Thursday, December 29, 2011

COLUMN: Toys for Tots

Scientists have proven that the sense most closely associated with memory is our sense of smell.

This is a bummer for those of us who suffer from year-round allergies and only occasionally get to experience life with a functioning nose. Still, I think those scientists are onto something, because there's one smell I will forever associate with Christmas.

When I was a kid, one of the greatest days of the year was when Dad would haul down the two big metal boxes containing all of our Christmas decorations. Meticulously packed, it would all be there -- the ornaments, the lights, the garland, the wreaths... but I was more concerned about the hunk of wax that was always haphazardly thrown into the bottom of the box.

It really was fairly hideous to look at, but it was always my favorite Christmas decoration: a red wax pomander in the mold of three slightly deformed Christmas carolers. It sure wasn't much to look at, but the smell that wafted from that piece of wax every year was my absolute favorite part of Christmas. As soon as the coast was clear, I usually absconded with the carolers to my room, where they'd reek up the place for the holidays.

I can't even really describe the smell, because it never really reminded me of anything. It wasn't overly fruity, and it wasn't overly perfume-y. It's hard to explain. It didn't smell like ANYTHING you could put your finger on. It just perfectly and magically smelled like Christmas.

That pomander is long gone, but I still think every Christmas should smell like it... but thanks to last weekend, it's now got competition. A new scent has settled into my brain to forever be associated with the holidays -- the smell of Hefty bags. Lots and lots of Hefty bags.

I conclude every one of my columns with my e-mail address -- and I try my hardest to read if not respond to every letter that I get. That's how I came to meet "Randy." For years, Randy's written me to comment on my columns, debate pop culture, and be a good occasional diversion from the work week. A couple weeks back, I wrote a column about trying to find the Christmas spirit hidden inside today's world of tacky commerce and holiday capitalism. Randy wrote in and suggested that I visit distribution day at Toys for Tots, where he volunteers. Last weekend, I took him up on it. It might be the best decision I've made in a loooong time.

It turns out that "Randy" my anonymous e-mail buddy is actually Randy Murdock III, one of the longest-serving civilian volunteers of our local U.S. Marine Corps Toys for Tots Foundation. Following his directions, I pulled into their Davenport distribution center last Saturday. My fears of getting lost amidst the warehouse district was put to rest as soon as I saw the healthy line of traffic.

"As you can see," Randy said, "you actually managed to catch us at a slow time." I laughed but he didn't.

As he was saying this, here's what I was seeing: Needy families being quickly processed through a short line by friendly Marines in their dress blues, a room filled with about a dozen busy clerical volunteers, other Marines in their fatigues -- wait, scratch that, apparantly they're now called MCCUU's and the last thing I wanna do is upset a proud Marine. Anyways, these Marines would take off into the donation warehouse at a brisk jog and bring back a bag of toys specifically put together for the needs of each recipient. Everywhere I looked, Marines and civilian volunteers were dashing to and fro with efficiency and smiles. If this was a "slow time," I couldn't imagine what their version of busy must look like.

"This is amazing," I told Randy.

"This is nothing," he said. "Wanna see the toy room?"

I didn't know what to expect. I guess I had pictured sort of a dimly-lit grungy room of chaos where folks scrounged for third-rate toys from haphazard piles, like a weird back office at the chocolate factory that was NOT part of Willy Wonka's tour. Not even close.

Remember the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark"? When the camera pans back to reveal that the Ark is hidden in a warehouse of such mammoth size that you can't even see the end of the room?  Imagine THAT room -- but filled from one end to the other with Hefty bags full of toys. 3,959 bags, in fact -- that's how many local families QC Toys for Tots is helping this year. 3,959 bags, meticulously organized and numbered, filled to the brim with presents for kids of all ages. Kids who will have a great Christmas, all thanks to donors from the Quad Cities.

Randy told me that donations were SO good this year that they've already got a jump on NEXT year's drive. And what I saw wasn't lame stuff, either -- we're talking brand new dolls, board games, skateboards, bikes... stuff that kids will LOVE. I'm honored to live in a community as giving and people-centered as the Quad Cities. Randy's been across the country and has volunteered at other Toys for Tots programs, and he says the community response in other locales doesn't hold a candle to what the Quad Cities does year after year.

Personally, I think it's all part of the Midwest mindset. Sometimes journalists can be really hard on the Midwest -- just read some of the national coverage of the Iowa caucuses that paint us to be a bunch of backwards podunk zealots -- but the truth is, Midwesterners show a kindness you just don't get anywhere else. On the whole, we're raised right -- we know about sharing, we know about caring, and we know that you don't just walk all over your fellow man. You stop, pull him up by his bootstraps, and offer a helping hand.

This weekend, I saw that helping hand in action.

I never thought I'd catch the Christmas spirit in a chilly warehouse that reeked of Hefty bags, but there it was in full bloom. I saw it in the faces of the volunteers, I saw it in the smiles of our Marines, and I saw it in the gratitude of families.

"As far as I'm concerned," Randy told me as we walked around, "THIS is my Christmas, right here and right now."

Thanks, Toys for Tots, for everything you do -- and for bringing me a much-needed dose of reality, compassion, fellowship, and Hefty-bag-scented warm holiday fuzzies.

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