On Front Street At The End Of October

Different times…different places…different memories…

[Photo source: Google search.]

I should mention that, as a child, one of my favorite things to do this time of year was to kick a pile of leaves along a stone sidewalk.

It’s gloomy, rainy and windy here in the North Country.  It rained hard before dawn this morning so nearly all the foliage is now on the ground.  If the wind continues, the little color that is left will leave the deciduous trees naked in a few days.  But, surprisingly, the outside temperature is in the mid-sixties, so it’s hard to think of this being October 8, only a few weeks before my favorite time of year, Halloween! But, we live in a rather isolated location, so there will be no trick-or-treat for us.  There never has been any since we moved here in 2011.

This is not like the place where I grew up, Owego, NY.  It’s about six hours downstate and it probably rained there as well last night.  But, in the vast store of my childhood memories, I’m sure there were wet and dark days in my home town when I was young.  However, once the weather front went through, the air would turn crisp and sometimes there would be frost on grassy lawns, and on the pumpkins, carved and candle-lit, that sat on the porches and front steps like sentinels…or warnings.  The strange truck with the giant vacuum hose had already made its slow way along the curbside to suck up the leaves that were raked in piles.  We were still allowed to burn leaves in those days so the air was rich with the scent of smoldering oak and maple and elm leaves from someones back yard fire pile. Trick-or-treating down Front and Main Streets, as well as John, Ross and Paige Streets was a joyful time of year for me.

My happiest Halloween’s were when I would take my daughter, Erin (in the mid to late 1970’s) and later, my son, Brian (in the early 1990’s) down those fearful streets. Those were when the sidewalks would be crowded with families and the houses would be lit up with orange light and strange candles and we could see our breath in the chilly air.

[My daughter, Erin.  Getting ready for a trip to Owego.]

[My son, Brian…as Fu Manchu.]

After a lifetime of growing up on Front Street, this was my chance to peek inside the older and larger houses…all the way to the business district.

Our first stop was the Sparks’ house next to ours.  Then it was across the street to the old Loring house and then back across the street to walk past the only ‘haunted’ house in my neighborhood, the very old Taylor mansion with the floor to ceiling windows and mansard roof.  We’d be sure to stop at Dr. Amouk’s house (pardon the spelling).  He usually had the best candy which was ironic because he was a dentist.

My children usually made a ‘pretty good haul’ on those nights.  And, it was a joy to view their excitement from an adults perspective.

I remember one Halloween in particular.  My wife and I were taking my son Brian on the rounds.  We got to a house that was almost directly across the street from my old elementary school, St. Patrick’s.  There were corn shocks and fake cobwebs all over the large porch.  Then my son spotted a pair of feet sticking out of a box next to the front door.  He hesitated.  We pushed the door bell.  A woman dressed like a vampire came to answer.  She was holding a box of candy.  But Brian had already made a retreat to the sidewalk.  He was having no part of this woman’s fun that night.

Remembering how my kids enjoyed those walks forces me to remember the times when my friends and I owned those after dark hours while we hid behind the Frankenstein masks or space-suits; the hours when you never knew who would open a door or what monster might cross you path.  So many leaves were scattered on the slate sidewalks that one simply had to kick at them.  As children, we knew the magic of that season would last only a few days.

Now, we can still kick leaves along our road…but it’s not the same as it was.  Nothing will ever be the same as those charmed nights of a spooky holiday when you’re seven or eight…or even fifteen, when your goal is not an apple or twenty M & M’s, but to steal a kiss behind the large elms that once lined Front Street.

To steal that kiss was a treat that couldn’t be bought in any candy store.

 

 

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The Toboggan

When I enter our garage from the door that faces our house, I don’t often look up.  What could be up there that I’m avoiding?  Well, there is an old oak bed head-board and foot board that was mine when I grew up at 420 Front Street, Owego, NY.  There are stickers of cowboys and indians on the head-board.  There are numerous tiny indentations of BB hits when I was young and used the head-board as a backdrop for my Daisy rifle.  The only other item of mine, settled and resting on the 2 x 4 inch cross pieces of the garage, is The Toboggan.

