I wanted a space rocket so my dad built me a wooden Apollo 11 in his garage – the Christmas present I’ll never forget

<span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
Photograph: Alamy

I was three and Christmas 1969 was approaching. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon that summer and I wanted what millions of kids must have wanted for Christmas: the Apollo 11 rocket. I announced this and went off to listen yet again to my favourite record: Puff, the Magic Dragon.

Our house on a nice new estate in Wrexham was full of craft furniture. My dad, who taught woodwork at the town’s grammar school, made our tables and chairs and the abstract copper-wire artworks on the walls. The space age was happening on television but our Wales was still in the days of oak.

A few weeks before Christmas, I apparently had an anxiety about my present. “You do know,” I asked seriously, “that I mean a rocket I can go inside?”

Selfish little beast that I was, I wanted an actual usable Apollo 11 of my own. Where was I planning to go? I can’t remember. But clearly my wish to be an astronaut was more committed than the average. Or at least more tyrannical. But then again, it was no ordinary time. And I had no ordinary dad.

I’ve got to be honest: as a child, my Christmases in Wales were always pretty great. I would make myself sick with excitement and rarely slept on Christmas Eve. Because my parents always did get me what I wanted – even when it was impossible.

Coming down the stairs on Christmas Day, I perhaps didn’t really expect that rocket. Kids say things lightly. It was a notion, an ideal. But there it was in the open-plan lounge-cum-dining room, standing almost as high as the ceiling – to a small child, an absolutely colossal presence, white with blue Nasa insignia, ready for liftoff, with steps waiting for me to ascend.

I was terrified. I didn’t want to go up the steps through the open hatch in case it really did blast off in clouds of super-hot flame, rocketing me into outer space.

This fear was a tribute to the power of woodwork, for the mighty machine was all sawn, nailed together and painted spick and span by my father in a few busy December nights in his garage. Its main difference from the real Apollo rocket (apart from the lack of Saturn V engines) was that it was a rectangular wooden box with a black spike on top to suggest the nose cone. Kids are demanding, and yet easily satisfied. Once reassured it was not going to leave Earth, I took command of my vehicle.

My parents weren’t rich but they always made me feel I could have exactly what I dreamed up for Christmas. The wooden spaceship was the start of a series of grand paternal creations: the wooden crane I could sit in, the wooden car I could drive, and the medieval fort, a fine model of nearby Conwy Castle, with painted plastic drainpipes for towers.

These fabulous wooden toys were neither make-do nor eccentric. They were giant embodiments of the love that went into their careful, beautiful making. I suppose that’s why, as a grownup, I am drawn to art with something handmade in it. You can feel the love.

In time, the great heroic wooden toys all decayed in the back garden, rotted by rain and misuse. Yet the remains of the rocket still made a good den years after it started to fall apart.

It wasn’t just toys my father gave me. He taught me to read before I started school, with picture books about the wild west. In another sign of the times, these American books were full of subversive Vietnam-era celebrations of Sitting Bull and Geronimo as indigenous heroes who fought the Man. At four, I was an expert on the tactics with which the Sioux nation massacred the 7th Cavalry. My father, who loved football, was also philosophical about my failure to show any ability or interest in sport. We had season tickets to Wrexham one year, and he turned to find me fast asleep next to him. When Britain joined the European Economic Community, he started driving us all to Italy for summer holidays, which was how I came to know Rome and Florence as a kid.

So when, a few years ago, he lay dying at home just a week after being diagnosed with liver cancer, I didn’t thank him specifically for the space rocket. There was too much else to say. He was heavily drugged as I held his hand and tried to put some of it into words. But it’s irreplaceable, that gift. When you’ve had a real spaceship for Christmas, you know there’s magic in the universe.