Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Holly, Jolly, Christmas in 1964

I talked earlier about our Christmases but think it’s worth revisiting since Mick and Ted and I are all older and we have a young sister, Mary Lou. In December of 1964 I was officially a teenager, thirteen. Mick was eleven and a half and Ted seven and a half. Mick and I were hip to Santa being our parents but Ted and Mary Lou still believed. Ted had serious doubts but Ted worked hard at holding onto the good things in his childhood and didn’t want to let Santa go.

Our Christmas ritual was to put up the lights outside on Thanksgiving weekend. This effort took about half a day and Mick and I “helped” our Dad. Our help was limited since we were inept but we were able to untangle the lights and hand my Dad various tools. We had a wrap around porch surrounded by bushes so the bushes and doors were ringed with lights.

After my birthday and my father’s birthday (14th & 15th) Dad would buy the tree. The tree was always, always, gigantic. We had twelve foot ceilings so we’d get a twelve foot tree. The tree sat outside in a bucket filled with water in an alcove off the front porch. It would not be put up till Christmas Eve morn.

We might also go to Gaudio’s to see the light displays and pick out ornaments. Gaudio’s was a garden center in Woodbury, long vanished, that had a huge selection of Christmas decorations to supplement their gardening business. If we went to visit our Grandmother Glading in Pennsylvania we’d drive back admiring the various light displays. Not as elaborate as todays but to us, astounding. I’m telling you this because really and truly none of us cared that much about anything except Christmas morning and that never came fast enough.

Finally it would be Christmas Eve! My mother would spend the day baking cookies and making stuffing for the turkey. My father and Mick and I would lug in the tree and set it in the stand my parent’s had owned since I was a baby. Christmas tree stands pretty much sucked back then so we’d use wire to keep the tree from falling. My Dad would stand on a chair and nail one end into the wall then wrap it around the tree and repeat the process till the tree was stable and straight. Or kind of straight. Then it would sit all day, unadorned, till after dinner so its branches could fall.

Mick and I would go to our rooms in the afternoon and attempt to wrap the presents we’d purchased for our parent’s and our brothers and sister. I mangled package after package. Then dinner, hopefully pizza or cheesesteaks, and then we’d trim the tree. My Dad had a system and Mick and I learned it well. Large balls at the bottom, medium balls in the middle, and small ones at the top. We’d alternate between tinsel and garlands depending on my mother’s moods. Then we’d hang our stockings in the 2nd living room on the bookshelf and sit down together in the living room. My mother would sit with Ted and Mary Lou on either side and read, first the Christmas Story, about the birth of Christ and second, Twas the Night Before Christmas. It was wonderful. Cheesy but wonderful.

Finally we’d place our gifts beneath the tree, set out Santa’s cookies and milk and then it was off to bed. Mick and I had recently been relegated to the attic for a bedroom and we went up and tried to sleep. The night passed. Slowly. Santa’s reindeer landed, somehow found a way to get him in our house, and left to spread more Christmas cheer. We tried to sleep. We played chess. We tried to sleep.

Then it’s 6am and Christmas morning and we all run to our parents room to wake them up. It’s the house rules that you can’t go downstairs Christmas morning until Dad checked to make sure Santa wasn’t there. Once we’d get the all clear we hurtled down the stairs to see the heaps and heaps of presents. Mom and Dad would pass them out from piles they’d set up the night before (or rather Santa had set up the night before) and we’d tear them to pieces.

After we’d finished with the presents we’d empty our stockings. Our stocking stuffers were a kind of weird mix of the 1930’s and the present. We’d get little toys or funny things but also, always, a tangerine. A tangerine? I never understood this until I realized late in life that this would have been a rare treat for a child in an America still stuck in the Great Depression. For us though it was just a piece of fruit. Admittedly we didn’t often have tangerines in the Wiler house. Most of our experience with actual fruit, not canned fruit, was limited to apples, sometimes grapes, bananas, and in the summer peaches and blueberries. Oranges and Tangerines would only show up once in awhile…too expensive I think.

After opening the presents Mom and Dad sat on the couch and watched us play with our new gifts. They always seemed very happy. Mick and I would then go to our friends houses to see what they’d gotten and Dad would be left to pick up the mess with Mom. When we returned we’d walk up the block to visit our Grandmother Wiler and get gifts from her. Finally we’d sit down to turkey dinner. Sometimes relatives would drop by with relative gifts. My fathers Uncle John and Aunt Eleanor or our Grandmother Glading and our Aunt Gersh all might stop by to share the day.

