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New Years Eve 1958

JeffDadChristmas.jpg

(I wanted to post this item on New Year’s Eve 2008, but could not find the file. It was my entry in a holiday story contest conducted by the Santa Cruz free paper in December, 1988, just three months after I had been laid off from Borland. The story earned second prize, which was a nice dinner at a local restaurant. I was 36 in 1988, just as my father was in 1958. The photo above is from that year.)


I heard my old man come down the stairs from the upstairs bedroom. I was awake, and was shining clown-faces on my bedroom ceiling with a ridiculous gimmick toy flashlight that I had received for Christmas and unaccountably loved.

He cranked the doorknob and peered in. I expected quiet orders to “hit the rack, dammit!” but, remarkably, he grinned his slightly crooked grin and said, “Come on out and toast the New Year with me!”

So I slid out of bed and skittered into the kitchen on bare six-year-old feet. I took my usual place on the broom-closet side of the kitchen table. The old man pulled down two crystal glasses with long stems from the high cabinet, and placed one on the careworn Formica in front of me.

I wasn’t sure what to make of it. He had tucked us into bed hours earlier, dressed in his at-home T-shirt and drab baggy pants. Now he was in his best blue suit, high starched collar, and dark red tie with the tiny working slide-rule tie-clip. My mother would be working all night at the hospital, and my little sister was still fast asleep in her crib.

The kitchen was mostly dark, lit only by the bright colored lights circling the Christmas tree in the livingroom. It was dark enough to see the orange glow from the tubes inside the radio on the kitchen counter. Somebody was talking on the radio, not quite loud enough to understand over the Frigidaire’s wheezy clatter.

My old man yanked the refrigerator handle, and for a moment the single bulb within was blinding. He pulled a tall bottle from the rack on the door, turned, paused with the door half-closed, then yanked it back open and pulled a can of Nehi Grape from the top shelf. I watched him fiddle the foil and the wires from the tall bottle, and we laughed when the resounding pop! shot the cork across the room.

He pulled a church-key from the junk drawer and opened the grape soda for me. It was hard enough to score a Nehi during the day (and never during supper!) and here he was pouring fizzy grape soda into that strange tall glass in the middle of the night.

That done, he filled his own glass from the tall bottle. For a long moment, we waited in silence. He had not touched his glass, and I left mine longingly alone, assuming that this was One Of Those Grownup Occasions, to be honored if not completely understood. Yankee was sleeping with his mongrel rump plastered up against his favorite heat register, and everything seemed very warm and safe if only a little bit strange.

“Howcum you’re all dressed up?” I asked. That was the mystery at the center of it, I was sure.

“You ever felt afraid of the future?” he asked.

I shook my head. The future, to me, was full of rocketships and space stations, and the Good Guys always blasted the aliens in the end, right? What was a little scary was my old man the engineer answering one question with another.

“Always look the future straight in the eye,” he said, with a sudden distance that frightened even more than his answering question, “and wear your Sunday best, so it’ll know you mean business.”

In the silence that followed, I heard voices counting down on the radio. All at once, the wordless cheers told me it was New Years. Down the block the big kids were setting off firecrackers. Yankee twitched a half-terrier ear and went back to sleep. In the basement our tired old furnace ground into roaring life.

And the old man was back from his distance, holding the glittering glass high in the air. “Happy New Year, Duntemann,” he said with that paradoxical loving drill-sergeant’s voice that I will miss all the rest of my days. His old-style rimless crystal glasses flashed in the Christmas lights, his ice-blue engineer’s eyes again smiling that omnipotent smile. I cannot forget his face at that moment because it is my face, I who am now exactly as old as he was at the end of recession-year 1958.

“Happy New Year!” I said too loudly in reply, holding my glass in his direction in imitation of his gesture.

He raised his glass to drink, and I was already draining mine before I noticed that his never quite reached his lips.

Instead he had turned toward the empty corner of the kitchen and held his glass in a toast in a direction that was not toward Mother at the hospital, nor toward my sister in her crib, nor anywhere else, but instead in a direction that I never understood.

Until now.

