Christmas is a sacred time for families, especially for children. And while we should be thankful to our parents and family members for all they’ve done for us throughout the year, there’s always at least one bone a kid can pick with his/her parents.
It may be the pair of dress pants your dad gave you instead of the big wheel you begged all year for.
Maybe it was those wonderful wool sweaters mom got you that seemed to itch from head to toe. Those gifts do not conjure up pleasant Christmas memories. But I’ll never forget the most disappointing Christmas gift I ever got.
First, a little background, especially for today’s generation. Black folk born in or living during the 1970s will surely remember Willie Tyler and Lester, a popular ventriloquist act. For the record, Willie was the human and Lester was the dummy?”or to be more politically correct, Lester was the unreal effigy stuck at the end of Willie’s left arm.
They duo appeared on talk shows and sitcoms in the ’70s and ’80s. I was so young I had the two mixed up. I called Willie “Lester” and Lester, “Willie.” I liked them, especially Willie … I mean Lester … you know. So when the holidays rolled around in 1982, I knew what I wanted.
Today’s youth also may not appreciate the Wish Book. That was the child’s bible. Every year, Sears put out their special catalogue for Christmas?”the Wish Book. And don’t confuse that flimsy sales mag in the Sunday papers today for the real thing. Back in the day, you put the sales mag in the newspaper stack and the Wish Book with the phone books. It had the right name, too. For little kids growing up in the hood, you looked in it and wished you had that stuff.
When the Wish Book came in the mail, I scooped it up. And what did I find this particular year? A Willie Tyler and Lester puppet. They had other puppets, but I wanted Willie … you know.
My big sister always got me something out of the Wish Book. Even though Willie was pretty steep?”had to be about 75 bucks?”she got him for me. I don’t think I ever anticipated a gift so much before.
On Christmas Day, my sister brought me my gift. She, my other sister, my brother and my mother were all there. I was so happy?”until I opened it. It’s hard to put into words, so I’ll just spit it out: That dang thing didn’t look nothing like Willie.
Willie had a curly Black Afro. This thing had naps like a Brillo pad. Willie, like most ventriloquist dolls, had eyes that could move up, down and all around. This thing stared at you … and kept staring. Willie’s eyes blinked. This cheap-ass, rummage sale doll had painted-on eyes. Willie had real-looking clothes. That thing had a GI-Joe-style pull-on jacket.
Now, I didn’t know a lot about ventriloquism, but I knew how the puppets worked. You could maneuver that puppet’s eyes and mouth and eyelashes with gadgets on the inside. I had a doll with a string on the back of its neck that moved the mouth up and down. Even though I was a kid, I knew if that string ever broke, Willie would never speak again. A ventriloquist puppet’s head and neck moves. My fake-Willie didn’t even have a neck?”his head was stitched to his shoulders.
I looked at that thing and must have had an expression on my face that said, “I don’t want this fake crap.”
My family knew I was ticked, but they were busy trying to keep from laughing at this pathetic thing. They were trying to talk him up, too. “Oh, look, they even gave you a record to learn how to speak ventriloquist,” my other sister said. The record was the best thing and that wasn’t even real?”just a little, old plastic record. My brother, bless him, tried to do some ventriloquism. But he couldn’t do it properly. With a real puppet, you hold it from the inside. He held my fake-puppet by his no-neck.
You want to know how bad it got? I went back to the Wish Book later, looked at the real Willie and cried. Now ain’t that a shame?
I don’t blame my sister. I know she didn’t pay 75 bucks expecting this raggedy thing to show up. I don’t even blame Sears. I was just mad and disappointed. I tried?”I mean I really tried?”to accept fake-Willie, but I couldn’t. I was cheated. I was robbed, bamboozled, led astray, run-amuck.
Well, fake-Willie didn’t get much attention. But that’s not the end of the story. I don’t know how long it was, maybe a few months later, but fake-Willie was just lying around one day. At the time we had a dog that couldn’t behave. My brother beat the dog with whatever he could get his hands on. On a particular day my brother just snapped. He was chasing the dog around the house. The dog was yapping. My mother was screaming, “Leave that dog alone!” My brother ended up grabbing fake-Willie and went swinging for the dog. He got one good swing and whoosh … fake-Willie’s head went flying across the room. It was the first time I ever saw his head move at all. I guess my mother thought I’d be upset. I was. I didn’t like seeing the dog get beat, but at long last fake-Willie was dead. I played his plastic record as a memorial.
Now I got plenty of good gifts as a kid. And the stuff I never got, I’m over it. But I’ll never get over Willie. I think that experience planted a seed. I can’t stand false advertising or products that don’t live up to expectations. So I guess I can thank fake-Willie for that, wherever he?”and his head?”is today.