Not Your Typical Christmas Story (12/20/01)

There's a weird part of my brain that remembers what would otherwise be an innocent event as if it had been a horrifying trauma. One of those moments occurred in 1987.

First, a little background.

My only true Christmas tradition is last minute shopping. I'm talking about doing absolutely no shopping whatsoever until the 23rd or 24th of December. There's nothing like the rush of driving to the mall and calculating how many hours - not days - I have until the doors on the stores are locked for good.

My traditional last minute ordeal certainly doesn't allow me much time to soak up the atmosphere of Christmas. (And, of course, the mall is the only setting to be inundated with the Christmas spirit).   And such was the case in 1987 when I found myself in Macy's at the Galleria in Dallas.

The Galleria, of course, is high tone. So much so that the store could charge for the sheer joy of people watching and I would gladly  pay the surcharge. Whether it be a yuppie mom sporting some funky hat or the old blue hair chewing out her husband,  it's all entertainment to me.

But as I made my way through Macy's that day, my attention couldn't help but focus on the Electronics Section of the giant store. You see, back in 1987, the invention of the electric piano and the electric drums had hit the landscape. Macy's, in an effort to coax some Highland Park dad into buying an electric piano or drum for his five year old, had set up a display that allowed kids to actually climb up onto it and "play" the instruments. There were two or three pianos and about ten electric drums.

And the kids were going crazy.

I stopped to check out the scene and cock an eyebrow. The noise was almost deafening, and at that moment I felt very  much like the Grinch when he uttered, "Oh, the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!"

It was amazing - especially in a store like Macy's. The kids were all over the display - bouncing back and forth between each instrument and caring, of course, not about rhythm but about volume. Drums banging. Pianos clanging. But, I had to admit, they couldn't have been having a better time.

Wondering if there was any parental supervision in the area (I can't let kids simply be kids, you know), I looked over my shoulder to survey the area.

And that's when the memory was imprinted.

Standing off to the side stood a well dressed, man in his mid thirties with an expression on his face that I still find hard to describe. He, too,  was watching the playing children. I don't know if his eyes demonstrated bitterness or sadness. Emptiness or frustration. Resignation or exhaustion. Whatever his feelings, I was certain they had everything to do his hands resting on a wheelchair situated in front of him.

It was a child's wheelchair.

I looked down and saw the very small child; a blanket was drapped over his legs. He was obviously handicapped, and he certainly was not aware of his surroundings. It quickly dawned on me that he didn't know it was Christmas and probably didn't know there was such a thing as Christmas.  He was oblivious to the electric pianos and the electric drums.  And he appeared to be tired.

I looked back up at who I presumed to be the child's father. His expression had not changed as he watched the other children.  It was a distant, haunting expression.

There are times in my life where everything seems to stand still. When life just grinds to a halt, and I feel, for lack of a better term, as though I've been slapped. You know the feeling - It's as if you've awakened from a dream and scramble to sort the reality from the fantasy.

As I watched the man, I no longer heard the banging and the clanging that seemed so pervasive only moments earlier.  Christmas, it seemed, had somehow stopped.

Not wanting to stare at that man, I did something that even I felt was a bit odd. I walked away only to circle back so that I stood to the back of him. It was a bizarre vantage point that I held. A man with his child in a wheelchair in the foreground. A number of healthy children, enjoying the simplest of pleasures, in the background.  He continued to watch the children play.

I didn't stand their long. I walked away.

After all these years, I'm still not sure what I felt that day or what, if anything, it was supposed to mean. I suppose there is a lesson of how gifts are meaningless or how the joy of a children playing is the greatest gift of all. Perhaps its about how we should be thankful for own health and offer assistance to those who struggle. Or maybe, just maybe, we might want to walk the proverbial mile in someone else's shoes before we pass judgement on their attitude or actions.

I really don't know.

I can't recall what gifts I received for Christmas in 1987, nor do I remember what I gave.  But I do have that memory from Macy's that, I suspect, will never go away.

Do I remember that day every time I do my Christmas shopping? No. I cannot say that I do. But there are moments while I'm amongst the crowds and the lights when that day in 1987 comes rushing back to me. It always makes me stop - and pause - and think, and I suppose that's a good thing.

Barry Green served as District Attorney for Wise and Jack Counties from 1993 through 2000. He is now a partner in the Decatur law firm of Smith & Green, P.C.

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