My Christmas Story

Jean Shepherd, in his classic semi-autobiographical account A Christmas Story, tells the tale of Ralphie and his legendary quest for his Holy Grail – the “Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with the compassinthestockandthethingthattellstime.”

Back in 1969, when I was 14 years old, my Holy Grail was a "real" sword -- something I drooled over, feverishly dreamt about, and never really thought I'd get.

Wearing my Dad's Marine Campaign Hat and holding a Sikh kirpan saber, 1969

Why a sword?

I was the “weird kid” in the neighborhood that you always hear about that just didn’t “fit in.” Don’t get me wrong -- I was as white middle class suburban as you could get, with the comfortable kind of sheltered upbringing rarely seen these days. As I grew older I was genuinely surprised to learn about racial prejudice and domestic or child abuse and the other ills that plague our society. It just wasn’t part of the happy Leave It To Beaver, Wonderbread world I grew up in.

But I had, for all the dull perfection of my upbringing (or perhaps because of it), a raging thirst for adventure.

Where other kids my age were dreaming about their first muscle car, their first date, or being the star football quarterback, I dreamt about lost cities, damsels in distress, and desperate duels with bare blades on a moonlit beach.

As early as 1960, when I was only 5 years old, I was already heading that way. I remember very clearly one time when our family went to a drive-in with our best friends, the Briggs. We went to see a Disney movie at one of those double-screen drive-ins. While everyone else sat up front to watch the The Shaggy Dog (or something else, I don't recall), my best friend, Ricky, and I climbed into the back of the station wagon to watch Ben Hur, which was playing on the opposite side of the drive-in - without sound - on a screen that looked hardly larger than a postage stamp at that distance. But we watched the whole thing.

It all started with the soft stuff, my gateway drug – tales of Arthur, the King, and his Knights of the Roundtable that my mother read to me, until I could read myself. In my pre-teen years, Walden Books was my drug dealer – I would buy any book that had a sword on the cover. I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs and John Carter of Mars. Heinlein’s Glory Road. Anything by J.R.R. Tolkien. That led to the harder stuff – the artwork of Frank Frazetta and the tales of Conan by Robert E. Howard. I stumbled on the swashbuckler films of Errol Flynn, usually airing in the pre-dawn programming slot on the local television station (this was in the days before cable). This dreamy romanticism and obsession with the sword earned me derisive nicknames at school like “The Golden Hawk” (after the old Rhonda Fleming pirate movie) as well as a lot of other unprintable ones as a result of starting a fencing club at my high school with my best friends (John Hatchett, Brad Martin, John Breaux and Jeff Mariotte - Jeff is now the author of several new Conan books, among many other comics and novels.)

I got my first plastic sword out of Sears Wish Book catalog (my Christmas season Bible, hoarded and dog-eared right up until the Big Day) as part of a Civil War/Cavalry set when I was 6. I played with that sword until I wore the blade down to a nub. I never missed the opening credits of “Branded,” the TV show with Chuck Connors, because they showed someone break his sword as he was being dishonorably discharged. I was a big fan of "Zorro" (Guy Williams) and longed to carve a "Z" myself on the rotund chest of Sargent Garcia. In my mind, I was with Richard Greene as Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest. I looked for swords everywhere, but in those days before the internet, there were no businesses offering swords like there are these days.

I made swords out of wood and metal scraps my Dad left lying around his home workshop, sometimes burying them in the backyard so that I could unearth and “(re)discover” them (usually only minutes later).

One year, Yield House, a furniture catalog, offered a couple of Toledo (Spain) made pieces and I bought them both. They were, frankly, tourist-type sword-like-objects intended for decoration only – but I used them until the soft metal blades were bent and notched, the spongy cardboard grips had their cord-wrapping all loose and unraveled, and the fake-gilt guard and pommel were worn down to the grey pot-metal underneath.

But, the biggest discovery of my childhood came from an unexpected quarter, the same source as my first toy sword: Sears & Roebuck.

Sears in the 1960's
A Sears store very much like ours in Virginia back in the 1960's
(Thanks to the Pleasant Family Shopping Blogspot for the photo)

Sears (or Sears & Sawbuck as my Dad always called it) was the Mecca of the home handyman in those days before Bob Vila, Home Depot and the hundreds of other lumberyard/home improvement stores were born. My Dad was the ultimate do-it-yourselfer – he could maintain and repair his cars, do his own plumbing, electrical, carpentry, and cabinetwork. Sears was where he went to get new tools, but also just to windowshop.  He loved well-made things, especially tools. He also believed that you should have the right tool for every job (every tool is NOT a hammer) and that it was always best to get the highest quality tool you could afford – it would last longer and never let you down. I’m not the handyman my Dad was, but those values did stick with me.

