Dates to Live By

I was born June 12, 1945. Two months later, Japan surrendered. 

The surrender of Japan. Army Signal Corps photographer LT. Stephen E. Korpanty; restored by Adam Cuerden – Naval Historical Center Photo # SC 213700. Public Domain.

That matter settled, I turned my attention to trying out my body parts, learning my native tongue, and getting acquainted with my family. These experiments engrossed me fully until about 1950, at which point I noticed . . . everything else.

Our world in those days was simple and straightforward. We knew where we stood. If March came in like a lion, it would go out like a lamb. The Brooklyn Dodgers would play the New York Yankees in the World Series. You couldn’t go swimming in the summer for fear of polio.

My Castle of Knowledge and Experience. Photo by Jaime Spaniol on Unsplash.

Beyond such truths, whole reams of information settled in my skull, etching deep lines to form a kind of blueprint of reality—upon which, eventually, I would build a castle of knowledge and experience. My castle was not unique. My friends and schoolmates all built similar castles. 

Holidays, Seasons, Rituals

The columns, ribs, and stays of the castle were holidays, seasons, and rituals ordained by society at large. These recurring festivals buttressed a remarkably durable structure of life.

The year kicked off on New Year’s Day, with multi-hued bowls—Rose, Orange, Cotton, and Sugar. The Groundhog was pure myth. He never saw his shadow, nor did we ever see him not see his shadow.

The Groundhog. Photo by Ralph Katieb on Unsplash.

But then came a real holiday—Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12. Lincoln was  one of our two greatest presidents. He had a beard and a kindly smile. (I learned later that he also led our nation through its darkest days.) 

The other great presidential birthday was George Washington’s on February 22. Washington did not have to wear a beard to be great. As Father of Our Country he was an automatic qualifier. 

May basket. “may basket” by brambleroots is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The birthdays of our greatest two presidents were important enough to cancel school, when they fell on weekdays. Such holidays—our national birthright—were never devolved upon the nearest Monday, as they are now in exchange for that mess of pottage known as a long weekend.

Between Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays fell Valentine’s Day, a time for exchanging sappy cards with your classmates. We also observed Easter and April Fool’s Day, but they did not leave the impression on me that May 1 did. It was called May Day, and it was wonderful. Egged on by mothers and teachers, we made baskets of colored paper, filled them with flowers, and gave them to our friends in a stealthy manner. You snuck up to the door, hung a basket of flowers on its handle, rang the bell, ran away, and hid, so you could peek out from a safe place to see your friend’s surprise and awe when they found the flowers.

We had May Day and its merry hijinks. Today’s kids have cell phones, X-Boxes, powered scooters, and Pokemon (whatever that may be). Who is richer?

“Decoration Day”

At the end of May came Decoration Day, a time to go to the cemetery and bedeck the graves of our loved and lost. Originally, the idea was to honor the War Dead, but by the time I came along, all but the most disreputable dead had their graves strewn with flowers indiscriminately. After decorating graves in the morning, there came a big parade down Main Street. By the time that concluded in mid-afternoon, the Big Race was on—the Indianapolis 500, which was always run on May 30, Memorial Day.

We watched the race on the radio. Four announcers cried the tidings of roadsters swooping through each turn. After more than three hours of whining engine noise, the winner crossed the line, to receive a bottle of champagne and a kiss from a Hoosier lovely. Your ears could smell the gasoline fumes. 

Decoration Day was an informal name for Memorial Day. The whole pageant has long since been moved to Monday Nearest, like most other holidays.

Independence Day

Thank God we still celebrate Independence Day on July 4, regardless when it falls in the week. This exemption from the Monday Nearest rule shows that the Fourth is one of our most sacred holidays—like that other exemption, Christmas. July 4 is sacred, of course, because it is the nominal date of our Declaration of Independence.

Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, 1819. Public Domain.

