Sunday, December 20, 2009

Some random memories

Ah yes, Christmas, and the other holidays surrounding the Solstice. A time to take stock, amidst the contrasting darkness and light. One is reminded of many things at this time of year, and my personal history with it has been a long a complicated one.
Shopping for and decorating the tree certainly stands out in my mind. The old Center Theater had a large parking lot in my toddler days, (now taken up by the Fairlington Medical Building). And around the 15th we’d wait for my Father to get home from work and then go up there, hoping to make out the outlines of a fine specimen under the strings of light bulbs that barely illuminated the darkened lot. With the loss of the Center, we moved down to the trees at the Beverley Hills Methodist Church. Like all things in life, there were advantages and disadvantages to this. For one thing, the trees were freshly cut, (as opposed to today – I’ve seen trees for sale that were clearly left over from the Christmas before – brown and mummified skeletons of Holiday past…); and the price was surprisingly cheap. But they didn’t set up shop until around the 19th, and the whole neighborhood knew – it practically became a cult. The trees would be delivered to the little churchyard around 5:00AM and a crowd of us, freezing our tails off, would immediately descend on the place like locusts. Unlike the old parking lot, there were virtually no lights here, and it was before dawn, so one had to judge the size and quality using bat-like instincts – and quickly – competition was fierce. All of the energy Methodists save up from not dancing is apparently channeled into Christmas tree shopping. By daybreak the place looked like some sort of arboreal battlefield, with little left but twigs and the blood of the slower shoppers who’d been trampled in the rush.
Getting the pine home, it was then up to my Father to get the lights on, using an old-fashioned string of C7 bulbs. The type that if one is out none will work - the permutations and experiments to get all the lights on might take him a whole evening. But he always had a great patience, (which I completely lack and was always envious of), and would put it all together. And once they are plugged in, those old lights heat up to a skin blistering temperature and give a suntan to anyone within two feet. By the time I was four years old, I had become experienced enough in a Pavlovian way to associate Christmas trees with second degree burns… On the other hand, that warm glow is still one of my favorite memories.
Once the proper fire hazard point had been reached, we then decorated the tree. And a few presents would get snuck under. Until I was six or seven, most of the children’s presents were kept hidden, to be delivered by Santa on the night of the 24th. I’d like to say that I got a Red Ryder BB Gun at some point, but no such luck. In fact, for once I bow to my Mother’s convictions - with my complete lack of dexterity, I most assuredly would have shot my eye out. But probably my equivalent to that prize was a monster robot-like being called Great Garloo which was my gift when I was nearly five. I still own it, though it stopped working decades ago. I played with it for hundreds of hours, perhaps a harbinger of my interest in horror and the outré. My fave toy.
I’ve received a great many wonderful gifts over the years, (quite a few from some of you reading this). And there have been many favorites amongst them. But I should also point out one other. It was given to me when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade by our neighbor, Ione. She’d been an English teacher all of her life, and she gave me a Webster’s dictionary. I used it almost certainly on a weekly, if not a daily, basis all through school and into college; only replacing it several years after getting married. And each time I used it I couldn’t help but give one split-second’s thought to her. Perhaps it’s just my inherent nerdiness, but that’s always stuck with me, and if possible, I’ve tried to replicate that with my own gift giving to young people. It often lacks the coolness quotient, I know. But so much of what passes for cool these days seems to have a half-life of about two weeks. Something of long-term usefulness has almost taken on revolutionary qualities. And that dictionary was one of my most useful possessions.
Of course, Christmas morning started around the crack of dawn. My poor parents, up half the night with dinner guests and then putting toys together at the last minute, only to be wakened an all too few hours later by anxious kids. We always had to wait before going into the room with the tree. My Father was a home movies fanatic, and he insisted on setting up his equipment ahead of time to see us approaching the tree and its promised bounty. Now we’re basically talking mid-50’s 8mm home movie stuff. Indoor lights and the small amount of mid-Winter sunlight filtering through the windows was nowhere near enough for filming. So Dad had bought indoor lighting. I am convinced it had been leftover war surplus searchlights from the London Blitz. I have never been exposed to such brightness in my life, (and I am including the Sun). It is a miracle our house’s electrical system could handle it once it got cranked up, and I’m sure the monitors down at the power plant registered all sorts of anomalies when we plugged in. I guarantee you, a lot more coal was heaped onto the fire down there once Dad got set up.
