by John Nation
|It's Thanksgiving Day. Years ago, this was one of my favorite holidays. I spent time with family and friends, strengthening the bonds that last a lifetime. I would awake to the aroma of turkey baking in the oven, and the sounds of laughter from parents and children. Our conversations were about the many blessings we had received that year and what countless wonders awaited us in the future.
If the weather was warm, a game of football was played in the backyard. If the weather was icy, snow angels and snowmen were made in the front. After dinner, we would sit together in the den and tell each other stories about our hopes and dreams.
Since my earliest Thanksgiving memories when I sat with the other little kids at a card table with lawn chairs and paper plates, to the time I was at the head of the main dining table giving the blessing for our bounty, the thought that the Thanksgiving Day rituals were nearing has warmed my heart and filled my dreams with peace.
Then one day, about twenty-seven years ago, I began to notice a change. I do not know if this event had always been there and I never noticed it, or if it was a new trend that sprang up overnight, but something happened that has forever dimmed the glow of the Christmas holiday.
As always after the feast, the children ran out to play and the adults retired to more leisurely activities. I noticed as we gathered that the primary topics of conversation were no longer about Sharon's coming wedding or how the grandchildren were doing in school, but instead centered around what each person would go after when the stores opened the next morning.
When I asked what people were talking about, I learned about a new and savage monster that had entered our culture. This ferocious beast was called, 'Black Friday'. It seemed stores developed the practice of having large sales the day after Thanksgiving to begin the Christmas shopping season. I had always known stores had sales the day after the holiday, but now these sales had grown from a cute kitten waiting to be petted, into a thousand headed dragon wanting to devour you and then spit you out.
My wife, Patricia, said she needed me to go with her the next morning to get presents for the family. Being completely ignorant of what the near future held, I readily agreed.
My first inkling something was wrong was when I woke the next morning. My spouse was shaking my shoulder and telling me to get up. I noticed it was still dark outside and asked what time it was. When I was told that it was already one AM, I groaned and tried to lie back down. Patricia said we had to go. There would already be a lot of people in line for when the stores opened at six A.M. I had no idea how naive I was when I told her we would be sitting in our car for hours before the store employees would arrive and open the store.
Despite my protests, I was soon sitting in the car with my wife and other relatives that wanted to get to the store to take advantage of all the marvelous prices being offered on hard to find merchandise.
I sat in the backseat, sandwiched between an uncle that weighed over three hundred pounds and a mother-in-law that was already beginning to complain. The tedious trip took twenty minutes and every second of it consisted of me being crushed on my left side and having my ear talked off on my right. I sat in the car, wondering if it was I that left the joyous moods of a day earlier behind, or if that happiness had fled out of fear of what was coming.
At last we entered the Wal-Mart parking lot. This was only a few minutes before two A.M., but the lot was already starting to fill with cars. Standing at the front doors was a crowd of people. From a distance it looked like a giant football huddle. I saw employees running around in the store, moving things around and doing whatever it is they do.
We left the car and the six of us stopped at the back of the pile of humanity. It was chilly and I suggested I drive to a nearby twenty-four hour restaurant and get us all some hot coffee. Patricia and mother-in-law turned on me like crazed animals. I was informed that if I left the area I would not see them again for hours. Even though that thought was a pleasant one at the moment, I was wise enough to keep my opinion to myself.
This event took place in the early eighties. I am not positive of the year after all this time. I could spend some time and track down the exact date, but I would like to forget as much of that morning as possible. The only reason the date has any significance at all is because of a new item that was now on the must have list of every person in America. The phenomenon known as the Cabbage Patch Kid had taken hold of the minds of the people and held on more tenaciously than a rabid dog holding onto your ankle.
