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« A Shouting Thomas Moment | Main | DVD Journal: "Pulp Fiction Art" »

December 03, 2007

Lean Christmases

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It seems I've been AWOL the past few days. That's because I had the flu. Today we're having a severe storm and the garage is flooding. Oh, and the cold I was catching when the flu hit has been unmasked: I don't know if it was running parallel with the flu or was on hold, eagerly waiting to pounce. But I'll find out soon.

At least I drafted one of those memoir pieces before I got sick and, for what it's worth, here it is:

* * * * *

I was fortunate enough to have been born into a middle-class family. Aside from the Christmas when my parents wisely did not buy me an electric train (I soon might well have become too old for it as a kid and was much too young to become a true grown-up train hobbyist), Christmases were satisfactory for me in the stash department.

They were satisfactory because of ignorance, when I was little. It had to do with timing. And location.

As long-time readers know, I was born about two years before Pearl Harbor. I have a fuzzy memory of Christmas season that year -- my father and uncle having a serious discussion, probably about the war, I now realize. But I don't recall anything about presents I received.

A year later we were living in a thinly-settled suburb about a mile north of the then Seattle city limits. Wartime. No nearby kids my age. Gasoline rationing that might have prevented me from vising my cousins in town (I don't remember wartime Christmas visits, though we certainly visited that day, post-war). In other words I was celebrating Christmas isolated from other children aside from my sister when I was three, four and five years old; no basis for comparison, but that might not have mattered anyway.

Besides gasoline rationing there were other shortages. Metal, for instance. I recall stomping on tin cans in the driveway (after my mother had removed the tops and bottoms) to flatten them for metal drives. So metal toys were scarce or non-existent. The one metal toy airplane I had looked a lot like a Seversky P-35, sort of like this one:

Toy%20P-35.jpg

Except mine was better. It had a propeller that would spin, the landing gear retracted, the cockpit framing was better-done and it even had little bumps indicating rivets, if I remember correctly. (Sigh. Wish I still had it.) But my P-35 was probably a pre-war present. Wartime toy planes were crudely-done plastic jobs. Another toy I remember was a wooden pop-gun type cannon painted olive drab -- just like genuine army cannons!

Yes, I got Christmas presents. But not many and few or none made from "strategic materials." Mostly I remember the Christmas cards and decorations -- not toys.

Christmas 1945 was still a bit meager though I didn't realize it. Revelation came in 1946 when there was a ton of stuff under the tree. Age seven, it dawned on me that previous Christmases had been pretty thin, present-wise. Even then I suspected that it had to do with the war.

A funny thing: To this day I feel odd, uncomfortable, when I see children opening piles of presents. And I can't sort out whether it has to do with my spartan, wartime upbringing or sensibilities I acquired later on.

I wrote about childhood memories in more detail here, if you are curious.

Later,

Donald

posted by Donald at December 3, 2007




Comments

During the war, when toys of any sort were hard to get, my father gave me a huge box of pine blocks about the size of dominoes. My brother and I built forts and houses and then we learned to set up the blocks on edge in elaborate patterns including hills and precipices, so that the "falling dominoes" would trace the route we made, to our utter joy.

In the Museum of the Northern Rockies at Bozeman there is a collection of hand-crafted toys made by impoverished rural pioneers: wooden guns, dolls with hand-carved and tinted heads and limbs, and a host of other items. Early ranchers and farmers lived in continuous hard times, and yet found time to give their children delightful and imaginative toys.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on December 3, 2007 12:31 PM



My early Christmasses were in heavily-rationed postwar Britain. Happily, American cousins sent nosh: sweets for us children, savouries for my parents. It's hard to say what was greeted with greater pleasure - Hershey bars or cocktail olives.

Posted by: dearieme on December 3, 2007 1:09 PM



Did the landscaping cause the garage to flood? Hope you get that fixed and get well soon!

Posted by: AP on December 3, 2007 3:44 PM



You know, I'd give anything for that fantastic army playset I had in the mid fifties with the little green soldiers, pill box, and halftrack. I must have played with it on a daily basis for years until I finally lost the pieces by taking them outside (against my mom's advice). Anyone know where I can get a duplicate of that old set?

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on December 3, 2007 9:41 PM



I was lucky, I grew up in the abundance of the fifties, when Christmas (in our house on Funston Street, at any rate) was always what Gene Shepherd would call "an ecstasy of unbridled avarice." My favorite present ever was a Gilbert chemistry set, a toy they don't make any more. Someone must have sued somebody, and the fun was over!

Posted by: Lester Hunt on December 4, 2007 12:00 AM



I was born in '41 so I was too young to remember the wartime Christmases (yet, strangely, I do remember stomping tin cans in the basement and putting them in boxes). I know I had a metal C-47 (the military version of the DC-3). But I guess that must have been immediately post-war.

I also had been given a rubber Hitler mask that covered my entire head.

One postwar memory -- in the late 40s, Pepsodent Toothpaste had a radio jingle:

You'll wonder where the yellow went
When you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.

We sang a racialized version of that:

You'll wonder where the yellow went
When they drop the bomb on the Orient.