I stood and stared at the old sled for half an hour.  I brought it up here, to our place in the Adirondacks, intending it to be my first “project”.

My hands last handled this antique when we had to empty my father’s house after he passed in 2004.  Before that, I had placed it in the garage in Owego. Sometime in the early 1990’s, I stored it in the barn that was part of the house that my wife had owned in the years before we met.  The house was in Milford, PA.

I stood and stared and the memories came slowly at first and then I couldn’t stop them from filling my head with the past.

Was this the sled that my brothers tried to push me down the small hill behind our house in Owego?  There wasn’t much of a slope so I went nowhere until Chris or Denny ran behind me and pushed me onward.

That’s what brothers do.

Was this the sled that I took to a snowy hillside near Owego and jumped on behind Mary, my girlfriend, as we sailed through drifts of snow and patches of weeds and scrubs?  I don’t remember.

Was this the sled that came with me when I moved to a farm-house in the early 1970’s and I began my teaching career?  And also began a new role as a father to my 1 1/2-year-old girl, Erin?  I would take her on tours of the harvested cornfields that surrounded our lonely house on a snow-covered and wind-swept hill–pulling her behind me?

When I went ice skating with my brother Dan on a nearby frozen pond (before “they” broke the dam and drained the pond) and he was interested in film and I would pull them both while he filmed?  After Dan finished his project, I would skate backwards (I could, you know), pulling Erin on the toboggan and giving her a wicked swirl that would almost throw her sliding across the ice on her own.

The toboggan disappeared into the rafters of the slanted old garage behind our house in Owego–to be forgotten for years–with one exception.

I was informed of a great place to go tobogganing, the IBM Country Club in Endicott (or was it Endwell, NY)?  The golf course had a hill that was very popular.

So, one day in the mid-1970’s, we took the old sled down from my dad’s garage and headed for the slopes.  It proved to be a great place indeed.  Then I noticed that someone had built up a small snow bump.  I told Erin that before I would take her over it, I would have to first try it myself.

Off I went, toward the little bump.  The closer I glided toward the bump, the bigger it became.  When I hit it, I rose into the sky and felt I was going to land in someones backyard, across the river in Vestal.  I was airborne for what seemed like forty-five minutes, before I hit the ground.  The toboggan went one direction and my eye-glasses went another.  I simply came straight down onto the slope sliding in a third direction and feeling for broken bones before I came to an abrupt halt against a small tree.

“Mommy? Can Daddy do that again?” was all I could hear Erin cry out.

Was she kidding? My head buzzed for two days.

Back to my garage.  So there is the toboggan.  I had a fleeting thought about restoring it (once again) and mounting it on the wall in our screened-in porch.  It would require the removal of two antique snowshoes, but there are plenty of places on our walls to mount them in a new location. Ironically, the brand name stenciled in orange paint, on the curved bow reads: ADIRONDACK.

There’s a fair amount of dust on the old sled.  My best guess as to its age would be 90+ years.  But there’s one thing I am certain of; toboggans aren’t meant to gather dust.  Their made for the young and the old to ride on and scream from as it flashes past an old barn, an old tree or a fresh snowdrift.  They’re made to carry at least four adults, six kids and a metric ton of memories.

And, once it’s on the wall, I would never be asked to “do it again” on any slope, on any mountain or hill in the Adirondacks.

[The intended site of the restored toboggan]

 

 

Dead Man’s Bone

[Source: Google search]

This is not about a toothache as the photo suggests.  It’s about me walking around with 0.5 cc of granules of a dead persons bone in my gums (ignore the gender reference in the title.  It’s purely for dramatic effect.  I thought it sounded spooky).  For the next several months, my body is being tricked into recognizing these grains as being foreign to my body…and then, theoretically, form my own bone material in preparation for an implant.

Got that?  Hope so, because I barely get it.

When I turned seventy at the end of last May, no one took me aside and informed me that now I was going to have a new and more involved relationship with the dental profession.  No one spoke to me of crowns, broken fillings or implants.

