Reading Lamp

[The Ideal Reading Lamp.  Photo source: Me.]

Other than a wind storm that blew in a window in our screened-in porch, downed branches and howled like a demon on Bald Mountain, there really isn’t very much to write about these days.  I should note that the aforementioned window has not been removed, for cleaning or otherwise, by us in several summers.  It was simply too stuck to remove.  Perhaps the house has shifted on its foundation over the years moving the windows (plastic inserts, really) into misalignment.

Whatever.  The wind took care of all that last night.  To make matters even more difficult, the power went out while we were struggling in the frigid porch.  At one point, I felt like Captain Blood battling with the mainsail in a typhoon off the coast of Tasmania.  I felt like Heathcliff on the Yorkshire Moors.  I felt like Scott in the Antarctic.  I felt like Sir Edmund on the summit of Everest.  I felt like Dorothy during the tornado in Kansas.

I felt like all these people, but it was only me and Mariam on a freezing evening in April.

Life in the North Country.

Life in the North Country. There is the ever-present darkness, arriving early in the winter but not soon enough in the early spring.  A very fine segue, if I say so myself, to bring up and write about reading lamps.

Go ahead.  Google “Reading Light”.  You will come up with hundreds of choices from places like Lowe’s, Wal-Mart, Amazon and L.L.Bean.  And the lights themselves?  The designs will look like something from Captain Kirk’s room, a toddler’s bedside stand, a bordello in New Orleans or from a dark corner in the recesses of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

All of those models shown are functional, to a point.  Most of them are of fine quality.  Some, absolute works of art.  But it’s what they have in common that’s interesting.

They dispel the darkness and allow you to pull a Kindle, iPhone or even, heaven forbid, a book made of paper up to your chest and put you in touch with the written word.

For me, there’s an added factor.  I have an innate fear of the dark.  My reading lamp allows me to exist in a cone of light where I am safe.  Where nothing can get to me from under the bed.  Where I can doze and wake and still see around me…into the dark corners where dark things of all sorts and sizes dwell.

I can lean into my latest New Yorker magazine, my newest copy of a Jo Nesbo mystery.  Perhaps I’ll read a few more pages of Proust (I’m determined to read The Book while I can still breath).  Maybe I’ll dig deep enough into the pile beside my bed and find the second book of the Hornblower series.

During the course of my reading life, I’ve gone through dozens of lamps.  It’s hard to believe, but I’ve only found a handful that suit me and my needs.  As I grow older, I find I need more light, but I can’t use the large lamp on my nightstand…Mariam is asleep only a few inches away.

There’s always the old stand-by, my headlamp.  It’s the way I read when I’m camping and don’t want to risk the more romantic candle in a tent with down sleeping-bags.  And who can really read by candlelight, anyway?  Maybe Abraham Lincoln…and look where it got him.  Besides, a headlamp leaves a reddish mark around my forehead.  I can’t get up and wander to the bathroom at 3:30 am looking like I just had a cranial tattoo done in a shop off Sunset Strip.

The lamp I am presently using is an older high-intensity light. These lights pre-dated the LED’s that are so commonplace today.  The only drawback to this lamp (it provides great illumination) is that it gets hot.  So hot, that if I accidentally touch the area near the bulb with oven mittens, I will burn off three layers of my epidermis.  And, I can tell you from experience that one will have trouble sleeping with the odor of burnt human flesh in the bedroom.

This is the lamp I now use:

[My reading lamp.  I had to turn the build away to keep it from blowing out the camera in my iPhone.  Photo source: It is obviously mine.  Do you think I would let some stranger in to take a picture of my light at 12:39 am?]

In our guest bedroom is a typical Adirondack-themed reading lamp.  I have no idea if any of our house guests read at night…but we provide one anyway.  For me, the cone of light is too small to fully illuminate my book.  It looks cute but I would rate its functionality at 4/10.

[Guest bedroom reading lamp.  Photo source: Me.]

