Can I really believe this guy? Christmas 1948.

Earliest Christmas Memories

by Juan Wilson ©1999 The Gobbler: Winter Crystal

My earliest Christmas memories go back to 1948. At that time my father was completing his medical residency at Memorial Hospital in New York, and was being paid $120 a month for the privilege. Due to the bad pay and terrible hours, my parents decided that to save money my mother, my sister Diana and I would live with "The Folks" in New Jersey, while my father got what sleep and food he could grab at the hospital.

"The Folks" were my mother's parents and they had grown up here in Panama, New York. After free lancing as teachers out West they settled down in New Jersey. They were teachers and administrators at the Liberty Corners School in Liberty Corners, New Jersey.

Our house was on the school grounds and was offered by the community as a residence for the school's principal. Early on my grandfather had been principal, and later, after my grandmother got her graduate degree from New York University, she was principal.



School principal's residence in Liberty Corners, NJ. School in left background.

The house was separated from the school by the elementary playground. We got to the house on a cinder driveway that passed behind the house and ended in the garage building out back.

The coal truck used that cinder driveway to access the coal scuttle at the back of the house. Down in the basement there was always a big pile of black sooty coal under the scuttle. I remember my grandfather, shovel in hand, feeding the furnace.

After the coal was burned it left a heap of ashes and cinders and it was my grandfather's task to take that dusty load out behind the garage for burial. It was all very messy and I was cautioned to stay away by my mother and grandmother, but I liked flickering light and clanging metal that accompanied work around the furnace. It brought to mind working on a locomotive.

It was a hot air furnace and despite the fire below our feet the house was always drafty and cold, particularly upstairs. In the living room next to the stairway was a large square metal register. This register returned air to the basement from all over the house.

Scraps from my grandmother's Christmas past found in a drawer.

The register was an open steel grill and I didn't like walking on it or even being near it. Strange sounds came from the grill and many of my things had been lost to it. Everything from some colored crayons to my cherished Quaker Puffed Rice Cannon Ring. I got the ring from a radio show offer and was delighted to find that it worked. It was spring activated and was designed to shoot Quaker Puffed Rice.

My parents and I in front of the radio in 1946

There was no TV yet and this was the Golden Age of radio. We all huddled around a large wooden Zenith radio that was as large as a chest of drawers. It was a rich imaginary world filled with drama comedy and best of all... melodrama. I especially liked the inside of that radio. There were a few spots around grills and at the back of the case that you could look through to the inside of the cabinet. There were a bunch of hot glowing vacuum tubes inside that looked like the modern skyscrapers of a city of the future seen at night. It seemed to me that the inside of the radio had more to to with my idea of the future than what I saw outside the windows of our house.


My grandparents' Christmas card from long ago

My grandmother had beautiful lights for her Christmas tree. They were tapered glass cylinders with a pointy top. I guess they was supposed to be shaped like candles or icicles. The inside of the tubes were filled with alcohol that was dyed bright yellow, orange, green red, or blue. Each glass "candle" was seated in a green Bakelite vessel that looked like a little flying saucer.

Inside the vessel was a concealed light that illuminated and heated the alcohol to the boiling point. This caused a stream of shiny bubbles to rise in a column up each of the the glowing glass cylinders. The effect was magical. The fluid inside the glass looked like delicious carbonated fruit drinks. They sure got hot.

Although my grandfather was the son of the minister back in upstate New York, most people didn't think of my grandparents as religious. My grandmother was, if not an atheist, at least a quietly practicing agnostic. My grandfather seemed to like to argue theological points with my dad more than actually practicing religion. All that was fine with me.

Woodcut print card made by my mom depicting neighborhood church

One of the few occasions, like Easter and Christmas, that we did attend the church just a couple of doors down the block, I would get fidgety. It all seemed so boring and endless and serious. We would be there for what seemed like hours while they filled the building with a warm fuzzy sleeping gas. When we got back out for the cold evening walk home the air seemed so clean and crisp.

Damage in Liberty Corners after Christmas 1948. Our church is in the right background.

That house in Liberty Corners would get cold at night. When I woke in the mornings, it was always cold upstairs. A year earlier I had seriously endangered myself due to that cold. That event was the earliest memory I have. I was left in my crib to sleep through a cold night. I had a multicolored crocheted blanket that my grandmother had made for company, but it wasn't enough. There was a lamp I could reach on the adjacent night stand. I pulled the lamp into the crib. Somehow I got the shade off and rolled the bright lamp into my blanket to keep me warm. By the time my mother and grandmother found me crying I had been burned and there was a smoking blackened stain in the blanket.

Me in the crib in February 1947

Another memory was of a special morning when I was a bit older. It was Christmas and I was excited. Even though it was early, it was very bright from a fresh snowfall reflecting off the ceiling. I had to get downstairs to see what was under the tree. Someone had already lit the tree and it was bubbling with bright colors. Under it was a beautiful red train set. A red locomotive, a coal car and some freight cars followed by a red caboose. They were modern and streamlined. This train set was the same gauge as the Lionel Train system but it wasn't electrical or plastic... It was heavy steel and mechanically driven.

Inside the locomotive was a stiff wind-up spring that powered the train. There was a small wooden wheel inside the smokestack that was wrapped in something gritty like sandpaper. This little wheel also lined up with a hole in the front of the locomotive that represented its headlight. That evening my dad turned off all the lights except those on the tree. When the train was powered by the spring the little wheel spun and scraped a piece of flint and shot sparks up and out the smokestack and lit up the headlight as the train raced around under the tree.

My 1948 Christmas present as it looks today.

Over the years I lost everything but the locomotive. When I was twelve, I ran it on my electric Lionel tracks. When I applied juice from the power transformer the old metal wind-up train shorted out the tracks and left a huge rooster tail of electric sparks behind it.

I still have the locomotive. It ran until I was in my thirties and I over-wound the spring while showing it to my son. In my forties I repainted it with red spray enamel. Now in my fifties the red engine sits on a filing cabinet near my computer. It's my oldest toy.