Why is Independence Day, July 4, celebrated so much more intensely than Constitution Day, September 17? Isn’t the Constitution the basis of our laws? Yes, but the Declaration was the basis of our country. The 1776 phrase “all men are created equal,” and the notion that government’s job is to protect our rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—have always meant more to us than the details inked in 1789. 

The Declaration became paramount before and during the Civil War. Lincoln’s powerful rhetoric was based on the simple notions of the Declaration, not the complex compromises of the Constitution. 

Hence all the fireworks.

Downhill to Winter

After July 4, the year is mostly downhill. Labor Day, recognized by Congress in 1894 to honor the American labor movement, is the only holiday originally fixed on a Monday, that labor might be ennobled by a day off work. 

In urban areas with strong unions, it became a major feast, with marches, picnics, speeches, and political activism. Such was not the case in the small Midwestern towns of my youth. Labor Day was just a welcome day of loafing or, in my case, the last day before school started.

Columbus Day, another reprieve from school, occurred on October 12. We learned that “in fourteen hundred ninety-two, / Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Latter-day scholars have pointed out that Columbus, in his thirst for gold, enslaved the Arawak natives on the island of Hispaniola and established a pattern of exploitation that has shamed the Western Hemisphere from that time to this. But we learned none of that. He was just the Discoverer of America—which is a good thing, right?

On the night of October 31, rigged out in costumes from our mothers’ fertile imaginations, we gave considerable attention to the process of shaking down our neighbors for candy. There were goblins and ghosts, to be sure, but I don’t recall anyone trying to scare the living daylights out of small children, as has become the practice since then.

“Get Your Deer?”

The fourth Thursday in November was Thanksgiving, probably the most delicious holiday of the year. Here in Wisconsin, Thanksgiving falls in the midst of Deer Season, so the festivities sometimes take a back seat to the hunt—at least for those who have not got their buck yet. 

When I was a child in downstate Illinois, deer were not that plentiful, the deer hunt was not of widespread interest, and we focused on ritual re-enactments of the Pilgrims Story—plus, of course, eating turkeys. The central rite of Thanksgiving Day was the Big Football Game, broadcast in mid-afternoon. Regardless of who the combatants were, this was a pretty important game, because Thanksgiving occurred just at the point when the college and pro football seasons were getting serious. The hunt for championships was in the air. 

But in those days, it could be hard to follow that hunt, because our black-and-white television screens were sicklied o’er with electronic “snow.” This virtual precipitation further obscured the action on a gridiron already vexed with actual, meteorological, snow. And mud, of course—because Astroturf was still only a gleam in the eye of Mister Astro.

Guy Lombardo. Photo by Mauice Seymour. Public Domain.

Christmas came but once a year, a month after Thanksgiving. It made a fitting end to the year, the best holiday of all. Because of all the TOYS. Only later in life did I learn that the thing that made Christmas sweet was that the whole family got together. That was better than all the toys. I wish I’d known that when I was six.

There was, technically, one holiday after Christmas: New Year’s Eve, December 31. But, unless you happened to be one of Mister Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians, I would seriously advise you to skip it. Too many drunks on the road.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer 

Another Story

Read Time: 7 minutes.

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

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Bob’s Trees

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

BOB, OF BOB’S TREES, stamped his feet to warm himself. The Wisconsin cold froze his bones this year because business sucked. 

Most years, Bob sold trees, bundled trees, fresh-cut their butt ends, and carted them to people’s cars, hardly aware of the weather. After twelve hours on his feet, he gorged himself on the calorie-laden supper that Peg kept on simmer for him, then lapsed into a coma till dawn. Sometimes he fell into bed on arrival, leaving Peg to simmer for the both of them. From Thanksgiving to Christmas Bob could lose twenty pounds. 

Most years, there would be a few days with gaps between customers, welcome respite. Then he would sit in his little office shack and listen to the carols on the radio. 

But this year, trade slumped so that he stood in the elements and waved to motorists to remind them they needed a tree for Yule. This cajolery drew in every hundredth car, so it repaid the vigil in the bitter cold.

