While every Christmas adds new memories, an important part of the holiday for me is remembering past celebrations. I treasure the avid memories of boyhood Christmases like a collector protects his most valuable relics. Many of my warm memories pivot on the “special” presents Santa left for me.
Looking back, I probably wasn’t the brightest bulb…I just couldn’t figure out how Santa delivered the presents. Every year, as we bundled up to go to Midnight Mass, I would take mental inventory of the presents under the tree. When we returned home after the hour-long celebration, the tree was lit up and there were new presents under the tree, each with a note indicating that Santa was the deliverer. It wasn’t until a few years ago that it occurred to me that sometime during the Mass, my Dad had to “go to the bathroom”—it must’ve been something he ate because it seemed he was always gone for about 15 minutes!
Okay, so childhood naiveté aside, permit me to recount the Christmas from when I was 8 years old (that would propel this story back to about 1970). The summer preceding Santa’s appearance was the summer of “miniature men.”
La Crosse, Wis, had two hobby shops at the time. And both of them stocked a slim supply of Airfix HO/OO scale figures. Usually numbering about 48 pieces to a box, 50 cents could purchase a couple of platoons of WWI or WWII Germans, Americans or Brits but most important to me, Civil War Union or Confederate soldiers.
My older brother Joe had been bitten by the painting bug, so every trip to La Crosse, we generally were allowed to go to one of the hobby shops. Joe had a paper route (and the compulsion to overdo most everything he did), so he always bought several boxes of soldiers. I, on the other hand, earned most of my money by sorting pop bottles at our grocery store, so my budget limited me to just one box of soldiers. By the end of the summer, though, I had a pretty impressive army of Rebs and Yanks, complete with artillery.
On a late autumn trip to La Crosse I saw it: An HO scale electric train that replicated the wood-powered engines and cars from the Civil War era. My brain worked fast and quickly envisioned massive battles over the rails as Rebs and Yanks struggled for control of the train. My imagination went even further: I could strip one of the cars down to just the floor and trucks to recreate a rail battery that I had seen in Miller’s Photographic History of the Civil War. While my brother selected more miniature men to purchase and paint, I studied the train set imagining hours of strategic engagement.
The crucial moment came when my Dad stepped up along side me. I wasted no time explaining how great the train was and how it was the perfect size to go with my “mini men.” He listened patiently until I exhausted myself. And with the devastating equivalent of “you’ll shoot your eye out,” he delivered the sentence no kid wants to hear at Christmas, “It’s too rich for our blood.”
Not being easily discouraged, I launched into my own campaign to attain the train set. Not only did I write Santa Claus a letter about it, I sent a follow-up with justification and a third one offering to chip-in, just in case he, too, thought it was “too rich” for my blood. I had confidence in my last mailing to him: I had carefully drawn a battle scene between Confederates and Yankees struggling for control of a railroad. Santa would certainly be moved by my artwork.
Realizing that any good battle plan includes multiple prongs of attack, I did not invest all of my efforts on just Santa Claus. I followed up with a letter about the train to my Grandmom. I knew Grandma’s participation, like the Prussians’ at Waterloo, could turn the tide of battle.
The weeks passed, and I am sure I probably tried the patience of my parents, brothers, sister and even my Grandmom as I maintained my barrage of enthusiasm for a train. I knew a lot of these people wouldn’t know a Civil War train from a WWII coal burner, so I bombarded them with many details, usually culminating with the retelling of the story of Yankee spy James Andrews and his raiders’ attempt to steal the Confederate locomotive, The General.
Finally, it was Christmas eve. Dad closed the store early and was home by 4:30. Before the seven of us sat down to supper in our dining room, I made one more pass through the living room to take a mental inventory of the presents under the tree: Nothing large enough to be a train. It was now all on Santa if I was going to receive my wish.
After the table was cleared and the dishes washed, we all went into the living room. It was an unusual evening because the kids got to stay up late…we would all attend Midnight Mass together. So, we passed the time watching TV, playing games, and for my part, staring at the tree.
Finally, it was 11:30pm. I was struggling to stay awake, but found renewed energy when everyone started to bundle up to stave off the Minnesota winter on our walk to church. The Mass was long…lots of singing, lengthy readings, and what seemed like an exceptionally long Communion (of course, lots of families were reunited for the holiday, so there probably were many more people at church than usual). I fought to stay awake. If my older brothers could do it, so could I!
Somewhere during the Mass, I may have slipped off to sleep. My mom had an exceptionally inviting arm when I was tired. When I awoke, Communion was over and Father was sharing his Christmas blessing with everyone. Mass was finally over.
For the first time in several weeks, I wasn’t thinking about the train. No, at that particular instant, I was determined to get home to check on our pet rabbits. For years, I had been told the story of how all the animals could speak for the hour after Jesus was born and ever since, repeated the performance on every Christmas between midnight and 1a.m. (Man, who TOLD me these stories? I suspect my brothers and sisters thought they were pulling a good one over on me.). Anyway, I made my sister run with me ahead of our family so that we could get to the rabbits before it was 1 a.m.
We trudged through the snow to their hutches. I called for Sam and Lady but they didn’t come out of their little boxes (smart rabbits…it was darn cold!). My sister said, “they are probably tired from all the talking.” I couldn’t urge them out to speak to me.
The rabbits’ silence or just the cold of the dark evening forced me to give up my attempt for a furry dialogue. I turned to follow my sister through the snow to our back door. After pounding the snow off our feet, we entered the house through the kitchen. No one was there. All the lights were off except for a glow coming from the living room. Our Christmas tree was the only illumination in the big old Victorian house.
After shedding our coats, hats and mitts, my sister and I walked into the living room. Everyone was there waiting for us. In front of the tree, a new stack of presents reached out into the center of the room, all wrapped in the same unique paper. A quick close-up inspection revealed that they were from SANTA! No fooling, the handwriting was unlike anybody’s in the room.
My brother Jim distributed the presents (apparently Santa designated him a “helper”—a role I never earned until I had my own daughter). The last one was a flat box about two feet by three feet. It was for me! Could it be? Had Santa read my letters?
I tore the paper away. You know it as well as I did the moment I saw the wrapped present—Santa brought me the train. He brought me the right train—a complete Civil War-era locomotive, tender and cargo cars.
My brothers and I wasted no time setting up the train. As it propelled around the oval track, I went into the playroom and brought out my box of Civil War soldiers. In short order, my brothers, ranging in age from 14 to 18, all joined together with their little brother to play with soldiers and the train. My big brothers could always play “army” better than me, but I studied them and learned to position the soldiers in long lines like they did and mimic the sounds of explosions they made, as they fought many mini-battles. Heck, they were my big brothers…they may not have liked having a little brother always pestering them, but on Christmas, they seem to forget all of that and they just played with me.
After that Christmas eve, I fought many “mini-men” battles with that train as the trophy of the fight. The best one, though, was the very first when my brothers forgot that they were older than me, and we all played together.
Thanks, Santa. Thanks for the train and all those great Christmases with my Mom, Dad, Tom, Celine, Joe and Jim. Those celebrations were unrivaled…until I rediscovered the joy many years later with my own daughter, Trisha (Santa brought her a train for her sixth Christmas!)
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine