Al Batt: The wooden pencil and an orange weren’t in a bag

Published 8:45 pm Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt

When my father was a boy, he got a wooden pencil and an orange for Christmas one year.

Al Batt

If he’d had low expectations, they might not have been low enough. He was from a large family and Grandma didn’t give him a gift receipt so he could exchange the pencil and the orange for black licorice. He was forced to do his homework on orange peels. Years later, Grandma gave me an unsigned and unburdened by the weight of money Christmas card as my gift. That was then, this is now.

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I don’t dislike shopping or get the Christmas blues, and I’m not a procrastinator. I try being a seasonal superhero. There is an Alvin and the Chipmunks song that includes the line, “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth.” In my experience, I’ve known nobody who wants only two front teeth. There is a song by the Beatles, ”’Cause I don’t care too much for money. For money can’t buy me love.” That’s true and we’ve been told money can’t buy happiness. Then why are people so happy to get gifts? It’s not everlasting happiness, but it’s happiness. It was south of 30º below zero in northern Minnesota and I was wearing mittens. It took money to buy those mittens and the mittens made me happy — happy and almost warm.

In my salad days, there was a department store called Dayton’s. A girl I kept company with talked me into attending a huge sale at Dayton’s. I still have troubling dreams about that experience. It was in the Southdale Center, the first fully enclosed and climate-controlled shopping mall in the country. Everyone compared the mall’s size to Rhode Island because neither was a road or an island. While others hunted for a bargain, I hunted for an exit.

“You should go to Southdale and see what they have,” a hotel clerk said years later. I knew what they had. They had everything. I didn’t need to go look at it. It’s like browsing the internet for no reason. I’m not going to do that. Online shopping has made it possible for people to shop until they drop without getting out of a chair. I can drop without shopping and endeavor to shop locally, but I had to buy the nuclear reactor online. I have twelvty-twelve gifts to buy and I’m a hunter before I’m a gatherer — if I need to buy socks, I go to a local store selling socks, spot my prey, grab it, pay and I’m out of there with a gift receipt. I went to Herberger’s every year, looking for things on my list while avoiding the perfume counter where thick fragrances sprayed into the air hung until I arrived. Mingled scents clobbered me. I don’t go to Herberger’s much since their stores all closed. That’s the way I roll.

Bargain shopping produces as many horror stories as success stories. I’ve never shopped on Black Friday. To me, Black Friday was the day I got a black eye shortly before confirmation class. It wasn’t from a fist; a baseball had avoided my glove. Pastor Larson gave me a disapproving look.

Up to a couple of years ago, I used the colorful funny pages from the Sunday newspaper for wrapping paper, but now I’ve moved to brightly covered bags. They give me a horse I can ride. I fill them as I do more than the bare minimum of shopping because I don’t know what the bare minimum is. If I get asked for items I can’t identify, I pass the requests onto my wife unless she asked for them. Then I just pass on them.

A granddaughter asked for books. I’ll get her a couple of library books and make sure she returns them on time. Grandma would be proud of me. My best presents growing up were books, a transistor radio and the champion of all gifts, a mixed-breed puppy. The worst gift was underwear instead of the ant farm I’d wanted. That nearly ruined my Christmas last year.

I used to visit a store in Oslo, Minnesota, and buy lutefisk TV dinners for Christmas presents. I figured that was something people wouldn’t buy for themselves.

It was my version of a wooden pencil and an orange.

Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday in the Tribune