LCHS Noble Class of 1960
Lincoln Community High School
Copyrighted by Norm Schroeder, 2001, with all rights reserved.
Norm's note to "Wisconsin Sunrise":
The "Wisconsin Sunrise" is just as I saw it one morning a couple of weeks ago [November, 2001]. I really tried to catch the sun as I said, but the lighting conditions were quickly gone. When the frost suddenly turns to water vapor, the term in science is sublimation. Solid directly into gas is what the term means. This is what I was observing as I made my trek that morning before school started. Anyway it is raining now and the weather has turned cold and damp. Deer season in full swing. The hillsides are colored a "blaze orange" if you know what I mean. Saw a dead turkey in the ditch on my way into town. Must have been hit by a car. We have a large number of wild turkeys around here! The DNR program of reintroducing the turkey has been more than successful. I think we got some of the breeding stock from MO.
The countryside is blanketed with a light covering of fresh snow this December day. There remain a few fields of standing corn. Some are partially harvested with only few dozen rows left to pick. The rows of corn with their ears dropping towards the ground remind me of columns of tired soldiers standing at attention. Looking up I feel the warm sunshine on my face and enjoy the bright blue sky. As I look towards the west, I see my neighbor’s red barn and the churning windmill. Retracing my steps in the snow from the woodpile I notice fresh rabbit tracks. In a bush near the kitchen window the call of a cardinal breaks the stillness of the air.
My arms are full of several pieces of freshly split red oak. Summer’s warmth will soon be released by the fire that father has started in the fireplace. The house is decorated to celebrate the arrival of Christmas. The tree is decorated with the glass ornaments handed down to us from my grandmother. You can hear the radio playing Christmas music with an occasional interruption about the weather. Pickles, the cat, is purring quietly on the sofa, nestled up in an old quilt. Mother sits at her desk addressing Christmas cards and writing short notes inside each one.
The fire is now brightly burning and I warm up a cup of hot cocoa. Next my eyes turn toward the cookie jar and I sneak a couple of cookies onto my plate. My mother asks me what I might want for Christmas, as she continues to write cards.
I pause and think a moment. “ I want a model airplane like my grandfather flew.” I reply. (It was not the first time that I had asked for such a gift. The plane was on my list from Christmas last year as well as a much anticipated birthday gift…all to no avail.) My mother did not reply and the pen in her hand fell quiet.
She got up and went over to the radio and switched the station to some polka music. It was” happy music” she would often say to me. Her voice was now silent, as she did not speak of my grandfather. He remained much of a mystery to me. She did not return to her desk, but instead went upstairs. I heard the attic door open. Quietly I stepped up the stairs to the attic. The attic door was now ajar. The cold musty smell of the attic rushed to meet me. I cautiously peered around the door. I could see my mother remove the lid from an old shoebox that had been kept in the safety of her grandmother’s trunk. She took out a bundle of old letters tied together with a brown piece of string. Carefully she took out what looked like a book; it turned out to be a diary. Tears were in her eyes. I turned away and quietly crept down the stairs.
It was not long before she returned and sat down at her desk. She untied the bundle of letters and after sorting through a number of them found the ones she was looking for.”Here.” she said,” this is the voice of you grandfather,” and she gave me the diary with the letters.
The letters were written on plain white tablet paper, such as school child would have. It was written in pencil. The date was December 24th.
I now heard the voice of my grandfather speaking to me after 50 years of silence.
Now I began to understand the gifts of Christmas he left for us.
December 24, 1943
I have just received my wings and have graduated from Bombardier and Navigator School. What a great Christmas present. I have the rank of 2nd Lt. That means a little more pay.
The Texas weather here at San Angelo has been pleasant. I do miss the snow at Christmas in Wisconsin. Wish I were with you both to celebrate Christmas this year. Who knows where I will be next year at this time. Tomorrow I will attend church on base and have turkey and mashed potatoes, Uncle Sam style. I must close now and write Marge.
RA GK 35 Govt. NUE Washington DC 2:25PM 8-15-44
Mr and Mrs Cletus Geier
Route No. 2
We Regret To Report To You That Your Son Howard Geier is
Missing In Action While Performing His Duties Over Germany
For The Government Of The United States Of America.
The Adjutant General
Mr and Mrs Cletus Geier
Route No. 2
Report Just Received Through The International Red Cross States
Your Son, 2nd Lt. Howard C Geier Is a Prisoner of War of The
German Government. Letter of Information Follows From Provost Marshal General.
The Adjutant General
November 8, 1944
Dear Mom and Dad,
By now you have received word that I’m a prisoner of war. In German they say Kriegesgefangenen or for short “ Kriegies” I’m a guest of the German government so say the prison guards. Each day begins with roll call at 7:00 AM. It does not take long to dress as I have only the one shirt, jacket and one pair of trousers. No shoes, cap, gloves, socks or underwear. The shoes that have been given me are 3 sizes too big. I have one blanket and a pillow to go along with my burlap bag filled with straw for a mattress. Our camp is about 50 barracks. The camp or Stalag Luff lll must be in northern Germany as it is quite cold here.
I feel lucky to be alive as there was difficulty in my parachute opening. But I managed to get it open after falling for over a mile. I landed in a farmer’s field near a road and it was not long before a German soldier on a bicycle captured me. I offered no resistance, as my arm was badly broken. After receiving medical attention I was questioned a number of times. I only can give my name, rank and serial number, I told them each time. After 3 or 4 of these interrogations, I was placed in this camp. The International Red Cross has visited me and they have by now told you of my fate. There is little I can do but to write you the 2 letters each month that I’m allowed and to sit and wait for the War’s end.
Tell Marge that I love her and will write her next.
* * * * *
December 24, 1944
Dear Mom and Dad,
Merry Christmas! It is late as I write to you this Christmas Eve. I miss
you both. I received word from the Red Cross that you are now aware that I
am POW. The night is clear and we have snow on the ground in our camp. The
windows have their wooden shutters locked by our guards. There was good
news today. A shipment of parcels from the Red Cross has been received in
time for Christmas. The parcels add to the food we receive from camp.