My Dad

It was on one trip shopping for tools in October of 1969 with my Dad that I glimpsed, for the first time, my personal Holy Grail.

We had parked near the Men’s Department door of a Sears at the Landmark shopping center in northern Virginia, so we were forced to wend our way through cologne counters, necktie displays and other signs of the Christmas-shopping-season-arms-race-like-buildup that happened every year. The aisles would daily become more and more congested with tables crowded with wallets and shoe-shine kits and the other flotsam-type presents that you can swing by and grab for those people for whom you have absolutely no idea what else to get.
My Dad, as usual, was making a polite but firm bee-line for the hardware department and apparently didn’t notice, at first, that his gawky Ernie Douglas look-alike son had uncharacteristically stopped dead in his tracks in the middle of the Men’s Department.

I had no choice.

Because there IT was, standing upright on a round table (ironically) in the middle of an aisle, surrounded by racks of shirts and pants and coats and other things that I couldn’t have cared less about. It was like stumbling on an ancient lost city in the trackless jungle, or finding a spaceship parked in your garage. It was so out of place that it made me doubt my senses.

The Sword

There was a blue square tablecloth going in one direction, overlapping a white square tablecloth going the other way, the corner points just touching the floor. More blue cloth was bunched around the base of the mahogany plaque. On the plaque was an otherwise plain-looking Medieval-type sword with a simple cross, domed wheel pommel and a walnut grip (and most likely the light shining directly on it from above and the choir of angelic voices were added by my imagination.)

I was dumbfounded. I was in Sears for cryin’ out loud, yet here was what I had been searching for.

It took me only seconds to ferret out the details that were important to me. The pommel wasn’t the screw-on type – it was peened (permanently hammered on)! I didn’t even know the term then, but I knew what I was looking at. The hilt components were gold-plated, but with real gold.

The long straight, two-edged blade had a fuller (groove)! Nobody bothered to put fullers in reproduction swords in those days.  The most you ever got were flat sheet metal blades, with the suggestion of a bevel on each side, usually with a distracting “etched” (though often really painted in enamel) design to give the blade some illusion of detail.

The brass plate on the plaque said something very simple like “12th Century Knightly Sword,” but it really didn’t need to say anything else. To my fevered mind it said it all, in the quiet understated elegant ever-so-British way that appealed so much to me.

There was a framed certificate sitting next to the plaque that I devoured in an instant.

It was a commemorative sword, made by Wilkinson Sword Ltd, for the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales, a numbered limited edition of 1,000. It was supposed to be an exact replica of 12th century sword, catalogue (catalogue!) #1027, from the Tower of London Armouries (now Leeds.)

Everything about it was so classy. At the base of the blade was etched “By Appointment to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, Sword Cutlers, Wilkinson Sword Ltd, Made in England.” In the center of the blade the seal of the Prince of Wales was etched, with his motto “Ich Dien (I Serve), Investiture 1969.” This was the closest I had ever been to Royalty. As much as I was a True Son of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, I have to confess that the idea of Royalty appealed to my romantic, Anglophilic side. If you owned such a sword, could an honorary (since I was an American citizen) knighthood be far behind?

There was a small white and blue card that spoke about the quality of the sword and that, if it should ever require it, “refurbishment of your sword is available at a nominal fee.”

”Refurbishment? Nominal? Who but the English still used words like that? It was just so achingly cool

I was so enraptured that I am surprised that I didn’t have to be forcefully removed from the premises in a straightjacket, or hadn’t at least soiled myself.

But as sure as this perfect sword had fired my overactive imagination and boundless lust, I crashed just as hard. No LSD-tripping hippie ever came down as badly as I did, when I saw the other printed card on the table – the price tag: “$250.00.”

Now let me explain to the modern reader – this was 1969. Today, this is probably the average teenager’s monthly cellphone bill. In those days, $250 was a LOT of money.

My Dad had suffered two heart attacks and had been honorably discharged from the Marines on a medical disability. He now worked for the Federal government. Even then, $250 would be something upwards of 3% of my Dad’s entire annual income – and on his (even adjusted for inflation) tiny income, he managed, by being very careful, to afford a nice suburban house, 2 cars, a stay-at-home wife and two teenagers. Conservatively, I’d estimate that at today’s average government salary $250 was at least the equivalent of $1,800 to $2,000.

