SideLines: My own 'Christmas Story'

It’s one of the most famous lines in any Christmas movie: “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”

The line, of course, is from the 1983 holiday classic “A Christmas Story,” in which 9-year-old Ralphie only wants one thing for Christmas: a Red Ryder BB gun. Every time he tells someone, he hears the same thing.

Of all the Christmas movies ever made, this one probably hits closest to home. Jean Shepherd may have written this based on his own childhood, but - with the exception of the leg lamp - almost every scene could be taken from my own youth.

Like the kids in the movie, I remember bundling up in boots, gloves, hats and those bulky, heavy coats that made it awkward to walk, then trudging two blocks to and from school in the cold and snow. Watching that movie today, I can still feel the bitter cold wind blowing the loose snow off the hill leading to the elementary school and onto the backs of our bare necks.

Also, like them, there was always a little group of us who made the daily trek together: me, my younger sister, the two kids my mother used to babysit and the brother and sister who lived next door. Sometimes, the kids who lived on the end of the block joined us.

Unlike the movie, which has two bullies, we only had one, Brad, who lived halfway down the block between our house and school. He was three years older than me, the oldest one in our  group. Sometimes, if the mood struck him, Brad pelted us with snowballs. Other times, he just looked at us menacingly, like how dare we walk past his house, even though we had no choice.

One Friday afternoon, it was just him and me walking home. I was a few houses ahead of him when I saw the crossing guard leading him, packing a snowball, across the street. Knowing what he was up to, I started running, which only enticed him to chase me. Once I got past his house, I knew I was safe, which didn’t improve his mood any. As I dodged one last snowball, he threatened to beat me up on Monday.

Fortunately, he either lost interest or simply forgot because he never followed through – not that I didn’t sweat it out for a couple of weeks every time I passed his house.

Like Ralphie, when I visited Santa I remember being so intimidated by the Great Man I could never accurately blurt out what I wanted for Christmas. Although I never wanted a BB gun, a lot of the boys did. What I wanted was an army rifle made of real wood with a steel barrel that, if you didn’t know any better, you’d swear was real. That was back when all the boys were crazy about playing army. I’m not sure you can sell something like that today.

I don’t recall the gun – which I got – actually firing bullets, but many of the guns we played with could fire plastic pellets, which I’m sure isn’t allowed today, and really shouldn’t be. (Looking back, it’s a miracle none of us ever shot someone’s eye out. Fortunately, our aim never matched our enthusiasm.)

I never had to wear a bunny suit for Christmas, but I did get my share of annoying clothes from well-meaning relatives when all I wanted were guns and gloves and games. So I can relate to Ralphie finally opening something he wanted. It was an excitement only a child can feel; it becomes numbed over the years.

“A Christmas Story” will be shown at the Sycamore State Street Theater at 11 a.m. Dec. 1 and 2. It’s one of several Christmas movies that will be shown at the downtown theater free of charge during the holiday season. Other upcoming movies in the series include “Prancer,” “Miracle on 34th Street” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

If you can’t make it this weekend, don’t worry; there’s usually a 24-hour TV marathon of “A Christmas Story” Christmas Eve.

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