Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Christmas Memories

My one and only Christmas in Iowa
That's the earliest picture of me taken at Christmastime. There are some others taken later but none after about 1952. By then my life seemed to have taken a strange turn from which it would never entirely revert to... well, "normal."

I have quite a few Christmas memories. Most of them are good ones, so even if things weren't exactly typical of a White-Boy Childhood in the '50s otherwise, Christmas was almost always a happy time for me. I never felt like I lacked for presents at Christmas. If anything, it sometimes seemed like I had too many. In a sense, the abundance of gifts at Christmas may have been meant to make up for some of what I lacked the rest of the year.

Christmas in my childhood always meant a live tree, one that smelled strongly of pine forests in winter. Lots of decorations on the tree, different kinds of Shiny Brites in a range of sizes, the old-fashioned lead tinsel (or was it tin?), icicles made of silvered glass and later white plastic, glass birds with long white tassel tails, lots of multicolor lights including those bubble lights that I guess are still available. The tree-topper was usually one of those glass spike things, but we had a star as well, and some Christmases, we put the star on top of the tree instead of the spike.

We still have some old Shiny Brites on the tree we keep up all year in New Mexico. I'm not sure that any of them were saved from either my childhood or Ms. Ché's. I know I've been collecting them from thrift stores for several years, and I think that's where all the Shiny Brites we currently have came from. We also decorate the tree with newer imitation Shiny Brites that aren't quite the same as the genuine articles. We also use lots of local decorations like glass chiles, tomatoes and saints in their nichos and such. No tinsel though; too risky for the cats.

After about 1951, the Christmas tree always had the Lionel train set my father gave me around the base. There's nothing quite like them any more. The steam engine was long and heavy and intricately detailed.

There were little tablets you could put in the smoke stack to make smoke. The headlight lit up as the engine chugged around the three-rail track. The whistle sounded 'whoo-whoo!' when you pushed a button or moved a lever on the power transformer. I don't remember which, but I do recall there were two levers on the transformer and one of them controlled the speed of the train. There was a little black plastic thing with two red buttons that allowed you to switch the track the train ran on.

There was a coal car, two freight cars -- one red, one white, a flatcar with logs, a tank car, a baggage car, a passenger car, and a caboose. There were milk cans in the white freight car and a man dressed in white who unloaded the milk cans onto a platform at the station. The passenger car windows lit up. The brake wheels on the cars turned. It was a nice train set, and I kept most of it through all the many moves of our household around southern and northern California. The pieces started disappearing when I was a teenager, and the only one I managed to hold on to was the caboose. And now, I'm not sure where it is.

I have some other train memorabilia, but nothing like the Lionel train set I'd get out every Christmas when I was a kid. One of the ironies of my ancestry research is that I discovered that my father's German grandfather (as opposed to his Irish one) worked for the Chicago and Northwestern Railway in the Iowa yards as a carpenter. More irony was that I learned my mother's father was killed in the St. Louis Wabash rail yard where he worked as a switchman. One of his brothers was an engineer with the Wabash line. I was surprised to learn of my ancestors' railroad connections and still haven't absorbed the significance of it -- if any.

Gifts at Christmas usually included lots of school clothes, and typically science or art supplies. Toys? I suppose, but I recall very few. One that I remember was a large model airplane that had a motor and propeller and was supposed to fly at the end of a long double cable. I could rarely get it into the air, and when I did, it usually crashed within seconds. My friends weren't much more successful with it than I was, so in the end, the plane wound up as decoration hanging on the wall in my room.

I received a number of you-put-together model cars at Christmas, all antiques and classics. I had a collection of Floyd Clymer Historical Motor Scrapbooks and the model cars were in many cases examples of the cars in the magazines. The one that took the longest time and most patience to put together was the Dusenberg, which ultimately was pretty spectacular, but I'm not sure what happened to it.

One year, I received an elaborate chemistry set with which I made much mischief. Another year, it was a rock and mineral collection. I kept the garnet from the collection for many years. Still another year, I received a crystal radio kit which I put together and was amazed at how well it received stations, though I had to listen through earphones.

Then there were the encyclopedias. I remember we had a complete set of the New Standard Encyclopedia, but I would also receive one or two volumes of a child's encyclopedia every Christmas for several years. Since I was a voracious reader, both sets were paged through again and again. I had a lot of books from an early age a few of which I still have (I think!)

One Christmas, I think it was  in 1957 or 58, I received an "all chrome" bike. It wasn't actually all chromed; I think the frame was painted silver, but it was very fancy and unusual. There wasn't another one like it in the neighborhood. It was a full-sized adult bike, and at first, I had difficulty riding it because it was too big. But eventually, I got the hang of it, and I rode it everywhere. I didn't have to ride to school because the school was right behind our house, but after school and on weekends, I rode that bike all the time.

One day toward the end of the school year, I rode down to the Stassi and Humphrey market about a mile from my house and I parked the bike outside while I went in to get some chewing gum and soda. When I came out, the bike was gone, stolen.