All that’s changed now.  I just got home yesterday afternoon after having my third extraction since January.  Looking at me trying to force a smile, you wouldn’t take me for a neo-Nazi, a National Hockey League goalie or some survivalist named Skeeter living in an RV forty-five miles from downtown Las Vegas.  No, I’ve been pretty lucky with my teeth.  Up until January, I had all my real teeth (I still have my real teeth…most of them) despite the fact that I spent more than a few nickels at Harvey’s grocery store when I was a child.  The small change didn’t go into raisins or apples.  I was more interested in Mars bars, Milky Way bars and Tootsie Rolls.  Yes, I paid for it all with trips to the dentist (a guy who didn’t believe in Novocaine) and got my fair share of fillings.  At the time, it was a small price to pay for a candy bar.

A month or so ago, my regular dentist in Saranac Lake was in the process of replacing a cracked filling when he stopped and said: “This is worse than the x-ray showed.  You’re root is very deep.  This tooth needs to come out.”

So a month later I was sitting in an exam room of an oral surgeon in Lake Placid.  It was a sparsely appointed room.  There was the usual sink, etc, behind me and the light above my head.  On a shelf in the corner was a computer monitor with an x-ray of my mouth on the screen.  Somewhere amid the white dots (fillings) and a lot of gray stuff were the images of about five of my teeth.  One of those was coming out.

[My photo]

The walls of the room were green, but my wife is convinced I’m color blind, so they may have been brown.  I’ll never know.

After a check of my BP I was led into another room.  This one had a similar x-ray of my mouth, but there was more stuff around.  Soon I was nearly flat on my back with a light in my face that was so bright it made my eyes water.  Maybe the doctor thought I was crying.  More than likely I was.  My fear of dentists goes back to childhood.  In fact it probably pre-dates my birth.

[My photo]

“Any questions?” asked the surgeon.

I had opted for an implant at a later date so that meant I needed something to put into the empty hole in my gum.  Leaving a vacancy in my gums was not something wanted.  I’m certain it would affect my whistling of “Old Man River”.

I said: “You said earlier that the temporary ‘tooth’ was from a donor.  Would you walk me through the donor thing?”

In the back of my mind, I knew that people didn’t ‘donate’ teeth…while they were alive.

“Well,” the doctor said, “it’s really not a donated tooth.  It’s donated bone.”

“Like from a cadaver?” I tentatively inquired.

“Yes,” she said, keeping a straight face.

The top of the chair held my head in a tight position.  I tried to turn and look at the tray of instruments, but I was afraid I’d catch a glimpse of a pair of pliers from Home Depot.  Instead, I stared at the x-ray and silently bid farewell to my doomed tooth.  After all, we’ve been through a lot together.  The pain injections made my mouth feel like I looked like Quasimodo.  I touched my left lower lip expecting a flow of saliva like the dogs in Stephen King novels.

[For those of you who are still with me, the stuff she was going to pack the empty hole with is called “Mineralized Ground Cancellous.  250-1,000 microns].

“Can we start?”

[Source: Google search]

“I’m ready,” I said. For the dead person’s bone matter, I thought.

After the pain of the injections that was giving me the drug that was to stop the pain, it was all over in about twenty minutes.

It was rather a simple procedure…not like in the movies.

Now I’m on a liquid diet for a week or so.  The implant will come later.  I’m over the worst of it.

But I can’t stop thinking of who the donor was.  Was it someone I once knew?  Perhaps someone I dated?

It’ll keep me awake for a few nights.

Most things do.

 

The True Cost of a 5 cent Root Beer Barrel

This post has nothing at all to do with Pop Tarts.  I just put the photo out on Instagram and Facebook so it was handy to use.  Pardon the deceptive lead-in but I had no photos of Root Beer Barrels to use.  I could have Googled for one, but it’s nearly dinner time…and my time is valuable.

In the distant years of my past life, back in 1956 for instance, I would pay 25 cents for a ticket to the matinée at the Tioga Theater in Owego, NY.  This stopped a year or two later when my mother (bless her heart) enrolled me in piano lessons that began at 2:00 pm…just down Main Street from the theater…where all my friends were about to enjoy a Hopalong Cassidy triple feature and at least a dozen Disney cartoons.

