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Features - Posted November 24, 2017 10:10 a.m.
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Artwork by Andy Chase Cundiff

The Christmas Slugger

My brother, Scott, and I were 18 months apart. We were, of course, best friends and worst enemies. There may be a better descriptive phrase for us than "fiercely competitive", but probably not. We counted the peas on the other one's plate to ensure against foul play, and as I recall, neither of us really liked peas. As tiny tots we puffed along like one of those cartoon clouds of dust with fists, feet and stars flying until our folks wisely made a sizeable purchase of sporting equipment, and directed us to channel some of our hostility into something more constructive, or at least less destructive.

So we played – organized, semi-organized, and sandlot – in every sport known to the Western world, plus a couple, like soccer, which hadn't quite yet made it to the North American continent. Racing was king in those days. By foot, tricycle, bicycle, scooter, swimming, anything that would get you from point A to point B faster than your brother. We flailed away at each other with the Junior Golden boxing gloves Dad had bought us, perhaps thinking they would wear us out boxing. What resulted instead was a congregation of neighborhood pals that stood in line to use the gloves, and the whole block evolved, or devolved, into a pint-size version of "Our Gang" meets "Fight Club", with my brother and I being the ringmasters. None of us thought a thing about knocking each other smooth out, especially my brother and me. We were veterans.

When I was 10, Scott was 8-and-a-half (or "going on 9" in kid-speak), our parents threw us a curveball, bringing home our brand-new baby sister. I was immediately smitten. Becky Sue, or Becca as we called her, was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, except for our puppy, Caesar. Scott was not so certain about this little interloper. Suddenly, his ignored, denied and even despised role as the baby of the family was being usurped. We made special trips to see family and friends to show off the “new baby.” Scott was concerned that our boxing time was being cut into. As Becca began to crawl and walk, we tried to dress her up as a bronco buster, gunfighter, an all-star wrestler (“rassler”) or other "boy" stuff. Our folks told us to cease and desist, and Scott rationalized that Becca would probably never develop a decent left hook anyway.

Insomnia ran rampant in our house exactly one night of the year: Dec. 24. We had heard of families that opened presents on Christmas Eve, or maybe allowed for a single gift to be opened. Our folks were having none of that. They wouldn't even venture into "why not-ville". It was one of those questions that met the dreaded stop sign, "Because I said so". Once, when we boys were 5-ish and 3-ish, I had tried to explain this inequity to Scott, that it was because of a treaty that existed between Santa and all parents of Earth. A treaty that was necessary because of scheduling, reindeer feeding, etc., and I wasn't sure of all the details. He just grinned, nodded his head, and socked me in the eye.

Those were the pre-Becca days, but we had already begun to bribe Santa with little notes and Mom cookies, not the store-bought kind, mind you. Not once did it occur to us that any other child in the land could be clever enough to come up with this idea, and gain this inside track with Santa Claus. We had written out our wish lists and seen to it that Mom had mailed them off the day after Halloween, just in case the postal service was sluggish at the North Pole that year. Our letter always contained chummy questions like, "How's Rudolph?" and "Did you like the Mom cookies we left you last year?" They also contained bold-face lies, like, "We have been really good this year" and, "We have cut way back on the fighting."

St. Nick always seemed to respond well, somehow. We were showered with Legos, Lincoln Logs, G.I. Joes, remote control cars, Lone Ranger and Tonto action figures, complete with horses, bedrolls and a change of chaps, and every other toy that could be demolished by little boys by New Year's. It took me nearly two decades to realize that we were completely and certifiably spoiled rotten.

Just about the time we had been issued the order to refrain from dressing our little sister as John Wayne, in any of his movie roles, Christmas Season came around.

Once again we heard the family lore. Stories of how Dad was lucky to get half a walnut and just enough tangerine slices in his childhood stocking to fend off scurvy. How, early in our family's history, they had made all their presents out of snow, so they only lasted 12 minutes (only six if they had enough heat that year). How a snowstorm left them housebound for nearly eight hours once, with nothing to eat but a bag of sliders from White Castle and a birthday cake. Dad's birthday is Christmas Eve.

Once again I begged with a fervor only children possess for the folks to let us open just one present on Christmas Eve, because after all, how in the name of all that's holy could Dad get to open one and be cruel enough to watch us, his offspring, suffer until the next morning? I was moved to tears that year by my own oratory.

Once again the begging availed nothing. We were not even allowed to "squeeze and guess" though I was certain that somewhere beneath that tree was a box containing the end-all gift for Scott and me – Rock'em Sock'em Robots.

That Christmas was as glorious as ever at our house. After fitful sleep, the three of us bolted into the folks' bedroom, and smelling coffee, bolted to the living room, realizing that the folks had already been up for some time, giggling and whispering under the brightly lit tree. We listened while Dad read to us of Jesus' birth from the Gospels, and then, in his usual sly way, he asked us if we wanted to have breakfast before we opened cards and presents. This was met with an enthusiastic "no!" in three-part dissonance. Presents were handed out, and the paper began to fly. All of our hopes and dreams were coming true, the sugar plum fairies were dancing in the living room, it was childhood rhapsody in green and red – and that's when I saw the bats.

We had an uncle who worked at the famous Hillerich & Bradsby Company. He had sent all three of us a genuine souvenir Louisville Slugger. They were about 18 inches long, glistened like a home run, and were so beautifully scaled that I forgot all about the Rock'em Sock'em Robots. As I examined the three bats, the one that caught my eye was branded, "Mickey Mantle", my hero. Unfortunately, that one had a neat little tag that read, "To Becca – Go get'em, Slugger!" I figured that by some negotiation there might be a fair trade in our near future, but that one of my G.I. Joes might have to go out again with that doggone Sportscar Barbie. Just about then Scott spotted the coveted Mickey Mantle bat. Without ceremony, he began switching the tags on his and Becca's bats. As my shocked gaze fell upon the simplicity and treachery of Scott's plan, our baby sister flashed past me. With one fluid, graceful poetic motion, Becca grabbed my bat (whose autograph remains languishing in obscurity), took two-and-a-half steps, and cold-cocked our brother, Scott, in the head. They probably heard the sound in Yankee Stadium. He went down, face first, into our '70s shag carpet. Apparently, the Mickey Mantle fake wood-burned autograph was a highly desired collectible. I was so happy when Scott sprang back up, just in time for all of us to be in trouble. Scott, for trying to steal the bat. Becca, for responding with violence, and me, for laughing until I fell over.

So that story is known, in our family lore, as "The Christmas that Becca Knocked Scott Out."

Every year the stories get more precious to me. Becca is a Grandma now, with some of the sweetest, rowdiest grandkids ever. Scott went to heaven from California a few years ago. I'm fairly certain he is challenging St. Paul to see if he really did run a good race. Mom and Dad live in Indiana, and I thank God every Christmas (and every other day) that I can still see them, and hear them, and talk with them. When we make time to talk on the phone, we laugh, sometimes for hours.

Merriest of Christmases to you and yours from the Fightin' Cundiffs.

by Andy Chase Cundiff

Andy, a local artist, singer and songwriter, has called Amarillo home for 21 years. You can enjoy Andy’s music at a variety of venues around the Panhandle.
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