World's 1st Heart Transplant Stirs a Christmas Memory

Charlie.brown.christmas.treeThe first successful transplant of a human heart took place in South Africa on Dec. 3, 1967 (the recipient was 54-year-old Louis Washkansky).  Whenever I hear mention of this medical milestone it brings back memories of a trifle of a Christmas play I appeared in when I was in the 5th grade.  I played the role of the Christmas tree and I had a monologue in which I extolled the virtues of the tree.  Rather than holding a little cardboard tree in front of me I insisted my mother create something elaborate, a tree that completely covered me.  It was made out of a shimmering green material that resembled Astroturf, and then little cut-out ornaments were attached.  While Mom was constructing it and fitting me I watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  When I tried it on I felt like Charlie Brown's tree after it was transformed by his friends.


Thanks to my mother's creation I was the star of the play (much like the falling chandelier in the Phantom of the Opera).  After the play was over (just one performance, mostly for the benefit of the student body) my teacher gushed to my mom about the tree and confided that she was just expecting me to stand behind a small hand-held paper tree.  (Mom was flabbergasted.)  She asked if the school could have the tree, but I wouldn't hear of it - and it languished in our basement never to be worn again.  And for whatever reason no photographs were taken of me wearing it. 


Back to matters of the heart, Mr. Washkansky died 18 days after his historical operation, from pneumonia.  Just three days after his transplant the first pediatric heart transplant took place, in the US, on an 18-day-old infant (who lived for just six-and-a-half hours).  And a month later the first adult transplant was performed in the US.  That recipient lived for fifteen days.



The "Immaculate Reception" of Franco Harris (December 23, 1972)


Until 1972 my hometown Pittsburgh Steelers had a long history of losing.  This season, however, they finished with a solid winning record (11-3) and made it to the playoffs.  On Saturday, Dec. 23 the Oakland Raiders were in Pittsburgh playing the Steelers in the AFC Divisional Playoffs.  That afternoon, while the game was being played, I was out collecting payment from customers of my morning paper route (the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).  Since it was Christmas, instead of the usual 25 or 50-cent tips, I was collecting tips in the stratospheric $2 to $5 range.




When I returned home the game was on the radio, and it didn't look good as the Raiders had a 7-6 lead very late in the game.  Then in a flash the tables were turned as a pass by Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw bounced off the intended receiver and landed in the hands of Steelers rookie (and NFL Rookie of the Year) Franco Harris just before it reached the ground.  He scooped it up and scooted 60 yards for the game winning touchdown with less than 20 seconds remaining.  However, it took five minutes before Harris' catch was confirmed by officials as a legitimate reception.  It was even more confusing if you weren't watching on TV as was our case since the game was blacked out in Pittsburgh. 




Even today it seems unbelievable that this catch happened.  And although the Steelers season ended the following week, when they lost to the undefeated Miami Dolphins, it was the beginning of the Steelers becoming one of the most successful and widely followed teams in the nation.  (To immerse yourself fully in "Steelers Nation" lore the book The Good, The Bad & The Ugly Pittsburgh Steelers is a good starting point.)  




(Sadly, Franco died just two days before the 50-year anniversary of his miracle catch.)

Bridge Disaster Mars Holiday Season (December 15, 1967)




It was early Saturday afternoon on Dec. 15, 1967 when I brought in the afternoon paper (Pittsburgh Press) from the front porch and saw the headline about a bridge disaster the previous night in nearby Point Pleasant, West Virginia.  The Silver Bridge fell into the Ohio River during evening rush hour, killing 46.  It still ranks as the nation's deadliest bridge collapse. 

Although I was just 10 at the time,  the tragedy resonated for two reasons: 1) It was incongruous to my young brain that such a tragedy could occur at Christmastime, and 2) because of its famed three rivers, Pittsburgh is a city of bridges, and every Sunday we traveled over one (the Wind Gap Bridge) to pick up my grandmother for church.  For some time after the Silver Bridge disaster I'd become nervous whenever we'd be stopped on the bridge because of traffic.




Of course, all disasters are unfortunate, but those that occur during the Christmas season are particularly tragic.  Some of the more high profile in the past 60 years include:

Dec. 16, 1960 - Two planes collided over Staten Island, killing 134.

Dec. 29, 1975 - A bomb exploded in a locker at LaGuardia Airport, killing 11 and injuring 75.

