I remember Christmas 1940 better than any other. I can still see our living room on Staten Island. Smooth linoleum to play on. A kerosene heater throwing a warm glow. The radio playing carols. The tree. The decorations. The lights.
And the presents ...
First, there was the fort, a pressed cardboard model of Foreign Legion fort painted to look like real stone. It had an octagonal tower flying a flag, a real drawbridge, and punched out windows and gun slits. I’d been given 10 lead soldiers armed with rifles to go with it. Standing. Kneeling. Lying on their stomachs. Taking aim from the top of the tower. Poking a muzzle through a gun slit. Firing from between the blocks of the crenelated walls.
Everywhere! I tell you it was a wonderful present.
I’d gotten a football too. And what a football! Real leather! Twelve years later when I went into the Air Force and finally lost track of that football it was still a prized possession.
That was one great Christmas! And I was one happy kid!
The day after Christmas I was lying on my belly setting up my soldiers to defend the fort from Bedouin raiders when Mom came in. She’d been up the street to Mrs. Hein’s place. The Heins were a little better off; they had a telephone. We had gotten a call.
“Your cousin Teddy wants you to come over,” Mom said, looking very happy.
“Right away. He has something for you.”
It was a cold winter day in the low 20s, so I donned a frayed but warm jacket I had inherited from an older brother and headed for Teddy’s house up on Ward’s Hill. I barely knew Teddy. I’d been to his house with Mom a couple of times, but he’d never been to ours. We were both 8, but he was a head taller and 20 pounds heavier. His father was an assistant D.A. and their neighborhood up on that hill was so different from ours it might just as well have been on the moon.
I trudged upward, eying the change from two story clapboards badly in need of paint to earth tone stucco with fancy porch lights hung on wrought iron mounts. Tall trees lined the streets. The houses had garages and stood well back from the road, hidden behind foundation plantings of evergreens. Small but manicured front lawns, every one of them with a lighted Santa, or reindeer, or something on it, lay between the houses and the sidewalks.
Pretty soon I found myself walking up a flagstone walk to a set of granite steps under a fancy overhang, where I listened to a door chime ringing inside a varnished oak door. A maid wearing a small, black, lace-edged apron opened the door and looked down her nose at me. “Teddy,” she called. “Someone for you I think.”
She pointed a finger. “He’s in the playroom.”
I followed the finger, going through a pair of glass double doors into a long narrow room I hadn’t seen before. Teddy was sitting at some kind of console looking bored. Instead of saying hello, he turned a knob all the way up and grinned as thunder boomed out of a huge pair of speakers right over my head.
I jumped, of course. Who wouldn’t? Teddy laughed and got up as my eyes took in the room. I had never seen anything like it. It looked like Macy’s toy department.
“All this is yours?” I asked, hardly able to believe my eyes.
Teddy waved a casual hand. “Most of it’s old junk. I hardly got anything for Christmas.”
I fingered the console he’d been sitting at. “What’s this?”
“Sound effects set. Like they use on the radio. It’s stupid. What can you do with it? You make the noises once and that’s that. It’s dumb. I hate it.”
He pushed a button on it and talked into a microphone, grinning at me, “We’re coming over. You guys ready?”
“We’re ready,” a voice answered through the speakers.
“C’mon,” Teddy said as he put on a leather jacket and headed for a side door. We stepped out into a courtyard where he pointed at a 24-inch bike, a beautiful thing with a headlight, tail light, horn, a gorgeous white seat, and white handle grips.
“Hop on,” he told me as he jumped on the fanciest full size bike I had ever seen, no doubt another Christmas present.
“Follow me,” he said. And before I could answer he took off.
I had never been on a bike in my life, and I don’t mind telling you the first couple of hundred feet on that 24-incher was quite an adventure.
I wobbled all over the place before I got the hang of it. And it took a while to find Teddy, waiting at a big house down the block with two other kids on new bikes.
As soon as I got there, all three of them took off like a shot, laughing gleefully. I figured I was supposed to follow them, though I had no idea why, so I tootled off too, still working hard to get that 24-incher to do what I wanted it to do. But as shaky as I was, riding that beautiful bike on a smooth road, with icy winter air blowing in my face was just about the most fun I’d ever had. And I was getting better at it every minute.
Then followed maybe half an hour of them running circles around me on their full size bikes as I did the best I could on that beautiful little 24-incher. They would zoom ahead and hide somewhere, laugh as I passed them, and then zoom off in another direction. Or pull some other smart aleck trick.
I say “maybe” half an hour. Maybe not too. I could see that the whole idea was to make a fool out of me, so I headed back to Teddy’s place, put the bike away, and started walking back home.
Teddy caught up with me. “Hey! Where you going?”
“Hold up. Daddy says to give you my old bike. The one you were riding.”
“I don’t want it.”
“But you’ve got to take it. I’ll get in trouble with Daddy.”
“Ain’t that too bad!”
“But what am I going to do with it?”
Oh, my! If only I had been old enough to know the answer to that question.