EVERY CHRISTMAS there is one gift you especially enjoy giving. For me it is a wagon.
I got started in the wagon giving business on a Christmas Eve a little over 20 years ago. Our firstborn, who turned 24 yesterday, was then 2 years old, just about the perfect age to enjoy Christmas. I had decided to give the kid a wagon. Feeling full of myself (and red wine) I popped open the box containing the wagon parts. I knew some assembly was required, but how hard could it be?
I soon found out. Pounding the locknuts onto the ends of the axle was a central step in wagon assembly. But as my wife pointed out, with panic in her voice, it was not something that should be attempted on the hardwood floors of the living room in front of the Christmas tree. She wanted me to move the entire operation to the basement. I wanted to stay put.
It was one of those tense marital moments that surface during the holidays. A compromise was reached. I used a thick book, a dictionary, to protect the living room floors as I wielded a small sledge hammer on the wagon parts.
The wagon got assembled and was a great hit, not just on Christmas morning, but all year long. I would use it to haul the kid, and later his younger brother, to playgrounds and the neighborhood swimming pool.
As the kids got bigger, they took control, often sending the wagon careening down the alley, sometimes crashing, sometimes not. Their buddies would ride in the wagon as well, sometimes crashing, sometimes not.
As the kids grew they moved through a progression of wheeled vehicles. They mastered bicycles and skateboards and, eventually, cars. The wagon became a beast of burden. I used it to haul in bags of groceries from the car, or on summer nights I would load it up with picnic fare and roll it down to the picnic tables at the neighborhood pool.
Whenever the wagon appeared on the pool playground, little kids would be drawn to it. They would toddle over, feeling the wagon, sometimes climbing in, ready to ride. An apologetic parent would appear and try to tell the child that he or she couldn't play with this wagon because it did not belong to them. I would straighten the parent out, saying that wagons were born to roam. Soon our wagon would be rambling around the playground, ferrying kids until inevitably someone would take a tumble onto the grass and the excitement would end.
So a few weeks ago, when some of my co-workers asked for clothes and toys for a few families that were having a tough time this Christmas, I jumped at the chance to buy another wagon.
It had been years since I had been at a Toys R Us. I parked at my old spot, a space at the end of a row of cars, a long walk from the door, but away from the traffic snarl that usually formed in front of the store.
The wagon models had changed over the years. The family sedan of wagons, a plastic Little Tykes unit that I got two decades ago, had been superseded by a much larger vehicle, the SUV of wagons. It looked too big to me.
Then my eye caught a glimpse of a red wagon, a Radio Flyer. I had been a plastic wagon man, the model my kids had grown up with had served us well. But this metal Radio Flyer was the right size. I was taken with its rubber wheels and its wood frame designed to keep small passengers on board. I carried it home in a box.
This time, rather than assemble the wagon myself, I tapped one of my sons for the duty. As is the custom of college students home for the holidays, this one rose at noon, and ate for an hour before beginning his labors. He did a first-rate job.
He noted that over the years there had been some changes in wagon design. The vehicle now had a limited turning radius, which, unlike in his wagon riding days, virtually eliminated the opportunity to take a sharp turn and turn the wagon over. Moreover, there were safety instructions that warned against riding the wagon up or down steep hills. This safety stuff, my son surmised, aimed to please corporate lawyers, not wagon-riding kids.
Christmas morning, with its present-opening routine, can be an emotional minefield. There are great expectations, a handful of surprises and an occasional disappointment.
This morning, I will watch members of my family unwrap their presents of books, CDs, clothes. This will give me pleasure. But I will also delight in knowing that down in South Baltimore, some kids got a red wagon and a chance for many joyful rides.