Fat Cat Christmas

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The stuff of my boyhood dreams: The FAT CAT.


When I have little kids in my life, I like Christmas more than the average man, but significantly less than the average woman of my experience.  I’ve never grumbled about the expense and bother of a real tree, complained about choosing and purchasing gifts for kids.  In fact, when my own kids were young, I vicariousized a childhood, every year trying to build up excitement among the girls for a gift I never got but always wanted:  a rock tumbler that would turn stones found on our walks into shiny objects worthy of oohs and aahs.  If Becca, Meri or Libby had exhibited even one scintilla of enthusiasm, I would have purchased them a rock polishing contraption fit for a gemologist.  None did, so now I patiently wait for grandchildren, hoping to share my unfulfilled passion with them.

Remembering my own childhood, my third-grade Christmas sticks out.  Having turned eight the month before Christmas, I was now old enough to beg and wheedle and moan for a particular gift.  Before this, while I may have made a half-hearted plea for a toy that had caught my eye, I lacked the socialization and media immersion needed to transform a child from a happy recipient into a voracious claimant.  I now knew my rights, including the right to drive people crazy with my Christmas demands.

I’d like to say this Gimme List grew out of a close examination of the toys I owned and liked and a reasoned exploration of what gifts might increase this enjoyment.  It didn’t.  My Gimme List was driven solely by my desire to be one of the guys and included just one item, the toy demanded by every other boy in my third-grade class: a Fat Cat.  With a name like Fat Cat, you might imagine a purring stuffed animal that could be taken to bed—if you’ve never met a third-grade boy.

The Fat Cat was a plastic truck with oversized tires and an insatiable need for “D” batteries. Fully charged, the Fat Cat, at least in the commercials, seemed capable of performing most construction transportation with ease.  Groups of amazed little boys watched as the truck easily passed over a fallen branch, climbed a sand hill of monstrous angles and carried tools from one small carpenter to another.  This truck was not just COOL, it was transformative.  With it, a boy would become a contractor, a builder, practically a god of construction.

Here, I must digress and confess I was not then (and am not now) a carpenter, an architect, a builder of any kind.  Oh, I can swing a hammer and it will occasionally hit a nail.  I can turn wood into dust with a saw, then break it off at the cut when I get tired of cutting.  I can even rewire a lamp, sort of, although I’ll be careful to take it outside before plugging it in—just in case.  I’ve never longed for tools, never cursed myself for not wanting to be a carpenter, never gazed lustfully at a truck, any more than my friend, Gavin, who designed and built the Tiny White Box, judges himself poorly for never having written a villanelle.

Even in third grade, I was no ironworker wannabe or jackhammer-dreaming kid. I wanted a Fat Cat because everybody wanted a fat cat. Forget that I’d had Tonka trucks since I was five, and never found them fun. Ignore my quick boredom with previous electronic toys—they had no soul, were not imagination-generators and always ran out of a charge within 10 minutes. The Fat Cat would be different, and might even make me different.

I begged my parents, wrote Santa a pleading letter and tried to enlist my kid sister, six at the time, to encourage my parents to scratch my fat cat itch. By Christmas morning, I had worked myself into a lather, my emotions equal parts joyous excitement and preemptive disappointment, waiting anxiously to spew out of me. When we finally opened our presents and, indeed, a Fat Cat was there, I shot off the rocket of excitement and danced giddily around for a minute or so. Before my father had even begun feeding batteries into the belly of the beast, though, I saw the Fat Cat for what it was—a hunk of plastic that would move itself across the floor a few times before I grew tired of it and left it under my bed for weeks at a time.  This reckoning could have transformed me into a wiser boy, one who recognized that joy doesn’t come in brightly-colored boxes with pictures of laughing children on them. It could have, but it didn’t.  I had one thought and one thought only:

Why didn’t I ask for a goddamned electric rock tumbler?

I still ask myself that as I wait for grandchildren that have not been conceived of, much less conceived.


About the author: Keith Howard used to be a homeless drunk veteran. Then he got sober and, eventually, became director of Liberty House in Manchester, a housing program for formerly homeless veterans. There, he had a number of well-publicized experiences – walking away from federal funds in order to keep Liberty House clean and sober, a contretemps with a presidential candidate and a $100,000 donation, a year spent living in a converted cargo trailer in Raymond. Today, he lives in a six-by 12-foot trailer in Pittsburg, NH, a few miles from the Canadian border with his dog, Sam. There, Howard maintains tinywhitebox.com, his website, works on a memoir, and a couple of novels while plotting the next phase of his improbable life.