Name me a holiday film made in the last 50 years that’s better than “A Christmas Story.” Go.
There are none.
The front half of the 20th century, into the early 1960s, was a Golden Age of Christmas movies. The form, in my humble opinion, languished badly in the second half of the century until 1983, when Bob Clark’s masterpiece, based on the work of storyteller Jean Shepherd, re-wrote the book on how it’s done. Everything since has had little lasting value, in my humble opinion again, but “A Christmas Story” endures and is widely loved now by almost three successive generations.
“A Christmas Story,” if you’ve somehow missed it in the last 30 years, is ostensibly known as a story that follows young Ralphie Parker as he schemes and plots to get his hands on “an official Red Rider 200-shot range model air rifle” with a compass in the stock. It follows the various wrinkles of his life as Christmas approaches, along with stories on bullies, Christmas Trees, Little Orphan Annie, tongues and frozen light posts and a now-very-famous lamp.
It also features the classic refrain, the “all-time mother/bb gun block”, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” The line features in some of the funniest parts of the film, especially as it is uttered to Ralph by the department store Santa just before the bad St. Nick pushes him down a long slide with the gritty grey toe of his black boot.
I could go on about the metaphors of the film, or the subtle and moving story it presents of a father’s love for his son in pre-war America, or about any of the myriad amazing little comic bits that pepper most every frame of the film, or how amazingly this film captures the nostalgia and feeling of Christmas. The movie, though, from the time I first saw it as a teenager around 1986 and until now, spoke and still speaks to me for a whole other reason:
I am living proof that you can indeed get shot in the eye by a bb.
That is correct. It happened to me.
It was 1976, we lived in Richardson, TX. I was in kindergarten and it was a Saturday. My brothers and I were across the street and up the block a few houses playing with some older neighborhood kids. The boy whose house it was had been given an air rifle by his father (like Ralphie, like so many other kids) and a sizable group of us were in his backyard. The kid, along with several of the older boys, were goofing around with the gun. I don’t remember exactly what they were doing, because I was six, and I was scared. It felt dangerous to me and I was about to say so when the boy who owned gun turned on us all and leveled the thing at us.
Now, all these years later, and having been a brainless 13-year-old myself, I do not think he really meant he was going to shoot anyone. At age six, however, I was terrified.
My brothers and I, along with several other kids, dashed toward the back of the yard along the fence where there happened to be several parts of a long-ago dismantled car. I jumped behind a door that was stuck upright in the dirt with the window long gone.
There was silence.
I slowly raised my head above the bottom of the window, next to the manual lock, hoping to see that both the kid and the air gun were gone.
Some 20 or 30 feet away there he stood. The gun leveled. It shifted toward me. I saw him dip the barrel toward the ground and I heard the click of the mechanism firing.
The metal pellet came out in a silver flash, angling toward the dirt five feet in front of me. The bore of the gun, however, was not straight. The bb arced cleanly up from the ground rising toward my eye. It hit the metal of the door about three inches in front of me, careening cleanly up with a searing ping.
Next I can only remember a chrysanthemum of brilliant, impossibly bright colors blossoming from a pinpoint in the center of the darkness of my shut eye. It was a sight that is still breathtaking and terrifying to recall and I have never seen anything to match its’ intensity or beauty since.
It is hazy from there. I remember my father carrying me out; the kid’s father smashing the gun against the side of the house; waiting in the emergency room, with my eyes covered, for what seemed like a year; my father telling someone there that his foot was cold through the hole in his moccasin on the hospital floor; the bb being taken out; a very long and slow week recovering in the hospital with patches over both my eyes so I could see nothing; how mad I was when the nurse who pricked my finger for blood lied to me when she said it wouldn’t hurt.
The patches came off a week later. I could see pretty much fine, much to the relief of my parents and the doctor, who thought I might lose my sight in both eyes due to the injury to the one.
The years subsequently passed and the bb gun incident faded somewhat, or at least we never talked about it. I don’t recall ever asking questions about it, or being asked about it, but it stuck with me. I flinched at the slightest hint of something moving toward my face. I avoided playing with toy pistols. But it stuck with me.
Then, on one magic afternoon in the movie theater, 10 years after it happened, after being dragged there by a friend to see “A Christmas Story,” I was given an amazing gift by this lovable little film.
As I sat and watched Ralph Parker not only get his Red Rider Range Model Air Rifle, I also got to watch him almost shoot his eye out. My heart raced, my mouth went dry. No one there had any idea it meant the slightest thing to me. They all laughed. It was actually funny. Ralph was spared by his glasses. I was spared by a broken down Ford. We both came out of it just about fine.
The next year “A Christmas Story” started showing on cable. I taped it – yes, taped, on a VHS player, if you can remember such things – and began watching it as often as I could. Hundreds of times over the course of a couple of years. I knew every line, every shot, every nuance and error in that film. I absolutely loved to see Ralph “shoot his eye out” and survive. Just like me.
It’s a small club to be a part of, we few who have lived out this worst of a mother’s nightmare.
My daughter saw “A Christmas Story” last weekend for the first time. She is almost eight, two years older than me when I caught the bb in the eye. She liked it well enough, though I can’t yet expect her to understand just how great a film it is. Another few hundred viewings with me and she’ll start to get it.
I still wish Flick didn’t stick his tongue to the light pole; I still would love to see The Lamp. My breath still catches and my mouth still goes dry every time Ralphie says, “Okay, Black Bart, now you get yours.”
The profound sense of relief I still feel every time he fires the gun and then gets up to discover that they were all wrong is still as glorious as it was the first time.
Indeed, he did not shoot his eye out.