Wednesday, December 25, 2013


I’ve been told I have a good memory. Actually, I’d qualify that statement and say I have a good memory for stories from the distant past. I’m hopeless at memorizing poetry, lyrics, passages from books, quotes, etc.—a dangerous thing for a newsman and non-fiction writer, which is why I’ve always had to take abundant notes and frequently look things up to check facts.
But I even amaze myself, sometimes, at how I can trigger a memory from twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more years ago, and it will come back to me, not as a story, but as a special brand of video clip, a sort of dream-clip, if you will, in which not only the images are there, but also the sounds, smells and the exact feelings and mindset with which I experienced those scenes at the time. In fact, I can actually “time-travel” to that era, and experience those past times exactly as they were, or at least as they were for me, before the world changed and became the new state of mind that it is today. (I sometimes wonder if this isn’t precisely how the elderly eventually get trapped in their own past, in a sometimes blissful, sometimes anxious state, much like a dream that can suddenly turn nightmare, and that others describe as “dementia”, when observed from the outside).
Actually, I can remember certain scenes vividly as far back as when I was three or a little before. That’s why yesterday, on Christmas Eve, as I was trying to recall the first Christmas that sticks in my mind, I was at first a little surprised to find that it wasn’t until I was five that this holiday, so special to Christian-reared children, managed to make a lasting impression on me. But after I gave it some thought, I realized why: Because it was, quite simply, a uniquely perfect Christmas.
Back then, “The Christmas Season” began for me in November, when, Sagittarian-winter-child that I was, I already started longing for snow, and driving my mother crazy asking her, every time the thermometer dipped to near freezing “if she thought it would snow...No? But it could, right? I mean, it could, couldn’t it, please, please, please, couldn’t it?” Thanksgiving, my birthday in early December, and Christmas proper all blended together in one joyous season that I wished would never end.
The first thing to whet my seasonal appetite were the Christmas catalogs from major mail order houses like Penney’s, Sears, Spiegel and others that would start arriving  in November and that were filled with pictures of toys and ornaments and lots of other things to spark the fantasies of a five-year-old. I pored over them, filling my greedy eyes and mind, and wanted everything! I couldn’t understand why, if  Santa Claus was a god-like elf who could do god-like things, like flying all around the world making deliveries to every good little boy and girl in a single night, he was incapable of bringing me precisely what I was wishing for. But my mother made it abundantly clear that Santa wasn’t made of money and had millions of kids like me to please around the world and that it was a terrible thing to be an ingrate. I had to be grateful for whatever Saint Nick brought. Besides, I should be thinking more about the birth of the Baby Jesus than about what I was getting for Christmas. It was His birthday, not mine.

