I know how the father in A Christmas Story felt when he won the Leg Lamp. I, too, have won awards. My glory days are behind me, but I used to be pretty lucky at drawings. When I was a kid, the hardware store in my hometown had prize drawings at Christmas. (The store also sold toys; I got my first new bike there.) One Christmas, I won a ping pong set, which would have been a much bigger deal if my family had a ping pong table or any space to put one. We tried to use the dining room table, which did not go over well. Still, the paddles had many other inventive, if not abusive, uses. Ask Julie, my sister.
I was on a roll in those days. Around the same time I won the ping pong set, I also won a major award during a family trip.
My family took summer vacations in which all six of us would spend a week together on an excursion to the Rockies or some other great American destination. We considered a trip successful if it did not result in threats of infanticide. We traveled in a pickup with a camper on top. Six people in a camper little bigger than a tomato can. Oh, the fun we had. I still have bruises from fights my brother and I engaged in while riding in the loft above the truck cab. My parents warned us before we left home that they would turn around and go home at the first sign of fighting. And if we thought they were kidding, just try them. Yes, we would see who was laughing then. And we better wipe that smirk off our face, Mister, if we didn’t want it wiped for us.
Sometimes we made it fifty miles into a trip before my brother Jeff and I started whaling on each other. Julie encouraged it because she knew we otherwise would turn our attention to her. My younger brother Robert got to ride up front with Mom and Dad. We still hate him for it. The parents never made good on their threat to turn back, but Dad, who never drank, slowed the truck to a crawl in front of a few liquor stores. He also parked in front of a gun store once and wept quietly, but we don’t bring that up at family reunions.
We had a Dreamer camper that we bought in Des Moines. It replaced another Dreamer camper we had that was even smaller. In true seventies style, the interior of the new one was all turquoise Formica and blond plywood. The year we got the new camper, we took it to Bowling Green, Kentucky for a Dreamer convention, which is just as exciting as it sounds—a bunch of people with Dreamer campers either coveting or turning up their noses at other Dreamer campers.
We stayed at the campground connected to Beech Bend, which was an amusement park of questionable repute. (I’m sure it’s much better now.) Besides talking about all things Dreamer, campers (the human kind) were entertained by so-so comedians and bad country music acts which made the one-hour trip north from Nashville. I was more of a Jackson 5 aficionado in those days, so the music was not to my tastes. The best part was at night when we went to the amusement park where I became a bit of a Skee Ball pro. That’s also where I saw my first drunk vomiter, and it was impressive. A couple of guys walked along the midway and one of them hurled without breaking stride, like it was something he did every night. Perhaps it was.
Beech Bend, a classy place if ever there was one, also had a drag strip. Every day, the convention organizers made announcements and put on little shows there. They also held drawings for special prizes like game tickets at the amusement park, a meal at Sizzlers and such. I wanted those amusement park tickets to feed my growing Skee Ball addiction. One day, out of hundreds of Dreamerites, my name was called. As I made my way down the aisle, I sensed the envy of everyone in the crowd. What had I won? Perhaps a free hamburger at McDonalds, a new GI Joe or a nifty set of Hot Wheels cars? If I wasn’t so lucky to get something for myself, it could be something my parents could use, such as a set of barbecue tongs and mitts. I descended amid the noisy applause of my fellow campers, and I could sense the heat of Jeff’s eyes drilling hate holes in my back. I always won things, he said, while he never did. He hadn’t gotten over my winning the ping pong set.
When I made it down to the bottom of the grandstands, the announcer presented my prize: a huge stuffed animal—a white and turquoise poodle. Dow chemists had yet to perfect fake fur that was soft to the touch. This faux canine had all the cuddliness of forty grit sandpaper. And it was ugly. Ugly and girly. No twelve-year-old boy, not even a Jackson 5 fan, should be seen in public with a fru fru stuffed poodle with turquoise ears and rump fluff. What if a photographer from the Bowling Green newspaper had been there to document the handoff? Missouri boy accepts gift meant for a girl, the caption would say. I wanted to say “no thanks” and return to my seat. But this was, after all, something I had won. One did not turn down something that had been won fair and square, even a stuffed poodle. I accepted my prize and climbed the steps to my seat as the crowd again applauded. This time, however, their applause was meek, and perhaps a bit uncomfortable.
My parents looked embarrassed. Jeff smirked. I was too ashamed to be seen holding the white and turquoise monstrosity any longer, so I handed the dog to seven-year-old Julie. Oh, the delight in her eyes. Her older brother had finally given her a large, beautiful stuffed animal (made of questionable material that may or may not have been toxic to human touch). He really did care, she thought. This was proof of a benevolent God.
No. As soon as we returned to the camper, I took back the dog. “I just gave it to you to hold for awhile,” I said. Julie cried. Jeff smirked more. My parents had bigger issues to deal with than who should possess an ugly stuffed poodle. I didn’t care. I had won the thing, and I was going to keep it.
And I did, for awhile, in the room I shared with my two brothers. Eventually, though, I came to my senses and gave it to Julie permanently. Perhaps my conscience overpowered my immaturity. Or maybe I realized how stupid the dog looked in my bedroom next to football items. If a stuffed poodle with turquoise ears and rump fluff sounds like something you’d like, I’m sure it’s still out there somewhere. Its material certainly was not biodegradable. I don’t think it would burn either. If it did, the fumes would kill you.
P.S. Buy some books, will ya? I got a kid in college.