I had just spent the morning bugging my mom about Christmas gifts to the point that she ran me out of the house.

I wasn't a kid anymore, at least I didn't think so; but I wasn't a teeny bopper either. I don't think teeny boppers had been invented yet anyway. Yes, I was too old to be acting like a brat but Mom expected me to act like a brat and I wasn't going to disappoint her. I was way too old to believe in Santa Claus.

And, like my dad said, "Son, money doesn't grow on trees!"

Darn it! Why couldn't I be a baby for a couple of more years and get everything I wanted?

The last thing Mom said as I was slamming out the door was, "For God's sake, act your age!"

But I was still too much of a brat to act my age. I sat on the front steps to contemplate the horrible situation I found myself in. It was just unfair, not to mention cruel. Everybody had a perfect life but me. Everybody was going to get more presents than me. Everybody was going to get a Daisy BB gun or a Ben Pearson bow and target set or a Lionel train but not me. I knew my friends were all going to make out better than me.

I had been pestering Mom to tell me just one the gifts I was getting for sure! It wouldn't have hurt her to at least give me some hints. The worse thing was she had already told me to forget about the BB gun and the bow. So I began to concentrate on the Lionel train set. Unfortunately, begging for the train set turned out to be the last straw.

Before she chased me out of the house she shook her finger at me told me I was too big for toys anyway and to expect clothes and shoes. She reminded me for the umpteenth time that when she was a little girl she was lucky if she got an orange and a piece of peppermint candy at Christmas time. And, if it was a really good year, she might get a doll dress made out of an old pillow case.

Well, big deal! What did I care about the dark ages? I guess, looking back, I was just stuck in the no man's land between 10-years-old and almost 13. I desperately wanted to be a teenager but time wouldn't let me.

As I sat there kicking my shoes against the stone steps I was trying to find a way out of my fix. All the bragging I had done about getting a Daisy BB gun for Christmas would come back to haunt me on Christmas day when I showed up at the park with new shoes and no BB gun.

I jumped down off the steps and took off down the sidewalk. I began kicking a can along the sidewalk because the can had it coming. To finish the can off I stomped it and kicked it into an innocent neighbor's yard.

Then it hit me! I'll make my own money. I'll buy my own BB gun. I'll use my summer, money-making scheme and run errands for the neighbors. I might even pick up Coke bottles along the highway and sell them to the A&P. Heck, I may even sell the Christmas presents I do get and just happen to not like. I'll combine the money and buy that BB gun. Then it won't matter what I get for Christmas. Yeah, now I had a plan.

I began scanning each neighbor's house looking for signs of life. If I could run an errand to the grocery store for them I would be in for a tip. In the summer I could usually count on 15 to 20 cents or maybe a quarter for each errand. Because it was almost Christmas maybe I could end up with more money than usual. I might even strike gold with a fifty-cent piece or two. With visions of a big pay day in my mind, I decided to skip the houses close to me and go straight to Jack Cundy's house.

Jack was the old guy down the street in the new house. Jack and his wife had retired to Madison from Cincinnati and built the first new house in the neighborhood since WWII. Because they used to be city people and didn't know any better, they always tipped a lot better than most people. Jack was my favorite customer and number one on my list. I knocked on his kitchen door and waited. I could hear the old guy grumbling and banging things around as he made his way to the door.

Jack opened the door and invited me in and asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee. Heck no! I wanted a Pepsi! Jack put some ice in a glass, poured the Pepsi and asked what he could do for me. I explained that it was all about what I could do for him. I could run a few errands for him. Jack reminded me that his wife had passed on the year before and he really didn't need much of anything these days.

Then he looked me in the eye and said, "Well let me think, maybe I do."

It turned out that Jack only wanted a carton of Pepsi Cola and a pack of Lucky Strikes. Jack handed me five bucks and I was off in a flash. My aunt and uncle ran a little Mom and Pop grocery store down the block so my errand wouldn't take too long.

As I headed toward the store I figured this wasn't going to be a big pay day after all. Nevertheless I did have visions of a pay day floating around in my head, a Payday candy bar and the rest of that Pepsi that is. I was already sabotaging my BB gun fund raising scheme before I even got started.