I’ve not seen those movies in several decades. But I’m sure they show my brother and I battling the heat and radiation from the lights, bathed in an unearthly bright white, with our arms futilely thrown across our eyes, (it did no good – one could see through one’s bones in that glare), feebly shuffling towards the tree. It’s a wonder I have any eyesight left after a few years of that, and I still worry about skin cancer. Any death experience will be particularly bad for me: one is constantly told “walk towards the light”, when I now have an almost instinctual fear and reaction to doing so. It’ll be interesting. The one thing I can claim is that years before there was ever a Pink Floyd or an Electric Light Orchestra, I knew what it was like to be at the center of a laser light show. ..
And although the Holiday season is often, even in my own mind, associated with childhood, I should point out that some of my most important memories are of more recent vintage. There was the evening spent at a bar in Williamsburg, just me and the bartender watching a Charlie Brown Christmas on the tube, (I’ve written about this little episode in the past). And, (back in my futile attempts at Christianity), there was attending the Midnight Services at our local church., hanging out with my friend Ken beforehand, and going to the neighborhood tree lighting ceremony at the little park known affectionately as “The Pit”.
Linda and I also have had wonderful experiences going out to cut our own tree. One year we travelled out to some tree farm at the very end of Braddock Road – back when it dwindled down to nothing more than 16 foot wide dirt track. It was snowing – somewhat uncommon for us, and we had to drag our prize back over about 120 yards of snow shrouded fields to our car. It was messy and tiring, but also a lot of fun. You remember stuff like that. One little footnote – in those days, one of the stations (C-Span?) would broadcast a dubbed version of Moscow News; (this was in the 80’s). I would watch it occasionally, and that very night they featured a little segment about American Christmas traditions, and had visited that particular tree farm the day before to shoot footage of folks hacking away at fir trees. Neat coincidence!
I’m also reminded of the many Christmas Eve’s at the record and book store. Even if you’ve never worked in retail, you can surely imagine how exhausting the Christmas season is for shop workers. By the 24th, virtually everyone is punch drunk, (or literally drunk). We’d always have a big bash in the back room of the store. Food platters would be ordered, I and others would bring in beer and treats. Mornings got down to a routine of me going to the store at the crack of dawn and picking up a hundred doughnuts and enough orange juice and champagne for several rounds of mimosas. It was a fun day. It really was. By then you didn’t have to worry about your stock – you either had it, or you didn’t - there was nothing that could be done. People shopping that late knew that they’d just have to buy whatever remained on the shelves. Dealings were very basic. Your store team was at its peak, then. By the 24th, anyone who wasn’t up for the job was winnowed out – either voluntarily or by firing. December is no time to be weak or lazy if you work in a store. So all your best people were there - exhausted, but there. You knew you could count on them. And music and book people are some of the most interesting and amusing that there are. The 24th was always fun, and life-long friendships developed from those days. My friend Missy made a film of one of those Christmas Eves, (Mondo Olsson’s), part documentary, and part satire. It’s a rare and treasured memento to me.
Nowadays, Linda and I continue to spend the holidays visiting with as many friends and family as possible, (again, many of you reading this are a nice part of that). Christmas Eves at our friends Ross and Millie’s place is particularly warm and memorable, and we look forward to that each year. It is a patch of psychic home ground to me.
But the Holidays are also a reminder of the many friends and family who are no longer around. Growing up seemed like a whirlwind of social occasions to me between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, with my family visiting, or being visited, by loads of friends and neighbors. They were great times, and despite my young age, I considered those people to be my friends as well. Almost all of them are now gone. And some of them had few family or friends left, even back then; I am one of the last to remember them. Most of these names won’t mean anything to you, but they are as much a part of my Holiday as the living, in some ways. So I end this little meander with a quiet toast to Harold & Beulah, Paul & Bonnie, Haskell & Helen, Frank & Audrey, Neal & Ione, De Earle & Christine, Lou & Gracie, Thad & Patsy, and my dear Father.
For the rest of you, thanks for reading, I hope you own memories and experiences from the Holidays will be as valuable to you as mine are to me.


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