Here came one now—a black Lexus SUV that turned left into the mall parking lot, then continued around to the square of pavement occupied by Bob’s Trees each December for the past twenty years. The driver backed into a space against Bob’s curb blocks—a good sign. Backer-inners meant business. They came to buy a tree and would not go home without one.

The car sat idling while Bob shifted his weight from one foot to the other. At last the motor died and the doors swung open. Out stepped a middle-aged woman, a lanky teen boy, and a slender girl who came up to the boy’s shoulder. Their black face coverings prompted him to remember the plague. He slipped his Packers-themed COVID mask in place. 

“Merry Christmas!” he called. “Welcome to Bob’s Trees.”

The woman, cloaked in a long cashmere coat over Italian leather boots, gave a curt nod. Her green eyes skipped his face to scan the trees ranged on his lot. “Are these the tallest you have?”

That voice. Bob peered at the patch of face above her mask but nobody came to mind. “How big a tree were you looking for, Ma’am?” 

“The tallest you have.”

“That would be these in the corner.” He strode across the lot. The woman followed. The boy stumbled along behind, thumbs on his smart phone, while the girl hugged herself and chattered her teeth.

Bob plunged a hand into the wall of greenery and pulled out a nine-foot Norway spruce.

The woman’s brows beetled. “I don’t know. I was hoping for something taller.” She leaned back to view its top. “What do you think, Rory?” She nudged her son’s calf with the toe of her boot. “Will it stand out in the great room?”

The boy jerked at the touch of her toe, rolled his eyes, dived back into his phone. She put her hands on her hips, head forward, and glowered.

“Maggie!” It came to him. “You’re Maggie Flensgaard, aren’t you?”

She snapped her head toward Bob, green eyes round with surprise. “I am Margaret Prescott.” She sniffed. “I haven’t been Maggie Flensgaard for . . . ever so long. And you”—her eyes flashed with recognition—“Bobby! Bobby Achtemeier. Is it really you?”

“Rory, look!” The girl’s eyes glowed with interest. “It’s Mom’s old boyfriend.”

The boy looked up from his phone.

“Shush, you. Mister Achtmeier happens to be an old school chum. From way back, isn’t that right, Bobby?” 

“Not all that long ago, Mags. But things are way different now, I guess.” Your tangled brown hair has become smooth and chestnut, with hints of auburn and whispers of silver. What was wild is now controlled, and controlling.

The girl looked up at Bob. “Hi, I’m Veronica. You can call me Ronnie. All my friends do.” Her brown eyes sparkled above the black virus mask.

She must be thirteen. Going on twenty. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Ronnie punched Rory in the arm. “Dolt! Show some respect to your elders.” Whoops, back to thirteen.

Rory raised his hand to slug her back.

“Stop it, you two.” Maggie sighed. “What’s it been, Bob? Twenty years?”

He snorted. “Good deal more than that, my dear. I won’t say how long. Little pitchers have big ears.” 

“They know I had them late in life,” she muttered. “They may not know exactly how late.” Her eyes rested on him, took him in. “Look at you. I thought you’d wind up a tycoon.” 

He spread his arms to span the Bob’s Trees empire. “Exhibit A.”

She had the grace to look embarrassed. “Well, yes. Touché.”

He saw himself reflected in her eyes: A thickset old guy doing roustabout work out in the weather. I won’t tell her about our winters in Florida.

“I kind of lost track of you after we . . . after high school, Maggie. What became of you?”

She gave him a weird sideways look.

“No, I didn’t mean it that way. You know. What have you been doing with yourself all these years—besides raising these two delightful children, I mean?” 

Veronica giggled. Rory pinched her.

Margaret Prescott waved her hand self-consciously, the very gesture Maggie Flensgaard would have used. “Just the usual. Went to college. Worked in New York for a while. Then I came back home and married a guy that owns a lumber yard.” 

