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My wife and I are about to buy Christmas gifts for our daughters who are 5, 8 and 12. The best gift for any one of them would be something that would capture her interest and maybe even start her down on a whole new path.

I'm imagining the sparkling eyes of little J.K. Rowling as she sits down at her first typewriter, the happy grin of young John Wayne as he puts a pudgy leg over his first stick-horse, and the childish passion of Vincent Van Gogh as he rips open a brand-new box of 64 Crayolas. His dad probably smiled at Mrs. Van Gogh across a wrapping-strewn room and gave her a thumbs-up.

And then there are gifts meant to be a Christmas Day sensation and not to take over a child's life. When I was 7, an alert lad couldn't put in his nine hours a day in front of the TV without seeing dozens of ads for the Blue & Gray Battle Set, a 250-piece commemoration of the War Between the States. It included a couple hundred plastic soldiers; an exploding bunker; a ruined mansion; a few cannon; lots of horses; and even Presidents Lincoln and Davis.

I'm sure my mom didn't want me to have it. She was a pacifist, who hadn't even let her sons have toy guns until she found us seizing them from smaller kids. And here I was asking for entire armies.

I'm sure my father saw the potential for clutter and debris on a scale unknown since the real Battle of Gettysburg. Maybe Dad hoped I'd get interested in history or military science. But what probably moved him was the fact that this was the first Christmas ever that I'd wanted something other than a live pony. But anyway, somehow, on Christmas morning, the object of my desire awaited me under the tree.

Except for brief breaks for baseball and school, I spent the rest of my childhood in our rec room shooting rubberbands at the little plastic soldiers. For speed and accuracy, a 12-inch ruler was my weapon of choice.

I usually had the TV on as I went back and forth, trading shots between the Blue and the Gray. If Dad had hoped I was a budding Eisenhower or MacArthur, he was disappointed; for me it was a game of marksmanship, not tactics.

Outdoors, normal kids were riding bikes, selling lemonade, flying kites, catching bugs, flipping baseball cards, stealing comic books, defacing public property, and falling into the creek. Indoors, my right index finger, the one that held the rubberband against the ruler, would swell and throb painfully from over-use, but I didn't care; my aim was deadly.

Whenever I watch Olympians receiving their gold medals, I never have to wonder what it's like to be the best in the world. I know.

But unlike the parents of young gymnasts and figure skaters, mine did not push me toward greatness. In fact, my dad would lament, "Little Men! Always shooting the Little Men!" Or he would indict me with: "It's criminal to be indoors on a day like this!" Because Dad watched almost no television, he would make these remarks while passing through my theater of operations, usually en route to the laundry room.

But around age 12, after I'd given almost five years to that little game, I began developing other interests. There were trees to climb, books to read, models to build, dead animals to bury and fires to set. The day I finally put down my ruler and quit at the height of my powers, was the day the sport lost one of its greats maybe its only great.

The Little Men, my favorite Christmas present ever, were put into a cookie tin and shelved. Except for a few of them who were needed for my experiments with fire, they are still at my dad's house, canned and waiting.

As this Christmas approaches, my daughters are drafting their wish-lists. The 5-year-old has no ideas beyond hollering, "I want that!" every time she sees a toy commercial.

The two oldest girls, who are already well-equipped with bikes and dolls, tell me they want pogo-sticks, of all things. Not exactly the Bronte sisters asking Santa for Microsoft Word. But a pogo-stick couldn't devour half a childhood. Could it?

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