Let me just add that camDown and I am certain your neighbors would say the same.
Editor’s note: This Christmas story is from one of the books written by Sault-born author Tom Douglas
“Tommy, for crying out loud, stop it! Those things don’t grow on trees you know. And you just destroyed an heirloom my great-grandmother brought over from Scotland. You either stop that right now or I’m taking that bloody gun away from you.”
I knew my dad was bluffing. He’d destroyed that heirloom himself the year before. He’d accidentally knocked it off the Christmas tree after hoisting a little more than his usual quota of rye and water with some of his old army buddies who had shown up unannounced at our house on Christmas Eve. Dad could always perform his own version of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Whenever a former comrade-in-arms or two came to visit, there was enough booze to go around, even if the cupboard had seemed bare just before their arrival.
“Aw, Mel, let him be,” my mother retorted. “He’s having fun. You know he can’t go out and play in that storm. He’s been waiting for that gun for months. What’s a few ornaments?”
The centrepiece of this family drama was the Daisy Red Ryder BB gun I had spotted in the Eaton’s catalogue several weeks before. I had promptly announced with finality that it was the one present I wanted above all for Christmas.
My dad, to say the least, was displeased by this turn of events. Which was a real puzzlement to me because he had returned from the war not that long ago. He’d been a soldier, and soldiers had guns, didn’t they? What’s more, he had called me his little soldier in all those letters he had written from the front, wherever that was. This was really confusing because I loved my dad, despite some of the things he did when he was drinking. I wanted to be just like him. What was so bad about having a gun?
He actually tried to explain it to me. He said that, as an orderly room sergeant, he had never carried a gun himself. He told me that guns, any guns, were dangerous and he didn’t want me to have one. Then he got all choked up and couldn’t talk any more.
When I asked my mother why dad was so upset, she reminded me that he’d seen his best friend killed in the war and had promised himself that, if he came back alive, he would never have a gun in his house. She added that dad wasn’t really at his best these days because he was trying to cut down on his drinking, and he was having a bit of a hard time of it.
“But it’s not a real gun,” I argued. “I don’t want to kill anything. I just want to shoot at targets and tin cans and that kind of stuff.”
My mother smiled and said she’d see what she could do. But a strange thing happened. Over the days and weeks that followed, my dad remained adamant about not letting me have a BB gun. Nothing my mother could say would budge him. It was the first time that had ever happened. After a while, he relented a bit and said maybe I could have a popgun, but nothing that actually shot anything that could hurt anybody. To me, a popgun was something for little kids. I kept up my lobbying for the Daisy Company’s top-of-the-line BB gun.
With only a few days to go before Christmas Eve, I was desperate. Dad still refused to entertain the idea of me getting a BB gun, and I was at risk of being teased by my friends, since I’d already told them I was getting one for Christmas. Both Gerry Johnson and Bruce McDermid had told me confidently that they were getting the Red Ryder special, and, if I didn’t have one, I’d be out of the club. We didn’t actually have a club, but Gerry had heard the expression “out of the club” somewhere, and it sounded so ominous I redoubled my efforts to get that gun.
Gerry was one year older than Bruce and me and, when I finally confessed that it looked like the BB gun was out of the question, he came up with the solution to my predicament. He had already shaken our faith in Santa Claus by telling us it was really our parents who put all the gifts under the tree. I didn’t actually believe him, but when I woke up one time as my mother was putting a dime under my pillow and taking away a lost tooth, I started having my doubts. If there was no Tooth Fairy, could they have been lying to me and Greg all this time about Santa Claus?
Gerry suggested that his plan was foolproof. If all else failed, he said, tell your parents that you had asked Santa for the gun, and it would show up under the tree on Christmas Eve, especially if you hinted that you were doubting whether there was a Santa Claus after all. But then Gerry was also the guy who had told us that if we took a gold ring or brooch out of our mother’s jewel box and set it on a piece of flypaper on St. Patrick’s Day Eve, we’d catch a leprechaun, so I wasn’t really counting on his latest piece of advice working either.
However, I figured I had nothing to lose, so when it looked like I had run out of options, I told my parents that I had written a letter to Santa and dropped it off at the post office on my way to school. A look passed between them at that point, and for the first time since I’d settled on the gun as my main Christmas gift, I thought I might have a shot at my dream coming true.
Years later, I was to learn that one of the reasons my mother hadn’t put as much pressure on my dad as she might have to let me have the gun was that she had already spent all of her Christmas money buying presents from the catalogue. A BB gun would take a large bite out of the household budget. But somehow, when it became apparent that my Christmas would be less than merry if I didn’t have that gun, she came up with the funds.
My joy knew no bounds that Christmas morning when I ran into the living room and there, tied up in a big red bow, was the Red Ryder BB gun I had been coveting for so long. I think I even kissed it.