Bob smiled. “Guess you got into the finished end of the tree business. Me, I’m closer to the raw product.” 

“But you can’t sell Christmas trees all year. You must do something else.” She looked desperate for him to explain this was only a hobby.

He shuffled his feet. “Oh, Peg and me got a few rental units up in Door County. Keeps us busy in the summertime, you know.”

“Peg. You married Peggy Schneidermann?” 

He put a finger on his nose. “You’re good. First guess.” 

“I didn’t even know you two were an item. What a lovely girl.” 

“We kept it kind of low-key.” Of course she hadn’t known. Why would she take an interest? 

“And how is she?”

“Peg? Oh, she’s fine. Keeps the home fires burning.” Warming a stew that I’ll be grateful for tonight and will eat before I fall asleep, so help me God.

Rory and Ronnie now giggled like toddlers over Rory’s smart phone. What were kids all about these days, anyhow? Walter would not act that way. Of course, he was ten years beyond them, well-launched in life as a freelance accountant.

Margaret sighed: that long sigh that sounds like the satisfaction of shared memories but signals it’s time to wrap things up.

Bob shook the Norway spruce, spread its lower branches with his free hand. “It’s taller’n you might think.”

Margaret reached a hand out, touched the upright needles. “What do you think, kids? Good enough?” They both nodded. “Okay, I guess we’ll take it. How much?”

“All of these here are a hundred and fifty.”

“Really? That much?” Her question dangled in the frosty air, a gambit best declined.

Maggie Flensgaard might have got it for seventy-five. But Margaret Prescott will need to fork over a fistful of those finished lumber simoleons.

Bob smiled. “You wanted the tallest,” he said with a shrug of apology. 

“Well, yes. I did.” She nodded defeat.

“Let me square off the end for you.”

 “No, leave it. Don will want to cut it fresh himself. Just help us get it in the car.”

He led her into the office shack, scanned a QRC from her phone, printed a receipt for the tree plus tax. Then he helped Rory shoehorn the spruce into the back of the Lexus. They tied the tailgate down gently over the three feet of crown that protruded out the back.

“Keep in touch,” he said.

With a casual nod, Margaret drove off.

He visualized a svelte shape under her tapered woolen coat, considered the upscale tilt of her nose, the sheen and understated elegance of her hair. He gave thought to the half-formed Rory and Veronica.

He remembered Peg, waiting for him at home. His mind’s eye saw her solid form limp over to the kitchen stove, turn on a burner. She ought to get that knee replaced. She kept a dinner warm for him every night, whether he ate it or not. 

He smiled to think of Walter, their stolid son, with his year-in, year-out accounting practice.

Would Bob and Peg manage their usual Florida rental, this COVID winter? 

Sure we will. We’ll figure it out somehow. And then the vaccines will take hold, the virus will go away, and by June all Door County businesses and lodgings will be having a banner tourist season.

Maggie Flensgaard, eat your heart out.

A Child’s Christmas in Downstate Illinois, Part II

Waiting. Waiting. Waiting all year. Waiting in a little town on the prairie. 

Waiting through the commotion at Grandma and Grandpa LaFollette’s brown board house under the big elm on the Square. Waiting in bed at Grandma and Grandpa Sommers’ quiet house, with the lone blue light in its window, waiting with dreams of an electric train or a trap drum set, waiting for Santa Claus and his reindeer, if only they would—

It’s morning. Christmas morning!

I jump out of bed and dash into the living room. And there I find . . . NOT the amazing trap drum set from the Sears catalog. Not even a Lionel electric train, which I know for a fact Santa keeps plenty of on hand, and gives to lots of boys my age.

Something has gone terribly wrong. Under the tree, instead of a train on a loop of metal track, sits a big flat thing wrapped in red and green paper. I pick it up and rip off the paper, while the thing underneath makes clicking sounds. It’s a clear plastic box. A bunch of little metal balls inside it roll around and bump into things as I tilt it sideways.

