When you’re a wee tyke, the waning days of December give you the same melancholy feeling that adults have on January 1: You’re in the middle of a toy hangover. The adrenaline rush of anticipating the toy cornucopia which began just after Thanksgiving (in today’s world: Labor Day) has burned out and the realization has set in that the actual playthings weren’t quite as cool (in today’s world: sick) as depicted on the boxes (in today’s world: blister packs), never mind the ads on television (in today’s world: Facebook).

Kids will do anything to try to forget it’s the last few days before the return of the normal school routine. In my neighborhood, we’d gather around a little stream, a creek really (okay, a drainage run-off – but how romantic is that?), that meandered along the edge of the suburban properties. In the summer, it was a place to float tiny popsicle-stick rafts laden with firecrackers. In the dead of winter, it would freeze solid and provide a mini-slick that you could skate on with your boots. The temperature this particular December day, however, was just above freezing and the dusting of snow from the previous night didn’t even cover the muddy wet banks of the stream creek drainage run-off.

It was afternoon and I was late in meeting up with the guys as my mother insisted on my wearing galoshes over my sneakers. Over my sneakers!

And over my objections.

rubbers on shoesThe issue wasn’t that wearing galoshes made one uncool and subject to ridicule – though it certainly achieved that. It was the compounding effect created by my mother’s insistence on calling them “rubbers.” Even at age 8, most boys knew this was a word for something else. So when you were rushing to leave the house, having your mother call out after you – even once – “Honey, did you remember to put on your rubbers?” can really end up sticking to you. Like for the rest of your life. Or at least until Junior High School. Which, at age 8, is practically the same thing.

So it was a late December afternoon and as I trudged (with galoshes over sneakers) across the suburban yards to the drainage run-off, the guys had already gathered and were talking about their holiday score. Including Doug Schraeder. Doug Schraeder was your basic overachiever – he had attained the title of “Neighborhood Bully” before the tender age of 5. I’m not sure who elected him bully or why someone of such average size intimidated the rest of us, but he was the incumbent well before my family moved into the neighborhood and consequently I had no say in the matter and, anyway, it’s pretty hard to have a recall election over these things.

By this point in our young lives, no one believed in Santa Claus anymore (much to my relief). In fact, the final holdout was Doug Schraeder himself, who, the previous year, had beaten up Jimmy Clarke for insisting that Santa didn’t exist. But at last Doug Schraeder knew the truth (it was a hassle for everyone to keep the secret from him but we each wanted to avoid a pummeling) and now we didn’t need to pretend that it was anyone besides our parents who provided the presents.

Doug Schraeder was already deep into officiating the Great Neighborhood Toy-Off when I arrived. He gave each boy a chance to excitedly recount his most prized possession of the seasonal haul – a final chance to have that toy-infused adrenaline rush over an official NFL™ football. Or a Tonka™ dump truck big enough to ride. Or a Swiss Army Knife™ given to you by your father and promptly confiscated by your mother. Every guy was sure that he, and he alone, had received the coolest gift in the group.

Doug Schraeder would have none of it. After each kid’s story, he’d brag about his brand new G.I. Joe with Kung-Fu Grip™. This simply had to be the coolest toy because Doug Schraeder couldn’t get anything less. He even had it on him that day to make his argument clear (eschewing the usual tactic of making threats). And the toy, indeed, was a sight to behold. You were talking about 12 inches of articulated joints and prime plastic covered in authentic camo fatigues. Joe’s face and head were covered in velvety “life-like hair™.” And then there was the matter of the wicked cool Kung-Fu Grip™. For once, Doug Schraeder was making a reasonable point.

My turn: “So, Delin,” – Doug Schraeder would often use our last names as a show of toughness – “what did you get?”

Now Doug Schraeder could have given me a hard time just for my rubbers – I mean, galoshes. But the primary reason for his placing a target on me was my haircut. My mother never got the memo that this was the 1970s and that even the Schlitz™-guzzlin’, hell-raisin’, right-wingin’, good ol’ boys deep in the Mississippi bayou were sporting hair long enough to have ponytails. So while most of my peer group were wearing bangs (Doug Schraeder looked like his hair was cut after placing a large Pyrex™ mixing bowl on his head and snipping along the outline), my mother gave me and my brother buzzcuts that would have qualified us for the first day of basic training at Camp Lejeune. This did nothing for my self-esteem. Worse still, those adorable, innocent neighborhood children, full of wonder and hope and imagination, took to calling me “Peach Fuzz™.” This did even less for my self-esteem.

