I was 10 in 1957, and all I wanted for Christmas that year was a record player. Not just any record player, but a state-of-the-art red with white top portable fold-up unit that could play 45s as well as albums and, yes, 78s.
You know that kid Ralphie in the movie A Christmas Story (1983) who really, really wanted a Red Ryder B.B. gun in the 1940s? Well, that was me in the '50s, except I thought life would not be worth living unless Santa, or Old Santa Claus as my Dad called him, delivered the record player.
I knew we didn't have much money back then, but I never considered us poor. Poor people didn't have much of anything to eat. I'm not saying we had meat every night, though. Supper in our modest little neighborhood on the southeast side of Grand Prairie (between Dallas and Fort Worth) often included a creative combination of leftovers Mother called hash. Or we dined on cornbread and red beans.
Dad, who always dreamed of busting out to bigger things (not unlike this scribe), walked rain or shine the three or four blocks to and from The Plant five days a week, carrying a jet black lunch box. Chance Vought Aircraft was the official name of the aircraft factory at the time. I never heard Dad call it anything other than The Plant. And for the short periods of time my brother Lannie and I worked there later, it was The Plant for us as well.
I wasn't worried about disrupting the family budget for something as extravagant as a $19.95 state-of-the-art red with white top portable fold-up record player that could play 45s as well as albums and, yes, 78s. After all, that one would be on Santa, not the meager Ratliff family budget.
At first I hinted. After all, I was clearly headed for some kind of career in show business. All I had at the time was the desire, and that desire for some kind of spotlight in the performing arts was definitely my destiny. (I proved that a few years later when I was awarded the privilege of announcing fried chicken specials over the loudspeaker while working as a checker at Safeway.)
As Christmas drew near, I panicked and spelled out succinctly and with gusto how necessary the red record player with the cool white top was to my future.
It was three days before Christmas in 1957 when my Mother and Dad pulled up in front of the A&P on Main Street with me in the backseat and issued specific instructions:
"We'll be back in a few minutes," Dad said. "You wait right here."
I saw my parents walk past A&P and duck into Skillern's drugstore next door. Like the good son I thought I was, I did wait in the car.
For a minute. Then I made a fatal mistake that still haunts me to this day, let's see, 57 years later.
I slithered out of our Chevy and hugged the A&P wall until I reached the plate glass at Skillern's. Sticking just enough of my face in front of the window to get a peek with one eye, I saw my Dad talking to a clerk. The $19.95 state-of-the-art red with white top portable fold-up record player that could play 45s as well as albums and, yes, 78s was on the counter between them and Dad was reaching for his wallet in his left pocket.
Elated, I was just about to turn and sneak back to the car when a chill shot up my spine that took decades to fade and still lingers deep down inside today. My Dad spotted me in the window and our eyes locked; a hurtful look of a trust broken in his, terror in mine.
Before my feet got the signal from my startled brain to get the heck out of there, time froze. I remember seeing my Dad shake his head "No thanks, I changed my mind" to the clerk as his hand eased his wallet back into its resting place.
When my parents got back in the car, nothing was said. I knew what that meant. And my folks knew that I knew. The rest of the usually festive days leading up to Christmas Day were a stunned blur. Mother made her wonderful fudge as usual; loaded with pecans for everyone except me with a little plate just for me with no nuts.
The fudge didn't seem quite as sweet that year. My life was over. How would I ever find my place in the spotlight without the red-and-white record player to foster my love for music, to hear Bill Haley & His Comets sing Rock Around the Clock? The only song running through my head on Christmas Eve that year was Buddy Holly and the Crickets singing That'll Be the Day (when I die).
My brother beat me to the Christmas tree that year. I wasn't exactly feeling it, if you know what I mean. From behind him, though, I got a glimpse of something red and white. Then, all of a sudden, there it was, my very own $19.95 state-of-the-art red with white top portable fold-up record player that could play 45s as well as albums and, yes, 78s!
That's why I believe in Old Santa Claus. And forgiveness. And second chances. And that's why I always will.