“Look, Larry, it’s a pinball game,” says Mom, in her nightgown and robe. 

“Here,” says Dad, in his wrinkled pajamas. “You work it like this.” He takes it out of my hands, tilts it so all the little balls roll down to the corner, pulls back on a handle and lets it go. One of the balls shoots up and goes bouncing around between pegs and plastic fences until it comes back to the bottom. Wow.

“Here, let me try.” I reach up, take the thing back and start shooting metal balls. I’m so busy watching the balls bounce around that I almost, not quite, forget the trap drums. 

“Why the long face?” Grandpa hollers. With his pointy nose and his wire-rimmed glasses, he stares at me like a bird getting after a worm. “Y’oughta count yourself goddam lucky to have a nice game like that!”

“Maybe when you’re a little older,” Mom says, “Santa Claus will bring you an electric train.” She doesn’t mention the trap drum set. 

Girl and doll. Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash.

Although I have given them quite a few hours of free informational talks on it, I have never heard either Mom nor Dad actually speak the words “trap drum set.” Still, Mom just said “electric train.” So there is hope for the future.

Cynda gets her heart’s desire, a stupid doll named Betsy Wetsy. Mom brings a little glass of water to pour in its mouth, so my little sister can watch as the stupid thing pees its pants. Cynda is carried away with joy. She pours more and more water until not only the doll’s panties but also its dress, its hair, its chubby hands, and its sappy face are all dripping. 

“Now let’s put Betsy Wetsy away for a while,” Mom says, “until she dries out.” Cynda starts crying and carrying on as Mom takes the doll from her hands. Betsy Wetsy, to her, is what a trap drum set is to me. She has no right to complain. Hmph.

There are socks, bigger than we can wear, hung by Grandma’s fake fireplace with care. In them are oranges and nickels and candy canes and Mars bars and a few things like that. 

We dress, eat, pile into the car and drive down Main Street to the fun grandparents’ house. Grandpa and Grandpa Sommers will come along later.

A Flexible Flyer sled within the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of IndianapolisCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The place is already humming when we get there. The bottom of the tree swims in a sea of presents. The biggest one is for me, and I grab it right away, because it is too big to be wrapped: an American Flyer sled, longer than I am tall. It has shiny wooden slats on two red metal runners, with a wood steering bar to make it turn.

Now, this is more like it. “Mom, where’s my coat? I’m going outside to try my sled.” 

“Wait a bit,” Dad says. “We’re about to open all the presents, and then we’ll eat. You can play with your sled in the afternoon.” 

More waiting. Sigh. I give the steering bar a twist or two. It doesn’t seem like it really works. The runners don’t hardly bend. “Dad, the runners don’t hardly bend.” 

“It’s just fine, son. You’ll see.” 

My cousin Steve is there, his eyes big and round behind his glasses. He doesn’t need to be jealous of my sled. I’ll let him ride it this afternoon. He has already done pretty well at his Grandma and Grandpa Stucki’s house. He got a cowboy hat and BB gun there. His little sister, Betsy, got, guess what—a Betsy Wetsy doll! Even though she’s only two.

From left: Aunt Linda, Cynda at 2, Steve at 6, Betsy at 1, Larry at 7. Christmas 1952 at Grandma LaFollette’s house.

Aunt Bertha and Uncle Harry—Mom’s aunt and uncle, everybody’s favorites—come in through the little wooden shed that stands outside the front door to keep the cold out. (Grandpa calls it “the vestibule.”) They have red-tipped noses and big smiles. They came later because they went to church for the Christmas morning service.

Grandma and Grandpa Sommers pull up in their big old Hudson. Grandpa’s wearing his suit and tie now, with his shoes shined and his hair slicked down. He’ll be on his best behavior—no yelling and cursing here. Grandma gives him the fish eye as they come in. 