Patricia informed me that when the store opened, I was to head at once to the toy department and get two of them. She stated she would like one of them to be male and have red hair and the other to be female and have blond hair. Each of the others with me had their own objective to obtain. I looked at the crowd in front of me and saw at least two hundred people. When I mentioned this to Patricia and suggested there might not be any left by the time I could get to them, she told me the store said in their advertisement they had four hundred of them. She gave me the easiest item on her list. There would be plenty to go around for all of us brave enough to come in time to get near the entrance.
The crowd was growing considerably as the hour of the great opening neared. I could no longer see the back of the group because I was now surrounded on all sides by a mob. I took careful note of what the people around me talked about. I heard many discussing the TVs and appliances they were after. Many talked about clothes and tools for dad. The words on the lips of those around me more that all the other items put together were 'Cabbage Patch'.
It was about fifteen minutes before opening when the pushing started. At first it was not a big thing, but the distance between people started shrinking. When we arrived, everyone was in a good mood and the people kept about a two foot separation between them. That was close for strangers, but I could stand it. By five o'clock, the space had shrunk to about a foot. Maybe because we had been standing next to each other for the last four hours, everyone believed everyone else to be a close friend. By five-forty five, we were brushing up side to side with each other.
It was about ten minutes to six when the first fight broke out. From what I found out by reading the paper the next day, some new arrivals decided they would come in at the side of the building close to the front and work their way through the crowd to the front doors. The people that had been there for hours refused to move and soon the fists were flying and the curses were echoing off the walls.
There were two patrol cars at the store and the ruckus was quickly contained. While one car hauled some of the participants away, the other officer called for backup. He was told it would be at least half an hour before any would arrive because even bigger fights had occurred at the mall and the other Wal-Mart on the other side of town. By three minutes to six, I knew what a sardine in a can felt like. My space had shrunk to zero, with a wall of people against me on all sides. Because he was so large, I could see my uncle a few feet away, but the rest of the people I came with were not visible to me.
People were starting to shout for the store to open its doors. Then a minute later, I felt a surge go through the crowd. Far in front of me, there was movement.
When I drive, like everyone else, I always stop for red traffic lights. Most of the time, I am at the back of a group of three or four cars. When the light turns green, the first car takes off. The car immediately behind it waits for a second or two for a little space to form and then takes its turn. Then the next car goes and so on down the line so we are not on each other's bumpers as we go. That was not the way it worked that day with people. The entire mass of flesh moved forward as if they had been super-glued to each other.
When rivers are wide, the waters flow quietly and peacefully. When the banks narrow, the river picks up speed. When the banks are close together, you get rapids. I discovered that if you replace water with people, the same laws of physics hold true. I could only take short, but rapid steps as I moved to the entrance. I dared not stop for fear of being crushed by the mass behind me. By the time I was halfway there, the people that seconds earlier were only brushing my shoulders were now pushing tightly against me.
I was lucky that my path was almost dead center towards the opening in the wall. There were some people at the sides of the throng that suffered minor injuries from the rush to get in. I saw one woman crying and holding a handkerchief to a bleeding nose as I entered the store. Once inside, the pushing lessened greatly as the people had room to spread out. I glanced behind me, and like the people in front of me, started to trot. This was not to hurry to the toy department to get the dolls, but because the horde entering the store was not slowing down but actually picking up speed as the workers finally got the second set of doors opened.
Many people were trying to get buggies, but I did not waste my time. There were only two things I was after, and I could carry one under each arm. I knew where the toy department was from previous visits, but did not know where the Cabbage Patch Kids were shelved. It was not difficult to find them. By the time I was passing the hardware department, I heard shouting and screaming in front of me. I homed in on the noise like a sonar guided torpedo homing in on its target.
I turned onto a different aisle and at once came to a stop at the sight in front of me. Twenty feet away was one of those flat wooden platforms. Stacked on it were the Cabbage Patch Kids. I saw some people laughing as they pushed their way out of the mob, their prize held tightly in their grasp as if it were a one way ticket to the highest level of Heaven.
