Ohio Life

My Ohio: A Teenage Christmas

Cruising was an act of rebellion — and a chance to check out holiday lights.

As a Findlay teenager in the mid-1960s, I spent countless Friday and Saturday nights driving the Main Street “circuit” with my friends, most of whom were fellow drummers in the high school marching band. We made the endless loop between the Marathon parking lot in the south and the Big Boy restaurant in the north for the same basic reason, I suppose, that 19th-century Parisians promenaded through the Bois de Boulogne: to see and to be seen. The chief difference is that while those Parisians were trying to fit in with society, we were trying to rebel.

I cringe to think of all the time we wasted. If I had spent those hours learning Mandarin instead of driving back and forth through town, I’d now have over a billion more people to talk to. What’s worse, our nighttime goal of rebellion and independence was doomed from the start. Although we were trying desperately to look cool, we darkly suspected how unlikely this was as we shuddered along in my 1959 Rambler.

Still, each night began with the bright expectation of picking up girls or encountering something exciting, like a traffic arrest or a street fight. Despite our optimism, these hopes were rarely fulfilled. The usual high point of the evening was deciding whether to head for Wilson’s or the White Castle for our late-night burgers.

The circuit offered an escape from our families — a chance to forget that we were somebody’s children. And yet, my clearest memories of it come from the Christmas season, a time that’s all about family. Maybe my holiday memories are so vivid because there was more to look at: the colored lights strung across Main, Christmas messages spray-frosted on storefront windows and Santa with his sleigh and reindeer perched atop the Art Deco portico of the Marathon Oil building. We drove the circuit more slowly, taking everything in and feeling, for once, that we were part of something bigger than ourselves. None of us would have used the word “community,” but the decorations reminded us that we belonged to one.

Sometimes we succumbed to the seasonal spirit by leaving the circuit to look at the light displays at the big houses on South Main and around the Country Club. Knowing that it was uncool for a pack of teenage drummers to be gazing at lit-up Santas and Nativity scenes, we agreed never to tell anyone about these detours. Indeed, our excitement at the displays was an embarrassment even among ourselves. Nobody ever said “Wow” or “Ooooh” as we drove past them; the most that you’d hear was an occasional “Check it out.”

Those displays provided a safety net for our rebellion. This mattered, because no teenage boy wants his rebellion to go completely unchecked: After all, breaking the rules is fun only when there are rules to break. Plus, what better time to be creatures of the night than when everyone else was at home, gathered around Christmas trees?

We had homes, too, and we knew that they’d be there when we grew tired of being rebels for the night. This thought reminded us that despite our bad-boy posing, we were still kids at heart. But while we were young enough to feel the wonder of Christmas, we weren’t old enough to see that this wonder is nothing to be ashamed of. So on we rolled, checking out Santas, Rudolphs and baby Jesuses while furtively smoking cigarettes and keeping our Budweisers below the car windows.

Although much has changed since then, I would guess that teenage rebellion has remained pretty much the same. Those tough-looking kids cruising by in the passing lane might even be feeling the same holiday spirit that my friends and I once felt.

But don’t bother asking them about it: They’ll just deny it as loudly as we did.

Jeffrey Hammond, a native of Findlay, is Reeves Distinguished Professor in the Liberal Arts and Professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.