I think of the warm Christmas dinners we had. I relive and relive those precious days when Christmas was spent on the farm in Wisconsin. I miss your homemade bread, the Christmas cookies, the hot cider, the stuffed goose and dressing. I can only dream of an apple pie or the taste of an orange. I remember the time when as a young boy, we trimmed the Christmas tree with strings of popcorn. Tonight I would eat the decorations on the tree, as I am so hungry. Two rows of barbwire fencing separate us from the pine forest outside our camp. That is as close as I will get to having a Christmas tree.
The gifts of Christmas take on a special meaning this year. It’s just like you said to me when I was a boy, “There are Christmas gifts that money can never buy.” The freedom to come and go as you please, to write and receive letters that are not censored, to shop at a grocery store for food that you like, to visit with my aunts and uncles, and other loved ones, to read the paper, to listen to a radio or music, to sleep on a real mattress, (not one made of straw and a burlap bag), to see children at a department store telling Santa what they want for Christmas and listen the to Christmas story at church as a choir of “Angels” sing “Oh’ Holy Night” by candlelight.
It would be nice to have the light of a candle to take away the darkness and give us hope. In our barracks tonight we will sing “Silent Night” as I play the harmonica. Each airman will say his own personal Christmas prayer. We all wish to be home for Christmas next year. The fire in the stove is only a glow now.
A Blessed Christmas to all
* * * * *
I now opened my grandfather’s war diary. The soil and stains still looked fresh as I read from his pen.
* * * * *
January 1, 1945
Happy New Year
Jan. 15, 1945
Still cold and food is in short supply. Tomorrow is “Pay Day” - Red Cross parcels are to arrive. The bombers fly night and day. Some bombs have dropped dangerously close. Were called out of our barracks again last night and took to a ditch as bombs exploded and sirens wailed.
January 29, 1945
It is quite late and we have been told
to be ready to march to a new camp.
April 12, 1945
Conditions here at Stalag IV take on the appearance of a hobo camp. Can’t find anything worth eating. Damp and cold. Have word that the war is just about over. For many the war is over, as we can’t make it more than a couple of weeks.
Many guards are just walking away. From the sound of the artillery our troops must be close at hand.
April 29 , 1945
General Patton’s 3rd Army 14th Armored Division
For us the war is now over.
* * * * *
I awoke this morning and rushed down to the Christmas tree. Santa had arrived during the night while I was asleep. New skis and a basketball caught my eyes first. Last night we exchanged gifts with family and I was hopeful that I might get my model airplane. But to no avail again. Then looking carefully towards the back of the tree, I spotted a long rectangular box, carefully wrapped in plain brown paper. No bow was attached. It was held together with string that I recognized from the meat market, where my father bought bratwurst. I carefully picked up the present, and slowly opened the box. My mother turned away and walked out of the room. A warm glow came over me as my Christmas gift made itself known to me. There in the box was a wooden scale model airplane kit of a B-17. It was the “Flying Fortress” that my grandfather flew.
The next few weeks were spent putting the model together and learning about the airplane my grandfather flew. I went to the library and checked out books about the plane. In the evening hours I would carefully cut out the parts of the plane from balsa wood. Sanding, more sanding, and gluing each part into place. The plastic bubble, where the bombardier sat, fit perfectly on the nose of the plane. The gun turrets with their machine guns ablazing were in place. The four engines, propellers turning looked so very real. More sanding and then painting. It was painted an olive green. I placed my grandfather’s air group insignia on the tail, aligning decals carefully then glued on. I then remember that the aircrew got to name their plane.
“What was the name of my grandfather’s plane?” I asked.
My dad, working hand-in-hand with me, paused and said… “Marge.”
“It was named after my grandmother?” I pondered.
So with a little help from my father, we carefully painted her name on the nose of the plane. After a coat of lacquer had dried it was ready to show to my mother. The plane just simply looked grand. With my imagination it looked like it could really fly. I placed it on a little plastic stand. The wheels were down ready for a landing I imagined. I took the stairs down from my room and walked into the kitchen where I found my mother. She turned around and carefully looked at the plane. Tears again filled her eyes. She went back upstairs. I heard the attic door open, and after a few minutes she returned to the kitchen. There she stood looking down on me with a warm smile. She knelt down. From a small white box she took out something wrapped in soft tissue and silver in color. She pinned it on my shirt and gave me a warm hug. I looked down and saw my grandfather’s silver wings.
Copyrighted by Norm Schroeder, 2002, with all rights reserved.
(In the voice of Mark Twain)
It was a beautiful June morn, fresh blue sky, soft breezes from the south, wild geraniums in bloom in the woods, and the strawberries were ripe. In these parts there is local festival in a small community along the Cedar River in a town called Cedarburg. Here the citizenry select the fairest young maiden of the town and crown her the Strawberry Queen. They then proceed to have a festival and pay homage to the strawberry of all things. Reading all of this in the paper and seeing the placards around the town, I thought I would take a drive down that way. Besides who wants to make hay when you can pick strawberries I always did say. So I got the buggy out and found "Gravy" the old mare eager to go. Ma was almost ready and after getting her parasol we were on our way.
Gravy made good time as he clip clopped over the back roads, by the small dairy farms with the cows slumbering and chewing their cuds in the grassy fields. I talked to Gravy as we drove along and told him what a fine horse he was. After arriving into town that was busting with the excitement of ripe strawberries I found it difficult to find a place to park. I continued to compliment him but he did not think so well of me after I had to make him parallel park. Not an easy task with so many buggies in town.
Well we made it ok, but the word was out about the strawberry breakfast. I never saw so many hungry, people. The line was over three blocks long and they were still coming in by train, steamboat, omnibus, stagecoach, bicycles and on foot. Even saw a few Injuns in line. Guess we have made peace with them for a while.
Strawberries are late this year; in fact they had to import them from that
state to the south of us called Illinois. They were expensive as there was
an additional sales tax placed on them. They called it a Berry Tax. Well I
told them to BURY it and pass the sugar. They found no humor in my
remark. So I repeated it to get their heat up a bit. Well to my surprise
when I ordered a second serving they heated up my strawberries over a fire
and placed them on a dish of ice cream. I must say I think I may have
invented something. It did improve their taste as all those little nasty
bugs, ticks, lice and spiders that they normally garnish the berries with
were gone, or should I say skedaddled !
That’s when the trouble began.