To put the light out on this blog post, I can say that my favorite reading lamp (pictured at the top of this post) is both esthetically beautiful, functional, simple and gentle on my eyes.

The problem is: it’s located in a small hotel in Knowlton, Quebec, Canada.

And, I don’t steal things.

 

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NASA Director Sends Wife To The Moon

[A rare photo of the then Mr. Kramden, with wife, Alice and neighbor, Edward Norton. (ca. late 1950’s). Source: Google search]

Washington, D.C.

The Chief of NASA, Dr. Ralph Kramden, has big plans to celebrate his wife’s birthday.  He intends to send her, literally  to the earth’s only satellite, the moon.

A short time ago, Dr. Kramden finally succeeded in making a large sum of money on a project, that together with his friend and neighbor, Mr. Edward Norton, had been working on for many years.  With his new-found wealth, Mr. Kramden enrolled in the Aerospace Department of the University of Brooklyn.  He eventually earned his doctorate by emerging himself in cutting edge research regarding the legendary and elusive propellent factor utilizing the positive spin of the negative Higgs-Boson particle coupled with the entropic variations of the magnetic properties of the Fermion and Charm quarks when related to the Absolute Zero behaviors of the graviton particle in zero gravity isolation.

This was a continuation of his sixth grade science fair project he presented when he attended The Town School in Manhattan.

The news of the intended lunar mission came on the heels of President Donald Trump’s public dedication of his deep-seated interest in research into such topics as climate change, evolution and space exploration.

“I am signing this Executive Order to relocate $15,000,000,000 to pure scientific endeavors…good things…for scientists…great people…for the pure joy of knowledge even if there is no immediate monetary return.  I remember hearing that we have laptops because of the space program…good stuff,” said the President at a recent news conference.

“Now, with this funding, I can give my wife, Alice, what I’ve always promised her.  I used to tease her when we lived at our old apartment at 328 Chauncey Street in Bensonhurst that someday it was going to be ‘Bang, Zoom…to the moon!'” said Dr. Kramden.  He was flanked at the press conference, held appropriately at the Air & Space Museum on the Capital Mall, by Alice and his Associate Director, Dr. Edward Norton (Sanitation Specialist for the International Space Station).

The Marine Band stood below him on the white marble steps.  When he completed his prepared statement, the band began playing Dr. Kramden’s own composition, You’re My Greatest Love.

When Dr. Kramden turned to his future astronaut-wife, he was heard by many to whisper: “Baby, you’re the greatest.”

This reporter had difficulty finding a dry eye in the crowd of 12,000 who had gathered in the heavy rain to hear the historic announcement for themselves.

This is a great day for America and a great day for Brooklyn!

 

BREAKING NEWS: Cartoon “bad boy” Goes Berserk–Pictures At Eleven

[Source: Google search. Copyright:North American Syndicate]

So, this will likely be the last story I will file in my so-called stellar career as a reporter.  I pulled the night shift of all things…at my age!  I’m standing in the drizzle on the safe side of the police crime scene tape.  It’s yellow, just like in all those crimes shows on TV (which is where I get most of my action these days).  As I approached the back-end of the small neighborhood crowd, I noticed my left shoe was having problems of its own in making a smooth step a reality.  I leaned against a dead elm tree, actually the only tree left on the block, and hiked my foot up to see my sole.  Just as I suspected.  I had stepped on a well done wad of Bazooka chewing gum.  I scraped my shoe against the broken cement of the sidewalk but it just made the situation worse.  I gave up and turned my attention to the modest white single family house at 2251 Pine Street.  This section of Wichita had seen better days, even for Kansas.

I sidled up to a guy I used to work with at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans back in the day.

“So, wudda we got here, Sid?”

“Hey Clyde,” he said, “nice to see you in these parts.  Way too hot in the Big Easy, don’t you think?”

“August in Kansas is no Spring-time in England,” I replied wearily.  “So, wudda we got?”

“You got lucky tonight, Clyde.  That’s him inside.  He just came to the window and yelled something like: “I can’t take it anymore…it’s too crazy a world for a kid like me.”

