It was 1:10 P.M. Friday, December 17, 1954, and Sister Maureen Thomas’ second grade class had just returned from their lunch break in the cafeteria followed by recess in the school yard, and was looking forward to the end of the school week, just hours away. The sixty seven members of the second grade class were in a kick back mood, and Sister Maureen Thomas opened the second drawer on the right side of her desk from which she extracted a small book covered with the brown paper from a shopping bag. Oh boy, it was story time!
The story concerned itself with the adventure of a boy named Homer, not to be confused with the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, who, out of the goodness of his heart, had volunteered to help in cleaning the church one Saturday morning. Given a dust cloth and a feather duster, Homer proceeded to dust everything in sight, and I mean everything.
Evidently the church must have been vast, because just as he was thinking he was through with his work, Homer came across an alcove he had never seen before. In that alcove stood a statue of St. Michael the Archangel with his sword drawn in his right hand, and standing with his left foot upon the head of the vanquished Lucifer who lay with his head face down in the mud. Homer noted that the devil’s tail was exceedingly dusty.
Homer paused to look upon the statue for a moment or two, and then proceeded to dust it from the hand of St. Michael which held the pommel of his sword high above the scene to the tip of the devil’s tail which snaked down the side of the base of the statue. From top to bottom Homer cleaned that statue until it was spic and span. When Homer was done, he went outside to shake out his dusters near the side entrance to the church. He was turning to reenter to the church, when he heard a noise.
“What was that?” Homer thought to himself as he quickly glanced around for the source of the sound. Finding nothing out of the ordinary except perhaps for the length that his shadow cast on the pavement, Homer noticed that it was much later in the day than he thought.
“You had best be getting on home, Homer.” The kindly Father Denney spoke in a soft, quiet voice, as Homer returned the dusters to him.
“It’s getting late, so go straight home; make haste, and don’t talk to strangers.”
“Yes, Father”, Homer replied.
Homer turned away from Father Denney, and left the church by its main entrance. As he was walking down the front steps he heard the sound again.
“Psst. Come over here, by the bushes.”
In a moment, Father Denney’s admonitions were forgotten, and as Homer approached the side of the church, out stepped an extremely well dressed and polished looking gentleman who looked very familiar to Homer. He had seen this man before, but he could not remember where or when.
“Who are you?” Homer asked.
“You don’t recognize me?” The stranger seemed somewhat taken aback.
“I don’t, but you do look familiar, somehow.”
“Well no matter, no matter at all, you see, you did something nice for me, and I would like to do something for you in return. Come along now, follow me.”
Homer started walking with the gentleman, but after walking a few blocks Homer became hesitant, and finally stopped and asked the question, “Where are we going?”
“Over to the island in the middle of the river. See here, we are almost at the bridge.”
The strange gentleman stopped walking, turned around to face Homer, paused for a moment, and then from under his overcoat produced an orange box which he handed to Homer. The box was lettered in an art deco style with the words “Lionel Electric Trains” and “The Lionel Corporation New York …. Chicago” on its sides; the end flap of the box was marked “No. 2353P Santa Fe Diesel Power Car”.
“That box contains the lead locomotive of this year’s top of the line Lionel train set, ‘The SUPER-STREAMLINER’. The rest of the train set is waiting for you on the island together with a transformer, some very nice accessories and additional track and switches. They are yours for the taking so just come on over and get them.”
Now Homer was very familiar with that toy train. Lionel was using it to promote its entire product line on television that year. The entire package as described by the gent would cost Homer’s father a month’s wages. Homer knew that such a toy would not be under the tree this Christmas or for that matter any Christmas. “But what have I done that you’re giving it to me?” Homer asked.
The gent paused for a moment or two and then started across the bridge. Glancing over his shoulder back at Homer he said, “I’m giving it to you because you dusted my tail.”
“You must understand, Homer that my statue has stood in that alcove for years and years undusted. People go in there and buff up Michael all the time, but as for me, well let’s just say most lack the necessary enthusiasm. Homer, look at me. I’m a class act. After all, I am the Prince of this World. I have my standards, and I was really getting quite dusty. I was getting to the point where I was seriously considering doing the job myself, but I have an aversion to visiting churches, and most especially, uh, um, Catholic churches. Because of your conscientious cleaning, you have spared me that task. I consider you one of my own now, and I take care of my own in very special ways. Behold, we have reached the island. Please, look around -- I designed it myself you know, and I designed it just for you. I have filled it with every conceivable toy, diversion and confection that a boy of your age and standing could ever desire. Walk around. Take whatever you fancy! Do whatever you want! Eat whatever you like!”
At this point in her story telling, there was a knock at the classroom door, and Sister Maureen Thomas was compelled to leave the room to confer with another Sister. While she was away I took the interruption as an opportunity to reflect upon the story.
I did not know it at the time, but 1954 was the peak of the market for toy trains in America, and the Lionel Corporation of New York City, New York was the largest toy company in the world. In spite of its television commercials, the Lionel catalog which was widely distributed and given away free was Lionel’s main marketing tool. I was very familiar with the contents of the 1954 Lionel Catalog, and so was every other boy in that second grade class. It was a masterpiece of the toy train marketer’s art. It was profusely illustrated, with every illustration in full color. The front page cover of the catalog featured a proud father on the extreme right hand side of the page smiling at his glassy eyed son on the extreme left hand side. Between them stood an array of some of the finest toy train locomotives Lionel was selling that year. The train sets contained in the pages of the catalog were illustrated in real world settings, and each illustration spanned the width of two catalogue pages, almost two feet! The illustrations were so spectacular, that I would often become disappointed upon seeing the real thing in the toy store, but not too disappointed. These trains, when running, commanded your attention. They clinked; they clanked; they clunked. Most had either a horn or a whistle which was loud enough to be extremely annoying to sisters, mothers, aunts, grandmothers and girl cousins while at the same time thrilling all the rest of the family.