The only disappointment was that a fierce snowstorm had struck overnight and the blizzard conditions precluded my going outside to set up one of the paper targets that came with the BB gun.
My mother, as must be fairly obvious by now, couldn’t stand seeing a look of disappointment on her children’s faces. She had had a Cinderella childhood herself—living with a less-than-loving grandmother from the age of eight, after her own mother had died. Her only dolls were cut-outs from magazines, and she and her sister—my Aunt Betty—were expected to do all the housework, including scrubbing the pine floors throughout the house on hands and knees. They even had to pick out the splinters this job inevitably produced, all by themselves.
Thus, my mother’s main purpose in life—other than loving my dad with a passion that died only when she did—was to make her kids’ existence as pleasant as possible. So when I couldn’t go outside to try out my new BB gun, my mother suggested I take a few pot shots at the ornaments hanging from the branches of our Christmas tree. Her reasoning was that replacing a few cheap baubles was a small price to pay for her son’s happiness. Self-absorbed little twit that I was, I thought her idea was a terrific solution to the problem at hand.
But like all kids, I soon got bored with the game. It was so easy shattering the shiny balls that just hung there on the branch—especially once I found out I was a pretty fair shot—probably almost as good as Buffalo Bill Cody or Annie Oakley. And besides, my dad was ranting about how my mother was spoiling me rotten. I figured I should maybe put the gun away until the storm died down—both inside and outside our home.
It's really great when someone asks you to do something they think you won’t want to do and you’ve already decided to do it anyway. That’s what happened later Christmas Day when I was helping my mother prepare for Christmas dinner by cutting the raisins in half for the rice pudding that was a holiday tradition at our house. I suspected, rightly so as I found out years later, that my mother had invented the job of cutting raisins in half to keep me occupied while she was trying to get things ready. I had been bugging her to let me help and that’s the job she’d come up with.
While she was making the pastry for another family tradition, meat pies, she casually asked me if I would do her a big favour. Still infused with the Christmas spirit, I agreed without trying to get her to tell me what she wanted before promising to do her bidding.
“Well,” she said softly, “I didn’t realize how much it bothers your dad to see you firing that BB gun in the house. He has enough to handle at the moment, and I was wondering if you’d mind putting the gun away for a little while—at least until after we get Christmas out of the way.”
The hug of gratitude I got when I came back to the kitchen after sliding the rifle under my bed was worth ten BB guns.
The winter storm that had set in Christmas morning took a full week to blow itself out. But New Year’s Day dawned bright and sunny through the bedroom window. And there was something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on at first that had my spirits soaring. Then it hit me. I didn’t smell stale booze and the stench of overflowing ashtrays like I had on so many mornings since dad got back from the war.
Where New Year’s Eve over the past few years had been a mad blur of tipsy visitors turning into noisy revellers as the midnight hour approached, last night had seen my mother and father play 500 Rummy with another couple. A few beers had been consumed, but the loudest sound was friendly laughter, and the evening was over by 10: 30 p.m.
It was a wonderful experience to get out of bed, put on my slippers and robe, and walk quietly through a living room that looked normal and not like the aftermath of a barroom brawl. Dad was sitting at the kitchen table reading a copy of Ring Magazine—he was a big boxing fan—and sipping a cup of coffee.
“Hi there, Tommy,” he said with a bright smile. No hangover here. “I’m glad you’re up. I’ve been thinking about your BB gun, and I figured as long as you already have it you should learn how to use it safely. I’ve set up those bull’s-eye targets that came with it and a few tin cans out on the back porch. After breakfast, I thought we could do a bit of target practice.”
Despite his dislike of guns, dad was a pretty fair shot. He explained that he had had to learn how to use a rifle during his training before he went to war. But he’d seen what guns could do and he couldn’t help feeling that any weapon could only lead to violence. He made me promise that I would never point the BB gun at any living creature and that I would only use it for target practice.
I enjoyed that time with my father. I’d like to be able to say that a Christmas miracle had happened and that he stopped drinking completely. He didn’t, of course, but he did cut down considerably. There was the odd fallback whenever his old army buddies dropped by. And he had a bit of a bad session when the anniversary of D-Day rolled around, but life gradually became a bit more normal in the Douglas household.
As for the BB gun, after I showed it to Gerry and Bruce to prove I really had gotten it for Christmas, I used it less and less frequently, finally leaving it under my bed for weeks at a time without thinking about it. Just like in the movies, where the hero finally hangs up his guns and decides to live a peaceful life, I had nothing more to prove.
Former Sault journalist Tom Douglas, now an author and freelance writer based in Oakville, Ont., has donated to SooToday's Twelve Days of Christmas campaign the fee he would normally charge for the publication of three chapters from his book 'To Wawa with Love'. These Christmas stories are being featured here over three consecutive days. He can be reached at [email protected]
As you may know !