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A Fort Apache Christmas


I was a privileged kid when it came to parents, family and support of my interests. Once a year, my good fortune evidenced itself especially at Christmas. It had to be hard for my parents to deal with a little military history freak, but they never tried to stifle my interests.

For example, my sixth Christmas stands out for a few reasons. My belief in Santa was still entrenched in my young mind, all of my brothers and sisters were still at home and it was the first time I had money of my own to use for shopping.

The latter was obtained by working at my Dad’s store. During the week, Dad paid me to carry pop bottles to the basement. As I recall, the pay was based on the number of six packs or eight pack bottles. On Saturdays, it was my job to sort the pop bottles. (Of course, my own daughter may not even understand this not having ever drank from a returnable, glass pop bottle!). I would keep track of the bottles on a chart that we kept in the butcher department. One week after tallying my bottle count, Dad would pay me in cash. Coincidentally, these payments came right before he and I walked to the bank to make the store deposit, so it was only natural that I wanted to start my own bank account.

But, with some cash held back for Christmas shopping, I was prepared to go shopping on my own for the first time ever. In our little town, all the stores were open on Friday nights until 9:00 PM. So, on a Friday before Christmas, I took my shopping money out of my toy bank that I kept in Dad’s “office supply” cupboard in our home, and headed downtown. First stop was our own store where I tried to buy two O’Henry bars for my mom and a corn cob pipe for my dad (a tradition that is still honored every Christmas in our family). Dad didn’t charge me for these gifts, so I still had money in my pocket.

Dad told my older brother Joe to take me across the street to the Coast to Coast hardware store. Ross and Margaret Johnson who ran it were good friends of my folks. Ross had been in the Navy during the war, so I liked to show him whatever new military stuff I had. In turn, he showed me any new military models or toys that they stocked for the holiday. That year, he had a small display of military vehicle and airplane model kits. As I recall, they were packaged in a sort of “matchbook” type of box. I picked out a WWII German half-track with Nebelwurfer for my brother Jim.

I didn’t find anything else at the Ross’ store, but something did catch my eye…a set of two plastic buckboard wagons just about the right size to go with the Fort Apache about which I had written to Santa Claus. If Santa acquiesced to my request for the Fort playset, these two wagons would be great additions to the plastic outposts inventory. My brother Joe agreed that it would be the right size (I was always a very ‘scale conscious’ kid when it came to my toy soldiers). He reminded me, however, that I was shopping for my family, not myself. So, we left the Coast to Coast. He went back to our store and I walked to the end of the block and went into Rice’s Pharmacy.

My dad’s cousin, Margaret Ernster worked there so she was quick to engage me in conversation. After I told her how much I had to spend and who I needed to buy for, she helped me select a little tin jewelry box for my sister and a Green Bay Packer’s magazine for my brother Tom. I still had a few dollars (if my memory is correct, I began this shopping spree with about $12.45) and had to get a gift for my brother Joe.

Joe was the middle brother of five kids. He was also the jock of the family with a natural talent for most anything ranging from building things and hunting to cracking jokes and sports. He was also the family’s consummate collector. Like many collectors, he went through phases, and when he was in a “phase” he was obsessive. His current obsession was collecting pennies. So with that in mind, I crossed the street to Sprague’s bank and asked to purchase two rolls of pennies.

With everyone covered, I found myself with money still in my pocket. And of course, the whole time, like any other six-year-old kid, I had been thinking about Santa and the prospect of him bringing me a Fort Apache playset. After all, I had drawn a very clear picture that I enclosed in my letter to him. As if to assuage any doubt in the old man’s mind about my intention, I tore the page out of the J.C. Penney catalog where I saw the playset, circled the Fort in red crayon and used black to cross out everything else on both sides of the page. I had covered my bases well. Santa should have no doubt about what I wanted.

But, a new quandary presented itself. I discovered the twin wagon set at Coast to Coast after I sent the all important letter to the North Pole. Santa had no idea how neat the wagon set would be passing through the plastic wooden gates into the Fort’s safety from pursuing Apache Indians. But, my brother Joe knew, and he agreed how cool it would be to have the wagons if Santa delivered the fort. So, convincing myself that Joe wanted the wagons as much as I did, I went back to Ross’ store, pulled the set off the pegboard rack and returned to the register to make the purchase. I explained to them how it was for my brother Joe. I wasn’t trying to convince them as much as I was myself.