I said to
him, " If the shoe fits, wear it." He gave a small bark of approval, smiled
again and ran off towards a carnival of tents.
slice a bunch of tobacco leaves so I could make my own chewing tobacco in
the comfort of my own home? More laughter and applause from a most
appreciative audience, I might add.
Let us pray for forty days of rain. HA
Next stop was the tent of Madam Macramé, a clairvoyant from the southern parts of France that borders Spain. She was dressed in a red spotted handkerchief tied about her head, wearing golden earrings and enough beaded jewelry to fill a palace. Her sign read "Fortunes Read, Palmology Tarot Readings, Phrenology -- $1.00. I paid the dollar and thought of it as a good investment as the mining stocks had not been doing so well of late. After entering her tent, she asked me to wash my hands to so she might get a better reading.
Having the left over sweat from the dog that had been accompanying me earlier, still on my hands.
I said, "Why not?"
The Madam smiled at me as she sat down. I noticed she to; wore dentures and had a gold tooth not unlike my canine friend had worn earilier.
I said," I think I’ve seen your smile someplace before. Have we met? "
"No!" she said. "Let’s get down to business"
Her first question was, " When were you born?"
Well, I thought to myself, if she is for real, she should know when I was born.
I told her, "Take a guess, it’s on me."
Her reply was August 4th. " Close," I said, "but no cigar."
I proceeded to reach in my breast pocket pulled out a cigar and lit it up. The real fun was about to start. She seemed annoyed at me…so being a gentleman. I offered her one, but she refused.
She took my hand and looked at it with her good eye not unlike that of an old hungry buzzard. With her other hand, and her crooked old wrinkly finger she began to trace out my lifeline. She said I would not liveto the ripe age of 42. I told her that I was 44 and never felt better. Her eyelids now narrowed and she continued to gaze and read my palm. I pursed my lips and blew a little puff of smoke in her face to add a little mystery to her reading. She was annoyed. I leaned back drew another puff and wallowed the smoke in my mouth for a few moments, then I puckered up and blew a perfect halo of smoke into the air. To her amazement it rested atop the crown of my white locks of hair. Her eyes widened for a moment then she said, " Would you mind if we switched to a Tarot Reading, as the air in here is becoming a little heavy to breath? "
"Not at all." I said. Break the seal on your deck of cards and deal me in for a quick game." HA HA !
She went back to a small table and got a deck of Tarot cards. Two decks with a total of 78 cards as I remember. "Anything wild in this game?" I bet you play a pretty good game of 5 Card Stud, Eucher or Old Maid;" I said. She was not amused. She allowed me to shuffle the cards and do a fancy double cut, not unlike the cut a magician would use in his repertoire of card tricks.
"Something I learned at the Black Jack table," I said.
The Madam took the cards from a deck called the Sacred Circle and played out three cards. One for the past, another for the present and the last card was for the future.
The first card was the Ten Wands and she said" You have taken on far too many commitments, and a sense of oppression weighs you down. You must relinquish some of your self-imposed responsibilities to achieve any of your goals; learn to delegate and leave things that don't really need doing alone."
"You mean that I work too hard and should take a nap. Great idea! When can I start?" I replied.
The next card was the Eight of Cups and she said "This card tells me that you are about to t begin a change that is necessary to bring something new and fresh into your life, a turning point in your life that will bring you new friends and experiences.
"How interesting! Does it begin now, or should I leave now so it may begin." I asked. I could tell she wanted me to leave as her lips grew thin and tight as her gaze became more focused. But I needed to look at the last card so I held my place.
The last card was the Two of Swords and she said "You find yourself in a stalemate situation and you are neither able to move forward nor retreat. It is best to sit back and wait for things to blow over."
"Now that is going to be hard to do. But I think you should get a new deck of cards as they appear pretty tired." Haven’t you got some real cards? I bet you could really deal a good game of Five Card Stud!" I said. She was not amused. That old dog I had met earlier now was tugging at my pantaloons and pulled me away. I noticed he was toothless again.
As I left the tent and my eyes
readjusted to the bright sun, I saw some Arabs had sent up a tent offering
camel rides to the public. Well must I say, I got in line with the rest of
the kids and paid my dollar and rode the beast. This was much to the dismay
of Ali Baba. Ali thought I was a little too big to ride his camel Mus’ad. (Mus’ad
being the camel’s name.) Well he was a fine beast, and we both had something
in common. We both liked to chew. He found one of my cigars and promptly
started to chew. I offered him a light, but he politely refused. He did
wallow that tobacco around his gums and suddenly spat a pretty good wad of
tobacco juice at the foot of Ali Baba. Mu’sad gazed at the crowd of children
with a most discriminating eye. Twitched his nostrils a couple of times,
barked a sound not unlike an elk in heat, and rolled back his lips a few
more times. Next he proceeded to take that cud of tobacco and masticate it
with a great deal of satisfaction and energy. When a young boy of about
fourteen was starting to act smart in front of his mother by whining and
complaining about how he wanted to leave and be with his friends, that camel
unloaded in the direction of that smart-alecky kid, and shut him up pretty
good. I was amused. Well I got a souvenir from the ride. A few camel fleas
hitched aboard and I knew it was time to skedaddle. I began to itch my way
back to find Ma and see how the Visa card was holding up.
The plastic Visa card finally melted
down and I thought we were through.
Well never say "never." There were still more shops, tents, and alleys to
had had enough and went back to the horse and buggy and lamented to Gravy
how fortunate he was only to have to work like a horse. I will need to go
to Nevada or California and strike it rich panning for gold or investing in
the silver mines of Carson City.
Norman Schroeder (copyrighted 2002)
Mother had been unusually quiet. The long delay of letters from my father at sea was a constant worry. The sinking of liberty ships in the North Atlantic as reported in the newspaper gave her no comfort. It was even on my older brother’s mind as he delivered the local newspaper. We all wondered if Father would be home for Christmas. We drove on - the windshield wipers flip-flopped, flip- flopped. Quietly I again looked out the window of the car. I could see the frozen millpond where willows lined the shore. There by the abandoned icehouse stood a solitary pine tree. Here children and parents were in the process of decorating. By the end of the day it would be transformed into a magical Christmas tree for the town. The millpond is where children, dressed in their stocking caps skated carefree. A small brown dog was learning to "skate" on the ice, much to the delight of the small children like myself. I looked upon them with envy. This Christmas would be different, I sensed. There was emptiness within me. I had learned from my older brother that Santa was not real. When I asked my mother, she only answered with silence. I sat with my doll wrapped in a blanket and leaned my head on my mother’s lap as she continued the drive.
