for the calendar, which said it was December 25, that long-ago Christmas
seemed more like a summer day than a morning in early winter. Kids
in the Northeast might have been having a traditional chilly --
even snowy -- holiday, but in Austin
it was already warm and soon would be just plain hot and dry. This
was in the early 1950s during the protracted Texas drought Western
novelist Elmer Kelton later described in only five words, "The Time
it Never Rained."
Back then, of course, I wasn't much interested in the weather beyond
whether it would interfere with playing outside. Like most young
Baby Boomers that Christmas, my focus was what I would find under
the tree when I walked into the living room. The little Ralphies
of the day may have been longing for a BB gun, but I already had
one. I wanted something else. Had Santa read my letter?
The first thing I checked that morning was to see if Santa Claus
had helped himself to the two homemade sugar cookies I had (with
reluctance) left for him the night before. Sure enough, only a few
crumbs remained on the plate, and the special Santa mug from Winn's
Five and Ten Cent Store that Grandmother had filled with Hillcrest
Farms milk was dry.
We had no chimney for him to come down, but somehow, Santa had gotten
inside our modest suburban house, made his delivery, and enjoyed
a late-night snack before heading to the house next door. I quickly
swung around toward the tree to see what Santa had left. And there
it was, looking pretty much like it had in the toy section our well-thumbed
Sears catalog. A tin U.S. flag flew over the light brown plastic
stockade and a pair of blockhouses guarded the front corners. Centered
between those elevated defensive positions double gates stood slightly
ajar beneath a faux wooden sign reading "Fort Apache." Against the
back wall sat the log cabin-style post headquarters, made of tin.
Evidently aware of Grandmother's oft-declared warning that I'd likely
come down with "lockjaw" (aka Tetanus) if I cut myself on a tin
toy, Santa had thoughtfully taken time to assemble the headquarters
as well as the rest of the playset.
Of all the gifts I was fortunate enough to receive during those
magical years when I still believed that a jolly red-suited fat
fellow riding a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer actually circled
the world in one night and somehow delivered toys to millions of
households, none delighted me more than that Fort Apache set. All
these years later, I happily recall hours of pleasurable play time
centered around that fort.
In a figurative sense, Fort Apache stands in my memory as a silent
sentinel of my childhood, past which passed the trail to my future.
While Walt Disney's Davy Crockett movie may have had a somewhat
stronger influence on my subsequent interest in writing Texas and
Western history, the toy frontier fort I discovered under the tree
that long ago morning proved a very close second.
Time after time, I successfully defended the military post from
Indian attack. When the last warrior fell, all I had to do was pick
him up, along with his fellow braves, and start the battle all over
again. Yes, the cavalrymen always won.
"How would you like to see a real old fort this summer?" my granddad
asked one day as I sat on the hardwood floor playing with my Fort
Apache set. Naturally, I said yes. Sure enough, that summer on our
way from Austin to El
Paso to visit my aunt and her family, we stopped at old
Fort Davis, an abandoned cavalry post near the
small West Texas community that shares its name. At that time,
the ruins were privately owned, the only restored building being
a one-story structure housing a small museum. Walking across the
parade ground with Granddad, I kicked a dirt clod. When it broke
apart, I saw an old buckle and picked it up. Granddad examined it
and declared it was from a cavalryman's saddle. I still have that
artifact, the first of many I would collect at historic sites over
When I did finally abandon Fort Apache, so to speak, it was a matter
of my age, not its age. After years of enjoyment, suddenly riding
my bike and hanging out with friends along the creek near my house
became more important than playing with my Fort Apache set, even
on a rainy day. I don't recall for sure what I ended up doing with
it. I think I gave it and the rest of my toy soldiers to the little
brother of a girl I was trying to impress in high school.
Given what collectors today are willing to pay for vintage Fort
Apache sets, I would have been far better off keeping the fort and
taking my chances on winning that girl's affection solely on the
basis of my rugged good looks, sparkling wit and charming nature.
The reason I know that early-day Fort Apache sets are expensive
(roughly 40 times their original price in some cases) is because
I recently bought one. Yep, I have returned to those thrilling days
of yesterday and am once again the happy owner of a Fort Apache
set. My capitulation to nostalgia for an icon of the Eisenhower
years amply demonstrates the power of the collecting urge. Actually,
all of us of a certain age know it's more than that. It is an effort,
no matter how futile, to revisit the simple joys of childhood one