These days, a quality sword generally sells for anywhere between $500 and $3,000 – a commemorative sword with a plaque, made by a company with the history and legendary reputation of Wilkinson, would be on the higher end of that scale.

Unthinkable for a 14-year-old kid’s Christmas present in those days.

I was crushed, dismayed, depressed, hopeless, helpless, paralyzed -- in a word, destroyed.

It was some time before I realized that my Dad was standing next to me – looking at me, not the sword. He had a kind of half-smile on his face at the no-doubt stunned, horrified look on my face.

“You coming with me?” he asked, turning away and heading toward Hardware.

I looked at the gleaming vision of swordliness again, savoring every last shape and color, memorizing every detail, burning it into my brain. And then I turned and moped along after him.

In the weeks that followed, I remember trying to get my Dad to go to Sears every chance I got. It wasn’t hard to convince him – it was his favorite Saturday afternoon activity. He’d head off to the Hardware section, I’d stand and stare (and drool – “clean up in aisle 5…”)

In my always far-too-fertile imagination, I already owned the sword – dragons were no match for me, orcs would flee at the mere sight of my bright blade, and the incomparable Dejah Thoris could stand at my back and sing the hero songs of Helium without fear, knowing that my magnificent sword would weave an impenetrable net of steel that would protect her.

My Dad seemed to understand and accept my obsession, but we never spoke of it. It was too much for me – I was overwhelmed by the sadness and injustice of it all, knowing that as great as my desire was for this magnificent object, it was far too much to ask. I suffered in silence and he seemed to know that, and did not torment me by asking me about it.

Wild and desperate fantasy had me firmly in its grip.  Would the newly invested Prince Charles perhaps soon visit the US -- and could I foil a dastardly attempt to kidnap him? Wouldn’t he then be so grateful that he might then reward me with one of these swords? (Prince Charles would be insistent -- though the first few times I would nobly refuse any such reward for simply doing what any Hero would have done -- and then, only reluctantly, would I accede to his kind offer.) Every mad plan conceivable went through my head, but nothing seemed workable within my limited resources and opportunities.

I remember how heartbroken I was when, just a few weeks before Christmas, the sword disappeared.

Like the arm clothed in the purest samite, disappearing with Excalibur into the lake without leaving a ripple, so my dream sword had vanished as though it had never been. Where it had rested, on its mahogany plaque in the middle of the aisle, was now a table laden with cheese and sausage gift packs. I searched the store to see if they had moved the precious object to a more fitting location – but no, it was just gone. Gone before I could work up the nerve and vain hope to actually ask for it, nay, beg for it -- or to seize the opportunity to pledge myself into a lifetime of indentured servitude to my Dad (or frankly anyone else with the necessary funds) to purchase it for me.

It was gone, and life seemed so much more dull and lackluster than it had before.

Christmas and my birthday used to be the cornerstones of my year (one good thing about being born in June – only a 6 month stretch to endure between presents). But this year was different for me.

There was no maddening anticipation. No holiday-inspired insomnia, no visions of sugarplums, dancing or otherwise. No shivering with my sister in our pajamas on the stairs, waiting for the signal that it was ok to come down and see what wonders lay under the tree. That was all in the past.

As you move into your teens, it is natural I suppose. The wonder and the joy slips away a little more every year. You now know the Awful Truth About Santa Claus that your parents tried for so many years to protect you from. The highly anticipated, exciting, cool toys of childhood gradually give way to the unmemorable drab parade of shirts, pants and gloves. You can dress them up in all the fancy wrapping paper and bows that you want, but they are still the same old shirts, pants and gloves.

Opening presents was once a thrilling, mad orgy of ripped paper and flung boxes – as a teen it becomes more of a chore, the hardest part becoming the quest for something nice and sincere-sounding to say about yet another pair of socks.

My sister and I dutifully trooped down to our finished basement when Mom and Dad called. Off to the right of our (admittedly fake) fireplace stood a relatively short Christmas tree surrounded by the usual (though every year a little smaller) pile of wrapped gifts.

My Dad sat in his recliner and my Mom sat with us and our beagle, Cassie, (probably the most excited of all of us) on the floor and handed packages out. I had, admittedly, already scoped out the presents that bore my name, and except for a long unmarked package off to the side in front of the television (that I assumed was whatever big thing my Mom got for Dad that year, like a shiny new weed whacker or something), there was nothing that promised anything spectacular.

Our Christmas Tree, 1969.
Note the long package in front of the television.