At the display, others were snatching the boxes containing the dolls. Most of the time they could turn and try to make their way to a less crowded area, but two or three times the dolls were stolen from their hands by someone close enough to the display to see the dolls but not yet close enough to actually touch one. The person losing the doll would try to grab it back. This caused another round of shoving and threats of violence.
About ten feet to my right was a young girl on the store phone. Her blue vest told me she was an employee, desperately trying to get hold of the manager. The manger finally answered and I listened as she explained about the mob action. In a few seconds, she hung the phone up and called out that only half the dolls were displayed at the moment. The store was crowded with sales items and there had not been enough room to bring them all out at once. Almost no one heard her over the screaming and threats being shouted out.
Fortune smiled on me because I was close enough to hear her. I pushed my way out of the pack. This was easy to do, because people were letting people in front of them leave the area, it was only the ones entering they strained to keep out.
I made my way through the crammed store and headed to where items were taken out of the stockroom and moved to the sales floor. Every few feet was a knot of people, either grabbing some item off the shelves or else racing to some other area to get whatever prize awaited them. I saw one woman using her buggy like an icebreaker ship making passage in a frozen ocean.
The overhead speakers that had been playing an assortment of Christmas carols wishing everyone a happy holiday and singing about peace and comfort for all stopped their songs and was replaced with one of the managers begging everyone to stay calm. He asked people to stop shoving and fighting.
As far as I know, I may have been the only person that heard him at all. Everyone else seemed too preoccupied with capturing their prize. I did the same thing as everyone else in the store. I ignored him completely.
It took me over five minutes of winding my way into the maze of people before I came out at my destination. The swinging doors to the stockroom were only six feet in front of me. I was there no more than ten seconds when they swung open. On the pallet being pushed to the sales floor was not the Cabbage Patch Kids, but instead was one of the latest model VCRs that everyone was after. I had not been told to get one, but the Black Friday fever was now upon me. I reached out and jerked the nearest off the cart. The salesclerk was about to yell at me, but before he could, all the people standing next to me followed my action. By the time he disappeared around the corner, half of the items on his pallet were gone.
Many of the people around me disappeared behind the vanishing salesclerk, but were replaced at once with others waiting to see what treasure would next come out of the stockroom.
Televisions still in the box came out next. I left them alone. It was another ten minutes before the next clerk came out. This one was pulling the pallet of Cabbage Patch Kids. This time I was right at the front of the crowd. It was difficult to do while holding on to the VCR and the throng shoving against me, but I grabbed the first two boxes I could. I did not know if they met my wives request for certain features and did not care. I only wanted to get away while I was still in one piece.
Holding my jewels in my arms, I made my way to a less crowded area to catch my breath and calm down. I ended up in the emptiest part of the store. I stopped in the shoe department. There were about ten people in the aisle with me so it was pretty much empty compared to the rest of the store.
I stood there for over an hour before I saw Patricia pushing a buggy. I had to shout to get her attention. She waved and spent the next few minutes trying to reach me. When she asked how I had done, I pointed with pride at the two Cabbage Patch Kids behind me. I had placed them along with the VCR onto a space I made by rearranging boxes of shoes. I had stood in front of that space, guarding my bounty as fiercely as a tigress guarding her cubs.
She smiled and placed them in the buggy. She was elated when I showed her the VCR. It had been the item she was going to get, but she said the crowd had been so unruly that she decided to leave and come back later. When she did, they were all gone.
That was my first and last experience with the event now known throughout the land as Black Friday. I have seen on news broadcasts starving people desperately battling each other when food laden trucks arrived, bringing hope of life. I can somewhat understand their motivation. The chaos that Friday morning was over items that would not drastically change a person's life one way or another. People were harmed for a doll or some other trivial item. The news reports the next day carried stories of people being taken to the hospital with serious injuries and numerous arrests. There is no material item I wish to own enough to give up my Christmas spirit for again.
I will let those that choose to do so go to all the Black Fridays they desire. I understand that there are some people that actually enjoy the mob action. Let them have their fun. I will stay safe and warm at home reading A Christmas Carol.