In the North Shore suburbs of Chicago, in the 1940's, around
1947, or so, I was a youngster. I suppose that I had a very typical
childhood for that era. My family was considered Middle Class. My
father had a blue collar job and my mom stayed home. We had a
comfortable, two story stucco house, on a nice quiet, tree lined
street. Our town had a lot of trees, oaks, elms, poplars. Most of
the streets were named after trees. I lived on Cherry Street and
the cross streets were named Chestnut and Birch. My grandparents
lived two blocks away on Willow.
I was six years old, so Christmas was very important to me. There
is a great movie called Christmas Story, about a boy named Ralphie,
who has a passion for a Red Ryder B-B gun. It's a great and very
funny movie. That movie really defines my childhood, it definitely
nailed it. I bet that I have watched it ten times by now and I
probably will continue to watch it. They seem to show it every year
around Christmas time on one of the many cable stations. I don't
think that children ever get B-B guns for Christmas anymore. I had
one that I got used from my grandpa. I loved playing with it.
I would create targets and blast away at them. The different types
of targets that I made were unlimited.
I took plastic car models that I had built or I drew paper
targets that I taped on the end of cardboard boxes. That target
shooting was usually something I did in the winter months, down
in the basement. Our basement was kind of dark and dusty.
We had this big furnace that was always hungry for coal. We had
this small room that was used just for coal storage. There was
some kind of conveyor belt that my father would dump the coal
onto, then it fed right into the furnace. I am sure that was
some innovative upgrade that my parents added on. Not part of
the original design.
But I digress. I am an adult, so I can digress. I just like
saying digress. Our small town, which they called a Village,
didn't have a large department store. We had a very small
department store that was part of a regional chain. Our store
was so small, that they classified it as a twig store, since it
was too small to be called a branch. I am serious. So, in order
to talk to Santa Claus, we had to go to the Macy's store in
downtown Chicago. This was a long drive but we did have a great
commuter train that went right through our village. In those days
it was a steam locomotive, like the size of an Amtrak train. It
went along through several suburb towns and connected them with
the heart of the Chicago Stock Market. In fact, the train went
right into the basement of the Stock Market building. It probably
still does today. Of course by now, the train is a diesel.The
train came through our town below the street level. There were
bridges that spanned across the tracks. As kids, when we would
see a train coming, we would hurry to get across the bridge.
The bridge would fill up with thick, sooty smoke. We would all
scream in unison and then run like crazy.
I used to love riding on that train. There was something
almost magical about a steam locomotive. All that noise and smoke,
like some giant mechanical monster that you get to ride on. Should
I digress again? Okay, why not.
I recall one time going to see Santa, to do the kid thing,
sit on Santa's lap, and tell him what you want for Christmas. We stood
in a long line, wearing winter coats, hats, mittens and being way
too hot. Kids are very impatient. When it was finally my turn to sit
on the big guy's lap, a really awesome ordeal for a six yr. old, Santa
looked at me and I looked at him, my heart pumping like that
steam engine. Pretty much, the whole world came to a stand still.
Time just stopped for a while. One thing I do recall from that
whole traumatic experience was the smell of moth balls. It was
emanating from Santa's red suit.
That familiar aroma took me right into my grandma's upstairs
closet. This was a tiny closet that was tucked under the eaves
in a corner. It was barely tall enough to walk into, as long as
you ducked your head. As a kid, it was the prefect size to use for
playing hide and seek, with my cousins.
My grandma was a wonderful lady. She was always happy and loving.
Her house always smelled of fresh baked bread. When I was old enough
to ride my bike to town, she would call and ask me to go to the store
for some milk or cream or something like that. She would give fifty
cents for doing this chore, which was a lot of money for a kid in
She used to say,”go get on your wheel and go to the store”.
She called my bicycle a wheel, don't ask me why. She used to
keep a case of assorted flavors of soft drinks in her cellar. She
would tell me to go downstairs and pick one and I usually chose root
beer. Those were the days when everything came in glass bottles and
everyone recycled them, (heavy sigh). I still flash back to those
days and consider them to be the Good Old Days.