We all sit down to open presents. The grownups sit in a big circle. Aunt Sue and Aunt Linda take the presents from the tree and hand them out, because they can read the tags. I can read, too, but not when it’s written in longhand.

It’s like a madhouse. Everybody unwraps presents, whooping and hollering, laughing, showing off, trying on new shirts and sweaters. I get some clothes that are nice, I guess. But my best presents are a coiled metal thing called a Slinky, and a tin Caterpillar bulldozer with rubber treads. It has a key on the side that you wind it up with.

Grownups in Grandma LaFollette’s dining room, Steve and Larry in foreground, Christmas 1952.

I have to wait to play with my new toys, because it’s time for dinner. We go down a step from the living room to the dining room. All the rooms in this house are one or two steps higher or lower than each other. I don’t know why, that’s just how it is.

Steve and Betsy, Cynda and I, Aunt Linda and Aunt Sue eat in the kitchen. The grownups sit at the big table in the dining room. There is turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy and sweet potatoes and stuffing and two different kinds of rice—Spanish, and glorified—and cranberry sauce. And three different pumpkin pies, each one a little different. Maybe I can try them all.

The kids’ table, Christmas 1952. Clockwise, from lower left: Steve, Aunt Sue, Aunt Linda, Cynda, Larry.

Aunt JoAnne comes into the kitchen with something called the wishbone. It was part of the turkey. I get to pull it with her. We each hold one end and pull to see where it breaks. Whoever gets the big end, their wish will come true. I hurry up and wish a wish. I close my eyes real tight to think.

“Oh, I know!” I shout. “I’ll wish for—”

“No, don’t tell!” Aunt JoAnne says. “If you tell your wish, then it won’t come true.”

Really? There are rules for wishes?  I didn’t know.

So I close my eyes again to remember my wish. Oh, yeah, that’s right. I can’t say what my wish is, but it’s not an electric train. Mom already said I might get an electric train next Christmas, so I don’t want to waste my wish on that. So I’m wishing for something else. Something that can make a loud noise.

I open my eyes. We pull the wishbone and it breaks on Aunt Jo’s side, so I win. “Hooray! Now I’ll get my train and my—oops.” 

I’ve waited long enough to play with my toys. When I get back to the living room, the uncles have set up the books from the Collier’s Encyclopedia to make stairs, and they have the Slinky walking down the steps. “This is just to show you how it’s done,” says Uncle Earl. 

Then he winds up my tin bulldozer and shows me how it can drive down the steps. This is so much fun that Uncle Dick does it next, and then Uncle Garrett, and then Richard Henderson—who isn’t even my uncle, yet. Next, they try to make it drive up the steps, but it won’t go. “Goddam grade’s too steep,” says Grandpa Sommers.

An earlier Christmas: 1950.

“We can’t give up now,” says Richard. He takes half the books out of the stack so it is shallower. Now the tractor goes up the steps just fine, but then  it turns and falls off the side.

“Maybe the damned thing needs a new driver,” Grandpa Sommers says. So finally it’s my turn to wind it up and aim it toward the book-stairs. It falls over when I start it, too.

Otto Graham. Bowman’s football card, 1954. Public domain.

By Sunday, when we go home, the Slinky has a bent coil and the Caterpillar tractor is dented, but we’ve all had a lot of fun playing with them. The sled works okay when you pull it with a rope, but when we get back to Streator, I know where a hill is, and that will be even more fun. 

We drive along between the fields of corn stubble on Sunday afternoon. Dad switches on the car radio. The Detroit Lions are playing the Cleveland Browns. “Bobby Layne versus Otto Graham,” Dad says. I don’t pay much attention to that because I’m dreaming about my electric train and trap drum set.

Detroit wins. “Guess Otto Graham will have to wait till next year,” Dad says.

