News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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December 22, 2013

MIKE LUNSFORD: Lying by the warm radioside

I am writing this piece well before Christmas Eve, although you wouldn’t think that it can be far away by the look of things out my windows tonight. The panes sport just a bit of frost in their corners as the mercury heads below zero, as we had been told it would, and an icing of new snow spreads out as far as my lamplight can reach. It’s not that I don’t have plenty to do: I haven’t addressed a single Christmas card, nor wrapped one gift. It simply feels and smells and sounds like Christmas tonight.

Eyeing my own breath in the air as I walk between house and cabin step, catching the scent of fir from the wreath at the door, and hearing the familiar voices of Bing Crosby and Johnny Mathis coming from my stereo speakers have put me in the mood early. A cup of hot coffee and a place to prop my feet may just keep me in it for a while, too.

I have been trying to think of some story, dredge some fragment of memory from Christmases-past for a column, but not much has come to mind these past few weeks.

I asked my brother for help at our Thanksgiving table last month, knowing I’d be writing this for the day before the day before Christmas, and he deadpanned that he didn’t really have that many fond memories of childhood Christmases. Then again, he is an occasional Grinch, but my sister stayed mum on the subject, too.

The manger scene my grandmother set up on an old living room coffeetable each year came to my mind. It had a radiant blue Christmas tree bulb fixed under its eaves that served as a faux north star. It had apparently led the Three Wise Men to Baby Jesus’ bedside, their faces frozen in a rictus of adoration.

The livestock looking on were a sad sight, for years of handling by six grandchildren had worn and chipped their paint. The Christ child lay swaddled in a bed of excelsior, everyone in the ensemble stilted and motionless. I used to sit in front of it, knowing that our gifts would be spread out around the table come Christmas Day. My grandmother, a deeply spiritual person, always reminded us that opening gifts should be done with the Savior in sight, and I can’t remember too many times that she even made much of a fuss over a Christmas tree in her house.  

My aunt’s tree was an entirely different story. It was a rather spindly aluminum model, which could have easily doubled as a television antenna in the off season. It had a multi-colored wheel grinding away before it, casting the whole corner of her living room in a garish kaleidoscope of oranges and reds and blues. If I recall, she, too, had a manger scene on display at her place, but that tree, packed in its original box and brought up from the basement in the first week of December, was one Christmas tradition on which we always relied. I sure hope it was eventually recycled into a bass boat.

Most of the people who were in my grandmother’s coal-fired “front room” — or my aunt’s, for that matter — are gone now, the years getting away from those of us who still remember those days. We usually heard homegrown gospel music at my grandmother’s house during the Christmas season, but at ours, we listened to the traditional classics from Bing and Gene Autry and Nat King Cole. As a matter of fact, we heard them just a little more than we really wanted to …

I have related many Christmas memories through this space, so you may already have heard about our gas log and frozen front porch and the Noma bubble lights that fascinated me. I might have even related the time my aunt gave me a roll of rope as a Christmas gift and how I was scarred for life by the experience of choosing it to open one Christmas Eve, the only present we were allowed to even touch. But I haven’t said much about the endless Christmas Eve nights my brother and sister and I spent together, often imprisoned in a single bedroom, my dad a Sgt. Shultz-like guard, stretched out on the couch.

After being sent to bed at what seemed to be about four in the afternoon, we were allowed to leave our beds only to use the restroom and get a drink of water, perhaps use the restroom again, then sip a bit more water, then, of course, use the bathroom. … Each time, we hoped for a glance at the tree, and each time, we were told to get back to bed. Our only solace in our cell was the radio, one that glowed a pleasant orange and illuminated the three half-faces that huddled around it listening to an endless litany of classic Christmas songs until we drifted off to sleep. By the time midnight rolled around, even the announcer was reduced to simply telling his audience the time, which, of course, seemed to move in two- and three-minute increments.

I came to know the lyrics of many of those songs as I lay on my bunk, hands tucked behind my head like William Holden in “Stalag 17.” Of course, Crosby’s “White Christmas” was probably the most-often played. All these years later, I find it hard to believe that Irving Berlin wrote that hopeful song while grieving; he and his wife regularly visited their son’s grave on Christmas Day, for in 1928, the Berlins’ 3-week-old boy died on Dec. 25. We, of course, heard the song before and after Christmas; the movie “Holiday Inn” was almost always playing on the television.

I came to love the silky Nat King Cole’s rendition of “The Christmas Song,” too. Mel Torme — the “Velvet Fog,” “Mr. Butterscotch” — who I often heard on many a Sunday night variety show when I was a kid, wrote the song on a hot summer afternoon in 1944, hoping, he said, to cool himself off. Cole made it popular first in 1946.

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was my favorite — still is — and I didn’t care that it was Crosby who sang it, too. Written in 1943 by Kim Gannon and Walter Buck, it, of course, comes from the perspective of a soldier, stationed overseas, who wants to go home, a sentiment shared by many women and men in our military right now.

The more I’ve sat here, looking out to branches blowing in a stiff north breeze, the glow of a string of green-and-red lights at my eaves, I can still hear those times, those people: Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Rosemary Clooney vocalizing “Silent Night,” the whiskered Burl Ives wanting us to have a “Holly Jolly Christmas” …  

Those were good times, times that were the best present I could have ever had.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Go to his website at www.mikelunsford.com; his new book, “A Windy Hill Almanac,” was released this fall. Watch for his “A New England Journal” in the Jan. 5 edition of the Tribune-Star.

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