Friday, December 19, 2008

Yes, James Emerson, There is a Santa Claus

Christmas has always been a magical time of the year. Long before people started saying, “Happy Holidays,” the standard greeting was “Merry Christmas.” And, unlike today when stores start getting ready for jolly old St. Nick as soon as the last candle in the jack-o-lantern burns out, when I was a kid growing up in Elnora during the 1950s, the Christmas season didn’t officially start until after Thanksgiving. Then, preparations really shifted into high gear. I couldn’t wait for those exciting December weekends when my mother, Elizabeth Johnson, and I would drive down to Washington to see the elaborate decorations and browse through the gaily decorated stores. My father wasn’t a shopper, so he nearly always stayed home.

First, we would make our usual stop at the J.C. Penney store. Following that, we spent more excruciating time at several other ladies’ wear establishments. Then, after lunch, we finally went to the “fun” stores like Sears, Montgomery Ward and the Washington hardware store so I could unashamedly break the 10th Commandment and covet all of the Lionel electric trains on display at those locations. I have loved trains my whole life. Still do. My grandfather, Jim Rench, worked on the railroad during his youth and told me many stories about his experiences as a member of a train crew. His tales coupled with my imagination whetted my appetite for an out-of-reach gigantic electric train layout.

Those excursions to Washington during the Christmas season were as common to us as a trip to Walmart or the corner grocery is today. I don’t really remember us ever buying much, though. Money was tight and we were far from wealthy, so that fancy Lionel train I wanted so badly was just a far-off dream.

While we were shopping in Washington, my father would usually take the opportunity to head out to the woods and massacre a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. He nearly always came home with a cedar tree with floppy branches that would barely support the tinsel, let alone the lights and ornaments. Maybe cedars were easier to find than pines, but it was almost embarrassing the way the branches sagged under the weight of the decorations, especially the lighted angel at the top of the tree who leaned like she was weary from supporting her wings.

When I was very young, the Christmas tree was always set up in the front window of the living room at my grandparents’ house since I stayed with them while my parents operated their restaurant. My grandparents had several strings of old Christmas lights, the kind that if one bulb burned out the whole string would expire. They did keep a supply of spare bulbs in the piano bench of all places, so that kept the problem to a minimum.

Most of my grandparents’ lights didn’t match the others. Only a couple of strings were the same. However, my favorites were the one string of bubble lights that “boiled and bubbled” in their long, slender, candle-like bulbs after they warmed up. They must have been well-made because I don’t remember any of them ever burning out. Because of their weight, they were always placed on the sturdier lower branches of the cedar tree, just at my optimal viewing height.

Although Washington was “the place to go” during the Christmas season, the stores and shops in Elnora were just as well-decorated for the holidays. The town leaders did an outstanding job of transforming the business district and the park into a winter wonderland. The nativity scene at the park made it all very special and reminded everyone of the true meaning of Christmas. The preparations were culminated by an outdoor program downtown during which all of the kids in attendance received a bag of goodies including Christmas candy, nuts, and the obligatory orange.

One year, as part of the Christmas program, my parents volunteered for me to recite from memory Clement C. Moore’s 1822 poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas (more commonly called ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), in front of the folks gathered downtown. Somewhere between naming Santa’s eight tiny reindeer and him landing his sleigh on the roof, I stumbled over the line about “dry leaves and wild hurricanes” as I still do today, but somehow I got through the entire poem with most folks in attendance hopefully not noticing my near-fatal gaff.

I like to remember that this wonderful program was held on Christmas Eve, but I’m not sure that it actually was. In any case, I was getting to the age where I was beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus, not necessarily the man himself because I had seen him down at Santa Claus Land. However, I couldn’t believe in his ability to travel the world in one night. So, having confided my suspicions to my grandmother who must have passed them on to “someone else,” I took one last look at the Christmas tree with no presents underneath and went to bed.

That Christmas Eve I was extremely restless and could not fall asleep. I tossed and turned and listened for the arrival of Santa in case he did actually exist. Then, just before or just after I drifted off to sleep, I heard a loud noise on the roof. There was some stomping and the sound of sleigh bells. It was true! Santa was real! He was here! I kept extremely quiet and heard more noise coming from the living room. Then it was quiet again. I tried and tried but couldn’t get to sleep. Suddenly my dad appeared at the bedroom door and asked if I wanted to come into the living room although it was already after midnight.

When I entered the darkened room, only the Christmas tree was lit. Then I saw it! A big, beautiful Lionel “O” Gauge train was puffing smoke and steaming around the Christmas tree pulling its coal tender, four freight cars, and a lighted Lionel Lines caboose. It had enough track to make a large oval and a couple of side tracks with the accompanying switches. I watched in awe as the train disappeared into the tunnel, went behind the other presents now piled under the tree, and reappeared with its headlight blazing and its whistle blowing. My parents, grandparents, my Aunt Audrey and Uncle Kewp from McCordsville, and my Uncle Bill and Aunt Kathryn from Indianapolis were all there to share in my excitement.

