Most folks have taken down their lights and packed away their Christmas decorations for the year, but AFP reader Macas sent in a story from his childhood that put me right back in the holiday spirit. It’s a story about the one toy that would make or break his Christmas – and change his life forever. He now makes a living as a toy dealer, buying and selling toy collections, so he’s living the dream!
Spoiler alert – no tongues get stuck to flagpoles, but I can’t promise he didn’t shoot his eye out with a laser blaster.
The Year of the Death Star by Macas
It was Christmas morning, 1979. I had made it clear in the months leading up to December 25th, to both my mom and Santa Claus, that there was one thing I wanted that Christmas. The Star Wars Death Star. Christmas Eve was when we opened all of our presents from loved ones. Grandma, Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, Immediate Family, were all there, ripping open gifts with reckless abandon, in a cacophony of ‘Wow!’, ‘mommy look!’, ‘this is so awesome!’, all at the same time. My father policed the gift openings by lording over all of us with a large garbage bag, in which his dad sized hands grabbed all of the discarded wrapping paper. Each gift, came and went. No Death Star. No more presents. Shit.
However, “This is a special year”, said my Mom, because she had the opportunity to put in extra hours at work, with an overtime multiplier. ‘Hmmm, ok. This was a positive development,’ I thought. She gathered my brother, sister and me into her bedroom, where she dug in the closet and handed us each one more wrapped, ‘big present’. I was especially excited about my present, because it was really huge. Could this be the Death Star!? I surveyed my gift box and realized that it was about the same size that my Star Wars Millennium Falcon came in for my birthday, so could it be? My sister opened her present first; a brand new ski jacket. My brother opened his next, a gigantic model of a luxurious year one Chevy Corvette (He was especially good at building things, even winning prizes at the county fair for his model building. My only ribbon came when my 5th grade team took 2nd in the kickball tournament). It was my turn! I had just opened my Chewbacca, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker Kenner action figures earlier that night. It was all or nothing. Let me just say, the smell of the Kenner Star Wars figures, when it was newly out of the package, was a magical aroma that sent me into childhood bliss. The only smell that ever came close to this was the sweet candy smell of bubble gum that used to be inside every pack of football cards that I opened.
I digress. This was sure to be, the piece de resistance to my evening. I tore away at the paper, only to find that it was the Star Wars Star Destroyer playset. A very cool present, but NOT the Death Star. My mom was so excited about giving us these extra presents, and started to get tears in her eyes, when I didn’t look pleased. The year before, Santa had brought me a train set, instead of the Death Star, so she was very tuned in to what I did and DID NOT want. She then said, “Tony, they were out of the Death Star. I called both JC Penney’s & Sears catalogs. I went to Montgomery Wards, Ben Franklin, Kmart, and so on. None of them had the Death Star, so please tell me you love your gift.” At this point, I felt awful how I had treated her. I turned and gave her a hug, saying “It’s ok mom, I love it. It’s the next best thing to the Death Star” (Lies, lies, & more lies). There was no ‘next best thing’ to the Death Star.
This was the time in life, Christmas of 1979, where I officially became obsessed for the first time. From this Christmas on, I would always buy two of each Star Wars figure, one to keep in the package and one to play with. I made every attempt to recapture the awe that came from my experience that holiday night. Before that, I was pretty normal when it came to toys and collecting. Up to that point in my life, it was the Super Friends figures (which were actually dolls, but I never dared to utter the “d” word), football cards & a smidgen of Star Wars. Sure, I dabbled in other toys. After all, what are you going to do when someone’s passing around the weaponized Hot Wheels & occasional Big wheel, right? (there’s a Batman Begins reference in there somewhere). After all, it was 1979. This was right before video games took over every child’s imagination, so I had to put my loyalties somewhere. Star Wars figures & playsets became all that I thought about. My obsession would get so crazy, that I would ride my bike from one side of the city, to the next, a good 5 miles just to go to Montgomery Wards department store and take the Star Wars figures I couldn’t buy, or didn’t have, and would hide them in places such as the dishwashers and towels so no one else could have them either. That seems a bit bat shit crazy, right? And in case you’re wondering, no, it never evolved into rocking in my seat like a madman or into carrying around wet wipes to avoid germs.
Anyway, back to the Christmas that changed everything. That evening as the adults settled in with Eggnog and visiting, I opened my toys and began to assemble my Star Destroyer. As people began to go to bed, my mom consoled me by saying, “Who knows, maybe Santa Claus had the elves make you a Death Star or maybe he was able to find one at a store?” ‘So you’re saying there’s a chance’, that was all I needed to hear. All hope was no longer lost. It was like Tom Hanks on Castaway finding the porta-poddy door in the water. Even though Santa hung me out to dry with that lousy train set last year, maybe he’d come through this year with the Death Star. At last, there was finally some hope and bounce back in my step so I set Chewie, Darth & the rest of my figures up by the end table of the couch in the basement. Grandma got my bed, and since I was low man on the three child totem pole, I got stuck with the couch. I fell asleep imagining how the figures that were staring back at me, were going to look in a Death Star. A Star Destroyer and the Death Star. I would be the toast of my elementary school.
