A Christmas story recalls happy days of boyhood

Every year, I was faced with the same problem: how to get money to buy presents.

My sisters would baby-sit, my other brother, Larry, had a job, and I had to hustle.

It was great when there was snow. I could shovel sidewalks and usually made enough money that way.

When there was no snow, I would go around the neighborhood doing odd jobs for the neighbors.

One year, a neighbor had just had a new furnace installed. He offered me 10 cents a bucket to take the coal he no longer needed to a neighbor up the street. There was a lot of coal, more than enough to take care of Christmas.

I took two metal, five-gallon buckets and proceeded to fill them up. I quickly realized I was in trouble when I went to lift them and couldn't. They each weighed more than I did.

I poured some out, then carried the buckets and placed them over the handlebars of my bike. Then, I found I had another problem. This neighbor lived on a hill, and I would have to push my bike up the hill to deliver the coal. I imagined three trips. I went home and prayed for snow.

The snow was wonderful. I would sit in class staring out the window, watching those large, fluffy flakes float down. After school, I would hurry home, grab a sled and head for the sleigh hill.

There were two of them. The street I lived on went through the city cemetery to a steep hill with the Ogden River at the bottom. The city would put up barricades to block the cars, and kids from all over the city would be there.

The blockade at the top of the hill was great, but the city also would put sand on the road at the bottom to keep riders from going out onto a connecting road. This was a dirty trick as far as I was concerned. I would be going down the hill at least 50 miles an hour, and then the sled would hit the sand and stop. The sled stopped; I didn't.

There was also a smaller hill nearby that, although not as long, was steeper and a lot of fun. After a while I would go over and stand by the fire that someone had built. It was great to feel the heat and warm my hands.

The fire would also melt the snow on my Levis, and they would become wet. I would sleigh until I was frozen, then I would grab my sled and make the long walk home.

I loved the holiday season, the decorations and the excitement at school as we talked about what we wanted Santa to bring us, and wishing Christmas would hurry. But the Grinch was always with us.

The teacher would announce that we would all go into the auditorium to begin practice for the Christmas pageant.

I would rather shovel snow.

We were marched in and told to take out places on some bleachers that had been erected for the occasion. We boys would push and crowd each other, trying to find a spot where we would not be noticed.

Then a teacher would give us a song and have us sing. The boys would begin to moan or screech the lyrics, and then laugh uncontrollably as the teacher's face would register dismay.

She would stop us and give us this piece of advice: "Either we can do this right, or we can come back after school and practice." She said the magic words.

I can't speak for the rest of the class, but I would prefer being whipped rather than staying after school.

I began to look forward to the daily practice sessions. It was a lot more fun than regular class work. I was even looking forward to the pageant - that is, until I learned that it would be held in the evening.

I would have to come back to the school at night. That was even worse than I imagined. But that was not all. Some teacher had gotten the bright idea that we should all wear robes - robes with big, red bows. Where did people get these crazy ideas?

My mother was an accomplished seamstress and quickly made my robe. She also made several robes for those mothers not as talented as her.

The day of the program was not a happy one, at least not for me. I went through the day mechanically, wishing I would think of some excuse to get out of it.

Supper was bland and tasteless. Although I was excused from doing the evening dishes, I had to take a bath and put my Sunday school clothes on. Then, with gentle prodding from my mother, I got my coat and started out the door.

As we started out, my dad looked up from the chair where he had been sitting and watching television.

"You kids have fun," he called out.

How I wished I could be like him, to just be able to sit back and watch TV. Dad had it made, I thought.

At the school, we met in one of the classrooms, where we put on our robes. As we stood around waiting, one of the mothers had been going around the room putting lipstick on some of the students.

She grabbed me and told me to hold still. I asked why I had to wear lipstick. I wasn't a girl. Her reply was so people could see me.

That was a joke. No one wanted to see me, I thought.

"Now, don't wipe that off," she said. She was also a mind reader. How revolting. The lipstick smelled and tasted awful. How could girls wear that stuff?

Those days before Christmas seemed to drag by. When I had a little money, I would go downtown shopping. It was pretty simple: a paperback Western for my uncles, a lace handkerchief for my aunt and grandmother.

One year, I got my father a monogrammed handkerchief. It had a letter "D" on it for Dad. I never thought about getting one with an "A" for Alan on it. But what can you expect? He was always Dad. I never called him Alan. Only my mom called him that, and only when she was unhappy with something he had just said.

My brothers and sisters would get something I thought they would like. I don't believe I ever spent more than a quarter on anything.

In the evenings, we would all be seated at the table for supper. Dad would ask us what we wanted for Christmas. In turn, I would express my latest desire. He would look at me: "That's not what you asked for last night!"

What can I say? I had been downtown and saw something I really liked.

Dad would shake his head and comment that I had better make up my mind. Santa could not wait forever for me to decide.

After dinner, Dad would get out the tape and wrapping paper, and we would all begin wrapping the gifts we had bought. When we had to wrap a present for someone in the family, we would ask that he or she leave the room.

I was always happy to go sit in my bedroom for a few minutes. I was excited knowing I was getting something.

Nearly every evening, Dad would bring out a special treat. He had a loaf of fruit bread that my Aunt Ada had baked. He would carefully cut thin slices and give each of us a piece.

That fruit bread was incredibly delicious. I often thought it unfair that my aunt would make only one cake for our entire family. She also baked one for my Uncle Walt. As a bachelor, he never had to share.

Then there was the candy. Dad's boss would give him a large box of chocolates from the Shupe Williams candy company. Dad would take the lid off and walk around the living room letting each of us kids have a piece.

My mouth would begin to water as I waited for him. Then I was faced with the difficult decision of which one to take. Dad would stand there as I pondered the selection. He might say something like, "Come on, just grab one," or stand there tapping his foot.

I guess he never realized just how tough a decision that was for me.

Finally, I would take one. "Oh, darn," Dad would say. "I know I should have taken that piece."

So, feeling guilty that I had taken the chocolate Dad wanted, I offered to put it back, but Dad would never allow me to do that.

I loved Christmas candy. Dad would buy a large, five-pound box of mixed candy, and pass that around in the evening. I liked that, because he would tell me I could have two or three pieces. I think this is where I developed my love for chocolate-coated peanuts.

As the time came closer, Mom would make a large pot of chili. Then in the evening, my Uncle Walt and my grandmother would stop by.

Walt had a movie projector and he would carry it in and set it on a table. Then he would set up the movie screen, and Mom would get the film cans out from under the bed, where they were stored between screenings.

We would always watch the same movie, "The Fighting Lady," a docudrama of the U.S.S. Fighting Lady, with actual battle footage during World War II. Why he never got another movie, I guess I'll never know. I do know that I saw "The Fighting Lady" at least 20 times over the years.

Just before Christmas, Dad would tune the radio to KLO Radio, and we would gather around the table and listen to Santa as he read letters sent to him from kids in town. He was assisted by his elves, Winky and Blinky - I'm not sure about the names; I could have them wrong. I wasn't much into elves at that time.

To be continued ...