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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Fort Apache Christmas

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Except 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 the years.

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 last time.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" December 21, 2017 column

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