It was and is my favorite holiday. I don’t look at it with cynicism or dread. Tonight Johanna and I will be joined by her mother and sister and nephews and our dear friends. We’ll eat and drink and sing and laugh. It’s Christmas! In the words of Tiny Tim, “God Bless Us, Everyone!”

Saturday, December 13, 2008

They're Dancing in the Streets

It's an easy seque from my stupid dance lessons to my first dance.  Spring, 1965.  The cafeteria is converted into a wonderland and the girls and boys of Gateway go to their first dance.  Hop.  Keep in mind that in truth I had no idea how to really dance to the music that was popular among young people.  In fact, I hardly listened to music that was popular.  Oh sure, I knew about the Beatles and every once in awhile I'd hear music on the radio or watch Shindig or Hullabaloo but my musical world was largely shaped by my parent's listening habits.  Which means I was raised on the Mills Brothers, Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra, Tony infinitum.  And the worst of all the worst: "Sing Along With Mitch".  No, there were actually worse acts but my mind has graciously deleted them.
So now I was going to Gateway to dance to the music of my generation.  At least as it stood at that time.  I was going to gyrate wildly to the Twist and the Mash Potato and the Swim and swig soda and fall in love and kiss a beautiful girl under the moon.  Then ride home with my folks and sleep happy with a smile on my face.
I was going to get dressed in a stupid Madras jacket with a clip on tie and tight cords and walk for the first time into the most uncomfortable experience of my life.  Sure, I talked to girls in school.  You kind of had to.  And yes I wore clothes and I'd taken dance lessons and I knew about music.  But I had no idea how all these things went together and I was about to find out how little I really knew.
I should tell you that, at least in Westville, there were CYO dances that kids had been going to for awhile.  Some kids from Wenonah might even go earlier in the year.  This means that they had a leg up on us chuckleheads.  This means that they were more comfortable, knew how to dance, had cool clothes, a cool haircut and could walk up to any girl they knew and ask for a dance.  I, on the other hand, was expert at standing next to the wall.
So this is the way things were.  A row of a dozen or more skinny boys with their backs pressed against the newly painted cinder block.  Groups of girls with cups of punch huddled together, giggling, looking here and there.  And in the middle girls and boys all with cool clothes and hair dancing and having a great time.  This great divide was to be my world for the next 4 years or so.  Cursed and alone we geeks clustered together like fools.  Out on the floor girls and boys laughed and hugged and kissed and had great fun.  
The saddest part is how all of this is about confidence and courage.  In fact all of us felt the same way.  It's just that some of us said fuck it and walked away from the wall.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Dance Lessons

I may be off a bit here.  In my dotage I'm not sure if these events took place in 7th or 8th grade.  I asked several classmates and they were as clueless as I am.  So I figure since it's my blog I'll make it 7th grade.  In Wenonah when I was a teenager the parents all felt we required some education in the social graces.  Specifically ballroom dancing.  None of us shared their opinion but this seemed to be a non-negotiable issue.  By banding together the parents insured that none of us could say, "but Jack Wiler doesn't have to go".  Even worse they used social pressure and hounded us as we visited each others homes.  
So it was that in early winter we were herded to the Presbyterian Church along with the grade below us to learn how to dance.  We had two instructors, a man and a woman, and they loved their work.  We did not.  We began with simple steps; the Box Step, the Fox Trot, and moved onto more elaborate things like waltzes and sambas.  It was torture.  Torture for so many, many reasons.  First we had to dress up in good clothes, second we had to dance with girls or vice versa boys, third, we were not given a choice of who we would dance with.  Our partners were assigned according to an arcane formula.
And so we whirled across the floor of the multi-purpose room of the Presbyterian Church, twenty or thirty young men and women with pimples and greasy hair or odd clothing or weird heads.  All of us forced to comport ourselves as ladies and gentlemen.
We did this for about eight weeks.  The final week we had a formal dance (suits and ties, dresses) and a dance contest.  And we all wanted to win.  Go figure.  This thing we hated we now wanted to excel at and we took pride in our ability to glide effortlessly across the floor.
I'm sad to report that this class has really had only one benefit in my life...when I go to a wedding I can do a mean foxtrot.  Otherwise in the real world of young men and women dancing it was a waste of time.  Next...going to my first dance at Gatorland.