As soon as it showed up, I pounced on it. I was ten or eleven years old. Think West Germany in the 1950s. (Oh sure.) We were living in a fine third-floor apartment at Rhein-Main AFB near Frankfurt. Barely-used housing for Luftwaffe pilots’ families, actually, one of the nicest places our family had ever lived. We even had a maid who had her own room in the basement.
The Sears Christmas catalog was a window to the States. That’s what we called it, the States, as in “back in the States,” etc. Thanks to the military, you could actually order things by mail and have them sent, just like you were living in Wisconsin. The grownups could, at least. I had to save my twenty-five cents per week allowance so I could buy the latest Jerry Lee Lewis 45-rpm single* in the PX. Around a dollar, if I remember right, so maybe once a month. In any case, you have to understand how culturally isolated American dependents in Europe were back then. There wasn’t any television (it having barely been invented), just Armed Forces Network radio and a few outdated magazines and comic books. As a kid that young, I didn’t feel deprived. But when that catalog came, it made America seem like this incredible place: just look at what they have there!
But of course I had few resources. The only thing I could do was show my parents what I really, really, wanted and hope that Santa would come through. It was the most excruciating ordeal, replicated decades later whenever I needed help and asked my mother for a loan.
Suffice it to say I rarely got the gun or game or flying-rolling-throwing thing I wanted. Once they did give me a chemistry set I’d had my eye on, probably in hopes of steering me away from art and into science—I wonder what I wanted to make?—but usually our fondest wishes were sublimated to the glory of the Family Present. This was supposed to be something everyone would like and partly own. One big toy for all of us, also from the selfsame catalog, which really meant whatever my father wanted for himself. Not that I’d do anything differently in his shoes today.
Sometimes he chose wisely. This one Christmas in West Germany in the 1950s, though, in the sleek apartment formerly inhabited by the families of German officers trained to kill the old man’s comrades a mere dozen years before, the family present was a thing no one had yearned for, a remotely-controlled green plastic ladybug thing the size of half a basketball that you wound up and set down on the floor. The reason he was fascinated with it was that you controlled it with a whistle: toot one way, the thing turned right. Toot the other way, the thing turned left. That’s it, that’s all it did, it crawled along the floor and made a noise and when you tooted, it would turn. For ten minutes this was the greatest marvel anyone had ever seen. Well, five.
Any subversive potential the contraption held, as in say, sending it into the kitchen to harass the maid or scare my sister in the bathroom, was ruined because you had to blow that whistle, which I think we lost or someone threw away. I soon moved on to other things like model planes or killing butterflies or actual books and gave up on the catalog just like they planned.
We got back to the States in the summer of ’58. “Willie and the Hand Jive” was rocking American Bandstand on the little black and white screen in my grandmother’s house that July, and Sears was just another store.
* This was on the London label from the UK, not imported from the States.