But, when I went to the matinée, my favorite treat was a 5 cent box of Root Beer Barrels.  You can still buy these…I think.

Those little brown nuggets of sugar and flavor were pure ambrosia to me.

Until I started to go to the dentist, Dr. Lee, whose office was about halfway from St. Patrick’s School (where I was in elementary school) to what was then Harvey’s Grocery Store (later to become Craig Phelps’ super popular “Everybody’s Country Store”).

Well, to make a very long story a little shorter, I started getting childhood cavities (I’m not sure they flouridated the water then.)

Dr. Lee didn’t believe in Novocaine.  I suffered the typical pains of a child of the 50’s in the dentist chair.

So, recently, I had two extractions at Mount Sinai Hospital here in NYC.  I began to reflect how many times I had those original cavities filled and refilled.  It must have been quite a few because I’m still getting cavities redone…and I haven’t had a Root Beer Barrel in decades.

I would estimate that my dental care has cost me or my insurance company several thousand dollars to repair the damages caused by a 5 cent box of little hard candies.

I no longer eat hard candy…it might chip a tooth.  I’m going over to Godiva’s.

Can’t hurt at this point in my life.  But I miss those little chunks of cheap candy and the flavor bursts of Root Beer.

I might even try a Pop Tart.

Remorse And A Frozen Bottle Of Poland Springs: My Dinner With Chuck

Perhaps some of you remember a rather obscure film from several decades ago called My Dinner with Andre.  It was a really intense movie about two guys who have a conversation over dinner on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

A two-hour movie about two guys talking over dinner…’nap time’, you may think…but the film was brilliant (and nobody gets blown up or vaporized and there are no zombies).

