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Why I Wear a Plastic Dinosaur

by Dan Schaeffer

Why would a respected member of the community, a leader of hundreds, a pillar even, shamelessly walk around with a plastic dinosaur attached to his suit?

Well, the answer to this question began one day as I was pulling out of my driveway. I was in a hurry to run an errand when I saw my son running toward me, his little hand outstretched. I quickly rolled down the window and asked him what he wanted.

He smiled, his tender young eyes glowing with excitement. "I've got a present for you daddy," he said. "Really?" I said, feigning interest, frustrated at the delay and hoping he would hurry up.

Then he held out his hand, slowly opening his fingers to reveal a five year old's treasure. "I found them for you, Daddy." What lay in those small hands, as best I can

remember, was a white marble, a small very old and bent metal race car, a broken rubber band, and several other things I can't recall. How I wish now that I could.

"Thank you son," I said, not meaning a word of it, but making sure I sounded like I did. "Take them, Daddy, they're for you," he gushed with pride. "I can't right now son, I've got to go somewhere. Why don't you go put them on top of the freezer in the garage for me?"

His smile fell, but he obediently started walking into the garage, and I drove off. From the moment I started down the street I felt remorse. This had happened before. I made a mental note that when I returned I would accept my gift with more graciousness and gratitude.

As soon as I drove back in our driveway I sought him out. "Hey son, where are those neat toys you had for me?" His expression was blank. "Well, I didn't think you wanted them so I gave them to Adam." Adam is a little boy who lives down the street, and I could picture him accepting these treasures with a great deal more gratitude and excitement than I had.

This hurt, but I deserved it. Not simply because it highlighted my thoughtless reaction to his gesture, but because it triggered memories of another little boy I remembered.

It was his older sister's birthday, and he had been allowed by his mother to pick out something for her at the old five and dime. He agonized over that decision, because he had only been given several dollars. He walked through the toy department again and again without success. There were many toys, but none that seemed good enough.

He wanted to get her something that she would just love! Then he spied it, sitting on the shelf, fairly shouting for attention and low enough to be seen by six year old eyes. It was perfect, nothing else even compared to it. A beautiful round bubble gum machine, filled with gaily colored and chewy treasures.

What child could not be enthralled by the thought of bubble gum proprietorship? It was hard containing his enthusiasm. He wanted to show it to her almost as soon as he brought it home, but valiantly resisted the urge. The wait would only heighten her delight.

Later that evening at the birthday party attended by all of her young friends, two years older than him but acting much older than that, she began to open her new gifts. With every new gift she squealed with delight.

And with each squeal, the little boy felt more apprehensive. These little girls were from wealthier families than his, families who could afford to spend far more than two dollars. Their gifts were expensive and shiny and talked and went potty. He began to worry as his little package seemed to grow smaller and more insignificant.

Yet, he managed to remain eager to see her eyes sparkle as she opened his gift. After all, she hadn't received anything she could eat or collect pennies with. She finally finished opening all the other gifts, but still hadn't noticed his, because it had been covered over with all the other expensive wrapping papers.

He quickly pointed out her oversight. It was understandable. She was busily engaged with her friends, drinking up her role as belle of the ball, a part she seldom received. In retrospect that was probably more meaningful to her than the gifts, but he couldn't understand that then.

She dutifully opened the gift, and he immediately saw it in her eyes. She was slightly embarrassed at it. Suddenly the beautiful bubble gum machine looked like the small plastic cheap toy it was. To maintain her standing among her peers she couldn't acknowledge the gift with too much enthusiasm. There was momentary silence as she deliberated her response. Then she looked at her friends, smiled knowingly at them, and turned back to the little boy with a safely patronizing tone and said, "Thank you, it's just what I wanted." Several girls tried to contain their giggles, but they weren't very successful.

Quickly she returned to her next birthday game, and the little boy looked away feeling hurt and confused. That bubble gum bank had seemed so beautiful and wondrous and special in that five and dime, but now suddenly it seemed very small and cheap.

He slowly picked it up and walked out to the back porch of his rural country home and began to cry. His cheap little gift didn't belong with those other expensive ones, it was merely an embarrassment. The least he could do was protect her from that.

The laughing and celebrating continued inside, which seemed to increase his torment. The door soon opened and his mother appeared. "Why are you crying?" she asked with confusion and concern etched on her face. Her very look brought comfort. He told her as best he could between muffled sobs.

She listened silently, then went back inside. In a few moments his sister appeared alone. He could tell by her expression that mom had gotten her, but her remorse reminded him that she hadn't intended to be mean or hurtful. She was only eight years old, and unaccustomed to the task of balancing the difficult demands of people's feelings and queen for a day euphoria.

She explained kindly in her grown up eight-year-old way that she really did like his bubble gum toy very much. He said he understood, and he did. She was just being nice.

I thought I had forgotten that incident. I was that little boy. But it only took moments for another scene to come to mind.

It was several years later, and I was 11 years old. I had saved enough money to go to Disneyland, and some spending money besides. After enjoying myself in the park, I visited the stores before leaving. I wanted to buy gifts for everyone in my family. And I got a nice little gift for my sisters, but saved the bulk of my money for my mother's gift.