Blessings and Merry Christmas, 

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

A Child’s Christmas in Downstate Illinois

A vast reach of flatness, wrinkled only where streams of water flow. Small towns wedged among square fields of corn or, in winter, corn stubble. A place where calendars yield only 1950s, and people come in all varieties of regular. In this place I am always a boy, roaming bemused through a tall prairie of grownups. 

Chevrolet similar to ours.

In 1953 I am eight years old. It is Thursday night, December 24. It’s already dark when Dad comes home at five. Mom bundles us into the car. It’s a 1939 Chevrolet like the ones in black-and-white gangster films. Dad drives, because I’m too young. (But if I had an electric train, I could drive that. How great would that be?)

Teddy

I share the back seat with my teddy bear and my three-year-old sister, Cynda. Mom reaches over the seat and hands back a tuna sandwich on white bread. Cynda gets a sandwich too, but Teddy must be content to share mine. 

The miles unspool, a ribbon of two-lane highway painted by headlights. 

In a small town called Wenona there is a mountain, the only one I have ever seen. Dad says it’s only a hill of coal mine tailings. By day it is a pink cone that sticks up like a huge pimple on the skin of Illinois. By dark, we can see it only because someone has placed a five-pointed star of colored lights on its top for Christmas.

We zoom along at fifty miles per hour. (By the way, did you know there is no top speed limit on electric trains? Another advantage.) 

Cynda

We have eaten our sandwiches. Cynda has given up on crawling all over the back seat and has gone to sleep. I curl up with Teddy by the cold glass of the window and watch the night go by. Here and there a light gleams from a farmyard. Not much else out there.

Near Princeville, a wooden barricade like a sawhorse juts into the road to keep us from driving into a hole. It is marked by round pot flares, like black bowling balls with little orange flames flickering from their tops.

After two hours we arrive in Knoxville, a town of 2,000 souls, many of them our relatives. Dad drives past the old courthouse, makes two left turns, and parks in front of Grandma and Grandpa LaFollette’s one-story house. 

At the party

Inside, a party is already going on. Uncle Dick and Uncle Garrett kneel on the floor, unscrewing and replacing colored bulbs in a string of unlit lights. Richard Henderson, Aunt Jean’s skinny boyfriend, stands by, cracking jokes and handing them new bulbs. Suddenly the many-colored lights blink on. Everybody claps. 

The grownups stand around drinking from red glasses. 

“What’s in the glasses?” I ask.

 Dad takes a sip from his. “Mogen David and Coke,” he says. 

“Mogen David?”

“It’s wine,” Mom says. “Only for the grownups.”

Grandpa comes in from outside, holding a metal pitcher. He pours from the pitcher into the big brown heater that stands out from one wall of the living room. The stuff he pours in has a funny smell. I like the heater because you can look through a round window on its front and see orange and blue flames dancing inside.

By now, the uncles have draped the lights all around the skinny balsam that stands in the middle of the wall across from the heater. Mom and Grandma and Aunt Sue and Aunt Linda hang glass balls, bells, and tinsel on its branches. “That looks real nice,” Grandpa says.

Grandma has placed white fluffy cotton on the window sills. It’s supposed to be snow, and on it stand plastic reindeer and Santas. One is a red plastic Santa with a brown pack on his back. He is not in his sled but stands on a pair of green plastic skis, ready to deliver his gifts on foot. I like this Santa best, because of the skis. I can make believe the skis allow him to fly, like ski jumpers in the newsreels at the Earl Theater, even though he has no reindeer. I lift him off the cotton, fly him in circles through the air, and bring him in for a perfect ski landing. 

Grandma and Grandpa and all the aunts and uncles make a fuss over Cynda, because she now walks quite well. She stalks all around the room. “My, how she’s grown!” Big deal. I could walk years ago.

The other grandparents

After a long time, we get back in the car and drive Main Street to the other end of town. Even though all the Christmas fun happens at Grandma and Grandpa LaFollette’s, we are going to stay with Grandma and Grandpa Sommers. Their house is quiet, except when Grandpa shouts or curses about something. We have to stay with them because they have enough room for us. Uncle Stanley and Uncle Franklin died in the war. Uncle Ed and his family live in England; Aunt Mabel and her family are in California. We’re the only ones left who live close enough to spend Christmas with Grandma and Grandpa Sommers. 