What follows are a few recollections of My Dinner with Chuck:

~~~

beaconbeerchuck

I was sipping a Greenpoint IPA at the Beacon Bar on Broadway and 74th St.  I looked at my iPhone…twenty minutes to the end of happy hour.  I was waiting for my old friend, Chuck, from my home town, Owego, NY.  I saw him last at our 50th class reunion in September of 2015.  Before that, perhaps we crossed paths at a less significant reunion (although I believe all class reunions are significant life events)…I couldn’t remember.  The bottom line is that I haven’t really had time to speak with my friend in fifty years!

He lives in one of the Carolinas now…as do many of my class mates who moved to the south and mid-south to escape the rigors of New York State winters. His son (who lives in New Jersey) had scored tickets to the biggest hit on Broadway right now...Hamilton.

It was a matinée and Chuck said he’d love to meet up with me while I was in the City.  He had lived in the “hood” back in the 1970’s, so he knew the Beacon Theater and the adjacent bar.

I took another sip on the IPA.  I looked into a mirror on the column in front of me.  I see two guys walk in.  Heavy set…like Mafia hit men.  It was Chuck and his son.

We moved to a small table and chatted until my wife joined us a few minutes later.  Chuck looked great for his age and his son looked a Hollywood actor…like a young Jude Law.  Funny, but his son is a lawyer (Jude Law?? get it?).

Chuck’s son made a call and soon a female friend of his appeared.  She was a dentist.  I tried to show her my infected back molar but my wife stopped me from peeling my lip back too far.

The lawyer and the dentist went off and the three of us went to pick up a half-dozen slices of pizzas from a nearby joint.  We went back to our apartment and had a dinner of pizza and beer.  It wasn’t My Dinner with Andre, but we talked about so many things from so many years ago.  We discussed one important detail: who was the prettiest girl in the class of “65…we decided it was…(do you think I’m an idiot to tell you?…that’s our secret).  We never sang the Alma Mater but we recalled and exchanged memories that we had both forgotten…each in our own way.  We laughed and had several hours and several really good slices of pizza.

Chuck kept saying how great it was to get together…I agreed.

His son called and said he was busy for the night. Luckily for Chuck, we had an extra bed in the downstairs room.

We stuffed two pillows and found a duvet.  We sat at the top of a very scary spiral staircase and talked before I sent him down stairs for a good nights sleep.

chuckandme

I went into the fridge and found a bottle of frozen Poland Springs in the freezer.  I figured it would thaw in about twenty minutes and Chuck would have nice sips of ice water before he fell asleep.

Later, I sat up in bed…I had given my fine old friend a block of ice…it wasn’t going to thaw for an hour.  I felt guilty. I felt I let my friend down on one basic of hospitality…a drink of cool water.  A few minutes later I put my head back on my pillow and hoped he get up on time and connect with his son and get back to New Jersey.

He did.  He emailed a thank you note but didn’t mention the frozen bottle of water.

Will I ever do anything really right?  I fell asleep think of the way he described how delicious the cantaloupes were back when we were in high school.

Memories…old friends…these are the things that drive me to sit and write this at 1:30 in the morning.

The Winters Of My Life

garagepathsnow

“Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.  If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see.” 

–Robert Service. The Cremation of Sam Magee

I live in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York.  I don’t live in the Yukon.  But lately, I feel like the Yukon would be a bit more comfortable.  Am I living in Lapland or Spitzbergen or Thule…in lovely Greenland?

Don’t get me wrong.  Don’t misunderstand.  Don’t think I’ve lost my spirit and my love for wintertime.  I love snow.  I used to be able to skate backwards on the Brick Pond when I was young.  Remember the Brick Pond blog post?  Of course you do.  I have fond memories of the winters of my life.  My childhood girlfriend and I built a fantastic snowman in my front yard on Front Street after an unusual April snowstorm.  It was probably 1963.  In four days it was a pile of melted snow…like Frosty.  A birch tree grows in that place where the snowman stood and wasted away that April.

My brothers and I would play ‘Fox & Geese’ in our backyard on dark December evenings.  We’d make paths in the 18″ of snow, making figure 8’s and sharp turns…and then the game began.  It was a form of Tag, except you were expected to not just ‘tag’ someone…you would push them into the snow.

It was unbelievable fun.

And, we’d take our snowsuits off in the backroom and our faces were red and our clothes steamed from melting snow and sweat and our mother made hot chocolate and maybe popcorn while we changed clothes…into our flannel pajamas.  No hot chocolate or popcorn has tasted as good as it did on those winter nights in the 1950’s.

But, time moves on and bodies get older and the joy of moving snow has become a challenge that I can hardly face these days.  See the path to the garage?  I’ve shoveled such a path for sixteen years…at least (this is a rough guess) 30 times a year.  That makes an estimated 480 times I’ve pushed the shovel and threw the snow from the front porch to the garage door.  (I’d feel comfortable rounding that number up to 600).  Then came the carrying of the garbage and recycling bags.  Then I would walk into the garage where the bins are and find myself holding onto something to prevent my slipping on the frozen surface of the floor (from the melting of the snow from the car).