It wasn’t long before Mother turned on the radio of the car. When she did, Christmas music began to play. I began to feel more cheerful and my thoughts turned to what gifts I might be receiving this Christmas. Mother asked me what I wanted for Christmas. " I have not made a Christmas list yet," I answered softly. It was the first time that I had not written Santa a letter. There was a sudden bump and clapping from the road. I pulled my head off my mother’s lap and saw that we were passing over an old wooden bridge. I knew that in a short time we would soon be at my grandfather’s farm.
The car climbed up to the crest of Waddams’ Hill. I pressed my face hard against the window again. From the ridge, I could see the outline of the woods of my grandfather’s farm. In the valley below I could see a tired train - the smoke and steam trailing from the black engine. It was pulling a solitary passenger car, two boxcars, an empty flat car, and a red caboose; a train that was winding its way through the valley where my grandfather farmed. The train would make its way again past the farm early in the morning, blowing its whistle once or twice at the railroad crossing as it announced its presence in the valley. Then farmers and grandfathers would pull out their pocket watch and set the time of day anew.
The fields were now covered with fresh snow. The snows came early this winter. In the field were the tied bundles of corn shocks holding on to their autumn brown color. A pheasant flew into the wind and blowing the snow as it passed in front of the car. We crossed the railroad tracks and turned by the redbrick schoolhouse where my mother went to school as a child. In the windows were paper snowflakes that the children had made celebrating winter’s beauty. Soon I saw my grandfather’s mailbox at the end of the lane, the flag still up waiting for the mailman to deliver Christmas cards and letters. Mother turned the wheel of the car and we now drove down the lane towards my grandfather’s house.
The windmill turned restlessly as it stood proudly next to the red barn with its spotted stone foundation. My grandfather’s old gray truck was parked next to the granary. Grandfather was getting ready to go to the mill to grind feed for grandmother’s chickens. Mother stopped the car, then pulled my scarf tight around my head and reminded me to put my mittens on tight. She gathered a brown bag of groceries from the back seat that Grandma had asked her to get from town. I held my doll close and covered her with a blanket again. Mother opened the door for me and I stepped out and looked around.
In the corner of the yard Grandmother had decorated a snowman that my grandfather had made for me. The snowman was dressed in my grandfather’s old black hat and grandmother’s red velvet scarf. His face smiled with an orange carrot nose and an old corncob pipe. The black coal eyes and buttons shined and seem to make him come to life. I shuffled my feet slowly towards the house. I did not need the red boots my mother made me wear as the walk was freshly shoveled. As I looked up I saw my grandmother’s warm smiling face through the porch window. She greeted us as she walked out on to the porch of the old white Victorian farmhouse. Pickles the cat rubbed herself around my boots and meowed. Mother returned to the car and drove quietly back to town.
Such a beautiful house! A pair of cardinals was feeding at the bird feeder that hung from a birch tree next to my grandmother’s kitchen window. The summer porch was now decorated for Christmas. Grandmother had strung fresh cut garland from the porch banisters and railings. A Christmas wreath, with its red bow, hung on the side of the house below the upstairs sitting room. The Christmas tree had not yet been placed in the parlor window. It sat outside waiting for Grandfather to put it in the Christmas tree stand. Tomorrow after church, Grandfather would bring it into the house, and then Grandmother and I would decorate it.
Grandmother left the door open as she hurried to greet me with a warm hug. She stood there in her ruffled apron and told us to hurry in. I could smell that she had been baking gingerbread cookies - my favorite. Grandmother carried my small suitcase in as I was allowed to spend the night. Sleeping in Grandmother’s soft feather bed was a special treat. Grandfather had to sleep in the downstairs guestroom. Grandmother and I would talk long into the night that night. That was when we talked about Santa, how important it was to believe, and the meaning of Christmas.
I awoke early the next morning to the smell of fresh ground coffee that Grandmother had made for breakfast. Rubbing my eyes as I walked down the staircase into the kitchen, I was greeted by the warmth of an old cream-colored cook stove. The breakfast table was set with buttermilk pancakes, maple syrup, freshly fried canned sausages and scrambled eggs (eggs that came from grandmother’s chickens). Hot cocoa was steaming in my cup. Grandfather looked up with his cheerful blue eyes, eyes that reminded me of my father, and asked if anyone had seen his old corncob pipe. There was silence as I looked at grandmother. He poured his second cup of coffee and he said that after finishing the chores he would set up the Christmas tree in the parlor for us to decorate. Grandmother thanked him and told him not to hurry as we were going to be busy making Christmas cookies, fudge and bread.
The day passed quickly, baking and frosting cookies. We were making fudge from Grandma’s secret fudge recipe, and baking Mother’s favorite Christmas bread. The bread had been started the night before, as the yeast had to raise the dough slowly. The hickory nuts we gathered from the fall were now being used. Two oranges sat on the table from which grandma would make a special orange glaze to be baked on the bread. With a small pearing knive, Grandma showed me how to make a small heart in the crust of the bread adding my initials to it. As it would bake the heart would swell, not unlike my own heart as this bread served as my gift to my mother. It was to be her favorite Christmas present from me.
That Sunday it was bitter cold. Grandfather’s old car would not start nor did his old truck. So he started the green tractor. Pop! Pop! Pop! it went. He hooked it to an old sleigh kept in the barn and down the road we drove to church - Grandfather on the green tractor, Grandmother, Pickles, and I bundled in Grandmother’s quilt. We were as warm muffins from the oven, as we glided along riding in the sleigh. "Best have the car fixed by Christmas," said Grandmother," for we do not want to ride to church on Christmas Eve in a sleigh pulled by a tractor." That evening mother came to pick me up and I told her that I had made her a special Christmas present. She smiled and gave me a hug, but she was still quiet. The newspaper she gave grandmother told of another liberty ship sunk at sea. Still no letters from my father. "Will father be home for Christmas?" I asked. Mother did not answer.
Other children at school were also questioning if their father would be home for Christmas and if Santa was real. It was the topic of conversation on the playground, some believing others confused, and some saying grownups don’t believe in Santa. I told them that my grandmother believed in Santa. This seemed odd to quiet a few of them, but others only laughed to my hurt. In the classroom our teacher read the poem, "Twas The Night Before Christmas." She and the music teacher prepared for the Christmas program to be given by our class. The music teacher would take us to the small gym and we practiced our Christmas carols to her accompaniment on an old upright piano. The children then put on a small play about children and Christmas. The program ended with a wish for all people to have peace on earth as we sang "Silent Night.". Then our teacher would hand each of us a candy cane and wish us Merry Christmas as the parents came to get their children. I felt the absence of my father again.
The following week came the celebration of Christmas on the farm with Grandfather and Grandmother. There was much talk about the loss of life at sea as a friend of my mother had received a telegram with the sad news " We regret to inform you…. ." I could not help but notice that we had received a telegram also, but mother hid it in her writing desk not having opened it. Its message would remain sealed. Mother, along with my older brother and I, drove out to my grandfather’s farm to celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The night was still, the snowdrifts along the roadside and in the farmers’ fields glistened in the moonlight. It was a silent night, and clear, as we retraced the road again to the farm: over the bridge, up the hill, down into the valley, across the railroad tracks, past the little red schoolhouse, and down my grandfather’s lane to the Victorian farmhouse. Candles glowed in every window and Grandfather’s Christmas tree stood proudly in the parlor. I knew Christmas was almost here. The windmill slept in the cold winter night as I looked towards the barn. My eyes widened as I saw a meteor streak across the sky. I wondered if my father had seen it and where he might be.
Grandfather was waiting for us at the door. We went into the parlor and placed our gifts around the Christmas tree. On top of the old player piano burned a solitary candle. Next to it framed in gold was a picture of my father in his sailor uniform. My mother went over to it and quietly wiped the tears from her eyes. Grandfather gave her a warm hug again. He turned around and said we will open our Christmas gifts Christmas morning and we needed to get ourselves ready for Christmas Eve services at the country church.
Since we were still warmly dressed it wasn’t long until we had all climbed in Grandfather’s old Packard and were driving down the lane on our way to church. The sermon was given and the Christmas story told again. We ended the service with a prayer for peace for all lands. We sang, "Joy to the World." as we left church each child got a small brown bag with an orange, candy cane and popcorn ball. I thought of my father again as he especially liked popcorn.
On our way back to the farm it was windy and snow was blowing and beginning to drift. I must have fallen asleep in the car on the way back, for I was tired. Hearing the distant sound of a train whistle awakened me. It was then I noticed that I had been sleeping in a small trundle bed next to my mother. She lay there sleeping quietly. I pulled the quilt from my bed and went over to the frosty window. There in the moonlight I could make out the "Christmas Train" pulling away slowly from the railroad crossing as if it had stopped. A single passenger car, dimly lighted, continued its journey into the night with the wind blowing the snow across the barren fields and lonely roads. I then looked into the sky for Santa and his reindeer. For a moment I thought I had seen something fly across the face of the moon. Looking again, it had vanished. "Was it Santa?" I asked myself. It was Christmas and I still believed. I returned to my bed and closed my eyes and fell fast asleep waiting for the arrival of Christmas and its early morning light.
As the morning unwrapped itself from the night, I awoke again. In a dreamy state I found myself feeling warm and cradled with warmth. My sleepy eyes saw the Christmas tree in the parlor aglow with lights. Below its outstretched limbs were Christmas presents joyfully wrapped in holiday paper and red bows. Surrounding the Christmas tree was a small train waiting for a child to wind and make it go. On the piano bench was a sailor cap. I looked up, rubbed my eyes and saw my father’s blue eyes smiling at me. He had carried me downstairs, in my sleep waiting for me to awaken. When I did, I understood the special gift that the "Christmas Train" had brought to me that early Christmas morning.
Copyrighted by Norm Schroeder, 2003, with all rights reserved.
As graduation day approaches our local high school, I reflect upon my high school years. I sit with the faculty of school where I teach, behind the school board members, administrators and our speaker for this afternoon. In a few moments these young men and women will march across the stage and receive their diploma. A few of the graduates will look out at the audience of family, friends and guests, take that one last look at their assembled class, and move on to their next endeavor. For many of them they will not personally reacquaint themselves with their classmates or teachers. The realization that that this era in their life is about to close, brings tears to some and for others, great joy of relief and accomplishment. For most, that opportunity to reacquaint themselves with their high school classmates will come in the form of an invitation to attend their high school class reunion. Did the reunion committee track you down with a little help from the FBI or CIA? As a last resort, perhaps, they found help from your mother or a brother or sister. Did you remember to return the RSVP? For myself the notice arrived in the mailbox on the porch.
The invitation to attend my class reunion arrived in the mail over six months ago. With some hesitation… I opened it. At the bottom of the page I recognized one of the names on the class reunion committee. Even after high school some of my classmates were still socially active in keeping our class together, keeping in touch. Some truly friends for life. For me, I suppose I was easy to find. My address had not changed since graduation.
Inside of me I felt a strong yearning to acquaint myself with former friends, classmates and a few of my former teachers. It would be a chance to relive some of those memories of the sanguine days of our high school years. I mentally began to prepare myself to attend. It seemed like only yesterday, but twenty years have already passed since my graduation from high school.
Was I ready to attend? That is the question that I needed to answer and was struggling with.
Looking in the hall mirror, I noticed that I had put on a few pounds over the past few years. (My mother is such a good cook.) Grudgingly I decided to lose a few pounds to make myself look a bit more youthful. I also noticed more than a few gray hairs had made their self-visible. I made a note to get a bottle or two of "Just for Men" dark brown hair coloring. The television advertising of the desires of a more youthful look was having its effects on me. Five minutes in the shower and the dark brown gel would do wonders to erase much of the age that has crept up on me. So, I whimsically dreamt.