We got through the presents slowly, like the young adults we were becoming – I am sure that my sister was probably pretty happy with some of the clothing she had gotten. I hate to admit that I don’t remember a single gift I received. And my parents were, I am sure, doing their level best to act thrilled at whatever silly things we had gotten them.

At last, My Dad leaned over and said, “What do you think is in that big box?”

I looked at him. No, it couldn’t be. Totally out of the realm of possibility. I got up and dragged the box, wrapped in red Christmas paper, garishly festooned with big Santa faces and Christmas trees, over to the middle of the floor. I was puzzled, because it was so heavy.

“Go ahead and open it up,” my Dad said.

My hands were trembling, the way they used to when I just knew that there was some kind of amazing toy inside -- like the year I got the official 007 Attaché Case. “Bond. James Bond.” People quickly got tired of hearing that from a kid at Christmas (especially since my Mom would never let me see a Bond film - too much "sex" for a youngster.)

The paper tore away easily and revealed a severely plain crate made of fiberboard and masonite, that bore no markings of any kind. It was nailed shut.  I had never gotten anything delivered in a crate before. It conjured up images of turn-of-the-century archaeologists digging through excelsior to find some precious object buried within, like mummies in sarcophagi. My Dad just smiled and got up, a few loooooong minutes later returning with a small steel pry bar (Craftsman, of course.)

“Careful, now,” was all he said.

By then I was shaking so much that I am surprised that I didn’t do serious damage to it, but I did eventually get the lid off in one piece and with only a couple of the nail heads pulled through the masonite. Inside, all I could see was mahogany – it turned out that this was a slipcase that further protected the contents. It took Dad’s help to figure out a way to get it out undamaged, but finally we got down to the good stuff.

It was all there.

The rich lustrous mahogany plaque with the shining etched brass plate, the rolled up parchment Certificate of Authenticity (with a big, red Wilkinson seal complete with red ribbon) proclaiming it to be #1128 of a Limited Edition of 1,000 (I assume that they started with the “catalogue” number of the original sword, making mine the 101st), the little blue and white card promising a Product of Quality and the gentle assurance of Refurbishment services should I ever need them.

And the Sword.

(cue the light shining down from the heavens and the angelic choir – I swear it really happened that time.)

A close-up of the hilt, as it looks now

The long, gleaming blade with its deep fuller and softly-rounded lenticular cross-section, the gold-plated unassuming straight guard, the rounded dome of the small gold-plated wheel pommel, the deep etching on the blade, the fine balance that made the blade seem so lively and so unlike the Toledo wallhanger swords I had owned, the red-brown richness of the walnut grip that seemed to fit my hand like it was made just for me...

I could go on and on about the way the sword looked, the way it felt to finally hold it in my hand and know it was mine.

But the funny thing is, that isn’t what I remember most about it.


What I remember most is my Dad and how he gave me -- one more time before the inevitable onset of true and terrifying adulthood -- the feeling of excitement and childlike wonder that I had lost.

To this day, I don’t know how my Dad swung paying for that sword – I never asked him before he passed away many years later. I regret that – I know that it wasn’t easy for him and that he probably had to make some pretty severe sacrifices to do it.

I wish that I could tell him that he is the real hero of my childhood -- not John Carter, Oscar Gordon, or Conan.

It was also with a real sense of sadness that I read this notice posted on the Wilkinson Sword Ltd website earlier this year:

FACTORY CLOSURE

Wilkinson Sword Ltd regrets that after very careful consideration of all alternative options the Company has made the difficult decision to announce that it intends to close its specialist sword-making division in Acton, West London. As a result of falling demand over many years, we have been left with no option but to consider ceasing production of the high quality specialist sword and knife products made by Wilkinson Sword at the end of September 2005. If you have any queries before this date please phone +44 208 749 1061 or for US Callers 1-866 THE SWORD (1-866 843 7967).

Thank you for your interest in Wilkinson Sword.

Even though the company that my wife, Amy, and I have created is a “competitor” in the sword manufacturing world, so much of what we have done has been influenced and inspired by Wilkinson. Limited editions, shipping crates, Certificates of Authenticity, emphasis on quality (not to mention offering Refurbishment services) and even trying to help our customers’ dreams become a reality -- all grew from that one sword.

It was (and still is) one of my most prized possessions (and is hanging in a rack behind me as I write). The crate was dragged around with me for probably 20 years until it at last was so battered that it had to be discarded.  The plaque was loaned as a model, in Albion’s early days, to a woodworker in Maryland who was going to make plaques for our swords – he went out of business before the work was done and the plaque was lost.

