force be with you.