But then again, it was pretty darn close to my birthday, now, wasn’t it, coming only a couple of weeks afterward? So the Little Lord Jesus and I kind of shared a season. As if to celebrate that fact, this particular year my Grandma Myrt made a special request to DJ Cliff Willis at the local AM radio station in Lima, Ohio. My mother sat me right next to the radio in the kitchen, with a cup of hot cocoa with marshmallows melting on its creamy surface, so I would be there to hear when Cliff said: “Mrs. Myrtle Weber of Wapakoneta has asked us to play a special request for her grandson, Danny, who is five years old today. And here it is, ‘Christmas Dragnet’.” For some reason, I loved that story (recorded for Capitol Records on a script by comic genius Stan Freberg), which was a spoof on a noir genre TV detective show starring Jack Web and Harry Morgan, in which the strait-lace Joe Friday is investigating a guy called “Grudge” who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus (nor, he says, does he believe in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, or the Easter Bunny... “What about Toledo?” he’s asked. “Toledo...uuuh...I still haven’t made up my mind about Toledo”).
Needless to say, I was amazed at my grandmother’s clout. She had actually made the radio talk to me. 
This particular year, however, I was indeed reminded of the birth of the Christ Child, because we had a birth of our own. Just a month earlier, in mid-November, my brand new brother was born. Dad, who was nicknamed “Whitie” because of his blond hair, wanted to call him Rusty, because he was born with a shock of bright red fuss on his head. (Luckily, Reba Mae talked him out of that because when “Rusty’s” baby hair fell out, what came in to replace it was even blonder than Whitie’s). Now, you’d have thought that having an eccentric name like Reba Mae herself, my mother would have been less whimsical in naming us. But no. Her preference over Whitie’s “Rusty” was “Dennis James”. Why? Because she thought Dennis James, the sports announcer and later game show host, who at the time was the face of Old Gold cigarettes on TV, looked “like such a nice fellow.” My sister, Darla, she had named after Darla Hood, the child actress from the Our Gang children’s comedy movies. And me she called Danny, because she had always loved the song, “Danny Boy”. So Dennis James it was (regardless of the fact that the original Dennis James was actually born Demie James Sposa). And since Denny and Danny sounded so much alike, the poor kid would go through childhood with an “indoor” name and an “outdoor” name—Jim or Jimmy at home and Dennis at school.
A special gift that year, Jimmy!
Anyway, I was thrilled with this novelty. I mean, I’d have time later to tease the poor little guy to exasperation and to fight with him all the time when we got a bit older, as brothers are wont to do. But this year, this perfect Christmas, he seemed like another gift for me, a little brother all my own. He seemed to be a part of the Christmas miracle. My mother had gone away for a few days, and while she was out, picked me up a kid brother.
So, this year, when she sat us down on the couch to read us The Night before Christmas, Darla was sitting on the floor facing Reba Mae, I was sitting on the couch on one side of her, and little brother Jimmy was lying bundled up on a blanket on the other side of her sucking on a pacifier. My sister and I knew this poem from other years and knew when the funny parts were coming—especially our favorite one. I wanted to tell my new brother, “Listen, Jimmy, listen, here it comes!” And then Reba Mae read it: “...Away to the window I flew like a flash / Tore open the shutters / And threw up the sash!” At which point Darla and I made gagging, puking sounds and were swept away in gales of giggling at how clever we were. Threw up the sash! How funny was that? Jimmy, for his part, was unimpressed, oblivious in fact, except for a pruney frown that crinkled his ruddy little brow, at all the noise we were making when he was so obviously trying to catch forty winks.
Fredric March as Scrooge
We were one of the first families in town to have a TV set, and it was a magical world that it offered at Christmas time. This was the year of the première television production of the classic Charles Dickens story, A Christmas Carol, with Fredric March playing Scrooge and Basil Rathbone playing the ghost of his late business partner, Jacob Marley, who comes back to haunt Scrooge and convince him to change his ways or face the eternity of the damned, as he has had to do. With the special effects of today, kids now would probably find that old black and white film quaint if not downright laughable, but we were enthralled, and every bit as terrified as March’s Scrooge at the prospect of spending Christmas Eve in the company of four frightening specters. And then too, there was the tragicomic humor of comedian Red Skelton in his Christmas special, in which Freddy the Freeloader (the first homeless character to star in a nationwide broadcast), in a take-off on an O. Henry short story, is trying to find a warm place to spend a lonely Christmas Eve. He decides jail is his best bet, but “in the holiday spirit”, can’t find a single cop who’ll arrest him. (The sketch has a “happy ending” though: Freddy gets ninety days for vagrancy and thus has a “warm room” and three squares a day until spring). And also, the Perry Como Christmas Special, starring that famous crooner who was so relaxed you kind of wondered how he didn’t doze off and fall from the high stool he sat on to sing.
Red Skelton as Freddy the Freeloader
Christmas Eve dinner was at my Grandma and Grandpa Newland’s, cattycorner across the street from us, where we got together with all of our cousins, aunts and uncles on the Newland side. And Christmas Day lunch was at my Grandma and Grandpa Weber’s on the other side of town with the myriad members of the clan on that side of the family. Two very different affairs, but both veritable feasts with every kind of homemade dish and dessert imaginable, plus traditional cookies and candies: festive frosted sugar cookies, chocolate, vanilla and peanut butter fudge, snow-white-creamy-sugary-to-die-from divinity...
But in between there was the delight of Christmas morning and seeing what wonderful packages Santa had left under the tree for us, and it was so hard to wait until Whitie and Reba Mae decided it was time to get up—especially after their fitful night of resting in accordance with Jimmy’s feeding times.
This year, however, 1954, was, as I say, particularly special. Whitie seemed to know it too that year. With a newborn baby, Reba Mae wouldn’t be going to Candlelight Service at the First Methodist Church this year, but Whitie decided to go anyway, when the Christmas Eve family festivities were over. And although it was way past my bedtime, I decided to tag along with him and Darla. The old church across from the courthouse was dazzling inside. It was the first time I had ever seen it at night and it was decked out in boughs of cedar, ribbons and a multitude of candles. Everyone was full of season’s cheer including the minister. The choir sang “Oh Holy Night” and when they got to the climactic line that goes, “Fall on your knees / Oh hear the angel voices...” I could feel myself break out in gooseflesh.
Later, while—as Whitie used to say—“the preacher missed a few good places to stop,” I dozed off leaning against my dad’s arm, which he put around me when he realized I’d conked out. It was a comfort to be there, safe in the church on Christmas Eve, with the power of lots of people all thinking good thoughts, my father’s arm around me, the scent of his pinstriped wool suit, mixing with his cologne and the sweet bite of the filterless cigarettes he smoked. It was safe, warm, like the best place in the world I could possibly be. I was, quite literally, “in a good place.”
The next year would be different. Whitie would have the first in a series of nervous breakdowns that extended over the course of three decades. His chronic manic depression would virtually become a sixth member of our family and would change his life and ours forever. For now, however, Christmas, Eve, 1954, I was happier than I’d ever been, trusted and believed in, well, everything, and couldn’t have asked for anything more.



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