Toys for Tots began as the holiday idea of Marine Reserve Maj. Bill Hendricks in 1947 in Los Angeles. Now, the program is carried on by Marine Corps Reserve centers throughout the country, and many other organizations pitch in to help. Marines gather donated, new, unwrapped toys and distribute them to community groups that get them to the kids who need them for a merrier Christmas. It's a wonderful tradition.
I took part in Toy for Tots a lot when I was stationed at the Marine Corps Public Affairs Office in Los Angeles for three years in the early 1980s. The program took up much of my time during the holiday season, because so many Marine Reserve centers were located in the Los Angeles area. There were centers in Pico Rivera, Pasadena, Encino, Long Beach, Los Alamitos, San Bernardino, Port Hueneme, and a large center was located next to Dodger Stadium. Not all still exist, but I'm sure the ones that do help bring joy to a lot of kids at Christmas.
Some of my favorite memories of my Los Angeles tour of duty are about Toy for Tots. The main mission of our LA office – four of us Marines served there – was to operate as a liaison to the motion picture and television industry, and people in the industry often helped our Toys for Tots efforts.
Take, for example, the classic Christmastime feature film "A Christmas Story." Just before it was released in 1983, I was told to meet with the film's creators and put together a Toys for Tots reception at the premiere of the movie. It seems my boss, Maj. Pat Coulter, and the film's director, Bob Clark, thought it would be beneficial and in great holiday spirit if everyone attending the premiere would bring a new, unwrapped toy for Toys for Tots.
After the meeting, I got together with the Marines at the Los Angeles Marine Corps Reserve Center at Chavez Ravine, next to Dodger Stadium. We decided to post several Marines in dress blues at the theater entrance, along with decorated Toys for Tots barrels and a Marine truck. The evening was full of spirit and a fantastic movie. I had no idea then that "A Christmas Story" would become such a holiday classic, rivaling such
Christmas standards as "It's a Wonderful Life" and the original "Miracle on 34th Street."
Virginia Mayo, one of the most beautiful actresses of Hollywood's golden age, also helped our Toys for Tots drive during one of my holidays seasons in Los Angeles. She accepted an offer to be the guest of honor at the annual Warner Brothers employees Christmas dinner, where everyone was to bring a toy for Toys for Tots. I was the honored one, when I was told I would drive to her home and escort her to the dinner. Yow! I had a holiday dinner date with Hollywood royalty!
OK, folks, it wasn't a date. I was married, and Virginia Mayo was my mother's age. But what an experience, I thought. I arrived in my dress blues at her home in a north-of-LA community, and she looked drop-dead gorgeous for her age. Her son, about my age, was at the door and sent us off in a cordial manner. "I'll have her back by midnight," I said, as we bid adieu. At the time, I thought my comment was rather clever. Her son probably thought I was one dopey gyrene.
The drive down to Warner Brothers Studios was a interesting one. We shared some great conversation, until Ms. Mayo asked me where my wife was from, and I told her that she was from Norway. Oh, my, that's where those terrible Norwegians club to death those baby harp seals, she said, or something like that. I haven't used quotation marks, because I'm paraphrasing. I don't remember her exact words, but what I just wrote is
basically what she said, and I didn't know what to say in return. Yow! Our wonderful drive to the wonderful dinner just turned sour. I tried to turn on the charm, and I tried to change the subject with something stupid about Norwegian sardines and how healthful they are for us and our hearts. Yep, I blabbed away, until our talk was as for away from baby harp seals as we were far away from the North Pole. To my Christmastime relief, the rest of the evening went well, and a good time was had by all of the Warner Brothers attendees.
The most touching Toy for Tots experience came on my last Christmas Day in
Los Angeles. I received a letter in my office on the day before Christmas. It was from a young mother, who was down on her luck and had no toys for her two kids – a boy and a girl – for Christmas that year. She said she'd missed the cutoff for requesting some toys gathered by Toys for Tots. She was right about that, because the toys already had been distributed.
Her address was in the top left corner of the envelope, so I knew where she lived. That night, my wife and I put together some new, wrapped toys and some clothes that our two children had outgrown. And on Christmas morning, my 4-year-old daughter and I drove to the address that was on the young mother's letter.
It was not in the tidiest or safest neighborhood in LA. The structure was a rather rundown apartment building, and I was a little bit apprehensive as we entered and started our climb up the stark and dim stairway. When my daughter and I reached the apartment door – our arms full of presents – we heard what sounded like happy kids inside. I knocked, and the place went silent, as if one had to be quiet and careful when answering a knock on the door.
That door opened very slowly, and the mom peered out at us. I introduced myself and my little girl, and I told her I'd gotten her letter. The door swung all the way open, we were invited in, and the happy kids inside became even happier. All of a sudden they had presents to put under their Charlie Brown-looking Christmas tree.
After we left and got to our car, my 4-year-old said she felt wonderful about her Christmas morning experience. She was so happy those children were so happy. I
was happy, too.