When we were young, my brother Eric was our family's Eeyore -- pessimistic, rather gloomy. Experience taught him early on that if something bad was going to happen, it was going to happen to him. Most of the time it wasn't even his fault, he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, fall victim to a misunderstanding, or suffer some other stroke of random misfortune like putting his arm through a window or sliding down a wooden bench and getting a foot long splinter embedded in his thigh.
One Saturday afternoon when I was thirteen and Eric was nine, our dad came home with two bikes that were given to him by a friend whose kids had outgrown them. One was a sleek metallic blue five-speed with a banana seat and hand brakes, the other was a small turtle-shit green K-mart model with coaster brakes and a basket on the handlebars. In retrospect, Dad should've decided beforehand which of us was going to get which bike. Maybe he was hoping it would work out naturally, but whatever the case, Dad committed one of the Cardinal Sins of Fatherhood -- he asked both of us which bike we wanted. The result was not a surprise.
"I want the blue one," I said.
"No, I want the blue one," said Eric.
After several minutes of arguing back and forth, firing phrases like "I'm older, I should get it," and "No fair, you always get your way," at each other, Dad decided to flip a coin.
"Chris, you call it," he said.
"Why doe HE get to call it?" asked Eric.
"Fine, you call it then," I said.
"Heads," said Eric.
Dad tossed the coin, caught it, and flipped it over on the back of his hand.
"It's tails. Chris, you get to pick your bike."
I'd like to say that I took this golden opportunity to be the bigger person, to set aside my own selfish desires and accept the turtle-shit green K-Mart clunker so my little brother could have the bike of his dreams, to be a thoughtful and caring big brother who Eric would look up to for the rest of his life.
But I think we all know what really happened.
"I'll take the blue one."
Eric, predictably, pitched a hissy fit and ran upstairs to our bedroom. I felt guilty for about eight seconds, then I hopped on my bike and rode to my friend Paul's house, shifting gears the whole way.
A similar incident had occurred a few years prior only instead of bicycles, the subject was Halloween costumes. Most years, our Aunt Patti took me, Eric, and our youngest brother Bobby to FAO Schwarz in New York to pick out really cool outfits to wear for Trick or Treat. One year I was an astronaut, another time Eric was a snazzy-looking Canadian Mountie, and Bobby spent Halloween 1975 gathering Tootsie Pops and Milky Ways decked out as a four-foot tall Spiderman.
One year, though, all we had to choose from were the family's Costumes of Halloweens Past, those that were recycled year to year and passed along as hand-me-downs. Bobby was a tiger, I was Batman, and Eric was a clown.
Eric, however, had absolutely no interest in being a clown. He griped, he grumbled, he pouted. To this day, no one is sure why he was so against the idea, but it may have had something to do with the time we were all kidnapped by Giggles McYukyuk at one of our mom's Cub Scout leaders' meetings.
It gets worse.
Not only did Eric have to don the clown suit, Mom insisted on stuffing the front of the costume with balloons so he resembled one of those inflatable punching bags. As a result, Eric is the only child in Halloween history to sulk his way through Trick or Treating.
It also led to the most hilarious picture in our family's scrapbook:
So yeah, Eric always seemed to be the one getting the bum deal, which makes what happened on Christmas 1979 all the more pitiful.
Every Christmas, we'd wake up at the crack of dawn, roust our parents out of bed and storm downstairs to unwrap our presents. Once the gifts were opened, Mom would whip up a batch of Pillsbury orange danish and we'd spend the rest of the morning playing with our new toys. In the early afternoon, we'd drive across town to our grandmother's house for round two.
Traditionally, Grandma would give us each a stocking full of candy and small toys, a couple mid-level gifts (clothes were the most common in this category), and finally, our one "big" present. Grandma had a fairly close relationship with Santa Claus, so we always knew that the main gift was going to be something really cool. One year I got a complete set of barbells, another time it was a guitar, and when I got a bit older, I received a top-of-the-line Texas Instruments digital watch.
The 70's were a much simpler time.
