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