“Whose ‘him’? I asked yawningly.

“It’s Dennis ‘the menace’ Mitchell in there.  He’s holding his parents hostage.  Apparently he has a jazzed up sling-shot.  He’s sixty-eight now.  His poor parents are in their nineties.”

[The only known photo of the Mitchell family. (ca. The Good Old Days). Source: Google search & Wikipedia]

“THE Dennis ‘the menace’? Bad boy of our youth?  I used to follow his antics every day in the whatever paper I was working.  This is the kid with the yellow hair, right?”

“There’s only one Dennis The Menace, Clyde.  You know that.”

Sid looked back at the house that was now flooded with police lights.  It looked like a movie site in Levittown.

I noticed some action behind one of the patrol cars.  A slightly heavy-set man with gray hair was being handed a bullhorn.  He pulled the trigger like the cop told him and he spoke into the back-end of the handheld megaphone.

“Dennis! It’s Mr. Wilson, your old neighbor.  Please end this now and come out.  Nobody will hurt you.  You won’t be made to sit in the corner any more.  Come out!  Put the sling-shot down and step away from the window.  They have sharpshooters out here.  I don’t want you to get hurt.  You can call me lazy as much as you’d like.  Just come out.  It’ll be like the old days, all over again.”

Mr. Wilson seemed out of breath when he lowered the speaker.

“It’ll never be like the old days…again.  It’s been too long.”

I turned to the voice behind me.  In the glare of the floodlights I saw a middle-aged woman wearing a clear plastic raincoat and a tattered babushka over her gray hair.  She was lighting a new Marlboro from the fading glowing ash of an old Marlboro that had been smoked to within 2 mm’s of the filter.  I turned away from Sid and approached the woman.  She leaned against the dead elm and blew a perfect smoke ring through the rain.

“Hey, I know you,” I said as I got so close to her I felt like I was back on the Marlboro wagon again, except I preferred Lucky’s myself.  “Yeah, I know you.  You’re Margaret.  Margaret Wade.  You and the kid in there used to be childhood friends.  He thought you were a bit too ‘uppity’ for him but you always told him you two would be married when you grew up.”

She looked me over like an odds maker at Aqueduct and I was the underdog.  (Guess I still am but that’s another story).

[Artists rendering of Dennis in the corner.  Source: Google & Wikipedia]

“Yeah, we was gonna be together one of these years but things just didn’t work out.  After I got knocked-up in high school and had to drop out things went down hill faster than a Buick going over the edge of El Cap in Yosemite.  Ever see Thelma and Louise?”

I shrugged.  “Who were they? A vaudeville act?” I asked.

“Forget it,” she said resigningly.  “Besides, he preferred the Mediterranean type.  He got serious with Gina Gillotti but she called off the engagement when she met a guy who owned an auto upholstery dealership in Fresno.”

She looked toward the house.

“I shudda waited, played for time, waited for his hurt to heal.  Then maybe we could have made some kind of life together.  But, no.  I had to be me.  I had to have the biggest sedans and the best Chianti any kind of money could buy.  Now, it’s too late.  They’ll talk him into coming out.  Then they’ll send him to an institution where he can play with his invisible dog, Ruff and that strange cat, Hot Dog.  They’ll let him eat all the cookies and drink all the Root Beer he wants.  They won’t force him to choke down any carrots or even take any baths.  That’s the way it’ll be.”

I kept the eye contact.

“Was he really that bad?  I mean he was just being a little kid full of mischief, right?”

“You got it, stranger.  Nobody really understood him…except me.  And now he’ll never know that.”

She took a long drag on the Marlboro.  I noticed a bit of moisture on her eyelid.  It wasn’t the rain.

“You know, he meant well, he really did.  I felt sorry for the trouble he caused his folks.  Henry, his dad, was forced out of the aerospace engineering work he did when his company outsourced all that talent.  His poor mother, Alice left Henry once.  Nobody knows that.  She went back to the farm she was raised on to take care of her father.  She stayed after his funeral.  She had a mini-breakdown when she thought of going back to that rascal boy of hers…and this ‘hood.”

“Well, it’s been nice talking to you, Mr. Whatever.  I gotta make it over to the Pink Slipper before happy hour is over.  Happy Hour. What a laugh.  The Good Old Days.  Real funny.  I need some me-time right now.  Like I haven’t had enough of me all these years.  Yeah, I gotta go and have a chat with some ghosts I know.”

She tossed the butt to the broken cement that passed for a sidewalk and twisted it out with the ball of her red stilettos.

“Hey, you don’t have too much gray hair, care to join me for a high-ball?”

I looked at her and then back at the floodlit house.

I let her slide her arm through mine.  We felt brave and walked through a puddle without going all the way around.  I guess that’s my life…going around the long way and never being brave.

Behind me I heard cheering and applause.

“He’s coming out.  Stand down everyone!” shouted the Captain.  “He’s not going to be any trouble to anyone anymore.”

From somewhere, far away and faint, I would swear to this day that I heard a small boy cry out.  I heard:

“Maggie! Come back!”

But, I knew Maggie wasn’t going back.  There’s no going back for any of us.  All those years…all those calendars are  gone now.

[The sketch that may have started the hostage incident. Source: Google & Wikipedia]

 

 

 

 

Breaking News: Chubby Checker Slightly Overweight But Not “Chubby”

[Photo: Google search]

Washington, D.C.

In a stunning announcement, Dr. Rudolph Rowbottom of the National Institute of Health (NIH), has shocked the music world and exploded a decades-old myth shattering the common knowledge concerning the pop star, Chubby Checker.

“Yes, Keith Richards is most likely clinically dead, but we’re here to discuss a real legend of music, Mr. Chubby Checker”, said Dr. Rowbottom, 63, in an exclusive interview after a crowded news conference held under a slate-gray sky and a persistent and annoying drizzle that was punctuated by an occasional snow shower that fell earthward from nimbo-stratus clouds while standing on the steps outside the NIH headquarters just outside of the Nation’s Capital.  His red-headed research assistant, a Miss Lola Cotton, 19, held a chartreuse umbrella that was decorated with the movie logo of Jaws over Dr. Rowbottom’s thinning gray hair.

“Thanks to the famous Height/Weight Charts developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, my assistant and I, along with our crack research team, have determined that Mr. Checker was merely slightly overweight and not chubby as indicated by his nickname.  His height is not available in any public records but from various album covers and YouTube videos of him on American Bandstand, we have concluded that he is approximantely 5’10”.  That, of course is an estimation that lies clearly within the boundaries of the Standard Deviation.  Mr. Checker, upon being asked his name by the wife of Dick Clark after his first recording session, answered: ‘My friends call me Chubby'”.

(Mr. Checkers official weight is unavailable to the public and subject to doctor/patient confidentiality rules as well as HIPPA.)

“Ironically, he had just completed an impression of Fats Domino, when Clark’s wife replied: ‘As in Checkers?’  Instantly seeing a play on words, “checkers” and “dominoes” and “Fats” and “Chubby”, the pop star took the moniker and has been using that name for decades.  It certainly sounds better than Ernest Evans, which was his birth name.  Pardon me, but Ernest Evans sounds like a dairy farmer from Ohio,” Dr. Rowbottom concluded.”

Cutting reporters off in mid-question, Dr. Rowbottom and Miss Cotton hastened to a waiting limousine and drove away into the foggy afternoon towards Maryland.

As a reporter who was present at the briefing, I can add the following known facts about the legendary musical icon: Mr. Checker then went on to record a cover of The Twist (1960) which was first released in 1959 by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters.  Chubby’s version instantly went to the top of the charts.  He became the “go to” guy for dance crazes like the haunting and immortal Hucklebuck, a dance still done at reunions of high school classes of 1960-1965 (with varying degrees of accuracy and physical agility).