Just three weeks earlier my family and my uncle’s family, four adults and three kids, had squeezed into my father’s sedan for a trip to Gimbels and John Wanamaker on Market Street in Philadelphia. These were Philadelphia’s two largest department stores, and they featured the most spectacular toy departments that I had ever seen in all my childhood, and they made samples of each toy available for the kids to play with. I was in awe, except for one thing. Do you remember the scene in The Christmas Story where Ralphie has to stand in the line to Santa Claus with his little brother? I had to stand in an even longer line in order to escort my little sister to Santa. So, when I considered Homer’s situation on that island, I saw Homer in the midst of something that combined the best features of both of these stores’ toy departments – without the line to Santa. All things considered, that island seemed like the place to be for a kid like me. In the hip argot of my early childhood, it was nifty.
Sister Maureen Thomas came back into the classroom; picked up the book, and continued with the storytelling.
“Yes”, continued the Devil, “take as much as you desire, but you must be prepared to cross the bridge by no later than six P.M. as measured by the island’s clock. Do you see it over there atop that tall tower? Here let me have the box I gave you and I’ll pack it up with the rest of the train set and the accessories. Then I’ll put it all in a back pack for you. That will make it easier for you to carry.”
“What happens if I don’t get back here by six?”
The Devil paused in his packing. “When that clock strikes six this island and everything on it will sink into the river. Get along now, you still have time to enjoy it. Just remember to be back here by six. Now, go have fun.”
Homer started his exploration of the island, and he couldn’t believe his eyes. For every toy that he had ever seen, ever wished for, or ever possessed there were at least a hundred more on the island that were even more desirable. There was at least one example of every toy that was ever made by every toy manufacturer that ever existed in the world. Homer came to a place where there were hundreds of Radio Flyer and Greyhound wagons including a forty five foot high “Coaster Boy” identical to the one Radio Flyer built for the 1933 Chicago World’s fair. He quickly grabbed two of the larger ones on display, and proceeded to fill them up with the most wonderful toys he had ever seen. Homer became so preoccupied from racing around the island with his wagons in his quest of the absolutely best toys he forgot to keep his eye on the tower clock; that is, until it started to chime six o’clock. That’s when Homer felt the ground shaking beneath his feet. The island like some enormous mechanical automaton started slowly sinking into the river!
“Quickly!” the Devil cried, “you have just enough time to don this backpack. There you go! Here, you still have some room in your pockets! Take these fine lead cast toy soldiers. That’s right; stuff them in your pockets. Here take some more; they’ll go great with that train set. You know those wagons were a smart idea, Homer, but they aren’t nearly half full; let me pile some more toys on top of what you have already gathered.”
When the Devil was finished with Homer; Homer could hardly move, and his wagons were loaded to the breaking point with enough toys to last a lifetime. The Devil had said so himself. Homer had a good feeling about the Devil, and as he ambled out a few dozen paces on the bridge that connected the island to the mainland he turned around to thank him, but the Devil had disappeared. It was then when he heard the voice of Father Denney calling to him.
“Homer! Homer! Come quickly! The bridge is sinking into the river!”
It was then that Homer noticed that his feet were getting wet.
Homer pressed on tugging at those two large wagons as the water level rose from his ankles to his knees. At this point the wagons’ wheel bearings started to fail, and it became increasingly more difficult for Homer to pull his treasures to safety. By the time he was halfway across the bridge, the wagon wheels had failed completely.
“I’m going to lose my toys!” Homer wailed.
Homer salvaged the best toys that he could carry from his wagons, and abandoning the rest, trudged on. The water was now at waste level. He pressed on making very slow progress as the water rose to chest level.
“Drop what you’re carrying and run for it, Homer!” Father Denney shouted.
With the greatest of effort Homer cast the toys he was carrying into the surging river. Now the water was over his head. He peeled off the backpack, and cast it aside. Then, finally, he reached into his pockets and emptied their contents into the water. He slowly started to rise to the surface of the water.
Two strong arms grabbed Homer, and the next thing he knew was that he had been raised up upon Father Denney’s shoulders and was being swiftly carried to safety.
Sister Maureen Thomas closed her little book, and placed it back in the drawer. “All right class, who can tell me? What is the moral of the story?”
The moral was one of the common attributes of these second grade stories. Every story had a moral, and if it didn’t it was not considered worthy of telling. Existentialism was a non starter in Sister Maureen Thomas’ second grade class.
“What is the moral of this story?” Sister asked a second time.
I had been thinking about the whole situation Homer went through, and how it could have been avoided. How could the whole affair have been nipped in the bud? What would Homer have to do or not do in order to avoid the situation that he had gotten himself into? All of a sudden it came to me. Eureka! I knew the answer. Quickly I raised my hand and began waving it around frantically. Thus I was called upon to supply the answer.
“The moral of the story,” I said, “is don’t dust the devil’s tail – that’s what started the whole mess to begin with.”
“What’s the moral of this story?” Sister asked a third time.
Finally, when there were no further answers forthcoming, Sister spoke. “Homer was only able to be saved after he abandoned all the toys that the devil had given him. In this world, we need to do likewise. Abandon your toys, the things of this world, and be saved.”
Obviously, I have never forgotten that story; although I am sure I got some of the details wrong. So this Christmas, I’m passing it on to you. Merry Christmas!