Although the train had a tag that said “from Santa Claus,” I found out years later that it was actually a present from my Aunt Audrey and Uncle Kewp (who both physically resembled what Santa and Mrs. Claus must have looked like in their younger years) since my parents could have never afforded such a fine gift. My aunt and uncle never had children and decided to give me that special present. It was so expensive in 1950’s dollars that my mother told me that my aunt and uncle didn’t even buy gifts for each other that Christmas so I could have the train. What a wonderful and thoughtful couple!

My dad and I later mounted the track on a plywood table in the basement of our house and I continued to play with it for many years. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited about a Christmas present as I was about that train. When my mother died in 1974, the train table was still down in the basement, the track having rusted from the dampness. However, I still have the nearly 60-year-old train and it remains one of my most cherished possessions.

As for the noise on the roof that Christmas Eve so many years ago, it was my dad and my uncles who climbed a ladder to the house-top to duplicate the sound of Santa’s reindeer hoofs and sleigh bells. It was just enough to make me believe for at least one more year. The 1950’s were such a great time to be a kid.

Clement C. Moore said it so perfectly so many years ago, “Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!” In these uncertain times, I wish it now more than ever.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Night the Harlem Magicians Came to Town

The late, great man in black, Johnny Cash, sang about seeing country legend, Hank Williams, in the song, “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town.” During the 1950’s, Elnora had its own celebrities come to town, but they brought basketballs rather than guitars.

It should come as no surprise to us folks in Hoosierland that basketball is king in Indiana during this time of year. This was even truer back in the early to mid-1950’s when there were well over 700 high school teams competing in the state tournament. Unfortunately for the Elnora Owls whose old “cracker box” gymnasium was no longer adequate to host games above the 7th and 8th grade level, all of their “home” games had to be played on the basketball court of the Owls’ greatest rival, the Odon Bulldogs.

The first high school game I ever saw was played by the great 1951 Elnora Owls’ team which reached the finals of the Wabash Valley Tourney that year. Some of the players on that team were Jim Barley, Junior Courtney, Jack Gaultney, Dale Rader, Gordon Scott, Jack Shaffer, and Frank Tomey. One night my dad asked me if I wanted to “go for a ride” with him and we wound up at the Odon gym watching the Owls in action. I remember very little about the game, but the one thing that impressed me the most was the sheer size of the basketball floor. To a six-year-old, it appeared to be absolutely huge.

Although I now had basketball fever, following that winter day in 1951, I saw very few high school games until Elnora finally built its own new gymnasium which was ready for the 1957-58 school year. The gym, with a large stage at the east end of the basketball court, was part of a new addition constructed on the south end of the existing Elnora school building. Also included in the new expansion were concession areas, locker rooms, athletic office, band room, classrooms, machine shop, and rest rooms.

When the new 1,200 seat basketball palace was ready to host its first action, it was announced that the dedication game would be played by none other than the fabulous Marques Haynes, Goose Tatum, and the rest of the Harlem Magicians basketball team. Haynes had been a member of the world famous Harlem Globetrotters, leaving the team in 1953 due to a contract dispute to form his own squad. The Magicians were a carbon copy of the Globetrotters and played the same brand of high energy, comedic basketball. Marques Haynes was known as the best dribbler in basketball and Goose Tatum was the “clown prince” of the Magicians just as Meadowlark Lemon was known as the “clown prince” of the Globetrotters.

The Elnora gym was packed the night the Harlem Magicians came to town to take on their overmatched rivals, a team similar to the Washington Generals who traveled with the Globetrotters. Although I was only a freshman, I was fortunate enough to sit at the scoring table and help record the game’s statistics. I only wish I had kept my program from that game so that my recollection of the events would be clearer in my aging mind. However, two of the highlights of the evening included one of the Magicians drop-kicking the ball into the basket from the mid-court line and, of course, the famous bucket of “water” (which turned out to be confetti) tossed into an unsuspecting crowd near the end of the game.

I’m sure for most of us in attendance, the evening ended all too soon. A few years later, all was forgiven and Marques Haynes rejoined the Globetrotters. He finally retired from basketball for good in 1992 at the age of 66 after 46 years of playing professional basketball. During the peak of his career, he turned down offers from the Philadelphia Warriors and Minneapolis Lakers of the NBA. Marques Haynes is the only member of the Harlem Globetrotters to be elected to the basketball Hall of Fame.

Now that the Owls finally had their own court again, their basketball fortunes improved to the point where wins finally began to outnumber losses within a couple years of opening the new gym. However, no contest at that venue in my limited memory drew as large a crowd as that first night when the Harlem Magicians came to town.