My back hurts in places I didn’t know existed.  I’ve learned all about the L3 and L4 that I will need surgery to correct my stenosis.  I think I may have had enough of the North Country winters.

I always believed that people needed four distinct seasons to keep one’s brain alive and enjoy the difference in weather.  In my hometown of Owego, NY, we had four seasons.  None of them went on too long…some of them like autumn were too short.  But, here in the Adirondacks there are five seasons. Sounds great, right?  Well it comes down to this:

  • A Long Winter
  • Mud
  • Bugs
  • A Short Summer
  • A Brief Autumn

I’ve checked my indoor/outdoor thermometer on a March night and saw that it was -38 F.  This was early in our years in the North Country.

“Mariam, let’s step outside and take a breath.  The inside of your nares will feel like pin pricks.”

“No,” she said.

“But it’s bracing, invigorating and stimulating,” I said.  “You never experienced this in Queens.” She stared at me for a moment probably wondering if I truly understood the word “NO”.  She went back to the warm sofa and picked up her book.

Clearly she didn’t fully understand the vibrant and visceral pleasures of walking our loop road when it’s forty below zero.  Sometimes I find her hard to understand.  What was her problem with a bit of a chill in the air?  It took me a year or two to fully get her point.

temp

[We never got around to setting this clock back an hour.  It’s really 11:20 on December 15 as I finish this blog. It’s expected to go down to -14 F in a few hours…but I can’t stay up that long. So take my word for it.]

I own more fleece than is legal.  I own enough wool to keep all the Irish Aran Island knitters in their due pint of Guinness.  I have seven pairs of gloves, none of which keeps my fingers from numbness.

So, without regret, we are relocating to New York City for about six months.  This is not because of my whining, mind you.  It’s a professional move on the part of my wife, Mariam.

This is a fantastic country here in the Adirondacks, but it’s a young person’s world.

The skiing is great on Whiteface this year, so I read.  But when your age is on the wrong end of the 60’s, I’d rather let someone else move the snow.

The weather in the City can be bitter in the winter when the wind blows off the Hudson, but I won’t have to shovel a path to put my garbage out or to get the newspaper.  All I have to worry about is the slush in the gutters that will be my challenge as I stroll up Broadway to Zabars for some Irish Cheddar and some salmon fillets.

And, if its way too awful to get out…I can always order take-out from a Chinese restaurant.

snow2000

[Mariam and I in front of our new home in 2000. Who would have guessed?]

Coal For Christmas

paul-egan-2-resized-copy

[Artwork:Watercolor sketch by Paul Egan (Date unknown)]

Another year and another chance for me to share this holiday post…

 I am a grandfather now, feeling every ache and sadness of my sixty-ninth year. The stories that my father told me about his father have taken on new meanings. I’m the old one now. I am the carrier of the family history. When a recollection of a family event comes to mind, be it a birthday party, a funeral, a wedding or a birth, I get my journal and I write with haste, in case I might forget something or get a name wrong or a date incorrect. Or, forget the event entirely.

This is especially true when the snow falls and the Christmas tree decorations are brought down from wherever they live during the summer. There is a certain melancholy mood that comes with the wintertime holidays. The sentiment of A Christmas Carol comes to mind. It is a time to listen to the winter wind blow, put a log on the fire, pour a little more wine and to recall and celebrate the memory of those who have passed on.

It’s time for a Christmas story. It’s time to think again about my family and how they lived their lives so many decades ago.

I was raised in the post-war years. My parents were not saying anything original when they would tell me, or my brothers, that we had to be good…very good…or Santa would not leave us a brightly wrapped present, red-ribboned and as big a box as a boy could hold. No, Santa would not leave such a wondrous thing. But he wasn’t so vengeful to leave nothing in our stocking. No, he would leave a lump of coal…if you deserved nothing more.

My father grew up poor.  Not the kind of poor where he would walk barefoot through ten inches of snow to attend school or go from house to house asking for bread.  It was just the kind of poor that would keep his father only one step ahead of the rent collector. Dad would often make a joke about poor he was as a child.

“I was so poor that I would get roller skates for Christmas but I would have to wait until the next year to get the key,” he would say with a sly smile. It was a joke of course…wasn’t it?

His parents provided the best they could, but, by his own admission, he was raised in the poverty that was common in rural America in the 1920’s.  My grandfather and my grandmother should be telling this story.  Instead, it came to me from my own dad and it was usually told to his four sons around the time it came to bundle up and go out, find and cut a Christmas tree. I heard this story more than once when it was cold and snowy in the 1950’s. In the years when my father was a child, the winters were probably much colder and the snow ever deeper.

