All Original Written and some Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
In Detroit in the 1940s, it was easy to believe in Santa Clause, because there was nothing to jar your senses or make you question that belief. You saw Santa arrive with your own eyes, early one frigid morning in November, as you stood shivering on a street corner, watching the J.L. Hudson Company Thanksgiving Day Parade. There was no such thing as Television. You had to be there. And, as there was no TV, you didn't see or know that a different Santa was also arriving, at that very same moment, in New York City, and all over the world.
When you visited Santa in person at the J.L. Hudson Company, sometime in the days that followed, and you sat on his lap, you believed that it was really him, the one and only Santa Claus. In fact, it really was him, the very same Santa you saw arrive in the parade.
There were carols on the radio, and a special Christmas comic strip appeared in the paper every day. In Detroit it was called "Betty, Bob, and Cloud Chaser". But that was all. And that was more than enough to weave a Magic spell. Something Supernatural, something Exciting, was in the air.
What a kid who was supposed to be, for the most part, Jewish was doing celebrating, indeed, reveling in Christmas is another story, one for another day.
Of course, there were the presents. Every year had its gift of choice, the status gift that every American boy was supposed to want. Naturally, I figured out what it was, and asked Santa for it, every year.
One Year, my wished for Lionel Train appeared, and it was made of cardboard, to be punched out and assembled with wooden sticks for axles. It was Wartime, and there were no metal Lionel trains that year. But the war ended, and there followed many better years. And in the end, I got them all, all the status gifts.
Finally, the magic moment had arrived! Iíll never forget it! I plugged it in; expecting to see my creation come to life and walk, at least, as far as the heavy 6 foot electric cord would permit. The Mysterious Walking robot lurched and shuffled in place a little; and my fears about the cord being too short were immediately laid to rest. It wasn't going anywhere. Then, it began to vibrate violently from head to toe. And, as I watched in amazement, I could see that, due to the vibration, every tiny screw and nut was turning and unscrewing on its own. One after another, they fell, in a gentle rain of nuts and bolts; each making a tiny tinkling sound, and bouncing, as it hit the floor below.
Suddenly, an arm dropped off. Then the other arm detached itself. Next, the head tipped to one side, and hung there for a moment, before it also fell, causing what remained of the Mysterious Walking Robot to sway in the opposite direction, and come crashing to the floor. This was typical of Christmas, the wild anticipation, and the crash that often followed. Thus, I began to learn what comes from wanting what you're "supposed to".
Nonetheless, I was hooked on Christmas, so much so that I refused to let it go. And as the years went by, little by little, my parents and I changed places, and our roles reversed, until I became the weaver of illusion, convincing my parents that, because their performance was so good, I still believed in Santa Claus. And thus, each year, they continued to perform, well into my early teens. I really wasn't conning them, for in a way, I still DID believe in Santa Claus. In fact, in a way, I still do, now.
So what is it like to be a collector? Well, there is a feeling of Excitement and Magic, always in the air. Christmas is forever just around the corner, and Santa could be coming any day. He might call me on the phone, when I least expect him. If not, he will surely be at the next show in Atlantic City, or Brimfield, or maybe, he will post a surprise for me on E-Bay.
It's sometimes almost supernatural, the way things seem to come my way, as if by Fate or Destiny, or the will of Santa Claus. And unlike many of the gifts that Santa offered me, at my own misguided request, in childhood, there is no disappointment in the Amazing things he brings me, now. The Magic of what I collect, today, does not come crashing down or fade away.
One, I will never forget, was the Erector Set that, that year, built the Mysterious Walking Robot. I followed the directions to the letter, and had it finished by the afternoon of Christmas Day. He was an awesome three feet tall, and in his belly was a large electric motor. That motor was more than large, it was humongous. It weighed as much as a telephone book, and ran on 120 volts.