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Great memories of Christmas pasts
Christmas Jeff1
Jeff Benziger (left) and brother Kevin opened up a gift of a metal toy train for Christmas 1964 or 1965 in Milpitas, Calif. He wishes he still had it today. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

The Courier has been asking various community members to share their Christmas experiences in the past. Last week we published the experiences written by Angela Durossette, Lenora Caulton, Sheryl Reynders Trout, Art McRae, Liz Pleau Hosmer and Patricia Cousins. This week we have stories from Lt. Chris Perry, Helen Fillice Condit, Angie Smith, Pennie Skittone Rorex and Valli Wigt.

I used to get so excited about Christmas that I once literally got a stomach ache on Dec. 24. It wasn't just the anticipation of opening the presents -- it was also the anticipation of family coming over to fill the house with words, warmth, hugs, and okay, more gifts.

Thoughts of Christmas take me back to my days as a boy and to the people in my family who are gone. The memories of them are stronger than the memories of the gifts. Christmas invariably included a visit with my great-grandparents, my great aunt and uncle, cousins and others.

Things have changed and kids today usually don't get the privilege of pouring over the Sears or J.C. Penney catalogues in search of the perfect gift. I remember circling a lot of items, hoping to get a fraction of what I hoped to get.

Perhaps because of the Kodak slides of those early Christmases I remember playing with a metal toy train that produced smoke as we'd wear our flannel PJ's. In 1965, toys were made of metal, not plastic. I wish I had kept that train in the box for it would be highly collectible today.

Granddaddy - he was my mother's father - would always buy us pop rifles. They only popped, mind you, unlike the Red Ryder B-B guns that could put your eye out, kid. For several years in a row he'd buy those rifles because we'd wear out the ones from the year before. In those days it was politically acceptable for little boys to tote around pretend carbines since we were interested in being good little cowboys, not twisted sick people who use weapons to kill kindergartners today.

I remember for one Christmas in the 1960s my brother Kevin and I got this Creepy Crawlers kit where we could make rubber items like scorpions, insects and other creatures by pouring this goop in a metal mold and heating it up. I can almost remember the smell it produced and I certainly remember the burnt smells produced by our wood burning kits. I liked gifts that allowed us to be creative.

I later got into GAF Viewmasters - big time. I'd escape the confines of our house and go all over the world with me eyes peering into the device, seeing the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon. Other packets allowed me to visit Disneyland or Yosemite or Washington, D.C. And when GAF developed the talking Viewmaster, I made sure it was on my Christmas wish list. That was the Christmas I distinctly remember feeling my gifts through the wrapping to make sure it was a talking Viewmaster. When Mom wasn't around, I confess to having ripped the paper enough to find out which three-pack Viewmaster reels she bought me. Kids are such masters are squeezing, shaking and hearing gifts to find out what they are. No kid is ever surprised. They just know what you got them by a sort of Christmas osmosis. That's why one time my Mom wrapped up a bunch of garbage that included a jar of seeds, to stump us rascals. She'd laugh at our inability to discern that was inside.Once I accidentally - no, really -- walked out into the garage as my Dad and my mom's cousin Jackie were assembling my bike complete with banana seat. I was mortified to have spoiled the surprise.

When I was about 10 I got into performing magic tricks and I was given this magic kit with cool tricks that include a small top hat where I could make things disappear, including a two-inch-tall rubber bunny rabbit. I later abandoned everything when my grandmother suggested that magic was the "work of the devil." I think she overreached on that conclusion but it ended things for this good Christian boy.The performer in me later wanted a ventriloquist doll. My plastic Danny O'Day doll could only move his mouth, not his eyes, so I tried my best to get him to speak without moving my lips. Around 1973 my brother got Lester, a black ventriloquist doll popularized by Willie Tyler.

That was the year I got the latest tape recorder. I was allowed to open up the gift early on Christmas eve so I could go around the Christmas gathering and interview relatives, sometimes inserting my smart-aleck impersonation of President Nixon. On a visit to my grandmother's house in Delhi, my cousins wanted to speak into the mike and they thought it would be cute to say some dirty words they would later find would haunt them. With evidence on the cassette, I played it back for their dad, who ordered them into the bedroom for a quick administration of justice courtesy of the belt he pulled off his waist. Gosh that was a traitorous thing for a cousin to do. Come to think of it, that was probably the last time I had encounters with them.

One really cool gift I received one year was this multi-band portable radio where I could tune into weather stations, AM-FM, short wave radio and ham operators. It had a deep rich tone and was probably wider than I was.

I received numerous walkie-talkies in Christmases past. Of course, living in the isolated country of Stanislaus County didn't allow me to interact with many people but when the voice of a mysterious girl about my age came through the crackling signals, I develop my first heartache of puppy love. I still remember a pitter-patter in my heart at age 12 to be speaking with this young lady who was, by my estimation, less than three miles away. She told me her name was Cindy and that she was visiting relatives from Indiana. She sounded like a real cutie. I wanted to meet but ... nah, I was 12. Such are the first stirrings - stupid and irrational -- of a young boy who has just realized the opposite gender is something quite magical. I was heartbroken when my repeated calls for her went unanswered. She was gone.

Walkie-talkies never seemed to survive beyond three months' worth of use. Those were the days when they came with telescoping metal antennas. They later made them these stubby rubber things so you couldn't stab yourself or others with them.

My maternal grandmother who lived on El Capitan Way in Delhi gave us small toys and an outfit of clothing. I'm ashamed to say that us boys could care less about clothes as gifts. I wish I had her today to tell her how much I loved her and appreciated the love in those gifts that I didn't really appreciate at the time.

As I grew up the pampering of the gifts grew less and less, as I was expected to be the giver, not so much the receiver. I remember the disappointing task in the late 1970s of cashing in my Kennedy half dollars to come up with Christmas money; the coin dealer offered me a fraction of what I was hoping to get. My gift giving didn't go far since I was a teen and didn't have a job.

Through the raising of four children, I enjoyed the magic of Christmas through their eyes and their excitement. Embedded in my mind is a photo of my youngest son, Jeremy, with his face filled with wonder as his eyes are lit up by the sights on Christmas Tree Lane in Ceres.

Now it's payback time. Today I am the grandfather buying gifts for my four grandsons and a granddaughter. My children, now adults, of course, ask me what I want for Christmas and I tell them "world peace." That's the hint that I really don't need or expect much.

I've had a wonderful life. I have led a blessed life with plenty of love from plenty of ones who loved me past and present. I have been too familiar with plenty, so much so that I cannot relate to my grandmother telling me that the only way she knew it was Christmas as a child was the telltale scent of oranges that were their only gifts. And to think that today I am still awaiting frivolous gifts like that Christmas Story leg lamp.

Merry Christmas!

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