It was northeastern Pennsylvania. It was coal country and my grandfather was Irish.  Two generations went down into the mines. Down they would go, every day before dawn, only to resurface again long after the sun had set.  On his only day off, Sunday, he would sleep the sleep of bones that were weary beyond words.

Because of some misguided decision on his part, my grandfather was demoted from mine foreman to a more obscure job somewhere else at the pit.  Later in life, he fell on even harder times and became depressed about his inability to keep his family, two boys and two girls, comfortable and warm.  It all came crashing down, literally, when their simple farmhouse burned to the foundation.  After seeing his family safely out, the only item my grandfather could salvage was a Hoover.  My father could describe in minute detail how he stood next to his dad and watched him physically shrink, slump and then become quiet.  He rarely broke the silence after that and died in a hospital while staring mutely at a wall.

But all this happened years after that special Christmas Eve that took place in my father’s boyhood.

It was in the early 1920’s.  The four children were asleep in a remote farmhouse my grandparents rented.  Sometime after mid-night, my father woke up to a silence that was unusual and worrisome.  It was too quiet.  There were no thoughts of Santa Claus in my father’s mind that night—the reality of their lives erased those kinds of dreams from his childhood hopes. There was no fireplace for Santa to slide down.

He pulled on a heavy shirt and slipped out of bed.  The floor felt unusually cold against his socks.  He crept down the stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up, talking and keeping warm beside the coal stove.   But the room was empty and the coal fire was burning low.  The only light was from a single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling on a thin chain.  My father noticed the steam of his breath each time he exhaled.  He called out.

“Mom? Dad?”

He heard nothing.  He pushed his cold feet into cold shoes that were six sizes too large.  Shuffling over to the door, he cracked it open to a numbing flow of frigid outside air.  In the snow there were two sets of footprints leading down the steps and then behind the house.  He draped a heavier coat over his shoulders and began to follow the prints.  A pale moon helped light the way. The tracks led across a small pasture and through a gate.  From there the trail went up a low hill and faded from his sight.  He followed the trail.  Looking down at the footprints he noticed that they were slowly being covered by the wind driving the snow into the impressions.  A child’s fear swept over him.  Were the young kids being abandoned?  It was not an uncommon occurrence in the pre-Depression years of rural America.

In his young and innocent mind, he prayed that the hard times hadn’t become that hard. But deep within, he knew of his parents’ unconditional love and concern. He knew he and his brother and sisters were cherished and loved.

He caught his fears before they had a chance to surface. His parents were on a midnight walk, that’s all.

At the top of the hill, he saw a faint light from a lantern coming from a hole near the side of the next slope.  He slowed his pace and went to the edge of the pit not knowing what he would see. He looked down.

He knew this pit from summertime games, but it was a place to be avoided in the winter. The walls were steep and it would be easy to slip in the snow and fall the dozen or so feet to an icy bottom. The children never went into that field after the hay was cut and the autumn leaves had fallen and the snow began to drift.

He dropped to his knees and peered over the edge.

At the bottom of the small hole were his parents, picking fist-sized lumps of coal from a seam that was exposed on the hillside.  They had nearly filled a bucket with the chunks of black rock.  They looked up, quite surprised, and saw my father standing a few feet above them.  They looked back at each other with a sadness that was heart-breaking.  They certainly didn’t want to be caught doing this in front of one of the kids, not on Christmas Eve.  They stared at each other and then up at my dad.

“Boy,” my grandfather said, “The kitchen stove is empty.  Come on down and help us get a few more lumps, will ya?”

My father was helped down and after only a few minutes his hands were black from the coal.  The bucket was filled.  They helped each other out of the pit and walked back to the house together. My father and his father carried the bucket between them.

In a very short time the coal stove was warming up again.  My father sat up with his parents until they finished their coffee and the house was warmed a few degrees.  Dad kissed his mother and father and went upstairs to bed. He fell asleep, he always would say, with a smile on his face.

Twenty some years after the midnight trip to the coal pit, my parents and my two older brothers moved to Owego, New York. I was born two years later, in 1947.

. . .

When I was a young boy, my father took me aside one Christmas Eve.  I had not been a very good boy that day, and I was afraid.  Neither of my parents, however, had mentioned the threat that would be used to punish a child if you were naughty and not nice.

My fear left me. Father’s voice was warm and full of understanding.

“Pat,” he said, “If anyone tells you that you will get a lump of coal in your stocking if you’re not a good boy. Tell them: ‘I hope so,’ then wish them a very Merry Christmas.”

dad-farm-picture-original-enlarged

[Artwork: Unfinished watercolor sketch by Paul Egan (Date unknown)]