The sword itself is in sad need of refurbishment (but now that offer is no longer valid, sad to say). Much of the gold-plating is gone and the protective varnish on the blade is chipped where rust has started beneath it – but on the whole it is sound and still tight after all of these years.


Years later, when I saw a photo of the original sword, I realized that "exact replica" was a bit of a stretch. Beautiful sword still, but it wasn't even close to #1027, except maybe in spirit. Even that, however, was a lesson learned and inspiration gained from that sword – our Albion Museum line was inspired by that idea and is faithful to the last detail of any original we recreate.

I have always wanted sword that is truly like #1027, so Peter Johnsson was kind enough to indulge me and design the Albion Next Generation Hospitaller to fill that need, based on the original swords he has documented in European museums.

But as perfect a recreation as the Hospitaller is, it will never take the place of my Wilkinson -- my first real sword, and my last gift of childhood wonder from my Dad.

Howard Waddell
Albion Swords, Ltd
Christmas, 2005




©2005 Albion Swords Ltd, LLC

Responses to Howy's Christmas Story
Howy:
Seems we're of an age. I remember the "El Cid" looking decorators for sale in the swank Men's department at Meier and Frank's which was the biggest and best department store in Portland in my '60's youth. I lusted after them, but could never swing the big price, and no way were my parents going to spend that much on something they felt I should be outgrowing in any case.

In my neighborhood there was a man we all called Uncle Dick who had the best collection of stuff in his basement that any kid could imagine. He had both kinds of German helmet, a broken Luger, a de-activated Potato masher hand grenade, a Mauser rifle, as well as his own gear brought back from WWI. He had a bunch of stuff from his service in WWII as well, a Japanese helmet, rifle and de-activated grenade among other things.

But Uncle Dick's best things were his sword COLLECTION!!!!! He had a Samurai sword, Bolos from the Moro uprising, and a Dha, all so cool. He had Civil War swords from both sides of his family. He had several Nazi swords and daggers, which didn't strike me as odd since he served in the Pacific in WWII until I was much older and he was long gone.

For me, though, the most wonderful was the oddest duck in his collection, a French Artillery short sword. This looked like a "real" sword, made in a kid's size. The dull brass of the hilt and scabbard furniture gleamed as bright as gold to me. He would take it down From the wall where the swords hung and let me hold it, draw and admire the blade. All my warrior day dreams could be realized with that sword. "Sure, he's 10, but he's deadly with his short blade, Sir Guy."

When I was in 8th grade, Uncle Dick moved to Los Gatos Cal. He gave away a lot of his stuff to a couple of us kids before he left, military hats and the like, but he gave me the French sword. I was stunned.

I hung the sword in my room with pride, and later, when in high school, many friends who otherwise were too cool for something so nerdly would be the first to take it down and handle it after a few bongs and the Zeppelin hit the turntable.

I wish I still had it, but it was stolen when an apartment I lived in was broken into. Sigh!
-- Doug G.

Amy and Howy,
Thank you so much for taking the risk and starting your company. I hope that you know how much your company means to those of us that share your interests and passion.

As I read your personal Christmas story Howy, I kept nodding my head. I get it. I had that same feeling as I opened up that white box this morning and held one of your products. Thank you. So glad that you had a father who understood. I didn't, but am trying to be that kind of dad for my kids.

May you and all your employees enjoy the holidays and have fun each day at work. You have my dream job. I hope that you are blessed with and all the success and prosperity that you can handle.

Meanwhile, I'm going back to your website. My birthday is in June as well, and I need to decide which one I want next!
-- Alan D. Bennett

I am not poor but not rich either, so I have to eat a lot of beans to afford the swords I buy from your company, so I got a big kick out of reading Howy's Christmas story tonight about what sacrifices his dad made to afford that sword for him.

Even though the swords I buy are for me, I can identify with the idea of doing without to afford them. So in short thanks for watching out and thanks for working with me. That is why I stay loyal. All 9 "real" swords I own are from Albion, Filmswords and now Jody.
--Lance H.
Whilst searching the 'Net for information on one of my more prized possessions, I found your article, "My Christmas Story." Reading it was déjà vu all over again.

In 1969, I too was 14. I too saw the Prince Charles Commemorative sword in the local Sears -- at Landmark Center, Alexandria, Virginia -- and thereafter could think of nothing else I wanted for Christmas. And I too recall having the Devil's own time getting it out of the crate Christmas morning.

By the way, my first sword also was a toy, a component of a "Prince Charming" play set (as I recall) received as a fifth birthday present.

I'll keep you no longer. Thanks for the memories!
-- Greg M



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