Doug Schraeder sneered. “I said: what’s the best thing you got this year, Peach Fuzz™?”

Like an idiot, I told the truth: “Legos™.”

lego transport truckUnder our local kid code (Section 6, subdivision (d), paragraph 2.a), that particular toy – bereft of any obvious all-American-he-man-my-granddad-had-one-too cool-factor – legitimately qualified me for a beating by the Neighborhood Bully and, consequently, I could expect no help from my “friends”.

“You’re kidding me, Peach Fuzz™, right?”

Like an idiot, I held my ground: “No. I asked for Legos™ ’cause I like ’em.”

“Yeah? Well, that’s a dumb toy to like.”

With his G.I Joe with Kung-Fu Grip™ and “real-life hair™” in tow, Doug Schraeder approached me. I knew what was coming. And, standing on the muddy banks of the drainage run-off, I didn’t like it. While my sneakers were protected from the mud by the rubbers galoshes, the rest of me wasn’t. It seemed likely Doug Schraeder and I were going to get down and dirty in the mud.

And suddenly the fear of my mother yelling at me about soiled clothes (remember, this was the woman who made me wear protective covering over old sneakers) was a worse threat than a beating from Doug Schraeder. My mother was the necessity of invention:

“At least I don’t play with dolls!” I said loudly, pointing to the G.I Joe with Kung-Fu Grip™ and “real-life hair™”.

“It’s an action figure,” Doug Schraeder spat – totally brainwashed by the marketing campaign that Hasbro executives had cooked up years before for just this sort of eventuality.

ken doll“No, it’s a doll! It’s just like… a Ken doll… with peach fuzz hair! Anyone can see that! And guys don’t play with dolls! Especially with peach fuzz hair!

(To those socially sensitive readers suddenly uncomfortable that the protagonist has just resorted to dangerous sexist stereotypes to claim his destiny as story hero: Would you prefer a physically violent resolution to triumph over the bully Doug Schraeder?)

“It’s… it’s… it’s not a doll!” he stammered.

“It is a doll! You asked your parents for a doll for Christmas, Doug Schraeder! You asked to play with a doll! With stupid peach fuzz hair!

barbie gi joe coupleAnd now the murmurings started from the other kids. That 12 inch toy of articulated joints and prime plastic sure looked like a Ken doll in camo fatigues, dinnit? Heck, maybe Joe could borrow clothes from Ken! Borrow clothes? Didn’t seem like any he-man toy granddad ever had would want to borrow clothes! And that hair? Not even Ken dolls had lifelike hair – only Barbie™ dolls did! And those were girls’ dolls for sure!

There was a palpable group pressure now pushing on Doug Schraeder who was trying hard to hold back tears of embarrassment. After all, he was clutching a doll with peach fuzz hair! He made a big point of tossing the action figure doll into the mud, claiming the toy was forced on him by his parents. And as the peer pressure continued to build, it pushed Doug Schraeder right out of the muddy banks, right out of our gathering, right back into his house!

We stood there in silence, the chilled, dry December air burning our nostrils and throats. It was getting near supper time and this seemed like as good a time as any to close the proceedings, particularly since we had just lost our master of ceremonies. As if claiming reparations for his beating of the previous year, Jimmy Clarke rescued the abandoned plastic soldier from the mud (“for my sister” he assured us) and we all dispersed to our respective homes.

steelers hat pom pomDoug Schraeder, of course, retained the title of Neighborhood Bully and, though he left me alone following the incident, he found a new prime target in Chris Walton (for the sin of having a pompom on his Pittsburgh Steelers wool hat). But after that December afternoon, no boy in our neighborhood was ever again seen playing with a G.I. Joe™ – or any other ‘action figure’ for that matter.

It was also the last time anyone ever called me Peach Fuzz™.

Other holiday-flavored essays:
Time To Rethink A Certain Reindeer Story
How the Critic Panned the Show!
Secret Santa

Originally published December 30, 2012 in Bitter Lemons.