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My "Red Ryder" BB gun

Brandon Keaton

In the spirit of the season, I thought I’d share a Christmas tale.  What follows is a true story.

December 1992. There was no snow that year in East Tennessee, but it was still pretty cold by my then-teenage-Texan standards. You see my family had just moved to a small town called Athens ten months earlier and we were about to experience our first Tennessee Christmas. The weekend after Thanksgiving the entire family piled into Mom's gold Chevy Astro van and set off to get a real tree from a local tree farm. With smiles on our faces, my brother and sister and I found just the right tree. Dad agreed, and both he and the tree-farm owner strapped it to the hood of the van while we looked on with excitement. That joy turned to a sort of apprehension mixed with dread once we got it home, because we quickly realized the tree didn't fit in the living room even though it featured nine foot ceilings. Dad wove a tapestry of obscenities and then went full "Clark Griswold" by taking a chainsaw to the bottom of this very full Douglas fir. The previously eleven-foot tall tree was now only eight feet tall, which drove Dad to further psychosis. The old man couldn't even bring himself to hang the lights on the tree—which was always his duty at Christmastime—and he mostly avoided us for the rest of that weekend.

The days leading up to Christmas seemed to drag at a turtle's pace, a common problem for any kid. My brother and I passed the time by playing Super Nintendo, eating junk, torturing my sister, and having movie marathons. "A Christmas Story" seemed to always be playing on at least one television in the house. Randy, whining like a tick about to pop, was a favorite impersonation of ours... or watching Ralphie pout in his "pink nightmare" bunny suit often gave us a reason to be truly thankful. Meanwhile, Mom was busy checking and double checking what we wanted, prompting us to make lists that she could then pass on to Santa Claus. When she wasn't out shopping, she was hosting get-togethers with church-friends or decorating the house. For the most part I and my siblings were used to getting what we asked for year after year... as long as it was within reason. My folks weren't going to buy us the latest Air Jordans—only for us to grow out of them in a few months—but at Christmas they more often than not bent to the will of kid-fantasy. And any kid who read comic books that year knew that something big had been happening. For the first time ever a major character beloved the world over was getting the axe. Superman; the last son of Krypton... was dead.

For those of you that never read the story, a Kryptonian monster—which the people of Earth dubbed "Doomsday"—had broken free from a vault buried deep underground. After escaping his prison, the snarling beast clawed his way to the surface where he fought many other superheroes, and wrecked much of the United States in the process while on his way to the city of Metropolis. Doomsday was truly horrifyiing; all instinct, seemingly mindless, and born of rage and blood. Spoiler alert: Superman and Doomsday both "killed" one another after a long battle which ended with both of them delivering the final death-blow simultaneously. The death of Superman was commemorated by a special edition issue of "Superman" comics, issue number 75. The book featured the famous red S-shield logo dripping with blood, and came sealed in a totally opaque black bag priced at $2.95. DC Comics had printed just enough of these things to make the mainstream media take notice, and while old fans came out of the woodwork, new fans were left empty-handed and salivating. I myself missed the issue the week it hit the stands—and although I made routine weekly trips to the comic book store—it was the one thing that year that I desired most, if only because it eluded me.

Cue Christmas Day. Every year Dad had a tradition on the morning which included—among other things—making him and Mom a pot of coffee, and then retiring upstairs for what he called a "shit, shower & shave" while us kids waited downstairs, staring at the gifts piled under the tree with baited breath. Finally, when he was ready, Dad would break out the camcorder and have all us kids announce what day it was, and what year it was before we were allowed to proceed with the present-opening bonanza. Presents were aplenty... socks and pajamas. Video game cartridges. Stockings stuffed full of candy and sweets of various shapes and sizes. I recall sitting on the floor by the tree with one present left to open, and it was most certainly not shaped like a comic book. I'm not even sure why I was disappointed because to my recollection I had never told Mom or Dad that I wanted the comic, or that I couldn't find it.  And in those days it wasn't like you could just jump on eBay and grab a mint copy. After the gift-giving ended, Dad would usually videotape us kids once again, but this time recording a message to our extended family to thank them for what they'd sent us. I was handed a small key and asked by Dad to go and retrieve a blank video tape from the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet in his office. I did as he asked, but when I couldn't find the tape, he sternly suggested that I look again at the back of the cabinet. Upon a second look... I saw it. There it was. In a hanging file at the very back of the drawer... Superman #75! Still sealed! In the black bag!

Nearly ten years later I learned that my mother struggled that Christmas to find us all the things we wanted. She then enlisted Dad's help—which happened rarely, if ever—to find the Superman comic. As it turns out, Dad couldn't find it either, but he made a few calls, and went out mysteriously on his own a few days before the 25th. He'd gone to a flea market about twenty miles away and bought the shop owner's personal copy, which the man had kept to turn a profit, if he might. Dad spent around twenty dollars on it, which was astronomical at the time for a book that had been out for less than a month. But that was exactly who my Dad was; stubborn and hard on the outside, cold at times, but underneath he was this total softie who'd go to just about any length for any one of us kids, and even more so at Christmastime. As long as I live I don’t think I’ll ever forget that day.  And while I, thankfully, never got to shoot my eye out with a Red Ryder, I did get the death of Superman in all its poly-bagged glory.

If you enjoyed this story, please raise your eggnog—or whatever is in your glass—and toast to my dearly departed parents, John and Natalie. They were the best people I've ever known, and they are sorely missed.

Happy Christmas to you all & God bless!

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