Working in a retail environment under fluorescent lights had done nothing for my pink skin…I noticed. From the local paper I filled out a registration form for a number of discounted tanning sessions at a local tanning salon. Their motto was " You can get that man, with one of our tans." Anyway I wanted to look like I had been to Arizona or Florida over the winter playing golf. When the golf course would open up, I would be out on the links mowing grass to work on my tan. (I had worked part-time at the golf course since high school.) I wanted to look real good and tan! If this was not enough I enrolled in the local fitness club at half price for the past few months. Running on the treadmill, lifting weights, and of all things I began to eat my vegetables. My mother noticed! My trainer had given me a special diet, and more exercise which would help me lose some of the flab. Exercise, I thought, is this what they really mean by graduation exercises? I had acquired more than just a few pounds at my job in retail sales. The mirrors in the fitness center do not hide the truth of one’s appearance.
In about three months the people that came into the store had noticed quite an improvement in my looks and many were generous with their compliments. I am really beginning to feel good about my reawakened youthful appearance. I became a regular reader of Man’s Health, took fast releasing, fortified vitamins, and drank carrot juice! When I looked in the mirror … I found I didn’t look over forty-five.
Our class reunion was to be held at the local Elks Lodge. Great I thought, there the lighting would be low and no one will notice the little lines that have crept around my eyes and across my forehead. The festivities were to begin with cocktails at 5:30 P.M. Dinner to follow at 7:00 PM. Well, I thought, I should plan on arriving about 6:30. That would give me enough time to visit some of my classmates and choose a table where I felt comfortable; making sure that the table lighting was subdued. I made it a point not to seek out or to sit with those who have already made a million dollars or more and may have formed their own company. And who knows what classmates have been to graduate school and are engaged in scientific research for some pharmaceutical company or work or I Net company having tons of stock options? All of this making the rest of us look like a collection of hapless failures that gather at the local laundromat on a Saturday evening.
My self, I was still living at home, still saving for a house. I have held a steady job at Barr’s Shoe Store now for over twenty years. My title is assistant store manger. "Making happy feet" is the store’s motto. (It’s on my nametag and business card.) I still have the upstairs bedroom that I had when I was in high school. The view from the dormer looks out onto a maple-lined street. It’s quiet and peaceful. I can see the playground where I played ball as a kid. As I look back on my accomplishments, I’m still proud of the trophy I received in the third grade as being the spelling bee champion for Central School. My framed blue ribbon, that I won at the county fair for having the best Pez collection, hangs on the far wall next to a framed picture of me and the shoe store manager proclaiming me as employee of the month. Next to an empty milk glass and a plate of half eaten chocolate chip cookies, sits a glass enclosed ant farm. It has been a source of constant company for me since my high school science fair days. I’m still self-conscious and cautious as always. I still have my high school graduation present- an Amity leather wallet. A small little circular ring a little bigger than a quarter is embossed into the wallets inside cover. Like a good boy scout, I have been prepared for that special moment for over twenty years.
I make a mental note to ask mother for the keys to the station wagon next Saturday night. . It is a cream colored, four door, Ford Country Squire with the fake brown wood trim. I write a small note to myself on the Boss Drug Store calendar that hangs on back of my bedroom door. " Class reunion at Elks Club" and highlight it in yellow. It’s the only entry for the month of August. Mother thinks that it is nice that I’m going to attend my class reunion. She is as interested as I am in what had happened to many of my classmates over the years.
The day of the class reunion is finally here. The family wagon is washed, waxed and vacuumed. 1977 must have been a good year for Fords. A little green pine tree air-freshener hangs from the cigarette lighter. My dark brown hair looks real good I tell myself as I check myself out again in the review mirror. Off to the Elks Club I drive. When I arrive, I’m careful of where to park. I feel it is best not to bring to much attention to the fact that I am still driving my parents car. This feeling of being a little bit uncomfortable and insecure is nothing new. At the registration desk I found that my nametag was missing so they had to make a quick one for me! One of the girls sings that song that has haunted me over the years…Norman, ohh, oh darling Norman. I blush and head for the bar thinking that I must have forgotten to mail in the RSVP.
It was after the meal and a couple more old fashions when I began to relax. It was there that several of my classmates and I were discussing the successes and failures in our lives over the past twenty years. Then someone asked the question " Do you remember our commencement address?" Without exception almost everyone did. When I began asking other friends and later relatives, that event passed without being recorded in any detail Most of my classmates could not recall their commencement address from college.
Let me "visit" that event with you, or should I say "invite" you to my high school graduation and the commencement address so vividly etched into my memory.
As I close my eyes I can see Lincoln High come alive with its hustle and bustle of students standing by their empty lockers one last time. I can see that we are dressed in a blue mortarboard, tassel and matching gown. We are standing inline in the hallway outside the gymnasium. There is the constant chatting with friends, the making of well wishes, telling jokes, and a small prank or two as we were all placed in alphabetical order. Over the intercom came the cue for us to begin our march into the gymnasium, into the rows of folding chairs placed on the gym floor to the familiar song " Pomp and Circumstance’. I hear the tired piano come to life as the music teacher, Miss Dorothy Sharp, plays the first chords of the traditional melody. We march in tall, proud, young and full of youthful pride and ambition. I see my mother and father sitting in the bleachers. Father has his camera and flashes a picture of me as I walk by. I smile as other cameras join in and record the event for prosperity.
We sit down in the same seats that we have been so carefully rehearsed only the day before, lest we get out of line and get the wrong diploma. The basketball boards have been cranked back towards the ceiling and secured. We sit facing the stage at the east end of the gymnasium. The scoreboard and clock have played their last game for our class. We rise and we all join in and say the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. The flag hangs just above the scoreboard. The tired velvet black curtains trimmed in gold frame the stage. The stage sits above the basketball court to the east end of the gym. Here the dignitaries sit to anoint us with words of wisdom. On the stage floor reside two vases of pink gladiolas on each side of the podium. On the floor, just to the left of the podium, sits a recently tuned upright piano with Miss Sharp. The superintendent now makes a few opening remarks. The pastor follows with a prayer. The school board president has a few remarks for our class, of which his daughter is a part. He quotes Lincoln and something from his Gettysburg Address. (I have a feeling it is the only famous quote he can recall.) Mr. Hodgson, the principal, now introduces our speaker for our commencement address.