So anyway, on the Christmas That Will Live in Infamy, we'd plowed through the preliminary presents and were ready for the main event. Family policy required us to open our presents one at a time, so we all got to see what the others had received. Also, it made the process last longer than twelve seconds.
"Okay, who wants to open their big gift first?" asked Dad, clearly forgetting about the bicycle incident of a year earlier.
"I do!" said Bobby.
"Me!" I shouted.
"Here we go again," muttered Eric.
Since there were three of us involved in this decision coin-flipping wasn't an option, so Dad wrote down the numbers 1, 2, and 3 on slips of paper and put them into a bowl. Eric drew first and pulled out the number 3.
"What a surprise, I'm last," he said.
Bobby had drawn the number 1, so he retrieved his gift from under the tree and ripped off the red and gold wrapping paper.
"Cool! A Johnny Lightning racing set! Thanks, Grandma!" He reluctantly set the box aside so he could watch me unwrap my present.
Mine was wrapped in green paper with snowmen all over it. I tore it open, to reveal the gift I'd been asking for since August.
"An Atari video game set with five game cartridges!" I said. "Pacman, Adventure, Kaboom, bowling, and Tank Battle! This is great, thanks, Grandma!"
By this point, Eric was practically bursting with anticipation. Seeing Bobby and me hit the jackpot with the Hot Wheels and Atari, he just knew his present was going to be something spectacular. Taking his time, he removed the silver paper from the box, revealing his special gift. It was exactly what he'd asked for . . .
A few months earlier, Eric and Mom were watching television when a commercial came on advertising an innovative new product. It was an item that Eric did indeed have a particular need for, even if it wasn't something most ten year olds would have any interest in. As kind of a joke, he said to Mom, "Hey, look at that, maybe Santa can bring me one of those for Christmas." Mom, however, didn't realize he was kidding, so she passed this information along to Grandma who went out and bought Eric the gift he was now looking at with a puzzled and somewhat somber expression on his face.
The Foot Fixer, by Clairol.
Think about this for a minute. Here's a ten-year-old kid who's just seen his brothers open a brand-new video game system and a racing set where you can actually juice up the cars and they rip around the track on their own. It's Christmas, the highlight of every kid's year, and what does he have to show for it?
A frickin' Foot Fixer.
All things considered, the kid handled it pretty damn well. He didn't burst into tears, he didn't throw the thing across the living room, he didn't look at Grandma and ask, "What the hell is THIS?" He just let out a pathetic sigh and said, "A Foot Fixer. Thanks, Grandma."
He wanted to cry, though, you could tell.
Here's the rest of the story.
Eric had flat feet. He was always quick to point this out, and he often used it as an excuse to get out of doing household chores, kind of like a ten-year-old on disability.
"Eric, it's your turn to bring in the trash cans."
"I can't, my feet hurt. I have flat feet, you know."
"Eric, it's time to set the dinner table."
"My feet hurt, I'll do it later. I have flat feet, you know."
Truthfully, he did suffer through bouts with foot pain from time to time, especially at night while trying to get to sleep. So when he and Mom saw the Foot Fixer commercial on TV, he thought it might be something that would help.
But not as his Christmas present.
The real victim here, though, is our grandmother. She genuinely believed that Eric wanted The Foot Fixer, and once she realized how disappointed the poor kid was, that it was all a big mistake, she felt terrible. I don't recall what happened in the aftermath, but I'm sure it involved taking Eric to Toys R Us and letting him pick out whatever he wanted.
But to be honest about it, The Foot Fixer wasn't a total loss. If you filled it up with water and plugged it in, the resulting vibrations caused a tsunami that was great for capsizing our toy battleships.
Note: In no way is Grandma at fault for this. She was absolutely the kindest, most thoughtful, and most wonderful human being to ever grace the planet. Her role in the Foot Fixer Incident of 1979 was simply to provide her grandsons with whatever they asked for. The misunderstanding was absolutely not on her. No, the blame lies somewhere else entirely.
I'm looking at YOU, Mom.