My Stingray Christmas
A scant lifetime ago, when the world had not yet lost its luster, I was a young boy from a large family growing up happily in the East San Gabriel Valley region of Southern California. My memories begin to solidify in the early 1960's with the era of Beatlemania and the striking down of a young president. Historians tell us that these years marked the apex of American power and influence around the globe. Perceiving life through my comic book world, I knew nothing of this.
Being a klutz of sorts from what I suppose was a problem with depth perception, I had avoided organized sports and was late even in riding a bike. Playing marbles in the gutters of our cul-de sac and my love for comic books were the diversions of a boy who was painfully shy and reserved. My father had come from a rough part of Los Angeles and in seeking to shield his children from dangers and temptations, had forbade me from travelling any further than the street behind us. As I grew, it was my thorough curiosity and growing sense of independence that caused me to disobey this admonition.
There was an older boy who lived a few houses down that my parents frowned upon me playing with. Gary Hart was tall, quite intelligent, and more than a bit rebellious. We reenacted roles from the television shows of the time and most always he was Napoleon Solo while I was his partner Illya Kuryakin from "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." Gary even fabricated Walkie-Talkies from blocks of wood and old transistor radio antennas. We provided the squelch interference with our voices. It was glorious.
When the fullness of days had passed and I was ready to tackle riding a bike, my friend Brad Dutton had an ancient rusty thing that hung around the yard, I would ride it alongside the curb for many days so as to be able to arrest any impending falls, of which there were legion. It was only when I swallowed my fear and moved away from the curb, trusting my own powers of balance and independence, that I mastered the beast. I suppose bike riding freed me from the gnawing fear that besets so many people who must internalize the truth that confident action and self-reliance are paramount to success while tentativeness and second guessing are fatal. I learned that we are to remain in motion and push on through if we are going to get anywhere.
So rich was my fantasy life that I longed to be the superheroes from those comic books I adored. I loved their wild acrobatics and sarcastic dialogue when engaging their nefarious foes. Given that, I suppose that it should not have been surprising that I would fashion ramshackle costumes for myself and take to the streets in search of villains. Often, a tattered ski mask with a towel as a cape and an old army issue utility belt were just the right garb as I wandered the streets increasingly further away from my home in search of evil. The odd stares that I received I naturally assumed were those of awe and respect, as I jogged barefoot through the streets, generally encountering only laughter and an occasional startled dog.
But such derision is the life of a lonely and misunderstood hero and the sacrifices he must make to protect the hamlet that he loves. Occasionally, I had to tone down my flights of fancy when my identity became known and my father found out what his odd eldest son was doing. Moreover, an old aluminum trash can lid, which doubled as Captain America's mighty shield proved to be my downfall as I flung it expeditiously but errantly through the window of our garage. Alas, with great power comes great responsibility.
In a growing working class family, toys were scarce and generally reserved for the provenance of Christmas and birthdays. As Christmas approached that fateful year, I had let it be known that I was ready for that bike and my brother Gary heartily agreed with this request. Of course, my parents informed us that such extravagances were out of the question, given our precarious finances; and even my sly retort that Santa Claus could then bring them was not fully appreciated in the spirit that it was intended. If only they knew that with a bike I could canvass and protect the neighborhoods much more efficiently as a Super-Hero. However, prudence dictated that I keep this rationale to myself.
To a child, Christmas approaches with the cadence of an arthritic snail and on Christmas Eve our parents sent us to bed especially early. And so began the self-reflective agony children undergo when coming to grips with the question of whether they are worthy of their heart's desire. I fumbled between the existential (Had I indeed been good?) and the pragmatic (Is there the money for such treasures?). Deepening in anguish at the former question, my mind ran through that mental slide show of my parents at the dinner table trying to make my father's meager paycheck stretch even beyond the elastic limits of the Fantastic Four's Reed Richards. Succumbing finally to pessimism and despair, I drifted into the dreamless sleep of those who have abandoned all hope.
My next memory was my brother Gary shaking me awake in the pitch blackness of our room saying: "Glenn, there is something in the front room." In that silent hour before dawn, when half the world slumbers, we made our way into the living which was uncharacteristically pitch black. Feeling our way to where the tree should have been, I thought I saw a faint shimmer of light off something metallic that was chest high. Just then, my brother and I tripped over one another and like falling dominos, the sound of metal on metal came crashing down followed by a curse from my father. I cannot remember who turned on the lights, but when light suddenly bathed the room, I was regaled with a stunning spectacle. My father, who had been sleeping on the floor in the living room, lay underneath a pile of three bicycles and the horror of the image sent me fleeing back to my room to feign sleep and avoid culpability in this holiday fiasco.
That morning, against all hope, I had received my heart's desire. Both Gary and I received gold Stingray bicycles with chopped handlebars and the coolest banana style leopard print seat-truly the envy of our street. Before day had fully broken we were riding around the circle of our cul de-sac with pajamas still on. And as the sun rose into the sky behind our home, I remember my father, still exhausted, watching his sons from the garage. It was my Stingray Christmas, and I cherish it in the vault of my heart.
Only years later did I have the insight to understand how difficult it was for my parents to purchase those bikes -- what bills had to be left unpaid or sacrifices borne stoically. It taught me a lesson of the lengths that mothers and fathers went for their children in the days before easy credit. It was a world where adults diminished their own dreams for the sake of kids and government lived within its means and did not pile a mountain of debt upon the newborn. The family and government did not engage in an orgiastic spending for the here and now: A politics utterly contrary to the spirit of the heroic.
I still love the hero, but I have learned that they do not come in capes and cowls. They do not mysteriously hide their identities nor do they necessarily stand out in the crowd. So often they wear broken shoes and threadbare pants as they arise before dawn only to return to their homes at dusk; and they are as mundane to those who are ill-equipped to really see their heroics as birds upon a wire. After that special Christmas I ventured further out into the world that called me and began to more fully explore its treasures, eventually discarding my childish fantasies; but not too quickly. Something still inspires me to want to do great things, and I know this to be the Spirit of God in whom all great and wonderful aspirations congeal and find rest within.
Flying down that long great hill in my golden Stingray with the wind against my mask and my cape rippling behind made me realize that I longed for something more profound than I was capable of expressing. Many years hence, while watching the faces of my own children on Christmas morn basking in that same delight, I finally closed that precious circle. And with it, fulfilled that heroism that I had indeed been searching for, all the days of my life.