Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Two Christmas Memories ~ 1948 and 1961

The following comprises the written account of my storytelling at Lunching With Books at the Pontotoc County Library at noon today. Were I still any good at memorization, what you will read would have been what I said. Since I did not memorize my talk, and I ad-libbed a lot, you'll have to settle for my writing voice and not my talking voice and the text which served as my notes. (It's not been proofed very thoroughly, so expect some missing words, misused words, comma splices, missing commas, and possibly a few typos.)

My name is Wayne Carter…my agent, Carl Wayne Hardeman of Collierville, Tennessee, told me to let everyone know I am the Associate Editor of The Bodock Post…that’s a monthly e-newsletter filled with nostalgic articles and written by ordinary folks like you and me. It’s free…you can subscribe and get the monthly updates emailed to you or you simply check our website near the end of every month for the next month’s issue. You can check us out at and decide which you prefer.

Christmas is more than getting presents, though as a child, I didn’t think so. Christmas is, as you know, as much about giving as it is receiving. God made our salvation from sin possible by gifting us with his Son, Jesus, who would later give his life to atone for our sins. In fact, to experience the fullness that is Christmas, giving to others is a requirement.

Though I was born in Pontotoc, my Dad moved us away from here when I was two. We lived in four other cities and towns, over a period of nine years, before we moved back here in 1953.

One of the first memorable Christmases for me was the year I five or six years old. Dad was working for Kroger, at the time, and we were living in Iuka, MS. Our house was within walking distance of the downtown area and the school.

My older brother and I walked to school…sunshine, rain, sleet or snow…uphill both ways. (smile) If you know anything about Iuka, you know there’s a city park there with mineral springs. Well, our house was located a hundred yards or so from the park.

Our house had electricity but the principal source of heat was a coal heater that stood in our living room. It had “Warm Morning” embellished somewhere on it, and provided plenty of warmness on a cold winter’s morn.

Our heater had a flat-topped surface that could be utilized for cooking, and I remember a coffee pot sat there from time to time. However, other than for general heating purposes, I remember the heater was also used to parch raw peanuts. As a family, we’d shell a pound or so of raw peanuts; Mama would place a cast iron skillet with some grease in it on top of the heater. We’d add the peanuts, and she’d keep them stirred as they became hotter and hotter. The peanut husks would be almost black when they were done, but sprinkled with salt the parched peanuts were a treat we all enjoyed.

As Christmas approached, I remember going with Mama to a variety store, actually a 10-cent store, where she asked which toys I wanted Santa to bring. Of course, she steered me to the more affordable items, as was her custom, and offered excuses as to why they’d do just fine.

About a week before Christmas Day, a tree appeared in our living room. Most likely, it was one of the spruce trees sold by Kroger, but through the years, I remember a lot of cedars, so I’m not sure about the species of our Christmas tree. I feel certain there were some multi-colored lights and a number of ball shaped ornaments, also in various colors like red, gold, blue, and green. But it’s the silver icicles that are my most vivid memory…perhaps because I got to hang some of them…the icicles were thin slivers of aluminum foil that were about a foot long. They’ve fallen from favor over the years, but for many years no self-respecting Christmas Tree would be caught dead without them.

That Christmas, Santa brought me a few of the toys I had shown Mama I wanted at the ten-cent store, but he also brought a gift to be shared by my brother and me, an electric train set. It had enough track to configure in either a circle, oval or in a figure eight layout. It was made by Lionel and consisted of a locomotive and perhaps a handful of assorted cars and a caboose. Funny thing, though, once it was assembled and everything was running, we discovered Dad enjoyed playing with the train set almost as much as we did.

Of course, my brother and I tried to see how fast the train could take the curves, a practice that often resulted in a train wreck. So, we got lots of practice fitting the locomotive and the other cars back onto the HO gauge tracks.

