Santa Thought I Was Special

December 22nd, 2020 by Max Allan Collins

This great new edition of Blue Christmas is out now! Look at this wonderful Wolfpack cover!

Blue Christmas Cover
E-Book: Amazon Purchase Link
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As I write this, Christmas is five days away, although we always celebrated – and still do, largely – on Christmas Eve.

My father, Max A. Collins, Sr., was a talented man. He was for about a decade probably the most celebrated instructor of high school choral music in the state of Iowa. His students won every prize imaginable, and he put on the first high school musicals in the country of Oklahoma and Carousel, getting state-wide press. He also put on a musical written by Keith Larson, an early writing mentor of mine whose name I’ve given to one of the two main characters in the Krista and Keith Larson series (The Girl Most Likely and The Girl Can’t Help It). Dad left teaching to improve life for his family with a much bigger paycheck as the personnel man at HON Industries (later Human Resources Director).

More important to him, I venture to say, was the male chorus he directed for fifty years, the Muscatine Elks Chanters. In the 1950s, his group competed in the national championship for Elks male choruses. They competed against New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and choruses from every major city you can imagine. They won three years in a row, in fact, and were named permanent national champions with the contest shut down when nobody wanted to compete against them – “They’re ringers!” “He must be using professionals!” No, it was just men from the community, all walks of life (as they say), blue collar workers, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and druggists, and whoever he had in his chorus, it always sounded the same. He could produce a unique sound from any chorus. He and the Chanters were once featured on the national TV show, People Are Funny (the funny thing they did was wear Bermuda shorts while performing) (hey, it was the ‘50s).

Perhaps I should mention that, right out of college, Dad turned down the opportunity to go professional with an opera company and instead took that teaching job in Iowa where he and my mother raised me. By the way, my late uncle Mahlon was the premiere high-school band director in Iowa in the ‘50s. The Collins brothers were legendary in those circles.

Dad served in the Pacific and his experiences were the basis of my book USS Powderkeg (I added the murders).

My mother was a housewife, as we described it then (and as I suppose Donald Trump still does). She was very active in charities, worked with Dad on the Chanters, and played a whole lot of bridge. She was also about the most attentive mother an only child ever had.

My best childhood memories are of the ‘50s. That was when my mom read to me at night, starting with (God love her) Tarzan. She introduced me to Dick Tracy comic books when I was six. What a gal! She took me to countless movies. She is definitely where I got my love for film and books.

My father was unusual in that he went to college on a split scholarship – music and sports. At Simpson College, he sang, played trumpet, played baseball and basketball and football. For years he was disappointed in me because I did not share his interest in sports. So I got involved in football in junior high. I had a growth spurt and, along with the face mask I wore to protect my glasses, that allowed me to take revenge upon many of the boys who had picked on me when I was a scrawny bookworm with specs. Anyway, I did well enough in high school to get a few football scholarship offers – I knew enough not to take them, because I knew how hard they hit in college – but that bonded Dad and me better.

Both my parents were incredibly supportive of my writing, and of my rock bands. The Daybreakers rehearsed in my parents’ basement for probably three years past my leaving home to marry Barb.

In high school, when all of my friends had summer jobs sacking groceries or pumping gas or building silos, I was told I could stay home and pursue my efforts to become a writer, if I treated it as a job, and worked at it every day. They believed in me. They even kept my allowance ($6.50) going in those summer months, including the $1.50 meal ticket money I was no longer giving Muscatine High School for the privilege of serving me mystery meat, supposed potatoes, and inedible vegetables.

The Collins family playing piano with a small Christmas tree in the background

But this is about Christmas, or anyway starting now it is. I was always informed by me parents that I was spoiled. I accepted this as fact until I grew older and realized that I wasn’t spoiled at all, but I’d had their love and support, which is better. When I was in grade school getting a ten-cent a week allowance (enough for a comic book till they went to twelve-cents), I didn’t feel spoiled. I didn’t in junior high either, when they raised my stipend to a buck (fifty cents of which was meal ticket).

Granted, my Christmases were special, even more special than most kids. For one thing, in a move that no doubt has given me undeserved confidence over my life, they hired a local Santa Claus to come by the house on Christmas Eve with his bag of gifts to see me personally. I was pledged not to tell any other kids that I was getting this special treatment – they might feel bad.

As a kid, I got gifts running to books and a few toys. No model trains, which was fine, because my friend Tom Hufford had a huge Lionel layout if I was ever in the mood, which frankly I rarely was. Once I became a Dick Tracy fanatic I got a lot of Tracy stuff, including several squad cars, and I scored a Robbie the Robot toy that I would love to have today. Also one of those stuffed monkeys with the red butt. The rest is a blur, although I remember my dad spending hours putting together a metal fort that cut him up like a gang fight.

