Even after 66 of them, Christmas is still a very special time for memories. Most are good ones but a few are not. Either way, it's a time where all our senses are heightened and the remembrances of Christmas Past are still a part of what makes this time so special. For better or worse, this holiday season puts the 'period' on each year's sentence.
Coaldale couldn't compete with the surrounding towns of Lansford and Tamaqua as far as street decorations and store front displays were concerned. The closest thing we had to Bright's in Lansford was Stevie Vahovich's, and the red and green lights strung at each intersection along Broad Street in Tamaqua made it difficult to determine which of that multitude of lights was the traffic light. Still, that short block along Philip Street between Second and Third Streets took on a holiday atmosphere. A walk along the way from Henry's to Doc Doughertys was always a bit slower than usual as we looked inside the store windows. At night we had a great view of the east side of Coaldale High School and the "Merry Christmas Happy New Year" that lit up the night and the sound of Christmas Carols over the loud speakers. St. Mary's Irish church always looked good for midnight mass. Decorations at the hand of sexton Eddie "Caboostie" O'Brien, the sound of the choir, and the smell of incense made it the best service of the year. I've attached a few short stories or just excerpts from some writing I've done over the years that are centered around this still-wonderful time of the year. I hope you enjoy them.
It took me a few years to finally figure out how this worked. I remember being freaked out as a little kid by the Santa Claus face that Doc Dougherty hung in his front window at Christmas. It was a 3-D optical illusion, where Santa's eyes followed you as you walked past. I once tried to duck down as I came to it, and then crawled along the sidewalk right next to the stone wall Doc had along his front. I popped up 15 feet later, hoping Santa didn't see me sneaking past him, but damned if that "jolly old elf" wasn't right there, again staring at me. As a grammar school student, I thought that an even scarier picture would be of a teacher and/or nun who never stopped watching you. A few years ago I was sharing a few beers at Costello's with Joe Dougherty Jr. I asked him about Santa, and if he still existed. He said that Santa got reused so many times over the years that he just disintegrated one year during storage.
I vividly remember one Christmas season around the time we were in 5th grade at St. Mary's. Christmas was a few days away, but since it landed on a Tuesday or Wednesday, our last day of school was the preceding Friday. The town had several inches of snow on the ground and at night it looked great with Christmas lights reflecting off the new-fallen snow. One of the girls in the class got the idea to go Christmas caroling. We had seen it done in movies and on TV, but never actually in person. So Friday night we are all excited about school being out and the snow and the general feeling of good will to men. About 10 of us got together after dinner and just started going door to door, stopping to sing a carol and each. Of course, on some stops we were ignored, but most at least came to the door to acknowledge us and give us a smile. A few even came back to the door with a plate of homemade cookies or other treats for us. The real surprise was that a few families gave us money for our effort. A quarter here, a half-dollar there, and even a whole dollar. We quickly learned to have one of us holding a hat out upside down. Now I'd like to say that I had some noble ideas about this money, but frankly I was thinking about how we were going to split it and even go out the next night to hit a few more streets in our quest for Christmas gold.
One of the girls in the group reminded us about a family in the parish that we were all aware of. It was a single mother and her three children, 2 boys and a girl, all of whom went to St. Mary's School. The older boy, Francis, was about a year younger than I and was very quiet and withdrawn, as was his younger sister. We could tell by the way they dressed that the family was in bad shape. Francis was much like a fly on the wall. He hardly ever interacted with us, and we, in turn, basically ignored him. We didn't pick on him or tease him...we just ignored him. The typical recess had him standing off to the side watching us play. It would be a heartwarming scene in a movie if one of us went over to befriend him and invite him to join us, but it just didn't happen. A 5th grade boy is not usually concerned about his fellow man and their feelings. He lives for himself and his buddies and never wants to be odd man out.
Fortunately, many 5th grade girls think beyond their own little world. Mary came up with the idea that we do, in fact, go out the following night and work the streets for even more money. We discovered that going into bars, such as Juggy's, Babe's, Costello's, the Lit Club, the Rod and Gun, VFW, etc. were excellent places to find loose change on the bar. My eyes lit up and the wheels started turning..."let's see..$45 divided by 10 of us equals.." Mary, on the other hand, said what we really needed to do is give our proceeds to Francis' family. We thought about it and realized that $4.50 each was not going to affect our Christmas season, but $45 could put a really nice Christmas dinner on the table for four people who might otherwise be having baloney sandwiches. We didn't want to just walk up and stick the money in their faces, so we decided to put it in a Christmas card and address it from “Santa”. Our final stop for the night was their house. We found an excuse to step inside and while the family was distracted, Mary placed the envelope on their dinner table. We then left before they saw it. We didn"t sign our names, or tell the nuns or even our friends about it. It was probably the best Christmas I ever had as a kid, and I don't have a clue what presents I got that year. During midnight mass, several of us made eye contact during the mass and just gave each other a knowing smile. The only people who knew about it were the people who needed to know.
If you're expecting me to say that this incident made a major change in me or my life, it really didn’t. I still continued doing stupid, selfish, childish things for years to come, and continued having to pay the price for stupidity. But every so often I would think about that particular Christmas and realize there might still be hope for me to mature into a rational adult. Francis still stood in the corner during recess, but occasionally I would catch him smiling as he looked out at the rest of us. A few years ago I was wandering around St. Joseph's Cemetery in White Bear (the reason I wander cemeteries is a story in itself). Anyway, as I read some of the markers there, I suddenly came across one for Francis. "Francis X" born 1947, died 1976". The story came back to me in an instant.
