Christmas, 1971; I was 12 years old. The previous year I had taken guitar lessons as an elective at school, but after my family moved to another town I was unable to practise and felt I might be in danger of losing what little musical talent I had. So when my parents asked my siblings and me what we wanted for Christmas, I was very clear. I wanted a guitar and nothing but a guitar.
It paid to be specific with my parents when requesting Christmas gifts. What we children wanted and what our parents thought we should have were often radically different things.
I was an artistic kid, easily satisfied with paint-by-numbers kits, wood-burning sets, monster models or any other toy that kept my creative hands and brain busy. And yet, more often than not, I was given very suspect gifts: chemistry sets, racing cars, novelty toys that fell apart in hours. Just the year before my parents had blessed me with some giant, complex football game, despite the fact I’d never played football in my life.
We also had to be careful about reacting to such gifts — too much contempt and we were branded ungrateful and demanding. A gentle suggestion that the gift wasn’t quite what we’d hoped for might elicit a resentful “I’ll take it back and get something else, then” — but that usually translated into the object disappearing into the trunk of the car with no replacement toy ever appearing. Generally speaking, you got what you got, and if it wasn’t what you wanted, well, better luck next year.
My parents were torn. I heard them discussing it at night while I was supposed to be sleeping. “A guitar?” “It’s what he says he wants.” “But the kid’s tone deaf.” “He went to his lessons every week.” “But he has no talent.” “Well then, what else can we get him? He’s at that age . . .”
I crossed my fingers and tried to beam telepathic thoughts down the stairs to where they were drinking in the kitchen. “Get the guitar, get the guitar, get the guitar.”
The week before Christmas, while our parents were out, my brother and I did a little snooping around and discovered a number of packages carelessly hidden under their bed. Not one, but two of them were in boxes long and thin enough to hold a guitar. My eyes lit up, but my brother looked confused. He hadn’t requested a guitar. He had no interest in the guitar. I assured him it was probably something else, but when I went to sleep that night it was with a warm glow as I imagined the world succumbing to the sublime sound of me strumming on my guitar, like José Feliciano or Lobo.
Christmas morning, as the gifts beneath the tree were being doled out, I knew immediately that something was wrong. My brother and I had only one gift each, and the wrapped boxes were much too thin and long to be guitars. We picked at the tape, carefully unwrapping the boxes with a kind of dread.
Inside each box was a rifle; for me a 410 over-and-under shotgun (capable of shooting a different kind of ammunition from each barrel), and a 22 calibre for my brother.
I suppose for some families living on farms during that era, guns were not unusual gifts. But for us, hunting and shooting were things my father did and, like most everything else in his life, never with his sons. It’s not so much that we were against guns; we were just completely uninterested in them.
My brother and I shared a look. We could feel our parents scrutinizing us. We knew we had to tailor our reactions to something they’d find acceptable. Expressing displeasure or disappointment was not going to gain us anything.
My father said, “I got a deal on them. We’ll be doing a lot of hunting together this winter.”
I shared another look with my brother. We both knew this was about as likely to happen as the old man’s other constantly broken promises.
I’m sure my father justified what he did by convincing himself that a gun would help me become a man, but what the incident really did for me was to cement three opinions that I hold to this very day: Christmas is basically a sham, guns suck on every level, and my father was an asshole.