It being the holiday season it seems pertinent to mention the Sears and Roebuck catalog. The catalog came to us on a quarterly basis and in many ways was our primary shopping vehicle. School clothes, spring wardrobes, bathing suits. All from Mr. Sears and Mr. Roebuck. This is from a time when there were no shopping malls. When people had to go to Philadelphia to Wanamaker's to shop. There was an actual Sears and Roebuck store in beautiful downtown Camden but we rarely went there even though it was 20 minutes away.
But the catalog that mattered most was the Christmas catalog. It came out, as I recall, sometime in mid November and we eagerly grabbed it and began our gift choosing. Army men, Easy Bake Ovens, Chemistry Sets, dolls, football helmets, bikes, everything, everything was in the Sears catalog.
But they weren't just in the catalog. No, things were laid out so you could see just how great they were and how you could use them. These layouts were spectacular. The army men were storming the beaches, the tubes and vials of the chemistry set were bubbling with sinister potions, men and boys were playing energetic games of touch football in authentic NFL jerseys wearing authentic NFL helmets. The bikes had gear aplenty, rear view mirrors, dangly shit that hung off the hand grips, lights and mileage devices. It was mesmerizing. It also was perfect for pointing out exactly what you wanted to your clueless parents. Left to their own devices god knows what they might pick but with the Sears catalog you could clearly circle your first, second, and third choices.
The bulk of the catalog was in black and white but the cover was in glorious Christmas colors. It, more than any religious event, marked the beginning of the holiday season. Fuck Thanksgiving, fuck Advent, this was the real deal. And by arriving well before Thanksgiving it stretched out the gap between whatever day it was and Christmas to near unendurable lengths. Ninety years till Christmas, only sixteen thousand shopping days till Christmas. The gap between getting the catalog and the lighting of the tree on Christmas morning was the size of the Snake River canyon. Unfathomable.
So we'd soldier on, day after day after day, the only thing keeping our hopes alive the catalog. In the last weeks before Christmas we'd begin the hunt for hidden toys. This was hard on everyone. Usually the gifts arrived at the Post Office in town while we were in school so Mom had time to squirrel them away before we got home. Over the years their hiding places became more and more obvious. The problem was that if you found them you didn't really know whose gift anything was. It was as if God had created some cruel laboratory experiment in envy. Part of you would be pleased you found a gift, part would think it was for your brother and your parents hated you, then another part would hate yourself because you begrudged your brother a gift. Cruel cruel fate.
The only way your hopes and dreams would be revealed was on Christmas morning. Then we'd run down the stairs to see the tree ablaze with light, our parents in their robes and dozens of wrapped packages scattered about the room. At that instant you were sure you'd get everything you wanted. In that moment Christmas was glorious. It would inevitable come crashing down around you as you opened the gifts. Cold economic realities would raise their head. No radio controlled planes in the Wiler house. Yes, we'd get a set of army men but it was the second best set, yes, we'd get a chemistry set but not the complete set in the catalog. A little knowledge is a dangerous, dangerous thing.
Still and all there was always next Christmas. And at least we could use the Johnny Reb cannon to blow the Christmas balls off the tree one by one. Then there'd be turkey and a week of no school. Not bad, not bad.