Round Two: The presents of Christmases past

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

At age 55, I can still remember Christmas presents my mom and dad — known collectively as SANTA according to the gift tags — got me as far back as age five. And probably earlier.

I don’t know why I have such a vivid memory of these items. Maybe it’s because of the powerful impact they had on me as a child. Maybe it’s because of the love with which they were given. And maybe it’s because they were just that cool.

All I know is that while my short-term memory is basically shot at this point, I can remember many of these presents from half a century ago as if I had just seen them today — which, in the case of the large (formerly) talking panda bear that sits on the nightstand next to our bed, I actually have. It was a Christmas present from, well, Santa in 1972 when I was 4 years old. I still have a picture from that morning 51 years ago of me standing in front of the tree hugging the panda bear tightly, and I could go into our bedroom right now and do the same thing. Somehow — I have no idea how — this panda bear (which, oddly enough, I never named) survived multiple moves from one home to another over the course of five decades to wind up in excellent shape on the nightstand.

Other Christmas presents weren’t so fortunate. Some were broken years later, some were broken the morning I opened them, some became long forgotten in boxes stored away in closets and attics and basements and disappeared into the abyss of time.

But I still remember so many of those gifts from my days growing up, like:

My first electric football game. If you grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, you know what I’m talking about. For a little kid who ate, drank and slept football like I did, this was the Holy Grail of Christmas presents. It was a metal board with a football field painted on it in surprisingly good detail, with little plastic football players with uniforms painted on of NFL teams, often of the previous year’s Super Bowl contestants (my second electric football game pitted the Dallas Cowboys against the Denver Broncos, the combatants of Super Bowl XII). The idea of electric football was to line up the two teams, put the little fuzzy “football” into the hands of your quarterback or running back, press the button, and watch the vibration of the metal board send the players in all directions, many of them toppling over and some even tumbling off the field and out of the stadium entirely. As soon as a defensive player bumped into the player with the “ball,” that constituted a tackle and the play was over. The vibrating metal was accompanied by the iconic loud buzz that anyone who ever had this game can never forget — and neither could their parents. I’m sure my mom and dad looked at each other that Christmas morning in the early 1970s and said: “What have we done?”

The aircraft carrier. No, I wasn’t gifted the USS Enterprise, but as far as I was concerned, it was pretty close. Santa brought this “toy” to our apartment in Mogadore in the late 1970s, and it must have taken up three-fourths of his sleigh. Outside of the weight set I got a couple years later, it’s still the largest Christmas present I’ve ever received. I didn’t know what to make of it, I didn’t know where to put it, and, worst of all, I didn’t know how to use it. I’ve never been what you might call mechanically inclined, so I had no clue how to work this thing — and the directions, clearly written by engineers, only confused me further. The premise was this: you put a fighter jet on the flight deck, lined it up with the track that went from one end of the deck to the other, cranked it up, then, with enough tension built up, you sprang the jet loose and watched it race down the deck and take off into the wild blue yonder. Sounds simple, but I’m telling you it was rocket science for a 10 year old. Dad was as lost as I was, and Mom wanted nothing to do with it. I gave all my friends a crack at it, and, somehow, one of them figured it out. We had the carrier outside and, after some mishaps, the one and only jet to ever successfully take off from it flew far enough and fast enough that I figured it was a clear and present danger to the rest of the apartment complex. I had no idea what my friend did to get it to fly, I would never be able to duplicate it, and the jet seemed to have a mind of its own. So I packed this monstrosity away in the living room closet, never to use it again. I often wonder where the aircraft carrier ended up — and, if it was used again, how many windows were smashed.

The globe. I got this from Dad in 1978 when I was 10. I’ve always been a geography buff (and a military history buff, which explains the carrier), so Dad decided to get me a desktop globe, the official-looking kind where the Earth is correctly tilted on its axis and you can spin it around. Like the panda bear, I still have the globe; in fact, 45 years later, it sits on my desk where I often write this column. It’s still in great shape, except for one thing: Back in the early 1980s, it was hit by an asteroid and left a decent-sized crater — the asteroid being my elbow that smashed into the globe one day when Dad and I were playing Nerf basketball in my bedroom. The elbow was inadvertent; I would never intentionally try to drive an elbow into my own father’s head on my way to the basket. Hard fouls, yes. Elbows, no.

The Cleveland Browns helmet. Another one I still have. I had always wanted my very own Browns helmet, and on Christmas 1980 I finally got one. I could actually wear it, which was beyond cool, although it wasn’t for game use, as the label on the back clearly stated — which always made me wonder what happened to the kid who wore it in a game, prompting the use of the label in the first place.

The Oakland Raiders helmet. This is a tough one. The Raiders beat the Browns 14-12 in the infamous “Red Right 88” game in January 1981 in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. It was a gut-wrenching loss, so when I pulled the Raiders helmet out of the box the following Christmas, it actually crossed my mind that I had opened the wrong present. Mom and Dad must have overheard me mention to someone that I thought the Raiders’ helmets were cool and ran out and bought one. The more I looked at it, though, the more it actually became like a Red Right 88 therapeutic item for me. It is a cool helmet, and I still have it. But Red Right 88 still bothers me.

Christmas 1984. This was the “Ohio State Christmas.” And by Ohio State Christmas, I mean Mom and Dad drove to Columbus and literally bought all of my gifts at Conrad’s gift store across from Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes were playing in the Rose Bowl that Jan. 1, so Mom and Dad loaded up on the Buckeye gear — and I still have most of it. I was a junior in high school then so I don’t have a prayer of fitting into any of the T-shirts and jerseys now, but it’s taken on new meaning anyway after all these decades. It’s the thought that counts, and they put in a whole lot of thought, effort and miles on the car that year.

And, in the end, that’s precisely why I still remember these presents and so many others from those Christmases of yesteryear. Not just for the endless hours of enjoyment they provided, but for the poignant meaning they possess now. They’re a timeless connection to the past, the gift that keeps on giving this Christmas and every other.

I feel it every time I look at the panda bear on the nightstand.

I feel it every time I see the globe on the desk.

I feel it every time I think about that aircraft carrier and its wayward jet.

Items that once were given in the spirit of Christmas that now are the spirit of Christmas. I’m sure Mom and Dad never dreamed that I’d still have some of those presents 50-some years later, or the fact that such simple items would mean so much decades later.

But they do. And ever since I said goodbye to them for the last time, they mean more every year.

Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad. ’Til we meet again.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.