As all right-thinking Americans know – especially around this time of year – the word “fragile” is pronounced fra-GEE-lay. Why? Because it’s Italian. Because it’s a major prize. Because there is a tapestry of obscenity that still hangs in space over northern Indiana to this day. And because F-dash-dash-dash is it… the biggie… the queen mother of all dirty words.
We know because that’s what The Old Man – the immortal Darren McGavin – taught us in A Christmas Story. And because, over the years, we have grown from wee lads who recognized ourselves in young Ralphie… into grown men who understand The Old Man’s grievances, dreams, simple desires and quiet love for his family as our own.
When A Christmas Story was first released in 1983, I was twelve years old… but even at that tender age, as I walked into the theater I was anticipating something special. I’d been introduced to the work of Jean Shepherd the year before, and had quickly read and reread and reread again his short story collections, A Fistful of Fig Newtons, Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories, and In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. They were beautifully-rendered, hysterically funny stories of growing up in 1930s Indiana, army life in the early 1940s and other wonderfully offbeat slices of life.. written simply enough that a kid could understand and love them, but with enough depth and nuance that they’re still richly rewarding reading for me today. So when my parents told me we were going to see a Christmas movie based on some of his stories? I was beyond sold.
And, of course, my expectations were more than met – and exceeded – by the actual film. Who woulda guessed that the man responsible for Porky’s, Rhinestone and Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 might be capable of creating a film that so perfectly captures a (possibly mythical) time and place, the interplay of family life, and the small absurdities that unexpectedly generate such timeless and lasting humor? Not me… but he did. The movie was funny enough that we actually went to see it in the theater twice – a rarity in my home – and I spent the next several years psychologically equating myself to young Ralphie.
I can’t imagine I was alone in doing so. Sure, Ralphie was a product of a different time and place, but who couldn’t project him or herself into his shoes as a kid whose lust for some impossibly unobtainable toy might lead to generate all kinds of ploys and strategies to persuade our parents that said toy is actually a good idea (“Flick says he saw some grizzly bears near Pulaski’s candy store”)… and then, failing that strategy, realizing that the next best step would be to go over our parents’ heads to the next level of management (see Ralphie’s impassioned plea to the department store Santa for An Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle, only to be rebuffed with an offhanded, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid” and a boot to the face)… finding time in the midst of all of this to deal with the social pressures of school and bullies (the dreaded Scut Farkas) while simultaneously navigating our own social circles (and daring our friends to do stupid things because we think it might be funny)… mouthing off to parents and paying the price for it — and daydreaming of how one day they would weep with regret for having done us wrong (say it with me now: Soap! Poisoning!)… and trying to avoid the pitfalls and horrifying embarrassments of family members who would thoughtlessly undermine what little dignity we’d mustered to that point in our lives (e.g. the Donnie Darko-prescient pink bunny suit).Pink_Bunny_Suit
At some point, we were all Ralphie. And realistically, on many levels that was a feeling that probably lasted beyond Ralphie’s own tender years — because while our own lives trudged into the twenties and beyond, there was always some level where we were a kid at heart… and sympathized with and deeply understood the trials of his young life.
But at some point… there was a shift in the prism. And Ralphie’s Old Man evolved from a funny and memorable supporting character into something more. We began to see ourselves in this man of simple pleasures — reading the sports section with his breakfast, trudging through the logistical challenges of setting up a holiday lights display for his kids’ pleasure, bravely doing battle with household systems and appliances while swearing up a storm. A man who may have once had his own dreams of grandeur, but who now accepts with open arms the smaller joys and fleeting, momentary glories that allow his life to flare bright and beautiful (and, if the fates are kind enough, possibly even in the form of “the soft glow of electric sex in the living room window”).
We saw ourselves in a man who goes to a thankless job every day for the good of his family. Who isn’t so blinded by familial devotion that he’s incapable of being disgusted by the revolting things that young kids sometimes do (“Randy, how do the little piggies go? That’s right: oink oink! Now show me how the piggies eat…”)… but who is also fully capable of holding a warm place in his heart for the gross little animals in question.
He is stolid. He is stalwart. He is funnier than he needs to be, worthy of the love of a good woman, and with no agenda other than to enjoy whatever taste of the good life he can bring to his home and family. He sees value in the fragile, finds confidence in his own strengths, and faces each new day with a sardonic wit and a willingness to do what needs to be done.
Here’s to you, Old Man, for showing us the way.