It’s not so much fun at their house, and I’m afraid of Grandpa. But it is kind of nice to stay there on the night before Christmas. They have a tree, but not a lot of other decorations. Only, in the front window of the side room where Cynda and Teddy and I will sleep, Grandma has hung an electric candle with a single blue bulb. When we’re tucked into bed and the lights are turned off, the blue light from the candle glances off many points in the silvery wreath that surrounds it. It is pretty. 

I can imagine Santa and his reindeer, or maybe Santa on skis, just outside that window, just beyond the blue candle. I hope this year he’ll bring me an electric train, or else a trap drum set like the one in the Sears catalog. 

I want to stay awake long enough to see him arrive, but somehow I never quite make it. . . .

To be continued.

Blessings, 

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Of Orphans and Snowstorms

Absorbing Winter Reads

My wife’s father, Joe Nelson, and his older brother Morris, as boys in North Dakota, spent a couple of years in an orphanage. They were not orphans. 

Their father, an itinerant small-town newspaperman, struggled to make a living. The eldest son, Bob, could work and augment the family income. The youngest, Lou, was too young to be away from his mother. So Morris and Joe, in the 7-to-10 age range, were placed in a Catholic orphanage. The family was Protestant, but beggars can’t be choosers. You could “go to the Sisters” or live in the county poorhouse.

Many of our families have stories like this, often just a generation or two back. Times were tough. People did what they needed to. Many children in orphanages were not orphans. Sometimes, they were collateral victims of family troubles or fiscal hardship, perhaps temporary. 

Buy the Little Ones a Dolly

Rose Bingham’s memoir starts at Thanksgiving—“a very special Thanksgiving” in 2013. Rose’s large extended family has come to her house in the woods near Wisconsin Dells. Plates are full; cups runneth over. They give thanks. Thanks for the strength and grace that have kept their bond strong through decades of pain caused by a dark mystery. 

In 1952, when Rose was a teenager, her loving, luminous mother disappeared, vanished without a trace. The family was devastated. Through the years that followed, emotional and economic turmoil plagued them. As Rose’s father, a talented sign painter, struggled to keep things together, she and her six siblings were placed in St. Michael’s Orphanage, miles from home—a strange, unfamiliar place run by nuns.

Rose E. Bingham

The woes that brought the family to this point; Rose’s lifelong battle, as the eldest, to keep her family together; and unexpected light shed only in recent years on the decades-long mystery of her mother’s disappearance, form a riveting and inspiring story.

It is a story told in the authentic, down-to-earth voice of a wise and humane survivor. I highly recommend Buy the Little Ones a Dolly. You’ll get a lot out of reading it.

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’Tis the Season

And now, for something completely different: A series of Christmas stories from veteran Wisconsin writer/guru Jerry Peterson. Peterson is the creator of James Early and many other memorable Americans—some stalwart, some eccentric—whose doings and undoings are guaranteed to please you and sometimes tickle your funny-bone.  

Jerry Peterson

’Tis the Season, hot off the press, collects eleven of his best Christmas stories, written over the past 26 years. Some are excerpts from longer works. Others were originally written as short stories. This book puts them in one place for the first time. 

If you’re a member of “Jerry’s Army,” you may have read some of these, but others may be completely new to you.

If you are NOT familiar with Jerry Peterson’s work, you have been missing out on something special.

Only just now have I received my copy of this handsome volume. I will plunge into these stories in the very near future. But as a member of Jerry’s bi-monthly Tuesday night writers’ group, I have previously read some of this work in early draft. I have also read lots of Jerry’s other stories. Therefore it is with confidence I say, get this book. You’re in for a treat.

And just in time for Christmas, too.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author