Dec. 21, 1988 - Pan Am flight 103 bound for New York exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 on board and 11 on the ground.

Dec. 26, 2004 - The great Indian Ocean tsunami (pictured below) killed 230,000+ in multiple countries, many of them tourists on Christmas vacations.

Dec. 14, 2012 - 28 persons were shot to death at an elementary school in Newtown, CT, twenty of whom were children between the age of 5 and 10.   

Dec 17-18, 2021 - 88 persons were killed during a nighttime tornado outbreak in six states in the South and Midwest.  Most of the deaths were in Kentucky.





Favorite Toys of Christmases Past (1960s)

 Santa putting gifts under tree


If you were a kid in the 1960s, historical events of that decade may not be easily remembered - but what Santa placed under the tree on Christmas morning is probably still etched in your mind.  Here are some of the presents I remember most fondly:




This ranks as my all-time favorite present.  It was a full dashboard of a car with working windshield wipers, turn signal indicator and ignition which made a purring motor sound when the ignition was turned on.  Little did I know back then as a 5-year-old that this would be the closest I'd come to owning a car since I've lived in Manhattan for my entire adult life and haven't needed one.






"Krispy Kritters" was a new breakfast cereal with the maniacally sung tagline of "The one and only cereal that comes in the shape of animals!" as an array of animated creatures from the savannas of Africa scooted across the TV screen in a stampede.  Linus was the spokes-animal and his stuffed likeness was a premium with box tops.


Linus the lionhearted



The projector showed slides of various Hanna Barbera cartoon characters.  I got a kick out of projecting the images on the ceiling of my darkened bedroom or on my pillowcase and playing around with the focus band to show the images as huge or tiny.  





HANDS DOWN! (1964)

This was a game that required hand-slapping action onto one of four plastic hands (called the "Slam-o-Matic").  Suspense was created when a player picked a card from the deck and the other players wondered if he/she had two-of-a-kind, which would instigate slapping down of his/her assigned hand.  The last person who slapped was penalized.  Fun came when someone faked and got others to foolishly slap their hands. Because of the vigorous slapping action I worried about the plastic hands breaking off.






Using marbles as playing pieces, the route to the top of the hill included detours/holes that could lead your marble to reappear far away.  If your marble made it to the top a crown would pop up.  This game brings back a nasty memory.  On Christmas night we drove my grandmother home and upon arriving at her house I got out of the car to let her out and stepped in a large puddle of dog excrement.  On the drive home we kept the car windows rolled down and I hung my shoe out the window.  It was one of those "we'll laugh about this later" moments.






Clothes as a favorite gift for a child?  Absolutely!  This long-sleeved pullover jersey was in the style of the outfits worn by the male characters of the new CBS show Lost in Space.  I think it was the first time I was excited to get clothes for Christmas and I couldn't wait to wear it to school.  My older brother, Darrell, also got one; his was blue, mine black.






It made separate sounds for taxiing and for flying and had flashing red lights.  It was about 12 inches in length and made out of metal.  I'd walk from room to room imagining routes the plane was traveling to all over the world.  That Christmas was made memorable by the Hong Kong Flu which was raging throughout the country.  Because everyone in my family had a touch of the flu we didn't go to Christmas Mass.  Also, the first space mission to orbit the Moon, Apollo 8, took place during the holiday.






This arts/crafts kit enabled aspiring juvenile artists to make beautiful, somewhat psychedelic images through a selection of colored pens, pins and design templates.  It was a safe way for a child coming of age in the "Age of Aquarius" to experience mind expansion without using pot or LSD.






I spent many a weekend in the winter of 1970-71 in heated competition with my parents and older brother playing this variation of bowling.  We'd place the board on the kitchen table and each of us took a turn pushing out the billiard-sized wooden ball (attached to a post by a chain) in an arc.  The ball would strike miniature bowling pins.  Me and my mother were rather mellow players but my dad and brother were hyper-competitive which sometimes led to tension that occasionally lasted beyond the match. 





My gushing over these cherished toys is not meant to slight the myriad other wonderful gifts I've received over the years, such as Lincoln Logs, Matchbox cars, the games Operation!Yahtzee and Mousetrap, a miniature Lionel train set and many more.  To immerse yourself in even more toys you may want to consider the DVD Classic Toy Commercials of the 60s or the book Classic Toys of the National Toy Hall of Fame.



