Written by: Bill Colley
Posted: Nov. 25th, 2012
As a little boy I couldn’t fathom the world I knew would ever change, but. How a few decades looking into the rear view mirror skews impressions and I’ve also joined the club that believes my world was a better place than the modern version. My parents thought the same and I’m sure their parents before judged the culture of their youth also better. And these people worked long days and seven days weekly and lived through depression and war. I’m not one of those graying people who’ll tell you, “The country is going to hell.” A government pursuing an energy plan based on available natural resources would restore the United States economy to the roaring tiger it was 50 years ago. This though isn’t a political tome. It’s a remembrance of a wonderful time to be alive.
Home is a small town of 3,000 people. The village at the western side of town is where 1,700 of that number live. The business district is two blocks long east to west and two blocks long driving north. Main Street runs east to west and beyond downtown it’s populated with large wooden and brick Victorian homes. South Street is a wide boulevard of similar houses and a street still lighted by lamps dating to the late 1800s. On summer days the canopy of leaves creates a roof over the street. The large maples do much the same on West Main Street hill.
There is no North Street. Instead it’s called Genesee Street after the old canal which linked to the larger Erie Canal. Genesee Street is accompanied along one block by Genesee Parkway, an older street once facing the canal. A small triangular park between these streets is marked by a large gazebo and hosts the arrival of Christmas season. Or it does now. The park was mainly just trees and grass when I was a boy and it was a third rate park to Chamberlain and Willowbank Parks. Chamberlain Park was seated on an entire block, one third devoted to a Little League Baseball field. For a child it was the social center in summer. During the colder months Willowbank Park was filled with children. It had a perfect sledding hill. A creek flowed along the eastern side and there was a wide plateau before the hill at the western end of town began its steep rise. I lived uphill one block west and another block still going uphill to the south. On winter weekends, snow days and Christmas vacation we would grab our red fiberglass saucer sleds (a Christmas gift one year) and race downhill and across a wooden bridge and then make a sharp right turn on Mill Street, which provided a second entrance to the park. We were impervious to cold and wind and generally after getting home and peeling off our wet clothes our pink skin would itch and tingle as we warmed ourselves over hot chocolate.
There were no video games and we were the first generation back home to have television with 3 channels and eventually even saw TV programs in color. Mostly we spent our time outdoors whether in snow or beneath sunny skies.
A trip downtown after dark (often for movies at an old art deco theater) left you bathed in colored lights. Most homes prior to the 1973 energy crisis were wrapped in Christmas lights. The big old painted glass bulbs and after a fresh blanket of snow the lights would glow beneath the cover and wide patches of the snow would be blue or green or red.
Garland stretched above the traffic along Main Street and was also intertwined with lights. There was just one intersection along Main Street where east, west, north and south met. Our teachers told us the town’s founders, Mr. Smith and Mr. Chamberlain, had a long standing feud. When they came to town from opposite directions (north and south) they didn’t want to come face to face with an enemy aboard another wagon. South and Genesee Streets were the only exception. These streets met at a place called “Four Corners.” The four high school classes were each assigned a corner prior to Christmas. They placed large trees on each corner and competed for a prize for best decorating. I can still recall seeing some of the students on ladders working to string lights. It’s one of my more distant memories. The competition ended while I was still in grade school. Dad told me vandals were responsible for ending the tradition. Vandalism in small towns was rare before the late 1960s. Television, I guess, allowed the aspiring goons to see cities burning and popular music started celebrating anti-social behavior.
A white Christmas wasn’t a guarantee, although. Generally there was snow and often more than we needed. The Christmas Eve when I was 16 opened with sunshine and green grass. The next morning the snow was above the hood of my old man’s car! Memories of earlier Christmases place the snow total generally from 8 to 12 inches and friends and neighbors would probably have the same recollection. One Christmas morning we rose from bed and my dad took us to the dining room window. We looked outside to see deer tracks across the snow in front of the house. No further explanation was needed because there were presents under the tree. We lived in a big old drafty house. My brother and I had disconnected the vent hose from the clothes drier and on winter mornings would race downstairs to get prime seating and warm our feet by the exiting hot air. One morning every winter being an exception. A wide tree squatted at the bottom of the stairs at Christmas. We didn’t think about our cold feet or breakfast or even changing out of our pajamas.
Much of what I remember could describe what younger generations experience this time of year and, yet. My dad wasn’t worried about where and when he would see his next paycheck. He had all the work a man could want. He also knew after Christmas there would be work. He knew there would be work the next Christmas.
One year just before I started school my mom was very sick. As Christmas approached she was still hospitalized and my dad was paying neighbors to care for us when he was working and struggling to meet doctor’s bills. Medical expenses often were paid out of pocket. Rarely were expenses catastrophic but as Christmas approached that year it was tight at home.
Mr. Botens owned a gas station and repair shop called the Motor Inn Garage. He also sold toys and bicycles. When he learned of my parent’s dilemma he had a solution. While pumping my dad’s gas a few days before Christmas Mr. Botens told my father to go into the store and pick some toys from the shelves. My dad paid for the toys in January. No interest. No plastic cards. Almost a decade later on a Christmas trip far from home some tainted gasoline from Mr. Botens’ pumps nearly derailed our vacation. It didn’t derail my old man’s loyalty. He remained a customer of the Motor Inn Garage.
It’s all gone now. The gas station was a lumber store last I remember. My parents, brother, grandparents and most uncles have passed away. Old landmark buildings have burned and the factories where a man could always find work are shuttered. Mr. Botens’ kindness seems quaint when people are trampling each other the Friday after Thanksgiving for some cheap Chinese trinkets.
Describing the way things used to be is a poor imitation. Readers and listeners fill in the blanks with their own imaginations and what they conjure doesn’t quite match what I describe. And so we move aside and younger people come along with fresh memories and “new” traditions and what the older folks remember gets paved over, pushed aside and eventually forgotten in some warehouse for the elderly. A day will come when my name is called and if I get to heaven I’m not at all sure what it will look like, however. I’ve got some hope it has hills and saucer sleds and lights and trees and a sense of community for which I still long.