By Tony Chavonne
My two toddler brothers and I were crammed into our ‘57 Chevy parked on Hay Street on the cold afternoon of Christmas Eve 1964. We were marveling at the Christmas shoppers and the colorful display windows at Belk and Penney’s when we saw our mother walking down the street. Her arms were full of large shopping bags filled with boxes in interesting shapes and sizes that immediately added to the growing holiday excitement.
Poking out from the top of one of the bags was a large yellow box with the letters “O.M.A.” printed on the side. My excitement in recognizing it was quickly tempered by the scowl on my mother’s face. She was not happy about seeing the kids there and the likelihood of ruining the suspense of Christmas morning as the bags were full of Santa’s early deliveries for them.
But the icy stares and harsh words she had for my stepfather for bringing us didn’t matter to me – Santa was about to bring me the gift I had been hoping for.
The Johnny Seven One Man Army was the most popular boy’s toy that year. It offered a combination of features, with seven different weapons, including a repeating rifle, a tommy gun and an anti-tank rocket. The Johnny Seven was a monster, over 3 feet long and weighing almost 4 pounds. It was America’s answer to the Cold War, to Sputnik and to things that go bump in the night.
The toy was at the top of every boy’s Christmas list, including mine. To a 9-year-old growing up in a military town, it was the greatest gift ever. But the $25 price tag would likely prove too steep for my parents. They had enough trouble in trying to balance the wishes of three young children with the reality of house payments, car loans and the payday Friday grocery store visits to the Winn-Dixie.
Thankfully, my mother kept books for a generous businessman who recognized the financial challenges she faced with her rapidly growing family. I found out later, as a wiser teenager beginning to learn the realities of life, that on that Christmas Eve morning, had generously given her a $50 Christmas bonus.
Growing up in our mill village community, I had never heard the words "Christmas bonus" or really seen the full impact of generosity from outside my family. It was not the first, or last lesson I would learn during those times. But it was likely the most memorable.
In many ways, late 1964 was the beginning of the end of the innocent age for our country. The AM radio played simple songs like Bobby Vinton’s “Mr. Lonely.” The Beatles had appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” for the first time just a few months earlier. The new Ford Mustang was on show at the Lafayette Ford lot over on Robeson Street. And folks stopped by Lancaster’s Esso on Gillespie Street to have Rex Griffin wash their windows and pump their gas for 30 cents a gallon.
In 1964, downtown Fayetteville, like many of the downtowns across the country, reflected the iconic Norman Rockwell’s images of America.
Just a few months earlier, in August of that year, the Gulf of Tonkin incident began America’s engagement in the Vietnam War. Our country, and our community, were about to change forever. Future family Christmas Eve parties would be different as we dealt with the absence of family members away on year-long tours in Vietnam.
Christmas Eve 1964 will always be a memorable one for me. Not because of the Johnny Seven O.M.A. which inevitably found itself in pieces in some backroom storage box just months later, but rather the real gift of seeing what helping another person can do.
Appropriate childhood experiences can help lead to a more purposeful life.
Seeing a country torn apart by social unrest and an unpopular war can make you more grateful for our trusted democracy, respectful of others who don’t look like you and more aware of the importance of the decisions of those we elect.
Seeing firsthand the impact of military deployments can make you more appreciative of our military and their families and their gifts to our country.
Seeing the effects of unexpected generosity in the faces of young children on Christmas morning can make you even more giving.
The memories of Christmas often center on what we receive, like the Johnny Seven. But sometimes, while contemplating the many blessings of the season, we should be sure to take the time to value what we give.