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
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
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
Scraps from my grandmother's Christmas past found in a
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
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
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
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
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
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