In a little known footnote of pop music history, Mr. Checker was a childhood friend of the teen idol from Philadelphia, Fabiano Forte, who later became known professionally as Fabian.

Mr. Checker was born on October 3, 1941 in Spring Gully, South Carolina.  One is left to wonder why he never went into country music, following in the footsteps of Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton.

Yes, one wonders…until one realizes that few African-Americans went into country music in the late ’50’s.

Besides, I don’t think Dolly Parton sold as many 45’s as did Mr. Checker.

And, in 1961, when I entered high school and began to twist the night away at sock hops in the Owego Free Academy gym, I never heard a Dolly Parton song.

[Photo source: Google search]

 

 

 

 

 

My 400th Blog!

 

[Hi, I’m Fluffy. Remember me? My human, Pat, has used me in other posts in shameless attempts to peddle one of his books.  I hope you like this one. You see, Pat suffers from severe Post Holiday Blues and if he doesn’t get a lot of likes and comments…well, I may have to be sent out to pasture, if you get my drift.  Photo source: Google search.]

 

Writing four hundred blogs is not an easy thing to do.  Even if you’re retired and have little else to fill your time.  It’s an accomplishment of which I am proud.  Some bloggers have written thousands…some have written three.  I know how easy it can be for some people and much harder for others.

Back in the late 1990’s, I taught at the Town School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  One afternoon, the technology teacher, Al Doyle, mentioned to me that he wrote ‘blogs’.

“Blogs?”, I said.  “What are they?”

“Anything you want them to be,” he answered.

I listened and learned.

Sometimes the words would come easy to me and, on more than one occasion, I struggled with ways to communicate my thoughts and feelings.  Some bloggers have chosen ‘themes’ to address, such as marital problems, eating disorders, benefits of certain health foods, conspiracy theories, political rants and self-absorbed musings that interest only the writer.

I have chosen to go my own way.  I have no theme.  I write about topics that interest, amuse, fascinate, intrigue and beguile me.  I have experimented with various writing styles and subjected my readers to topics that some would consider morbid or overly maudlin and sentimental.

But, that’s me.  What you read is who I am and that is what you get.

I published my first blog on July 15, 2012.  It was an excerpt from my novel “Standing Stone”.  Since then, I have taken my readers on two cross-country road trips and a partial winter in Fort Myers, Florida when I learned to sail.  I’ve shared my experiences at a rodeo in Yuma, a hike in Zion National Park, a stroll among the sand dunes of Death Valley, a frightening drive pulling our RV into the Yosemite Valley, a Thanksgiving in Orting, WA., a month in Joshua Tree, CA., and several trips to Europe.

I’ve shared memories about childhood sweethearts, meetings with childhood friends and even wrote about the first woman who ever saw me in my life…the doctor who delivered me in a Binghamton hospital on May 31, 1947.

I shared the birth of my grandson and celebrated the lives of my son, Brian, my daughter, Erin and my wife Mariam.

One of my favorite posts was titled “The Brick Pond”.  It recalled childhood innocence and the coming of adulthood.

The blog that was the favorite of my readers was called “This Old House”.  In this, I attempted to convey the sorrow of handing over the keys to the house that I grew up in, a house that was in our family for over fifty years.

I sincerely hope that you, my readers, have enjoyed reading these 400 musings from a humble and insecure writer…myself.

I hope I live long enough to celebrate an 800th blog, or even a 1,000 posting.

Let’s hope.

 

[Source: Google search.]

Joshua Tree Diary: Christmas in the Desert

[Desert view outside Joshua Tree. Photo is mine.]

This is where it all began, right?  I don’t mean California…I mean the desert.

The Nativity story is set in the desert; much like the one I see from my bedroom window.  Very much like it, except that desert, with the Star, is half a world away.

Two years ago, we celebrated this season in Fort Myers, Florida.  There, the temperatures were in the low 90’s.  I remember wearing shorts and sitting outside my favorite Java cafe, sipping an iced coffee.  I had to position myself at an outdoor table so I could catch the AC’d air rolling out of the brand name outlets.  The palm trees were wrapped in holiday lights, Bing Crosby was singing on the PA system, shoppers were hurrying into Bass, or Tommy…but the feel of the season wasn’t inside me.  Red and green lights and Bing didn’t fulfill the images on Christmas cards.

