It's not the little slot cars I miss. Oh, I loved them. I really loved them. They were hot red and hot yellow and you pressed a little controller and you raced them around a track until, having pressed the controller too hard, you caused them to go flying out of a curve and onto the floor.
But it's not the cars themselves I miss. It's the feeling they caused. The feeling of anticipation. I was 8 or 9 years old, and a slot-car set was my holiday present that year. Somehow I knew it. Maybe I peeked. Maybe my parents told me. Who can remember? All I knew was a brand new slot-car set was going to be mine on a certain day at a certain time and I could barely control my excitement. I dreamed about those slot cars. I woke up thinking about them. When the box finally was put in front of me, I must have broken the world record for destroying wrapping paper.
And, of course, I wanted to stay up all night putting the thing together. When my weary father promised to help me in the morning, I had a hard time sleeping. I rose before the sun, without an alarm clock who needed an alarm clock when a new toy was waiting? and raced down to the basement.
I still can feel my hands on the pieces of that track, or the new Aurora car in the grip of my little palm.
That holiday gift filled my morning so completely, I barely bothered to breathe. I must have played it all day. Nonstop. And if you had asked me in the middle of all that, was I perfectly happy, I would have screamed, "YES!"
I haven't felt that way in a long time.
I'm not sure when presents stopped having that effect on me. I guess I have become one of those adults who rolls his eyes at the wolf pack in a toy store, clawing to buy a Tickle Me Elmo doll or an Xbox 360. I decry the commercialization. I lament that we rank the spirit of the season behind the spirit of the sale.
But recently I was in a shopping mall and I saw a small child go running and I mean running to a toy store. I saw him pick up a big box and hold it like a tray in front of him. I didn't know him. But I saw in his eyes that familiar dazzled look that said, as he held up that box, "Could this really, truly, one day be mine?"
And, I admit, I miss that excitement. I am trying to remember the last time I felt it. I know I was enthralled with my first Etch-a-Sketch. I know I loved the game Operation. I know I got goose bumps when I opened my Whammo Air Blaster gun. (If you're a teenager reading this, it was the 1960s . . . don't ask.)
Did it start to fade with my first "big boy" bicycle? Probably. Had it withered by the time I got a couple of red turtlenecks? Likely. Was it gone for good by the time socks and a watch were the highlight of the holiday booty? Certainly.
You grow up. You grow out of things. Losing sleep over a present doesn't make much sense anymore.
I know it's just age. I know as you get older you realize things don't change your life, people do, experiences do.
But for whatever reason the shadow of a war, a weakened local economy, the cold, gray, winter weather I found myself looking at that boy in the mall and trying to recreate his delirious excitement, that hand-shaking, voice-squealing thrill that left you sure that tomorrow was going to be a great day, because you were going to wake up without an alarm clock and play until the sun had set.
Once upon a time, a little slot car and a palm-sized controller made me feel like happiness was the easiest thing in the world to find you only had to open a box. Ah. If it were truly that simple.