At that time I had never met an oriental. We employed the word the newspapers all used. Japs.

The more respectful term "Japanese" came to us kids long after the war ended. And I don't remember when we dropped "oriental" for "asian".

I don't bemoan the changing of language. I think people should be called what they wish to be called.

But still I have to laugh at our jokey little song. We had no concept of racial insult.

Posted by: Fred Wickham on December 4, 2007 12:23 AM



Memories of when you were less than a nickel? That continues to baffle me. I'm only 31, and for me it's pretty fuzzy before about 12, a few mental snapshots before 9 or 10 (which I hardly trust), and pretty much nothing from the early years. And you know, I was reading at barely 2, talking up a storm, basically blowing everyone away with my precociousness. I often wonder if there's a causal relationship there to the poor encoding of episodic memory. Eh, anyway, when I head into the second childhood, maybe the first will come back to me...

Posted by: J. Goard on December 4, 2007 8:07 AM



Well, I grew up in a, for the mostpart, non-gift giving milieu and I don't feel that I was deprived. In fact I would go further than that and say that it was a blessing in that I wasn't trained to look at adults as potential gift or non-gift givers and to base my liking or not liking them on that aspect of their behavior toward me. I just think that this whole gift giving business tends to encourage the commodification of others. I know that sounds party pooperish but that's the way I see it.

Posted by: ricpic on December 4, 2007 11:21 AM



J. Goard -- For whatever reason, I have stray memories going back to when I was about 20 months old. Not many, just a few. And in some cases I can link these to specific times because I lived in three different houses between the fall of '41 and '42 and can associate certain things with each place. Once we settled permanently in August '42, I cannot associate memories with years until 1944 when I entered school. That is, stuff I remember from when I was three and four might have happened almost anytime during that interval.

The things I do remember from when I was two tend to be distinct events. For example, when our new 1941 Pontiac was delivered (I don't remember the previous car). Visiting cousins on their farm in the summer of '41, I recall the outhouse and its smell (I'd previously experience modern plumbing).

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 4, 2007 1:11 PM



My very earliest memories go back to age four, possibly three-going-on-four, mostly involving an older woman who babysat for me and another boy my age. One thing that really stands out is the day she and her husband took me somewhere in their new car, a big Lincoln (how can I possibly remember the type of car??)

Another quirk is that I remember far more from the kindergarten I attended at age five than from first grade a year later. Indeed, first grade is very nearly a blank.

Posted by: Peter on December 4, 2007 3:28 PM



I was recently giving Christmas song lyrics rather more thought than may be justified, and pondered this verse from Benjamin Hanby's "Up on the Housetop":

Next comes the stocking of little Will
Oh just see what a glorious fill
Here is a hammer and lots of tacks
Also a ball and a whip that cracks

The song dates from 1864 but is still heard, and I can only wonder what kids today think of Will's list of Christmas presents. ("What? No Xbox?") For a "glorious fill," it doesn't sound like a whole lot by contemporary standards. But it was 1864, there was a war on then, too, and expectations were rather less. There are alternate versions of the song, incidentally, adding a whistle or changing the whip that cracks to a set of jacks (modern sensibilities uneasy about the whip coming into play, no doubt, even though a 19th Century farmboy would have thought it a bully present). (And would a boy even want a set of jacks? I don't know about 1864, but in my day, jacks were considered as much a girls' game as jumprope.) Even in 1864 terms, though, I'm a little dubious about the wonderfulness of getting a hammer and lots of tacks for a present.

In more recent times, it's become common for adults to regard Christmas as that Jean Shepardish "ectasy of unbridgled avarice" for the ungrateful little slugs. I think as a kid I looked at it more as the annual laying in of supplies and necessities (even if I did count toys as necessities) rather than an orgy of greed. Christmas was the one opportunity you had all year to have some say in what your parents might buy for you that wasn't strictly necessary (from their point of view, like socks).

On the childhood memory thing, I can date scraps of memories into the range of three years old. What I'd like to figure out, though, is a photo taken of me as an infant circa mid-1952, sitting in a most amazing stroller. No, I don't remember it at all, but that stroller is a clunky, bulky metal construction that looks like a repurposed lawnmower. My mother insists that it was bought new as a stroller, and it wasn't a case of some home handyman down the street converting an old power mower into a stroller and selling it. I just wonder if it was a case of somebody at the lawnmower factory having a bright idea of a new product line using the surplus mower shells it had on hand...

Posted by: Dwight Decker on December 4, 2007 7:25 PM



Re Dwight Decker comments

I agree with most everything you say except for "I'm a little dubious about the wonderfulness of getting a hammer and lots of tacks for a present" part.

When my son was 6, his mother and I were divoring and I, due to all the laywers, pyschs, etc, was dead solid broke. His main present was a homemade wooden toolbox with a 6 oz hammer and a box of 300 nails. I even wrapped a bundle of different sized boards to nail. He still has the hammer and tool box, the nails were gone in a week.

He's 13 now and wants the lastest xbox etc and I can afford to buy him these things but I do miss the times we spent hammering those nails into boards together.


Posted by: Ron on December 5, 2007 12:00 AM






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