All of a sudden I shot up in the dark, to the soft multi-colored hue of the basement Christmas lights that my brother hung on his door. He arranged them around his KISS poster, but were still somehow festive. I looked at the beer sign clock hanging on the wall and it said 3:05 AM. I feverishly went and searched for a flashlight in my Dad’s work bench area. Found it! I quietly tipped toed up the stairs, hoping not to scare away Santa Claus in case I was about to catch him in the act of leaving me my Death Star. I crept into the living room and there were 3 distinct piles, for all 3 of us kids, like he always left us. First was my sister’s pile. The requisite big orange and apple, chapstick, gum, candy, the game of Risk and skis! Wow! Santa was En Fuego this year! I moved on to what was clearly my brother’s pile. Apple, check, orange, check, gum, chapstick, check, check. There was his game, Stratego. And there it was, his own Bowling Ball! Oh yeah!!! My heart was beating so fast I thought it was going to come up my throat. My hands began to tremble as I turned my flashlight on the last mound of presents. You see, Santa never bothered to wrap our presents for Christmas morning. Instead, he would construct them and have them sitting out so we could immediately settle in for some play time before heading up north to my other Grandma’s house. Ok, so fruit, candy, gum, and….. a Connect 4 game. I looked to the left, to the right and THAT WAS IT!! Nothing more! I gasped and began to cry. What on earth had I done to receive such an injustice!?! My sister had already been caught smoking, and she gets skis? But I get a lousy Connect 4 game as my coup de gras? Oh the humanity! That lousy, stinking, mother f#*ing Santa Claus! From this moment on, we were going to be arch enemies. I had even prayed every night for the entire month of December (despite falling asleep in the middle of a few Hail Mary’s) that I could stay good & decent. This was my reward? I stood up, turned around, crying my eyes out, and made my way back down stairs to the couch. I was at the lowest of the low. I had hit rock bottom already, at 10 years old! To be fair to Santa Claus, two years earlier I gave him the unenviable task of producing the entire 1977 Topps Minnesota Vikings football card series. He failed and I let him know it, through a surrogate; Mom.
The next morning, I awoke to my mother softly shaking my shoulders. “Santa Claus came last night, aren’t you going to see what he brought you?” she said in the sweetest voice that immediately made me melt. Then, all of a sudden, the horror of the previous night washed over me. “No, no, no!” I stubbornly shouted. “All he got me was some lousy Connect 4 game! I saw last night, so he can ‘sit on it’.” Sit on it, was of course a phrase in 1979 that meant someone could go F*ck themselves, thanks to the TV show Happy Days. “Are you sure?” My mom retorted gingerly, clearly knowing something that I didn’t! ‘Ok fine, I’ll humor her’. So I stomped up the steps to see my brother posing with his ball and my sister swooshing with her skis through the living room. Then I saw my rinky dink pile. Poor me. Then, out of the corner of my eye, my sister stepped to the right to reveal a fully set up, loaded, completely awesome and brand new DEATH STAR!!! OH MY GOD!! What had I done!? I had gone and cursed Santa Claus, and here I was only suffering from poor night vision. This was the best Christmas ever!! I ran to the Death Star, fell to my knees and stared in awe. Wow, what a magnificent piece of art, toy, and source of future pleasure. I had worn away that page in the Sears catalog by staring at that ‘other’ child playing with the Death Star, at least once a day. I was awash with pure joy and wonderment! I was the happiest I had ever been. Santa came through for me! I said a quick ‘I’m sorry’ to the sky and ran back downstairs to get my figures. It was play time!
It was this singular moment, where I learned that the smallest thing could transform my happiness, simply by equipping me with the tools to stimulate my imagination and feed my true love. 34 Years later, as I look over to the shelves where I have superheroes & star wars figures still displayed, I am reminded that this all came from somewhere. I don’t need to duplicate that moment in 1979, but was definitely a profound experience that shaped my collecting appetite. In case there are children reading this, I’ll keep his true name anonymous. But let’s just say, through Santa’s acts of love, generosity & sacrifice, I came to understand the meaning of Christmas. It was about the majesty of mystery and the elation of making my child hood dream come true. Thank you, you know who you are 😉
I asked Macas what became of his Star Wars collection. He told me his collection of Star Wars figures and playsets had gotten so big it had taken over an entire room in his house – when he started a family, he sold the collection to make way for a baby nursery. The buyer of that collection used it to open a vintage toy store.
He also sent some pictures of his present day collection, which has grown to include a lot of stuff outside of Star Wars – in his line of work, it changes all the time, but he has a core group of figures that he’ll never sell. Preach on, brother Macas!