The train set provided hours of entertainment for our family. We didn’t have toy villages, tunnels or mountainous terrain for our train, but we had our imagination. I remember we made our own hills by elevating the track with books and boxes or scraps of wood. We even staged train wrecks by placing small toy cars on the track for the train to run into.

Those of you who’ve been around electric train sets will be familiar with the odor that is generated, which is similar to the smell in the air after a thunderstorm passes through. Electric sparks in the air produce Oxygen atoms with an extra ion, which scientists call ozone. Because of the smells created by the electric train, I recount Santa’s visit that year as our Ozone Christmas.

The only other gift I recall that year was “the family” got a five-pound log of peppermint candy that seemed to last forever. I remember Mama or Daddy whacking the huge piece of candy with a knife handle to break away bite-sized portions. I learned that peppermint and saltine crackers go well together. If saltines are not available, try ice water and peppermint candy.

I’m thankful to have a this Christmas memory from my childhood as well as a few more that relate to gift receiving, but I would now like to share a Christmas memory of gift giving that occurred about fifteen years later.

I have a much younger brother, whom you may or may not know. He was born on a cold January night in 1956, the same year I was a ninth grader in Pontotoc City Schools. I well remember that night as it was the coldest night I’d ever spent in any house. With Mom in the hospital and Dad nearby, I got farmed out to some relatives. My aunt and uncle lived in a house between this building and the Red Rooster cafĂ©. The bedroom Aunt Jo had me to bed-down in was an unheated room, and I thought I’d freeze before morning. Obviously, I didn’t.

My little brother, James, and yes I still call him my little brother even though standing toe to toe, we can look one another eye to eye, showed an early interest in mechanics, particularly how something worked. If a toy could be disassembled, he wanted to take it apart to see how it worked. By the time he was five years or six years old he’d become quite skilled at disassembly and was extraordinarily good at taking the wheels off any toy vehicle he was given.

As Christmas approached in 1961, I began to look for something special to buy my little brother. We had a Western Auto store back then and it was there I found a set of toy fire trucks. They were made of metal, made in the USA as I recall. The smaller of the two was a pumper truck that was about the size of shoebox. The other was a hook and ladder fire truck with the cab part and the ladder part being joined like a semi. The ladder would swivel and extend a foot or more to rescue occupants in an imaginary three-story building.

Together, the two trucks sold for the handsome price of $27.50, which was a lot of money at the time, especially when you consider minimum wage was about a dollar per hour. In fact, if you thrown in Inflation it would take $200.00 in today’s money. Certainly, it was more money than my parents could afford to spend on toy, but I had a part time job at the bowling alley…yeah we had a bowling alley in Pontotoc back then also…and I had saved some money for Christmas presents.

“Finally,” I thought, “I’ve found something that my little brother won’t be able to get the wheels off of!”

One pumper truck and one hook and ladder fire truck…$27.50. The face of a small child on Christmas morning who received a better gift than he or she was expecting…priceless. I don’t remember my little brother’s face that morning, but I do remember the excitement he showed and the joy he had playing endlessly with that set of fire trucks.

I wish I could recall my personal happiness in experienced in making his gift possible, but that too is quite vague. I know it must have been a good feeling, for through the years, I have sought to replicate it again and again by giving something to someone simply for the joy of doing it.

I’m able to report that my money, that $27.50 was well spent. James was unable to remove the wheels from the fire trucks, though he tried sorely to do so the first year he played with them. Neither could he get them off the second year; the toys were simply too well made.

But, he was a persistent little cuss, and around the fourth year of his having the fire trucks, he managed to find a way to remove their wheels. But, by then, it didn’t matter to me that he was able to; my Christmas joy had lasted far longer than I ever expected.

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About Me

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I'm a native of Pontotoc, MS, and graduated Pontotoc High School in 1960. I received a BS degree in Mathematics from The University of Mississippi in 1965. My wife Barbara and I have two children and five grandchildren and one great grandchild. We make our home in Pontotoc.