BB Gun Dreams and Christmas Aquariums

Ralphie checking out his brand new Red Ryder BB gun on Christmas morning

Ralphie checking out his brand new Red Ryder BB gun on Christmas morning

Back in the sixth grade, I had my sights set on a BB gun for Christmas. No, it didn’t necessarily have to be the Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action, Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle so famously coveted by Ralphie in A Christmas Story. Make and model were of no consequence. Besides, that popular holiday film hadn’t even gone into production yet. I just needed something to keep up with my good friend, Dan Rogers, who was already duly armed with a pump-action Daisy.

Dan and I spent many of our waking hours (and more than a few of what were supposed to be sleeping hours) exploring the vast (it seemed back then) ravine behind his house, and there were definitely things lurking in the forbidden recesses of that ravine that needed shooting—like old beer cans and…older beer cans. So any time we weren’t building campfires, fighting each other with makeshift quarterstaffs on fallen logs, or detonating firecrackers, we could be found picking cans off any level horizontal surface with BBs. But I always had to borrow Dan’s trusty Daisy if I wanted a turn at shooting.

Thus, when my parents asked me to submit my annual Christmas wish list, I threw discretion to the wind and put the BB gun right at the top in particularly bold handwriting. It was all I really wanted, so why mess around? Sure, I also had my eye on the Fort Geronimo Playset in the JC Penny catalog, but part of me knew I was getting a little too old to be playing with toys. (Still, better put that one on the list as a backup just in case.)

I felt a certain cool confidence in my chances of finding that gun under the tree on Christmas morning. My older brother Dave had received a BB gun a few years earlier, so there was precedent. Then again, Dave might have leaked word to my parents that I’d used his gun to shoot a mourning dove off Mrs. Langenderfer’s garage roof. Or that I’d later broken that same gun shooting ants in the planting bed at the side of the house. Two strikes against me. Hmm, I would have to throw myself on the mercy of the parental court.

Now, if “You’ll shoot your eye out” is the classic mother BB gun block, “We’ll see” comes in a very close second. Unfortunately, that’s the remark I got when my mom reviewed my Christmas list and saw the first entry. What exactly did she mean? Depending on the precise intonation and accompanying facial expressions, “We’ll see” can be an outright “no” or it can mean, “The outlook is favorable, but we’ll have to examine all possible contingencies before making a firm commitment.”

I hoped she meant the latter and remained optimistic. After all, I’d been relatively well behaved all year, if you discount the mourning dove incident, and had been keeping up my grades in school, if you discount the “D” I was carrying in social studies. And math.
With the BB gun seed firmly planted in my parents’ brains, there was nothing left to do but sit back and wait to see what would materialize beneath the tree come Christmas morning.
But I couldn’t sit back and wait.

Sometime shortly after learning that the “Jolly Old Elf” is just a Jolly Old Myth and that parents are the real font of Christmas bounty, every mother’s child is gonna spy to see if he or she can pinpoint the precise location of that covert Christmas present stash. And Dave, Mike (the middle Kurtz brother), and I were no exception.

Fortunately for us, very little actual spying was required. My parents, bless their hearts, had made a rather pitiful attempt at hiding our gifts, naively trusting in our innocence and forbearance. A simple twist of a doorknob, and there it was right in the middle of their walk-in closet—the glittering mother lode of gifts. They hadn’t even gone to the trouble of throwing a blanket over the pile!

Right away, Dave and Mike recognized items they’d put on their Christmas lists—a new fishing tackle box for Dave, a handheld Electronic Quarterback game for Mike. Curiously, there was also a 20-gallon glass aquarium in the stack that no one could recall “ordering.”
But, alas, no BB gun presented itself. No matter, I thought. Maybe this wasn’t the mother lode after all. Certainly there were more presents yet unaccounted for. My gun was probably just secreted away somewhere else—maybe at Grandma’s. I would have to wait until Christmas, after all.

Well, very early Christmas morning, anyway.

Lo around 3:00 a.m., every Mike still a-bed, every Dave still a-snooze, I slipped softly down the stairs, past Mom and Dad’s room, down the flight of 14 stairs, past the stockings hung on the console stereo with care, and into the living room where a decorated Colorado spruce stood nestled in a corner between Dad’s La-Z-Boy and the thermostat on the wall. I plugged in the festive light strings encircling the tree and slowly scanned the mass of colorfully wrapped presents, looking for a certain tell-tale shape.

There, leaning in the corner was a tall, narrow package—just about the right size and profile. Could it be? A “shake test” would confirm my suspicions, but the package was impossible to reach without rearranging all the gifts placed in front of it, and that might raise a ruckus. No, it had to be the BB gun. I was sure of it. No need to shake the package. I decided it would be best to tiptoe back to bed, settle myself down for a brief winter’s nap, and return in the morning to collect my prize.

When Christmas day dawned, the whole bleary-eyed family stumbled downstairs and gathered around the tree. Dad sipped coffee in his La-Z-Boy while Mom played Santa Claus, distributing the presents that we unceremoniously liberated from the wrappings she had so painstakingly applied just the day before. We feigned surprise when each of the items we’d already seen in the closet returned for an encore and were genuinely surprised by a few items we hadn’t seen yet.

Finally, the moment arrived. Mom reached for the gun-shaped package, looked closely at the tag, turned around, and gingerly handed it to…Mike.

There must be some mistake, I thought (and almost said aloud). But his name was unquestionably on the tag. Maybe once he opened it and everyone saw what was inside, my parents would realize their error and re-gift it to its rightful owner.

Mike slid the ribbon down the length of the package, tore off the gift wrap, pried open the end of the slender cardboard box, and ever so slowly slid out…an umbrella. There was to be no BB gun that Christmas after all. I was crestfallen, though I did my best to conceal my heartbreak and to appear grateful for what I was given anyway.

Then I remembered the aquarium. I looked closely at the gift tag, and, sure enough, it had my name on it. Inside the tank was virtually all the equipment needed to get the aquarium up and running—a hang-on-back power filter, filter cartridges, a heater, a few bags of gravel, a floating thermometer, and even some artificial plants. It was no BB gun, but I have to admit I was intrigued. Mike and I had kept goldfish in 10-gallon aquariums before with varying degrees of success, but the idea of keeping a whole community of fish in a tank all my own was a novel one. And it took some of the sting out of not getting what I thought I wanted most.

Funny thing about that aquarium: It managed to spark in me a lifelong fascination with aquatic life. More and larger tanks soon followed, and over time, my focus gradually shifted from freshwater to saltwater systems. Of course, the hobby also had a profound influence on my livelihood, with writing and editing aquarium literature becoming an important element of my career.

I sometimes wonder how things might have turned out had I gotten a BB gun that Christmas morning instead of the aquarium. I’m sure I would have really enjoyed that gun for a month or two, but then, as kids so often do, I’d probably end up losing interest in it and replacing it with the next must-have item. Certainly, a BB gun wouldn’t have nurtured a lifelong passion and opened up exciting future career opportunities. Maybe, in their wisdom, Mom and Dad recognized that I had so much more to gain from the aquarium.

Then again, maybe Dave blabbed about that mourning dove, after all.

Photo credit: A Christmas Story/MGM


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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.

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