The Led Zeppelin Lesson (A Holiday Homily)

  • David Hoffman image We were permitted three holiday parties in grade school. Each was a joyful yet stressful occasion. I didn’t mind putting my work away to munch on Halloween candy or open silly valentines, but I disliked having to decide which costume to concoct or card to contribute.

    By far, the hardest decision centered on which one-dollar present to buy for December’s holiday gift exchange (boys bought gifts for boys, girls shopped for girls back in ‘60s). Each year, I disappointed a friend with something lame like a faux Duncan Yo-Yo, an assortment of Superman comics, or—check this out for creativity-- a silver dollar.

    Much to my surprise and relief, around sixth grade I discovered that everyone else shared my purchasing predicament. A dollar simply couldn’t procure anything cool. That year, we tried to negotiate a higher price ceiling with the powers that be, but to no avail.

    Accordingly, in the best tradition of indignant twelve year olds, a protest plan was hatched.

    My classmates and I decided that if the monetary rules remained identical, so would our cheap present. Boy, would our teacher, Mrs. King, be surprised when, after fifteen exchanges, the same gift materialized. We would feign surprise and theatrically ask, “Now, what are the odds?” There would be no holiday joy in King-ville, only the cast down eyes and drooped shoulders of disappointed sixth graders whose young consumer hands had been tied by Scrooge-like management.

    So, during a series of cold winter recesses, in hushed and steamy breathes, we schemed then took an oath that bound each of us to buy the same ninety-nine-cents-or-less item that any reasonably cool kid would covet: The original Book of Lifesavers!

    [I hate to admit it, but I was kind of jazzed to receive my book of lifesavers. I loved the butterscotch ones, wild cherry was sourly scrumptious, and the assorted flavors roll appealed to the mathematician in me who appreciated colored patterns.]

    The big day arrived. We came to school with our books of Lifesavers in tow and conspiracy intact. Our candy caper and two week vacation drew nearer. Finally, as the party came to a close, we showed our here-to-fore concealed hand of duplicated “cards.”

    As planned, recipients acted surprised while ripping wrapping. “Now, what are the odds?” each boy offered while showing off his Lifesaver book. Mrs. King played her role to a T, allowing us to believe that she was genuinely surprised.

    And now a math quiz:

    What indeed are the odds that fifteen conniving sixth grade boys will purchase the exact same holiday present for a gift exchange? If you answered 100 percent, you are correct---unless Dennis Rice is factored into the equation. Then, the odds are ZERO.

    Dennis Rice was our resident non-conformist. The kid collected rabbit pelts, wore moccasins to school year round, and, it was rumored, aspired to become a member of the rock group, The Doors. It was also rumored that he had been corrupted by his older, hippy brothers who lived on the street or were in jail.

    We should have known that Dennis would march to his own beat and leave his Lifesavers at the candy counter. Can you guess the unlucky recipient who would forego his sweet rolls of lifesavers for something less savory?

    Mrs. King called my number and handed me its corresponding, FLAT seven-by-seven inch package. Picture my co-conspirators and me starring in disbelief. Witness Dennis Rice standing there with a self-righteous smirk on his face. Three thoughts entered my mind: 1) It’s a mistake, I have been handed one of the girls’ gifts, 2) I know someone who will not be getting a Valentine come February, and 3) Jolly Ranchers are tons better anyway.

    I never imagined, as I slowly peeled the gift wrap back, that I was in fact experiencing a watershed moment in my life.

    I ended up holding a lifesaver, but not the confectionary type. My lifesaver was made out of vinyl. Its hole was surrounded by etched grooves that, when put on a turntable and played at 45 revolutions per minute, emitted sounds that made parents scream “turn it down” and eleven year old boys take up the air guitar.

    I was staring at a 45 single of rock group Led Zeppelin’s 1970 hit, “Immigrant Song” backed with “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do.” Its black and red iconic Atlantic label screamed danger and decadence. Leave it to Dennis Rice to invite rock ‘n’ roll to the classroom cotillion.

    Before I even had time to initiate trade talks with my classmates, they began showering me with books of Lifesavers hoping for another exchange. I didn’t know what a Led Zeppelin was, but I did recognize my friends’ inflated and heavy-handed offers. I sensed there was value in my record and decided to avoid looking the proverbial gift horse in the mouth.

    And so began my expanded affinity for rock ‘n’ roll music and friendship with Dennis Rice. That record led to my purchase of the Led Zeppelin III album (still my favorite), and a lunchroom discussion with Dennis about other rhythm and blues-based rock bands. In ensuing weeks he and his brothers (not in jail, but holed up their basement surrounded by black light posters and strobe lights), introduced me to Eric Clapton and Cream, the original Fleetwood Mac, Jeff Beck, classic Rolling Stones, and Johnny Winter. They treated me to the tunes of other groups like Deep Purple, The Allman Brothers and Traffic. In turn, I convinced Dennis that the Beatles and Beach Boys legitimately belonged in his record collection.

    I discovered that Dennis did not want to be a Door, but an oceanographer (amazing for someone living in Omaha). He lived for all things Jacques Cousteau. We ended up being science lab partners in junior high. I impressed him with my research and writing. His incredible artwork adorned many of our projects.

    I suppose that the true gift received during that sixth grade holiday party was the understanding that everyone’s uniqueness and hidden talents are something to seek and celebrate. We avoid the urge to bully, label or embarrass others when we remember that people’s differences bring variety to otherwise stagnant interpersonal exchanges. We simply don’t become fully realized people when we only interact with mirror images. At an age when conformity feels safe and sameness means comfort, it is important to remind ourselves that seemingly predictable patterns and solid personalities can, thankfully, consist of imperfections and “holes”—creating interesting flavors and music.

    During this holiday season may you too receive those simple gifts that grow in their power to brighten your life and affirm the goodness of others. Here’s wishing you a new year filled with laughter, love and learning.