We all have noticed our speaker as soon as the curtains have parted. He sits apart from the others of our community here gathered for this important occasion. He is dressed in a white suit with a blue button down collar and dark blue tie. We notice that he is wearing dark glasses and is led to the podium with his white walking cane. It is our speaker Allen Potter. In the short introduction he is simply addressed as " A teacher of the blind:" I’m puzzled. How can a teacher of the blind be blind? He gives us a short biographic sketch of himself explaining how he became blind as a child because of an illness. The faces of his parents, uncles, aunts, home, church, the sky, his hometown, dad’s car, and the sports heroes are all frozen in time. The year was 1971. A time of peace demonstrations and of a conflict in South East Asia. He said he was only fourteen years old at the time. He now must be in his fifties. He has titled his presentation after Helen Keller’s short story, "The Seeing See Little," or "What did you see having passed this far or failed to see?"
I now remember the trouble that the principal had in the setting up of a large white screen sitting on a tripod with chrome legs positioned at the back of the stage. A slide projector with a carrousel of slides was plugged in and the long cord with a control button to advance the slides was turned over to our speaker. Of all things, I thought, this is going to be a commencement address with a slide show presented by a blind person. How can a blind person do such a thing? We are keenly attentive to our speaker, in fact I remember the astonished feeling I had, for I wear glasses and it is a secret fear that I always had that I might go blind. Our class was unusually quiet as well as were the rest of the guests. We are now totally captivated.
The lights of the gymnasium are now turned off except for the glowing red exit lights. With a cue from the principal, he begins his presentation. I remember it more like a conversation one would have with a gentle uncle. His first slide is that of himself at the age of fourteen. He tells us this is how he looks even today. According to him he had not aged. We laugh a little. Next are the pictures of his parents, brothers and sister. It looked like a vacation picture from out west on a camping trip. The trailer in the background, and he and his dad were showing off the fish that they had caught that day. They were first on his list of heroes. Next he showed us a picture of Helen Keller and told us of her accomplishments. Author, lecture, could speak foreign languages, all of this without ever hearing her own voice or the voice of her teacher. He told us her first words were "water". He held in his hand some cards from which I think he was reading. I began to wonder if he was really blind or was this just a stunt.
The next slides were that of Ray Charles and Chubby Checker. He said he enjoyed their music and did not notice their skin color. How could he, he said, all people look black to me. There was a quiet laughter that filtered through the crowd. Next he showed a slide of the constitution of the United States of America. He said he had read it wondered if we would remember its importance. Liberty, freedom, and justice we experience, are not particularly seen, but we see their injustice and its effects. He showed us slides of the Grand Canyon, the president’s faces on Mt. Rushmore, the Golden Gate Bridge, the rugged Rocky mountains, a summer rainbow, puffy clouds, a farmer’s wheat field, an old abandoned house in need of paint, children swinging from a swing, playing baseball, and a marching band at a football game, a homecoming queen and king, and a girl and boy dancing at the prom followed by what may have been their first kiss. He told us to notice the little things that are so often missed as we live each day. I remember at that moment the scent of lilacs drifting into the gymnasium.
Next came a picture of his "bride" he called her. She was so youthful and had a captivating smile; smile that he never saw, I reconciled to myself. Next were the pictures of his two children, dressed in their play clothes playing in a sandbox. Not unlike the one I had played in. Each picture brought back a special memory to me and I’m sure our audience.
Next came a picture of a covered bridge and fall foliage. He said he liked to hike along a country road and listen to the sounds of a running brook and the squeak of the boards as he walked across this bridge. It was not unlike the bridge from Madison County, Iowa, that my mother had once described where she met my father. Next there was a slide from the view of a microscope. They were cells. We had been taught about the importance of cells in Mr. Proctor’s biology class; how one cell can make a difference, especially if it is cancerous. That brought a chill to me then and still does today. He must have enjoyed nature as he showed us slides of snow crystals, arching rainbows, flowers in a garden, pollinating bees, the wave of a pounding surf, blinking lightning bugs, popping bubbles, early morning dew, colorful butterflies, a colt and her mother, cows in a meadow, Halley’s comet, and pictures of stars and galaxies.
He walked out from behind the podium as if to get a better look at the slide of the Milky Way he was describing. He said he wanted to get a better view. We laughed. He backed up nearing the edge of the stage. Then without warning he turned around and "looked at us", took one step off the stage falling to the gymnasium floor scattering his note cards in disarray. The audience gasped, he was unshaken. "I should have looked before I leaped." He quipped. His note cards, now in disarray, lay on the gym floor. He asked Victoria Thornton, who sat in the first seat in the front row, the class valedictorian, to put them in order, as they were all numbered. We now could see that they were all in brail. She was embarrassed. He said "The seeing see little," and quickly had them all back in order. I think the lesson there was we need to learn how to see and feel what we see.
He found the edge of the stage and with out a moment’s hesitation, jumped back up and found the podium, with just a little help from Mr. Hodgson. Addressing the graduation class, "We do not understand our fate or how we will land. " He turned the accident into a learning situation. " Each day is an opportunity to see and to learn." Carpe Diem it is said in Latin Mrs. Eberle would quote.
If you can’t "see", try to understand, for you have been given the gift of sight. Remember how to use it. Remember what you have gained from it. Life is so much easier if you just do kind things. Be kind to all of God’s creations. Remember to laugh, especially at yourself.
I remember his parting words as he wished us well.
"Be of good health; be generous with warm hugs; do good work and keep in touch. If I can’t see you, you know that you are on my mind. The little lessons in life, the little kind things that you do will be the most important. I now pass that on to you," He said. He left the stage but not our memory.
Our class was called to stand. Our names were announced and we came forward to receive our diploma. As done in generations before us, there was the congratulatory handshake, and the lifting of the tassel from its right side to the left as we were presented our diploma. We marched out into the world leaving our graduation behind us… we thought.
I still like chocolate chip cookies and milk.
A light dusting of snow has just fallen this cold November day. It does not quite cover the blades of grass in the lawn, but it does cover the sidewalks. The gaggling sounds of geese are heard overhead as they hurriedly fly south. I see where a rabbit has been in my yard. On the sidewalk I notice the small footprints of children scuffling along their way to school. I’m out sweeping the porch steps off while thinking about this year’s Christmas Walk. I pick up the morning paper and return to the house to get my car keys to drive downtown.