When I got back to Jack's house I was in for another disappointment. Jack didn't tell me to keep the change nor did he flip me a fifty cent piece. He set the groceries down on the kitchen table and asked if liked to read. I said sure I like to read. And I wondered why he wanted to know.

I soon found out. Jack motioned for me to follow him. He led me to his bedroom where he knelt down on the floor in front of his dresser and opened the bottom drawer. He took out a velvet lined box and showed me a Purple Heart Medal that his son was awarded during the Korean War. I didn't even know that Jack had had a son. Jack explained that Jack junior had been killed in action.

I didn't know what to say except how sorry I was. Jack put the medal away and closed the dresser drawer. Then he went to the closet and dragged out several boxes. The boxes were full of his son's books from his childhood days. I guess old Jack had been safekeeping his son's books since before he left for the war all those years ago.

I had to make three trips but I finally got all the boxes home. When I was leaving with the last box I thanked Jack over and over because my Mom would have killed me if I hadn't. But to tell the truth I didn't think a few old dusty boxes of stinky books was a good trade for a fifty cent piece.

When I got home I began to look through the boxes. There were a few of authors I knew, like Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain, but who had ever heard of H. Rider Haggard or Arthur Conan Doyle, or Edgar Rice Burroughs or Joseph Conrad?

The more I explored the more I began to realize that each box was like a pirate's treasure chest filled with incredible things. As I sorted through the books in the various boxes I found many books I had never heard of before. But when I showed the books to Mom and Dad and my brothers they instantly knew the books or had seen the movies. I began to think maybe old Jack had really done me a big favor after all.

Most of the books turned out to be well-known classics, just not to me at the time. There was Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; Tarzan of the Apes; Sherlock Holmes; John Carter of Mars; The Moon Maid; Allan Quatermain and King Solomon's Mines; The War of the Worlds; The Time Machine; The Invisible Man; The Call of the Wild; White Fang; The Sea Wolf; Adventure; and many more.

I knew "Tarzan" was written by Edgar Rice Burroughs because each Tarzan movie always described him as "Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan." I just didn't know ERB had written about Mars and Venus and a thousand other places beyond the farthest star, too.

During that Christmas holiday I began reading Junior's books. I didn't run out of books until almost a year later. I then camped out at the public library tracking down all the books written by my newly discovered favorite authors that had not been included in those boxes.

A couple of years later when I got to junior high I chose a bookcase as my shop class project. After high school the draft was breathing down my neck so I joined the Navy and went off to places unknown leaving my books at home just like Junior. Now the U.S. Navy took over the role of expanding my horizons. All in all the Navy experience was quite different than the adventures described in the books.

I had better luck than Junior and returned home in one piece. One day when my parents were shopping I began wandering through the house wallowing in my now ancient childhood memories. It was my first Christmas home in five years. I was home, safe and sound and feeling good.

Imagine my surprise and delight to see my old bookcase full of books still occupying space in the family room. It was like rediscovering old friends that I had thought were lost forever.

As I sat there on the floor thumbing through book after book, I couldn't help but think how wrong I had been about those old stinking books being worth less.

Jack didn't live long enough to know the impact those books would have on me. I've never forgotten Jack, Junior or those old books.

Future BB guns came and went along with the bows and arrows, but here was my old book collection still standing tall.

I sometimes wonder if Jack was just cleaning out his closet or if he knew the effect that Junior's book collection might have on me? Somehow I think Jack knew. Maybe Jack, and in a way Junior too, were simply paying it forward.

Junior's books snapped me out of my self-inflicted doldrums that Christmas and inspired me to read! And, I became a voracious reader. The adventure stories took me out of my friendly, comfortable neighborhood and expanded my horizons beyond southern Indiana like nothing else could do. Well, except for the U.S. Navy.

As an adult I know the most valuable gifts are not found under the tree. Truly lasting gifts are measured in the hours and minutes your family and friends take to reach out to you and share the benefit of their lessons learned. It is to your benefit to take the time to listen, think and learn.

What you want and what you need are generally not the same. The best gifts you'll ever receive are measured in time.

And perhaps even more importantly, you too, should take the time to pay it forward!

Larry Stewart

Maryland, formerly of Madison