Christmas with Rod
Washington, DC, 1974
I was twelve, and as far as Christmases go, I’d had a very good day. My new stepfather was trying to make a point. I was given electric trains out the wazoo, a stereo with a high-end turntable, records, and a new bike with gears. The biggy was pure ecstasy. Santa brought me the Holy Grail of gifts—a Buck Knife—the Folding Hunter with four inch blade. Finally, I had a proper weapon to hang on my belt when Mom wasn’t around.
We attended the stepfamily’s Christmas party thrown by my new Uncle Walter. They had a gorgeous house in northwest Washington, DC. When we arrived, there were already twenty expensive cars in his driveway, and inside there was a “rocks” glass in every hand. My folks like their eggnog with extra whatever that undrinkable beverage has in it. Failing that, anything else you have at the bar will serve. I remember looking around the room at the score or more of guests who certainly were gay and Christmas elegant. Red and green dresses. The men in suits. Even I had been thrust into my finest blue blazer.
I had about ten Cokes and a mountain of Swiss chocolate. Food was everywhere. Caviar, smoked salmon, shrimp, or roast beef—go for it. Soon I was swept up in the exuberance. There were no tedious Christmas songs a’playing. A very acceptable mix of Sinatra, Elvis, and Ray Charles took the stage. The tree was massive and blinking away. Wrapping paper was everywhere. Champagne flowed. I was given a glass, which became two or more. The beer course was served, but my mom cut me off. There was snow on the ground, and I had a huge knife in my pocket. Like I said, all was right that Christmas night.
Then I discovered my new cousin’s big gift, a Crossman air rifle.
I had retreated to the TV room where Tom was already hovering, waiting for his buds to show up and free him from the nightmare of spending time with his parents. He was friendly and showed me the rifle. He explained that it was in essence a bolt action. “Open here. See the BB? Close, pump, aim, fire.”
His friends swooped in. Tom handed me the gun and was gone into the night. I opened the bolt, looked inside the breech, and saw no BB. I closed the bolt and pumped it up three times. I sat in the big easy chair about five feet from the big TV screen. It was eleven o’clock; WTTG Channel Five was still on the air. I had Rod Serling in the scope’s crosshairs as he famously announced, “The next stop… the Twilight Zone.”
And that’s when I shot him.
I can still hear the rifle spit and the pellet tink! The picture immediately shrank to a six-inch band across the middle of the screen. I could still see the program going on right beneath the point of impact.
We all know that sinking feeling. First, it’s, “No! That didn’t just happen!” Then it’s followed by the horrible, “Yes… it did… ” And the new reality sets in. We mutter some version of, “I am so screwed.” I was utterly baffled. I remember yelling at myself, “How the hell did a BB get in there?” I never found out.
So I sucked it up and thought, Just get it over with. I marched straight out and somberly announced to all, “Hey, I just shot the TV with Tom’s air rifle. Sorry.”
Uncle Wally looked shocked and let out the best, most welcome laugh I have ever heard. He rocked back and whooped like I scored a winning touchdown in overtime. That laughter spread rapidly across the room. Their joyous noise swelled, and some were wiping tears from their eyes. My mother stopped laughing, but she just couldn’t sustain the straight face needed to project shame and guilt for the offense. They just waved me off. Take a pass. It was like they were all in the Mob and telling me, “Forgetaboutit.”
And that was that. I didn’t even want to touch a gun for a long time thereafter. I was really shaken by the experience. Sadly, my gun safety didn’t really improve. There would be other close calls.
So I have this Christmas memory like clockwork every year. And as family tradition would have it, we always watch A Christmas Story and Ralphie’s BB gun quest. Seriously, that kid should have had my problem. I didn’t shoot my eye out, but old Rod lost one of his.