When I returned home that night, I needed help wrapping my presents. My sister Celine was eager to help, but I made her leave the room when I wrapped her box. When it came to the wagons, I explained to her how they were for Joe. I don’t think she was any more convinced than Ross had been at the hardware store. But, we wrapped it and put Joe’s name on the present.

It was that time of Christmas glory when the giver carried the presents to the living room to place under the tree. Because everyone watched television in the same room, it was the giver’s decision whether to make the deposit in secret or to the fanfare of an audience. I chose the latter. I wanted all my brothers and sister to know that I had bought presents for them; after all, it was the first time I had done that. In my mind, it showed how grown up I was. I placed all the presents under the tree and my brothers either feigned interest or ignored me entirely, depending on their own personal demeanor. It did not escape anyone’s notice, however, that Joe had two presents from me.

At long last, Christmas eve came, and with it, Midnight Mass. I didn’t make the connection until probably twenty years later, but Dad always left Midnight Mass after the Gospel was read. At the time, it struck me odd (everyone was instructed to go to the bathroom before we crossed the street from our home to our church), so I didn’t know why Dad left. I never questioned, though: more important things were on my mind by the end of Mass. It was officially Christmas morning!

It was after 1:00 a.m. when we would finally return to our home. And yet, no one was tired because we knew Santa would have made his delivery.

As anxious as I was to see what Santa had brought, I had to make a detour to our rabbit hutches behind the house. If the animals could all speak at midnight on Christmas Eve, maybe they would still be talking. I had a lot of questions I wanted to ask them and was not going to miss this once-a-year opportunity.

But, the rabbits were both sleeping and not talking. Crestfallen, I went into our house through our back door. As I climbed the steps up the landing to our kitchen, I was reminded that Santa had been there! So I burst through the kitchen and went straight to the living room.

Sure enough, the old red-suited one had been there! The base of the tree was covered with presents. Tom, the oldest brother, got to be Santa’s helper, and started passing out the gifts. Mom opened her O’Henry bars, Dad tried out his pipe, Jim looked over his model and Tom thanked me for the Packer magazine. Joe liked his pennies but was puzzled by “his” wagon set. I reminded him how cool it would be if Santa brought me a Fort Apache. He went along with the explanation as Tom pulled a big box out from behind the couch…I knew it was for me…I knew what was inside.

The only thing better than having big brothers is probably having a little brother. All three of my brothers left their own presents to join me on the floor as I opened the box. Each one assumed a role in assembling some aspect of the Fort. We showed each other cool aspects like the black cannon that fired little projectiles, the detail of the soldiers’ weapons and the tin, litho-printed officer’s quarters with a tower that could accommodate a sharpshooter. The four of us put it together and quickly set up the first defense of Fort Apache from attack.

Joe opened up “his” wagons and drove them into the midst of the ongoing battle between cavalry soldiers and Apaches. Safely passing them through the gate as my brother Tom fired a round from the cannon into the pursuing horde of plastic Natives, Joe rolled over and quietly told me that I could play with his wagons any time I wanted.

The other week, my partner and I were out shopping for Christmas presents for our own kids. We went into a toy store that, in addition to a full stock of current toys, also sells vintage toys. In the back of a case, I spotted the litho-printed, tin building that composed the back wall of a Fort Apache playset.

Being a collector at heart, I immediately started plotting how I could purchase this building to begin reconstructing the playset of my sixth Christmas. It took a few minutes before I realized that I wasn’t interested in collecting MARX playsets or even reassembling a vintage Fort Apache, but rather, was experiencing a strong motive for so much collecting: Nostalgia. I was not as interested in the playset as I was in recapturing the feelings from that sixth Christmas.

It’s been more than twenty years since I last saw my brother Joe. But, as I stated at the beginning of this blog, I am a privileged kid. Not only did I grow up in a “Christmas Story” sort of hometown, I have been blessed with the power to recall many good memories of my brothers, sister and parents who nurtured the goofy interests of the “baby of the family”.

Find warmth in the season and embrace it,
John A-G
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

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