PAXTON - Ask most 16-year-olds what they want for their birthday and they'll say maybe a vehicle, some electronic gadgetry, perhaps some CDs or clothing.
Not Victor Johnson. He's too practical.
He wanted an extension ladder, a 28-footer.
Johnson, it seems, is quite practical; handy, too.
The teen wanted the ladder so he could reach the upper floor of his family's house at 332 W. Patton St. to hang Christmas lights. For Johnson, son of Dale and Kamalen Johnson, decorating the family's two-story red brick home is a hobby.
Each year's goal is to make the Christmas display bigger and better than the year before.
Johnson is no Johnny-come-lately to holiday decorating. His mother remembers him taking over the decorating duties when he was 7 or 8 years old.
He took it up on his own. "I just think from the very beginning Victor's had a knack for drawing and (figuring out) how things work," Kamalen Johnson said.
Mrs. Johnson, her siblings and their mother, Vera Keller of Hoopeston, pitched in to buy the ladder, but there was one requirement. Grandma said he had to view a video on safe use of the ladder.
Born to repair
Kamalen Johnson can't say she's surprised her son wanted an extension ladder. He's always been interested in how things work and repair.
Her father, Ralph Keller, used to baby-sit the Johnson children and was the handyman of the family, always tending to anything that needed to be repaired at the Johnson house. For each repair project there would be young Victor, watching how grandpa got it done.
He taught his grandson about electricity, how to splice wires and repair lights - knowledge that comes in handy when you're dealing with thousands of points of light.
Now Victor is the repairman. He showed a visitor a handmade, non-motorized snow mover he made that he uses to move snow out of the driveway.
Victor remembers his father putting out the Christmas decorations when he was little, but it was not the elaborate display of today.
Drive by the house now and you're likely to slow down and take it in. It's one of those places where you say to the children, "Look at that, kids."
And Victor tries to make it better each year. It's not just for Christmas that he decorates. "The beginning of October I put out orange lights for Halloween," he said.
Starts in November
He tries to start putting the Christmas lights up beginning the second week of November so they're done by Thanksgiving. This year he was late by a week. That's what happens when you have illumination that totals 20,000 mini lights.
Father Dale has noted the family electrical bill has gone up considerably over the years, Kamalen Johnson said, and it's not because of higher rates.
The decorations became so involved, so elaborate that the family had to have the 1917 house rewired, and all outdoor lighting was placed on separate circuits because they were blowing circuit breakers all the time.
The decorating takes place in stages. "I plan it out every year," Victor said. "I try to decide what new to put out." Last year he added artificial trees, which he decorated, in the back of the house and added two more this year.
Garland, flood lights and other amenities make the dwelling fit for the season, daytime or night.
"I just take my time to make sure it looks real nice," he said. "I don't hurry to get it done."
Thinking ahead, Victor installed hooks on the house soffits so they'd be ready to hold the icicle lights. Those lights, too, are new, thanks to the extension ladder.
Judges in the Paxton Christmas decorating contest have been so impressed;by young Victor Johnson's handiwork that they twice have;named it the No. 1 entry.
He also does most of the holiday decorating inside the house. The family has three Christmas trees. His mother, however, takes care of the large snowman collection on the living room mantel.
The joy of creation
So, why does he do it? Why does he spend so much time and thought on decorating for the season? It's a satisfaction borne out by creating something, he said, and he especially enjoys it when others venture past the Johnson homestead to admire his handiwork. "A lot of people drive by and slow down to look at them," he said.
It helps to be organized. Every decoration has a place, and it has to be taken out and returned to that place once the season is over. The family garage contains seven totes that contain the Christmas decorations.
Sometime maybe in January if it warms enough, Johnson will begin taking down the decorations. And this year he will use his new 28-foot extension ladder.
Who knows? Maybe someday, if the decorations continue to grow, he might want an ever bigger birthday present. How about a bucket truck?