She was raising us all alone, and I knew how hard she worked, and loved her dearly. I wanted to get her something that would make her feel special and overwhelmed. I had twelve dollars left to do that with. But twelve dollars is an overwhelming amount to an eleven year old, at least it used to be.

I searched through store after store until I discovered it. It just shouted, "usefulness," "decorativeness," and most of all LOVE. It was an expensive spice rack (for an eleven year old). It was white with gaily colored spice jars. It looked magnificent, and was the first "grown up" thing I had ever bought. When I brought it home I fairly quivered with excitement.

When I opened my bag and produced my expensive treasure she smiled. She said thank you very graciously and told me how nice it was, but I instantly knew. I could see it in her eyes. She placed it up next to her current spice rack (something I had neglected to notice she had in all my years). It looked small and cheap.

She never used it. I know why. It wasn't as useful or as nice looking as her big spice rack. After 24 years I was still amazed I could feel the hurt.

Now it had come full circle. A new generation was being faced with the same choice, except this new generation was mine, flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone. This new generation must decide whether it really is the thought that counts, and my response would play a large part in his decision.

We are always told growing up that the price of a gift isn't important, it's the thought that counts. But that can be so hard to believe when Daddy gushes over an expensive new bike, but ignores a primitive token of love painstakingly created with tiny hands and huge hearts that care far more deeply about him than the hands that assembled that expensive new bike or CD.

Which all leads me to the daunting question I had to face that Christmas, the Christmas that my children were given money by their mom to buy me presents at a school "Mistletoe Mall."

Now Mistletoe Mall is a K-6th grade holiday emporium of gifts of the variety you can't find in just any store. They are more like what the stores wouldn't carry if you paid them. But they are all designed for a child's budget, and they love it.

So they had bought my presents and were trying very hard to keep from telling me what they got me. Especially my son. He would tease me with my gift. It was now under the tree, crudely wrapped and small, but not a day went by that he didn't make me guess what it might be.

On Christmas morning very early, VERY early, it was thrust at me by an excited and impatient little boy. He insisted I open his first. He was giddy with excitement and sure I would never receive a gift of this caliber again.

I excitedly opened it, and there it was, truly the most beautiful present I had ever received. But I was no longer looking at it through 35 year old eyes, jaded by promises of "newest technology" and "faster, easier and more economical," but once again through five year old eyes.

It was a green plastic dinosaur of the Tyrannosaurus Rex variety. It was several inches long. But my son soon pointed out its marvelous feature. Its front claws were also clips so that you could--you guessed it-wear it all the time.

As long as I live I will never forget his eyes as I looked at him with my plastic dinosaur. They were filled with the expectation and hopefulness and love that is only found in very young eyes.

History was repeating itself. That small blond haired, blue eyed face was asking me the same question I had asked years before. Is it really the thought that counts? I thought of how he must have agonized in the Mistletoe Mall to find a jewel among all the assorted paraphernalia that would best communicate his five year old feeling of love to his daddy.

I answered his question the only way a five year old would understand. I put it on immediately and raved how "cool" it was and confirmed that, yes, he was right, I did "love it." For the next several weeks I went literally everywhere with a plastic dinosaur clipped to my lapel. Strangely, no one seemed to notice, especially when I was in the presence of my son. No one, that is, except him.

As a result I now have an impressive collection of thoughtful gifts adorning my office. There is the hardened clay face with the permanent expression of deep abiding pain frozen in place. (It was supposed to be a smile, but-well that clay is hard to work with). For several weeks I had a plastic cup sailboat and a napkin and straw parachute (which actually worked remarkably well).

But mostly I have fun, for my son and I now speak the same language. He gives me a gift out of the depths of his heart, and I give one back, true appreciation. It costs me nothing, but gives so very much.

It has occurred to me that the expression on the face of young children giving gifts of the heart, especially at Christmas, is dramatically different than that of adults trying to buy love with expensive CD's or jewelry.

This last Christmas, two children from our neighborhood, friends of my son, rang our doorbell and proudly presented our children with crude handmade paper Christmas stockings weighted down with treasure and thousands of staples designed to hold it all together.

Inside were odd pieces of Christmas candy, but more importantly, favorite toys of old and once loved figurines. They're from a broken home and don't have much money, but you could tell from their beaming faces that extra helpings of love and thought had been stapled into those childlike gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

When does the thought stop counting? It is a question I have asked myself time and time again. I guess it stops counting the moment the rewards for the most precious acts we perform for each other are reduced to their strictly commercial value. The raw commercial values of my sons presents wouldn't amount to pennies, but I guarantee you that J. Paul Getty never had enough money to make me part with them.

So the next time you see someone wearing a crude paper tie, or a "cool" five cent (removable) caterpillar tattoo that doesn't quite fit the mold of respectable adult decor, don't bother laughing at them or somehow feeling sorry for them.

If you tell them they look stupid, they'll just smile and say, "Maybe, but I've got a six year old son who thinks I'm the best thing since peanut butter, and there isn't enough money in the U.S. Treasury to lure me to take it off."

And that's why I wear a plastic dinosaur--and I know where you can pick one up.


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