It was one week before Christmas. I was in third grade. Seemingly out of nowhere, the teacher asked for a show of hands to determine how many students in the class still believed in Santa Claus. I vividly remember my anxiety mounting as I looked one way, and then another, to see that no other hands were wavering in the air but my own. I recall some grins, and even a few snickers. The teacher smiled wryly at me. “Michael,” she inquired, “why do you still believe in Santa Claus?”
Slowly, I lowered my hand. “Because I talked to him on the phone.”
As a parent, my father was a bit of a creative deviant who perhaps enjoyed partaking in holiday trickery more than the children being tricked. It was all in good fun, but my dad couldn’t have known the looming ramifications when he enlisted his buddy to play the role of Santa Claus on the other end of the phone in hope of talking me out of a particular gift on which my heart had been set.
It was the Bat Cave.
Back in the 70’s, there were no such things as “action figures.” We had dolls. Super heroes and G.I. Joes were all eight-inch dolls with removable clothing and even realistic hair that was sometimes glued to their squish-able heads, which was an unfortunate feature for the G.I. Joe from the Sea Wolf toy set, whose bristly hair and beard fell out in patches after a few weeks of nightly immersion in a bathtub, where he was pitted against a menacing rubber squid that circled his flooded submarine. At the time, the campy Adam West version of Batman was still wildly popular, as well as the animated Hanna Barbara productions that aired on Saturday mornings, such as Batman and the Superfriends. The year when the Bat Cave playset appeared on the scene was probably around 1979, and I was probably around seven or eight-years-old. To the best of my recollection, the Bat Cave playset was a plastic base with molded computers and stalagmites that served as a foundation for a cardboard backdrop that was a printed screenshot of the actual Bat Cave, as it was portrayed on one of those popular shows. For years, I’d been using cardboard boxes and Styrofoam packaging to create temporary models of Bat Caves that I’d store beneath my bed until such time as my mother grew tired of them and threw them out. I was ready for the real deal. The Bat Cave playset was finally available, and it was all that I wanted for Christmas.
Now, I’m not sure whether this particular item was overpriced, constructed of poor quality, or a combination of both, but my dad hated it. He couldn’t stand the idea of buying it. Every time that I’d bring it up, my dad would retort that it was nothing but a cardboard piece of crap, and that he could make me a much better Bat Cave than that. My dad was quite a craftsman, but I must admit, I had my doubts about his ability to craft anything remotely more awesome than the playset that was being advertised on the back of every comic book being printed that Christmas season. In fact, I couldn’t imagine settling for anything less, until the night when my dad suggested we call the North Pole, and I could hear it from Santa himself.
Was such a thing even possible? Why, in all my eight-years, had my dad been holding out on an option to actually call Santa Claus and speak directly to the man himself? I was stunned, and it all happened so suddenly that I’d scarcely time to react before he’d picked up the beige, goosenecked rotary phone on my grandparent’s counter, and he dialed up the North Pole before handing the phone right over to me. I didn’t know what to say, but as it turned out I didn’t need to say anything, because the next thing I knew the voice of Santa Claus was booming right in my ear. He of course knew exactly who I was, and why I’d called, without my ever having to explain myself. It was a shot of pure, undiluted 190-proof Christmas magic, rushing through every whorl of my brain. Star-struck, I could only nod my head in some semblance of understanding as Santa corroborated exactly what my dad had been telling me for months, that the Bat Cave was nothing but a cardboard piece of junk that was so poorly designed that his elves had actually halted the production line for that item, and they were in the process of doing a total recall. Santa then suggested, with an almost frightening intuition, that I might ought to ask my dad to make me a better Bat Cave than the one that was being so falsely advertised.
Christmas morning of 1979 arrived. I remember the astringent smell of fresh paint emanating from a large, dome-shaped package that was almost too heavy and awkward for a boy to lift from beneath the sappy branches of the real Christmas tree. When I tore away the colorful wrapping paper, I gawped down at a homemade Bat Cave, jigsawed entirely out of ¾” plywood, and painted a dark, chocolate brown. Even divorced of its wrapping paper it was almost too heavy to carry. I had to slide it into the clear, with its splintered edges snagging the shag carpeting. There was no way that it was going to fit on my bedroom shelf, nor would it slide under my bed, being so large and ungainly. No, it was obvious from the moment I laid eyes on it that this plywood playset would have to be stored out in the garage, where I could play in a realistically cold and lightless environment that mirrored the inhospitable conditions of an actual cave.
The old man had really put some work into it. A huge black and gold Batman symbol blazed from the center of a great arched panel that served as the backboard. Screwed to the lower sidewalls, which remained forever tacky beneath their coats of brown paint, were ranks of imagined computers that the old man had fashioned from the dusty guts of old telephones and radios. My Bat Cave was the toyland equivalent of Eddie Murphy’s homemade McDonald’s burger, with all of the chunky onions and peppers hanging out of it, and it was no small irony that it had been created by the same man who would forever retell the tale of the wounded look in his own mother’s eyes when he’d once opened a package thirty-some years earlier to stare down in utter horror at a homemade version of the western shirt he’d wanted, sewn from material patterned with cute little skunks. Wisely, I remembered the lesson from this familiar anecdote, and I opted to break that cycle of lifelong regret that my dad tried to initiate in that fateful moment when he’d held aloft his skunky cowboy shirt on Christmas morning, frowned at his mama, and wrinkled his nose. Rather than showing any sign of disappointment, I thanked the old man, hefted the enormous abomination by its splintered edges, and staggered beneath the weight of its stupendous bulk into the frigid garage, where I would play with my superhero dolls beneath the mindless glare of a couple of half-frozen cats named Simon and Kuma.
Trickery and deceit. That’s my family tradition. In the same vein as my old man, when he handed me the phone to talk directly to Santa, or when he’d point at the flashing red light of an airliner plying Christmas Eve’s starry skies, and he’d assure me that it was none other than the blinking nose of Rudolph, I have made every effort to trick and deceive my own children, not just at Christmas, but at every occasion. The Tooth Fairy left not just coins beneath pillows at our house, but elaborate letters to the children, explaining how their teeth were ground into powder as a sort of nostrum to save the life of an ailing Toadstool King. Leprechauns weren’t just celebrated on Saint Patrick’s Day, they were hunted, trapped, and even feared, as they would always manage to escape the clever traps we’d set for them and leave, in their wakes of rage, subsequent paths of destruction all around the house.
When I revisit the memory of glancing uneasily around that 3rd Grade classroom, with my skinny arm wavering alone in the air, what I feel is love and pride. I love the fact that I was the last kid in my grade to release my hold on my beliefs; I love my dad, and all the trouble that he went through to build me a Bat Cave that was no doubt immeasurably better (and lasting) quality than the cardboard piece of junk that was being advertised in every comic book printed in the fall of 1979, and I’m proud to be a part of that family tradition of trickery that not only inspires, but galvanizes the magic of childhood.