It was a Christmas where I was expected Mom and Dad to get me something I had been hinting at for months….a 45 rpm RCA record player. I wanted to have my very own collection of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis records that I could play whenever it suited me. Instead they bought me a Kodak Pony II camera outfit. I had various cameras over the previous years, but they were mostly cheap junky off-brands which never produced decent pictures. This new outfit was different. Kodak made many excellent cameras back then. This camera was by no means a top-of-the-line unit, but it did have some interesting features. The most interesting to me was that it used 35mm film. Back then, 35mm was not very common and became my introduction to color slides. Most of the pictures included here were taken by me with my Pony camera and Kodachrome film. After shooting my first 20 exposures and taking the roll to Folk's Drugstore for development, I went back to Bright's Department Store in Lansford, where my folks bought the camera. I wanted to ask Michael Chovanes about my camera. He was in charge of the jewelry department, which included photographic products. I was confused about the fact that this camera had various adjustable settings on it. All my previous cameras were fixed focus, shutter speed, and aperture. None of this made any sense to me and I hoped he could help. As he showed me the various controls and saw my reaction, he said I should bring back my Pony II and exchange it for the Pony IV model. It was only a few dollars more, but had some features that he felt I would grow to appreciate. He explained how I could get started taking decent pictures without a complete understanding of the camera ("just follow the numbers on the little card on back of the camera"). But then I brought him some slides I had taken which didn't turn out so well and he showed me how to adjust the camera to compensate (for instance, increasing the shutter speed to freeze fast action).
In the late 1970's I taught several adult education classes on photography and darkroom use. I often thought about Michael Chovanes and how he guided me along to an understanding the art and science of photography. I still have that Kodak Pony IV camera in my collection and it still works perfectly. I seriously doubt I would be saying that about a 45 rpm RCA record player and a collection of Elvis records.
Taking things apart, to see just what made them tick, always interested me. That doesn’t mean I always got the problem fixed, or even got all the pieces back into the box, but with each attempt I gained a bit more knowledge. At the age of 2 years old, Santa brought me my very first Lionel Train set. There it was on Christmas morning, all set up and ready to run. Santa put in a lot of overtime that evening. My parents warned me that Santa was going to come back to take the train set away after New Year’s but he would bring it back again next Christmas. Our house was way too small to keep the train set up all year long. Sure enough, the train was back again next Christmas. After a few of these Christmas Eve setups, Dad told me that Santa said we could keep the train in the house and Dad could set it up himself in a few days before Christmas, rather than Santa doing it on his own. I also discovered that Santa got my train set from George Soberick. Soberick’s Firestone Store was also the place where I eventually got my Firestone 24-inch Special Cruiser bike.
I started in on Dad the day after Thanksgiving to set up the train, but other things (like work) kept Dad from getting it done right away. At one point I decided that maybe I could do it myself. Mom's first reaction was that I'll burn down the house, playing with the wires, but Dad reassured her that the low voltage transformer wouldn't cause any fire. The worse that could happen was a short circuit, in which the transformer shut down the power and then automatically reset itself. Obviously, I was eager to get things running as soon as possible and welcomed the chance to play electrician. Dad had a spool of low voltage bell wire, which came with a cotton-wrapped insulation on it (years before plastic was used). I eagerly started running wire here, there, and everywhere, somehow hoping it would work. It was trial-and-error (mostly error) for a long time, but I was determined to learn this mystery. Eventually things started to light up and little by little, I started to learn the concept of what was an electrical circuit. I can still remember Dad coming home one evening, just as I had finished getting all the track, signals, operating cars, and signs up and working. Even he was surprised. I'd like to think he had planned it this way all along. In educator's jargon, this is called the "Discovery Method" of learning. Soon I was coming up with new ways to make the train components operate more efficiently.
Two places I always loved visiting were Barney's Hobby Shop in Lansford near Foster's Bottling Works (where I also enjoyed visiting) and Mr. Trimmel's little shop next to Amos Hedish's house on Ruddle St. Dad always allowed me to buy one Lionel item (within reason) each year from Barney and any time I had a problem with the train set, Mr. Trimmel was there to fix it. That old Lionel Pennsylvania Railroad #675 steam engine will soon turn 64 years old…and it still runs.
Another memorable Christmas for me was in the mid 50's. My parents totally surprised me with an Erector set. This toy had been around since the turn of the century. It was manufactured by the A C Gilbert Co. of New Haven CT. It consisted of hundreds of parts; mostly flat steel girder plates, gears, wheels, axles, an electric motor, and hundreds of nuts and bolts. The whole idea of this kit was to build things. There were many examples shown in the accompanying book, but the only real limit was your own imagination. I spent many many hours either duplicating things in the book or later just making "contraptions" which sometimes worked…and sometimes didn't. Two movies I've enjoyed over the years that remind me of the Erector set are Sandlot and The Man Who Saved Christmas. In the first movie the boys built one of these 'contraptions' in an attempt to recover the "Babe Ruth" autographed baseball. The second movie was about owner of the A C Gilbert Co. and how he convinced the United States Congress that despite the hardships and lack of resources available in the midst of World War 1, that having toys for that Christmas was a necessary part of the war effort.
In my native language and the languages of my two different families of ancestors:
Christos Razdajetsja (Ruthenian)
Nollaig shona duit (Gaelic)