Holiday Ads That Spread Christmas Cheer




On a Sunday evening in early December 1971 I was watching a long forgotten Christmas special.  But what I remember was a commercial for Coca Cola in which a group of young people of various ethnic backgrounds was gathered on a hill singing a song called I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke.  It was also released as a single which became a top-10 hit for the New Seekers.  However, because of radio overplay I came to despise this treacly song (akin to Disney's It's a Small World).  Still, whenever I hear it I associate it with the holiday season.


Some holiday commercials can be very cloying, especially the plethora of those for cars with big red bows on top (seriously, how many people really give cars as gifts?)  However, I don't want the theme of this post to take on a negative tone since there is a bounty of wonderful Christmas ads to celebrate.  For instance, some of those by the GAP are delightful.  I dare you not to smile or have the desire to do some toe tapping ...






Target ran a beautiful dreamlike series of ads during the 2006 Christmas season that combined ethereal white and blue hues with soft techno music by British duo Goldfrapp   




In 1999 Amazon ran wonderfully kitschy ads that were take offs of the Sing Along with Mitch TV show from the early 1960s.  But despite the acclaim this campaign received Amazon put its account up for review the following year and the ad agency that created these ads, Foote Cone & Building/San Francisco, resigned the account.  




And during the 2013 holiday season staid K-Mart created controversy with its racy ad for its Joe Boxer line of men's briefs which showed a line of beefy gents in holiday attire performing in quasi-Chippendale's fashion to Jingle Bells (or was it Jingle Balls?).  




Magazines also have their share of stylish holiday-oriented ads.  Here are three from Smirnoff, Tiffany & Co. and Absolut:


This ad for Smirnoff is from the early 1990s.  It was before the flavored vodka craze hit so if you wanted a taste of peppermint back then you'd need to dip a candy cane into your drink.  Perhaps the candy cane in this ad was a subtle way of enticing kids (or kids that read The New Yorker)?




Befitting its image, Tiffany's holiday ads are classy and stylish - and, of course, they always display the famous Tiffany box.




Absolut's venerated all-print campaign has been running since 1980 and was chosen by Ad Age as one of the 10 best campaigns of the 20th century.  Close to 2,000 ads have been created using clever wordplay, names of cities and designers, holidays and creative depictions of the iconic Absolut bottle.  This lovely holiday ad is from the early days of the campaign.  (If you like ads you may enjoy a coffee table book titled Absolut Book which includes 500 of the ads.) 



Catastrophic Tsunami Wipes Out Holiday Cheer (December 26, 2004)




The morning after Christmas Day 2004 found me relaxing at my mother's house in Pittsburgh reading Sunday's Post Gazette when I came across a small item in the paper's "World News Roundup" section.  It was just one paragraph, about a tidal wave that followed a very strong underwater earthquake in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Indonesia.  It wasn't until that evening that the enormity of the disaster was communicated to the West.  And for the next week horrifying first-person accounts and videos appeared (see below), bringing the year to a sobering end. 





The tsunami struck the shores of eleven countries and caused an estimated 230,000 deaths (including 9,000 foreign tourists, three times as many as died in the 9-11 attacks).  It ranks as the deadliest tsunami in history and joined a 1976 earthquake in China and a 1970 cyclone in Bangladesh as the deadliest natural disasters in my lifetime.  Less than a year later the U.S. would experience one of its worst natural disasters when Hurricane Katrina produced deadly flooding in New Orleans.  However, Katrina was tame by comparison to this cataclysmic wave of water. 





The Death of Walt Disney (December 15, 1966)

Walt_disney I heard the news of Walt Disney's death on the car radio as my family and I were driving home after doing grocery and Christmas shopping.  He was only 65 years old but since I was just 9 at the time that seemed pretty old to me.  You might think a young child would be disturbed by this news, especially coming so close to Christmas, but I don't recall being upset.  Perhaps it was because I was excited by the weather forecast for the next day predicting a snowstorm for the Pittsburgh area.  Alas, it didn't materialize but further east the Mid-Atlantic states got a good amount of snow.


The_grinch Three days after Disney's death my attention shifted to Dr. Seuss whose animated holiday special How the Grinch Stole Christmas aired for the very first time on CBS.  Like A Charlie Brown Christmas (which had its first telecast the year before) The Grinch would also become a holiday classic for the ages. 


(The book Walt Disney: Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler is one of a number of in-depth biographies of Disney, but Gabler has the distinction of being the first writer to be given complete access to the Disney archives.)