7 Comments

  1. Lee Hart says:

    A great story, with a great picture to match. Thanks, Jeff.

    Until recently, whenever I looked in a mirror, I saw myself. Not as I am now (I just turned 60), but as I was as a boy. People said I looked like my dad, but I didn’t see it.

    Then mMy dad passed away two years ago, just before Christmas. Now when I look in the mirror, I don’t see myself — I see him again.

  2. Bernie Sidor says:

    Jeff, I love that picture. (of course I like the story as well)

    What I can make of it, it’s you and your dad, around Christmas time, playing with trains. That picture captured both of you looking content and enjoying the moment .

    The old style console in the background with those legs are so typical for that period. I remember some of the furniture in the house that I grew up in that had those same type of legs. (I’m 46 yrs old).

    I’m curious, do you remember any more details concerning the picture?

    Have a great New Year.

    1. Of course. The train set was an expensive S-gauge American Flyer outfit that he had bought the year before, with a 4-8-4 steamer and a Diesel loco in Santa Fe colors. My striped engineer’s hat read “The Soo Line,” which was a well-known railroad that passed through Orchard Place outside Chicago, where his grandfather and namesake had been postmaster and owned the general store until his death in 1937. The blond wood TV was a Zenith, purchased in 1953 or 1954. It had folding doors that closed over the tube, and a little red pilot light to show us that it was on even when the doors were closed and we couldn’t see the screen. The coffee table supporting the tree was also blondwood, and round, with a glass top that was over half an inch thick. The plastic Santa Claus was actually a coin bank that my mother used for a Christmas decoration. The tinsel on the tree was lead, and you could melt it by laying a strip across the tracks while twisting the red throttle. The lantern was real, with a wick and a reservoir for kerosene, but we never filled it (kerosene stank) and like the hat it was in fact part of the imaginal machinery of the train set. Carol and I still have the lights that are hanging on the tree in the photo, as well as some of the ornaments. My sister still has the train set, and hopes to clean it up for her girls when they’re a year or two older.

      I remember it all very clearly because things didn’t change very quickly back then, and Christmases always meant that things looked pretty much the way they always did. My parents bought that house in 1949. I lived there until I left home at 23, and my mother remained until 1996. We have hundreds of photos in and around the house (my father was a hobby photographer) and I remember it more clearly than I remember some of the nine houses Carol and I ourselves have owned down the years.

      At least until my father got sick, it was a warm and happy place and an excellent environment for an odd young boy to grow up in.

      1. Bernie Sidor says:

        Wow! You recalled a lot.

        I forgot about that old style tinsel, I remember doing the same thing with my brothers, melting it on the hobby train tracks. It must have still been made of lead as recently as the late 60’s, early 70’s. (or knowing how frugal my dad was, he may have saved it from years past)

        My grandmother bought me a S-Gauge train set when I was real little. I still have it.

        Thanks for sharing your memories of when you were young.

  3. Lee Hart says:

    My gawd Jeff; we could have been brothers! I also had an American Flyer (s-gauge) train set, with a steam locomotive and Santa Fe diesel. I also remember discovering that the lead tinsel melted when placed across the tracks.

    Our TV was a B/W Zenith, with the same doors you described. All our living room furniture was blond (fashionable at the time). Hmm… I wonder if that’s why the electronics was so “dumb” back then? 🙂

    I was home for Christmas. My mom still lives in the same house I grew up in, and the Christmas tree has many of the same decorations (including the Noma “bubble lights” that fascinated me as a kid).

    The trains are still in the attic, waiting… waiting. Them, and so many other toys I played with as a kid. But my son, and my brothers kids are all destruct-o-matics, and would gleefully destroy them.

    Sometimes, you really can go back home, if only for a little while.

  4. Polly Stsrcl says:

    It was a trip back in time for me. I was 17 in 1947 and well remember your Dad and your grandparents. Your talent is apparent in this story. I hope you will continue to write!!!

    1. Writing is my One Big Trick. I’ve been doing it all my life, and now, at 64, I cannot imagine life without writing. Whatever fame I have all walks back to my magazines, my books, and (every so often) my SF and fantasy. So yes, I will continue to write!

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