Now, this year, we are enjoying the high desert of Joshua Tree, 29 Palms, Yucca Valley and the Mojave Desert.  And, it’s chilly if not downright cold.  Yet I know there’ll be no white Christmas here this year.

It’s hard to imagine experiencing the Yule without even the probability of several inches of white powder.  That’s because I was raised in Upstate New York, where snow was mostly guaranteed.  I built snow-people, skated with my childhood friends and tobogganed the longest slopes I could find.  I studied the crystals of the flakes when I caught one on my mitten.  I believe it’s true that no two snowflakes are alike.

But deserts are alike in many ways.  Strange and exotic plants, sand, crying coyotes and the limitless sky…filled with stars and a crescent moon.

Ironically, though, it’s here, in the California desert, that I can feel the true sense of the Nativity story.  When you’re raised with religious images of Joseph and Mary traveling across the desert, it’s hard to meld that into a backyard in New York, twelve inches of snow and a snow person.  I’ve never traveled to the deserts of the Middle East so I can’t speak to the winters there, but I can’t believe that the winter in the Holy Land is much different than it is here.

True, they probably don’t have storefronts like these:

[Souvenir shop. Photo is mine.]

Or,

[Storefront lights in Joshua Tree.  Photo is mine.]

But, maybe they do.

I can imagine the solitude, the expansive star-filled sky…and the silent peace that fills those scenes we were raised with, in the pages of the Bible.

About an hour from where I write this, a raging fires is destroying hundreds of thousands of acres near Santa Barbara.  Peoples lives will be ruined.  No holiday cheer for them.

No fires will come to the desert.  There’s nothing much to burn.  It’s vacant and austere backed up by isolation and loneliness.  That’s the way deserts are.  Places to get lost and places to stand and contemplate the ways of the world and to confront the Great Empty.  That’s when you find that the Empty is not only a physical description of a desert…but also of your own mind.  The Desert Fathers of the Old Testament sought these places out.  The three great religions of the West were founded in the sands.

How different the high desert is.  There is, outside my window, all of the above (along with our rented Toyota), but there is something missing.  Beyond our sandy yard, beyond the Welcome to Joshua Tree sign, beyond the glow of Palm Springs and Los Angeles…something is dreadfully missing.

The peace.  Where is the peace and love that the whole Nativity narrative implies?

It’s just not there.

[Note to my readers: The next post is very special to me.  Please take time to read and comment on it.]

 

 

 

Coal For Christmas

Paul Egan #2 copy 2

Note to my readers: If you think you’ve read this blog before, don’t thing you’re getting senile…(the doctors won’t release such information)..this is perhaps the third, maybe fourth time I’ve posted it.  Hey, maybe I’m the one getting senile.  I’ve tweaked the story several times to try to make the narrative better, clearer and more truthful.  This is not a made up story by me.  It really happened.  

It’s another year and another chance for me to share this holiday memory…Happy Holidays to you all!

I am a grandfather now, feeling every ache and sadness of my sevienth 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.  It is a time 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 any 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.  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 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 never 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 pushed his cold feet into cold shoes that were six sizes too large, and went down stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up 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.  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.  They 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.

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 ten or so feet to an icy bottom.  The children never went into the field with the pit after the autumn leaves fell.

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.  At their feet was a tin bucket that was half filled with 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.  After glancing at each other once, they looked up at my dad.

“Boy,” my grandfather said, “The 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.”

 

[Watercolor sketches by Paul Egan. Date unknown.]

[NOTE TO MY READERS:  Today is December 20, 2017.  If you enjoyed this post (again) please keep an eye out for a special blog that will be out just after Christmas.  You’ll know how special it is to me when you read it.  Have a happy holiday…whatever you celebrate.]