I didn't have a lock. Nobody locked their bikes in those days. Bikes were stolen fairly often, but usually they were recovered within a few days, so it really wasn't a big deal. I never got my bike back. Police were notified, and they said they checked with known bike thieves and fences, but no luck. I suspect the thieves promptly sold the bike out of the area because I never saw it again, nor did I ever see one like it in my neighborhood.

My mother bought me another bike soon afterwards, a plain-jane Schwinn, and I kept it for several years and several moves until it, too, was stolen, lock and all.

Throughout my childhood and well into adulthood, I looked forward to Christmas, not so much for the presents, but just for the simple joy of the holiday and its festivities. As I got older, it really didn't matter so much, but even now in my dottage, I find I enjoy the holiday more than not.

And as my memory fades (oh yes!) I am grateful for the snippets I  can recall.

Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Who Are These People?

My great-grandmother Carrie with three of her grandchildren, George, David, and Florence, c. 1910
Yes, who are these people?

While checking my profile the other day, I came across pictures posted by someone descended from my mother's father's family tree. I don't know who it is. I'd seen one of the pictures before, but the rest were new to me. The one above was particularly interesting.

Carrie and three of her grandchildren... She had at least one other grandchild at the time, but it was complicated. There may have been others. Some she may not have known about.There was a boy living in Wabash with his mother. His father, Carrie's son  Clyde, had been killed in a hunting accident shortly before the boy was born. There would be other grandchildren later, including my mother. But these three were interesting to me for who they were.

George, David and Florence were the three children my mother's father sired with his first wife Maud. By 1910, Maud and my mother's father (Lawrence) had divorced and by the time this picture was taken, Lawrence and my mother's mother (Edna) were married. Maude, so far as I've been able to figure out, had moved to St. Louis and become a housemate/companion/wife? of Lawrence's brother Hal. The boys were sent to live with their grandparents. Florence, on the other hand, was sent to live with another of Lawrence's brothers, Frank and his wife, a different Edna. But exactly when that happened, I can't say.

So what I see in this picture is my great grandmother, two of my uncles, and an aunt. Though these children were my mother's half-siblings -- and there would be others -- they are my grandfather's children and thus are my uncles and an aunt, without a half-measure.

George came to visit my mother and me in the mid-Fifties, I believe it was 1956 or 57. My mother had tracked him down by calling everyone in the LA phone book with her father's last name, and sure enough, she located George. I'm not entirely sure that he knew of her or she of him beforehand. But they got together, and I remember him as a rather jolly fellow though I can't say that he seemed like any kind of relative at all. So far as I knew at the time, I didn't have aunts or uncles (later I would find out I had quite a few of them). I didn't have grandparents. My father was far away. My (half) sister had moved away when I was three and I very rarely saw her. I didn't even know she was living in Los Angeles the first few years my mother and I lived there, for example. She was a student at LA City College.  And trying to break into show business.

Through relatively recent research, I found out a bit about George. He had quite a life. When I look at the picture above, I see a striking resemblance to his father. What I remember seeing when he came to visit was a rather distinguished middle aged man, salt-and-pepper hair, wearing a suit and tie, polished shoes, smelling of Old Spice. I think he drove a black Buick. He smiled and laughed a lot while I was around, but my mother wanted to talk to him privately, so I went in the other room and watched TV while they talked. It seemed serious.

They no doubt talked about their father. George was born in 1898; my mother was born in 1911. There was quite an age gap. Another half-brother was also born in 1911, but I doubt either George or my mother knew of him. A half-sister would be born in 1914, and my mother certainly knew about her as she mentioned her to me by name (Helen) as someone she had seen/met at her father's funeral in St. Louis in 1916.

I wonder if George and David and Florence and Carrie went to Lawrence's funeral. The pater familia, D. H., probably didn't go, as he didn't look well in a family portrait taken the year before at the 50th wedding anniversary of Carrie and D. H. Given that Lawrence had established yet another family in St. Louis it was obvious things could get ... complicated.

George and David both went to Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis, a rather prestigious technical school, but I have found no record that either of them graduated or even made it to senior year. If that's the case, it would be sad, to say the least.

Florence seemed to flourish in the household of her aunt and uncle, and died in Florida 92 years old. The boys didn't live so long. David died in San Diego at 55; George died in Los Angeles at 65.

Carrie died in 1918, I suspect she was one of the hundreds of thousands of Spanish flu victims in the United States. Her husband, D. H., died in 1921. By then, the boys were grown and one assumes they were on their own. Lawrence was dead. Maud moved back to Indianapolis.

Marie, Lawrence's wife in St. Louis, married the yard boss of the rail yard where Lawrence was killed and she died there in 1987, two days after my mother died in Butte County, California. Marie's daughter Helen committed suicide in 1940 on the anniversary of her husband's death from cancer.

I'm sure there are amazing stories for all  of these people, but for the most part, I didn't know anything about any of them. I wish I could have asked George about his stint in San Quentin when he came to call. But no.

Surprising how many records, though, turn up on