I'll never forget the Christmas countdown of 1994.
10 ... 9 ... 8 ...
The boys and I were huddled in the middle of the stubblefield behind our house.
7 ... 6 ... 5 ...
Frigid gusts of wind swirled snowflakes around our well- insulated bodies. Son No. 1 looked pretty spiffy and warm in the St. Louis Blues coat he had just unwrapped under the tree an hour ago. Our stocking caps were pulled down tightly over our ears. Gloves. Boots. Long underwear.
4 ... 3 ... 2 ...
We went about our mission with machine-like precision. Setting up. Taking turns pumping. Then jumping back and hitting the deck as Mom watched from the warmth on the other side of the sliding glass door in a robe and fuzzy slippers, shaking her head.
1 ... Blastoff!
Well, not exactly.
When Son No. 2 pressed the button, the red, plastic rocket sat there like a bump on a log. He pushed it again. Nothing. I could see the disappointment in the cold, red faces of Mission Control, so I sprang to my feet to see what was the matter when ...
The rocket spat off the launchpad like a ... well, like a rocket. It climbed so high, we lost track of the little red dot for a second or two.
"Thar she blows!" I said, pointing up and tracing its path across the sky with a gloved finger. The wind carried it over the garden and past the tulip tree. It landed with a thud on the neighbors' second-story roof.
Hooray! We screamed like banshees and jumped around the stubblefield with our arms raised like we had just won the World Series. High and low gloved fives all around.
We didn't want to bother the neighbors on Christmas, so subsequent launches had to wait a day or two till we could borrow a big ladder. We went inside, sipped hot chocolate with those little marshmallows, and basked in our glory, trying on new clothes, playing with new toys and waging crumpled-up wrapping-paper wars.
The rocket was my idea. It was a continuation of a Kuhl family tradition of always putting one unmarked mystery gift under the tree that is just plain silly.
Pop probably started the tradition long before I was born. The first silly family gift I remember was a package of dart guns and soft, rubber-tipped darts. The kind that would give Ralph Nader and his boys a conniption because they could put an eye out. But they seemed like a good idea in the 1950s.
As the youngest, I got to rip the wrapping paper off the mystery gift. Then it was a free-for-all as everyone grabbed a dart gun and a couple of darts and staked out territory behind the big chair, under the dining room table or behind some other substantial piece of furniture.
It was all-out war. Gosh, it was fun. Mom even took a shot and bounced one off Pop's overalls bib.
We never did find all the darts.
Every year, there was something fun for the whole family. Once it was one of those "atomic" nutcrackers advertised on TV. We all had fun cracking walnuts and pecans, then we moved on to large marbles, ping-pong balls, snickerdoodle cookies and even my thumb. Ouch. Great fun.
Once, it was Mr. Brain. A cardboard figure of a smiling little guy with various holes around his face. You had to draw a card and answer the question on it. Then you were instructed to poke two little probes into particular holes. If his nose lit up, you were correct. If you were wrong, a buzzer mocked you.
Pretty high-tech for 1960. We loved it.
Now, I conside it my duty to continue the silly gift tradition.
One year, it was a pistol that you had to load with a clear liquid, then let it warm up so you could shoot smoke rings across the room. You could even shoot little smoke rings through big smoke rings if you practiced.
Other years saw a parade of cool stuff --- Nerf swords, a karaoke microphone, toothpaste that turns your mouth black when you brush and even one of those slingshot launchers they use to shoot T-shirts into the upper deck at Busch Stadium.
A few years back, it was an Air Bazooka. A large, plastic coffee can-looking thing with a handle grip. When you pull back its plastic diaphragm and let go, it shoots a giant wad of air across the room at your target. It doesn't hurt. It just startles your victim. You can destroy a holiday hairdo from 15 feet. Scatter papers on the kitchen counter. Or make the cat jump a foot off the couch.
So far, I've only been oudone twice. There was the year Grandpa Kenny gave me a package of moose poop. I guess you had to be there, but it was a good laugh. Another time, it was a toilet bank that makes flushing noises whenever you put in a quarter. I liked that one because I suckered so many people into putting their quarters in.
The pressure is on this year. I haven't found just the right show-stopping gift yet. But it's still early in the silly gift countdown.
9 ... 8 ... 7
After all, this isn't rocket science.