I well remember the Christmas vacation when I was in fourth grade. An icy wind whistled down the wastes of Whitehall’s Scranton Street on Dec. 26, 1946, where I had come to live after my mother died. The weather didn’t keep Worm, Bergie, Mick and Gale, whom we called “Goebbels” after the Nazi leader of the Luftwaffe, Chuck and me from struggling into our mackinaws and trudging out to find what we all had found under the Christmas tree.
Bergie was very happy with his new pair of skis, seven-foot pointy pine slats with spring bindings, way better than slices of inner tube that most kids used.
“I got seven-footers, too, with spring binders AND ski boots,” said Chuck. (Chuck was the youngest of the Pederson brood and was spoiled rotten. So rotten that each Fourth of July he’d Scotch tape 3-inch firecrackers to the undercarriages of most of his
toy cars, light them andsail them down Bergie’s steep driveway and laugh when they blew to smithereens.)
Mick got a Monopoly set with metal movers, way better than wooden ones.
“I got a Monopoly, too, and Parcheesi and Rook and Chinese Checkers, and Authors.” Chuck again.
Worm was happy with his new Erector Set. The basic model.
“I got the BIG Erector Set with an electric motor and flexible coupling, and also the biggest tub of TinkerToys.” Peterson.
Goebbels (the war was over but his nickname stuck) got a Gilbert Chemistry set with 24 vials of chemicals.
“I got one with 48 vials.” Guess who?
“Whadja get, Woodie?” chorused my pals.
I hung back, wiping snot with a crisp woolen sleeve and kicking the hard snow with my four-buckle overshoes.
“Oh, I got lots.”
“C’mon, Woodie! Whadja get?”
“Ah, I got a bedspread.”
“You gotta be kidding!”
“Grandma said I really needed one bad, so that’s what Grandma and Grandpa gave me.”
“You gotta be kidding!”
I countered: “It’s light blue and it’s got P-40 fighter planes embroidered into it.” The war was over but I hadn’t forgotten “Flying Tigers” with John Wayne. And then I drifted down the street toward my new home.
Grandpa sat down by me on the mohair couch in the parlor, put his giant hands on his knobby knees. “What’s wrong, Davey? Why aren’t you out with the other kids?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I was cold I guess,” I said as a trace of tear began to come.
“Don’t you like Christmas?” asked the old man, as he opened his pen knife and carved off a tiny sliver of rock-hard Piper Heidsieck plug tobacco (his only indulgence from better days before the Depression) and slid it unto his lower lip. He never spit.
“Didn’t you like your present? It was all we could afford this year. Maybe next ...”
My tear become a torrent.
“Davey, I have something you might like. Come into the kitchen.”
Grandpa put a gnarly paw to the cupboard door, opened it, dug into a Maxwell House coffee can and came out with a pocket watch. It had a stem winder an inch long, and on its face, which was the size of a small pancake, there was a word: HAMILTON.
“I don’t use it anymore, so it’s yours.”
I stuffed it into my overall pocket, put on my mackinaw and raced out the door to rejoin my pals.
Years later I took it to several jewelers, but none were able to make it tick. It’s still in my desk and every once in a while, I take it out when I need to remember my kindly grandpa and his plug tobacco that smelled like wine.