startling to me to realize how many Christmas presents from childhood I
still remember. I'm speaking of the big ones, that Santa brought, that
were waiting unwrapped under the tree on Christmas morning. They are
memorable for many reasons, connected partly to the supernatural nature
of their appearance but also partly to the fact that they were the most
desirable objects one could imagine at any given age. They would have
been amazing no matter how they got under that tree.
was six and seven I lived in a tiny town in North Carolina called Belhaven, the center
of an agricultural region. The feed store was the biggest establishment
in town, but there was also a small movie theater and a barbershop,
which doubled as a variety store, offering miscellaneous goods like
candy and toys.
That's a picture of the building it was in, above, now a beauty
parlor. I photographed it on a visit I made to Belhaven last
Fall of 1956 or 1957, when I was either six or seven, I was walking
home from school one day when I saw something astonishing in the front
window of the barbershop. It was a Roy Rogers Fix-It Chuck Wagon set,
by Ideal. I had never seen anything quite like it, in the intricacy of
its parts and accessories. I was already obsessed with toy soldiers,
and sometimes these came with forts and artillery pieces, but the Roy
Rogers Chuck Wagon was executed on a bigger scale than most toy soldier
sets and was more rigorously focussed. Here was a chuck wagon with
utensils and a trunk to store them in, horses with driving reins and a
whip . . . and here were Roy and Dale and Pat Brady and Bullet, Roy's
dog, and Pat's Jeep Nellybelle — all familiar from Roy's show on
I really couldn't believe my eyes. I felt as though someone had entered my psyche and created the toy I'd most like to
play with — if only I could have imagined it in advance.
ran home and told my parents that I had beheld the present I would ask
Santa for at Christmas. I think I had some subconscious notion that
Santa might have to act quickly to secure this treasure before it was
bought out from under him from the barbershop/variety store. I'm not
sure I understood that the chuck wagon set was not a unique example of
Of course it duly appeared under the tree that year and I can still remember carrying it into the dining room to unpack
it from its box and marvel at its various parts. It was pure magic.
set lost its component pieces over the years, until finally none of
them remained. I still have a few toys from that era but the chuck
wagon got played to pieces. The aura of it, though, has never left my
consciousness, and a few years ago I began to wonder if I might find
another set to replace it — as a kind of link to my first and second
grade self. Those were the years when movies became consciously
important to me as magical creations and central to my imaginative
life, and I always go back to them when I need inspiration.
A couple of years ago I found a Roy Rogers Chuck Wagon set in good condition on eBay and
bid for it and won it, and a few days later it arrived at my home here in
Las Vegas. When I unpacked it and set it up on my dining room table I
didn't feel especially excited or particularly sentimental or even
remotely nostalgic for times gone by. Those years in the middle Fifties
have not gone by — have not slipped into the past. I took up my
imaginative conversation with the Roy Rogers Chuck Wagon set as one
takes up a conversation with an old friend one hasn't seen in many years
— as though no time at all has intervened.
This tiny little plastic wagon is one of the vehicles that got me from there to here and it takes me back there any time
I ask it to. Its horses can pull the weight of dreams.