Okay, here’s the thing about Santa coming early. Turns out I wasn’t that special. My father, in addition to teaching and later being an office-furniture executive, directed the church choir – Baptist, then Methodist (it was a paying gig). He had to be part of the midnight service, which I believe started at 11 p.m. (just another of the mysteries of world religion). We always had Christmas with both sets of grandparents – usually my dad’s folks first in Grand Junction, Iowa, and a couple days later a late Christmas with my mom’s folks in Indianola, Iowa.

The gifts from grandparents were so unmemorable I don’t remember any one of them, although my Grandpa Ray always gave me (not just on Christmas) two dollars, which was a fortune. It was also another indication that I was special, because my cousins Kris and Kathy only got a buck a piece (I was sworn to secrecy even as I was starting to learn life was unfair).

Anyway, I figured out – probably twenty years later – that Santa came on the 24th because we were traveling on the 25th. Getting my toys Christmas Eve actually was cruel and unusual punishment, because I was never allowed to bring any of them along.

But things changed in junior high and high school. Dad didn’t have a long Christmas break (as he’d had as a high school teacher) so the trips to the grandparents over the holidays were less frequent.

I got a lot of cool stuff, including a generic gun belt with a cap pistol (the Fanner 50 by Matel was out of reach, too expensive). One year I got This Is Darin, the new Bobby Darin LP – I still have it. Mom made sure I always got a box of cherry chocolates. The big prize was a typewriter, the best present they ever gave me. It was a very expensive gift for one thing, but mainly it said they believed in me. That they thought I really was a budding writer, from the very beginning.

If you’re going to “spoil” a kid, that’s not a bad way to do it.

Max Allan Collins Jr., Age 4-and-a-half, seated in a rocking chair and reading a book titled
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I am pleased to say Borg.com has named Masquerade for Murder one of the best books of the year – specifically Best Retro Read. Skip down and read all about it.

Here’s some Davenport history about the Col Ballroom where the Daybreakers and I get a nice mention. I feature the Col (now unfortunately closed) in The Girl Can’t Help It.

Road to Perdition (the film) gets some love here.

Indiewire thinks Nate Heller deserves to be on TV – you know, so do I!

The great J. Kingston Pierce pays tribute to my late friend Parnell Hall, thusly:

“Another loss for mystery fiction: Parnell Hall, a California-born former private detective and actor turned novelist, passed away on December 15 at age 76. He was best known for penning separate series about an ambulance-chasing New York City private investigator Stanley Hastings (Detective, A Fool for a Client) and ‘Puzzle Lady’ Cora Felton (Lights! Cameras! Puzzles!). In her obituary, Janet Rudolph remembers Hall as a “funny, supportive, musical, generous, and all around good guy. … Everyone loved him.” His most recent novel, Chasing Jack, was released by Brash Books in September. The Gumshoe Site says Hall died of COVID-19.”

I knew Parnell mostly through Bouchercons, but he was one of the sweetest, funniest and flat-out nicest writers I was ever lucky enough to meet. We played a lot of cards together, losing fairly consistently to others. Parnell was also a hell of a writer; and a gifted musician. He appears in my documentary Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane. As the Mick would say, Goodbye, buddy.

M.A.C.

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6 Responses to “Santa Thought I Was Special”

  1. Maribeth Woolsey says:

    What nice memories of your Christmases with your parents and a tribute to them! I remember the Elks Chanters concerts and attended every year. BTW, my grandmother always gave me $2 for my birthday until I was in my 40’s when she died. Merry Christmas to you and Barb!

  2. Vickie Williams says:

    You come from a very talented family and you were very lucky to have such charming parents. I hope you have a very Merry Christmas!

  3. Chuck Brudtkuhl says:

    Well stated, Al. The best Christmas wishes to you & Barb.

  4. stephen borer says:

    A fine tribute to your family and Mr. Parnell. May all of your family and readers and friends stay healthy.

  5. Dominic Paulo says:

    You can get a really decent Robby the robot from Walmart for only $20. It talks, lights up and even walks. It is a good size also. its never too late to realize your childhood dreams!!!

  6. Dan Collins says:

    That was so much fun reading your memories of Christmas. I still remember when comics went up to 12 cents. It was a bigger deal for me than when candy bars doubled in price to 10 cents. My Dad blamed Castro. Thanks Max for your great writing but even more important a work ethic that is second to none. Happy New Year

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