As I drive I’m still thinking of the Christmas Walk. It will take place the first weekend of December. Soon an announcement will be placed in the local paper and on placards around town that inform us of this upcoming event. The Christmas Walk is sponsored by merchants and service organizations that donate their time and money to promote the spirit of Christmas. A historical home is often selected as the setting for this annual event. The local historical society asked if I would talk to my wife Martha and see if we would like to place our house on display for the holiday season. (Hmm, did I say yes and forget to tell Martha?) I have always taken pride in my home and worked hard to keep it up. It is a home of a steep red tiled roof, shuttered windows, fieldstone foundation and walls…not the typical clapboard siding or brick often found in the older homes. It is a home rich in character and comfort. It was one of the early homes of the community built from the stones that were gathered from the farm fields that surround the community. It sets near the wooded park where in summertime families gather for picnics, reunions, band concerts and graduation exercises. I have enjoyed many a warm summer evening listening to the band concerts through an open window in my study.
My town is quite proud of its Christmas Walk. Many people are drawn to the community and its charm to celebrate the season. It is a quiet town where once passenger trains made a daily stop at the depot. The depot still stands and serves food, not passengers. (The last passenger train left town in March of 1969 and the last freight train passed through the week before Christmas of 2001.) The state is in the process of acquiring the right of way to turn the rails into a bike trail. The town changes slowly.
The children of the community still wait with anticipation for the millpond to freeze over so that they can ice skate. The streetlights are decorated with garlands…each light pole hand wrapped. Each streetlight is crowned with a large green wreath. Tied to the wreath you can see a red bow blowing in the wind. A community Christmas tree is carefully decorated with strings of colorful lights and handmade decorations by local artisans. Next to the tree sits an old red sleigh filled with a large brown bag with joyfully wrapped presents. Just before you cross over the bridge you are reminded of the time by an old village clock standing tall and proud. Its hands pointing to the large Roman numerals we learned as schoolchildren. You can see the small children pressing their rosy faces against the frosted windowpanes of the family car as it passes over the bridge by the millpond. The children are dreaming of Christmas day and the presents that Santa will leave under the tree at home, I remind myself.
My car stops at the only streetlight in town. It is at the corner of Mill and Stafford Streets. I park my vintage Ford that I have restored and put a nickel in the meter. A banner suspended across the intersection proclaims "Peace on Earth". An old man sweeps the snow from the walk as a volunteer from the Salvation Army rings his bell. The pealing bell calls us to give. I walk over to the red pot on its tripod stand and make a donation. He thanks me and wishes me a Merry Christmas and rings his bell again. I’m on my way to the hardware store to purchase some more lights for the pine tree out in front of the house.
I ran into the president of the Historical Society and he reminded me for a second time that they wanted to feature our house for the Christmas Walk. My reply was it would be ok. (I think I did talk to Martha about it.) Thinking about it again, I recall that she felt a little anxious about people coming into our house that we did not know. I reminded her how she had enjoyed the other homes of the community. I felt that we could do it with some neighborly help from the local business people and the Junior Woman’s Club. She was a past member and served on various committees in the community. She reluctantly agreed. Our home would need a good house cleaning she told me, and I agreed to give her a big helping hand.
We have lived in this old fieldstone house now for almost fifteen years. I saw the house listed in the local paper. I phoned the realtor with an offer and when I drove by the realtor’s sold sign was already up. My wife told me that the owner was placed into a nursing home. I knew her and her husband both, as I delivered the newspaper to their door when I was a young boy. His name was Glenn and his wife was called Emily. I was told that Glenn had helped his dad and uncle build the house. They were both from Germany around the turn of the century. That would be slightly over hundred years ago. When in 1948 Glenn’s health began to fail, he and Emily decided it would be a good time to give up milking and sell the cows, move to town, and take care of his aging mother who was living in the house at the time. It was a difficult decision to make as all their life had been spent together scraping out a living by farming and milking cows. It was all that Glenn and Emily had known. You could tell that he had worked hard as his hands were strong and callused from the years of milking cows and farm work. I remember them both with fondness, especially at Christmas, for they would invite me in this old stone house and serve me hot cider and her special fruit cookies by the fireplace on a cold winter’s day.
It was the mid part of November when we began getting the house ready for the Historical Society and their Christmas Walk. The downstairs rooms needed just a thorough cleaning, windows washed, drapes cleaned, rug shampooed, woodwork tightened up and touched up with a little stain and paint where needed. Martha wanted a nice coffee table and a new set of love sofas to be placed by the fireplace. The old Philco TV was taken to the Goodwill store. I began to feel a bit of a pinch in my wallet. We haven’t made it to the upstairs yet, I thought.
The upstairs had been remodeled by the previous owners some thirty-plus years ago. We were always going to do it, and now was the perfect time to get it done. We had about twenty days to complete the task. It was our intention to change the wallpaper in what was a children’s bedroom that we now used as a guest bedroom. An antique wrought iron bed, painted enamel white, was to be placed in the room. We found a small bureau with an attached oval mirror at an antique store that had been refinished nicely. Martha would use one of her handmade quilts to add a warm touch to the room. A small shelf I made to attatch to the wall would hold a Seth Thomas steeple clock. A small bookcase would provide a place to place a few old books and a couple of stuffed bears my wife collects. An antique brass lamp would sit on an end table next my grandmother’s sewing rocker. A new colonial hooked rug was laid on the hard maple floor. The floor still looked good, as they had been refinished shortly before we took possession of the house. New drapes were brought in to coordinate with the new wallpaper. Luckily for me, we had only one small window in the bedroom. A picture a local artist had painted of a barn was framed and hung on the wall.
The adjoining room had been used as a small reading room and catch all. It was one of those rooms you kept closed when company comes into your house. It had cheap wood paneling placed over one end of it and the wallpaper was in need of something not so dated. The large floral pattern from the era of the 50’s just never did much to the room. A good friend from our church offered to help me with the remodeling of the room. I wanted to strip the walls of the old paper and remove the paneling. The crown moldings would be replaced and a new dimmer switch was to be wired in. I also would rewire the room to accept a computer connection. I wanted a new computer desk and a new laptop computer. An antique ladies writing desk I had refinished I planned to move into the room. This would become my computer desk. I would but have to wait until after Christmas for the laptop for they would be on sale after the holiday. I went to the library and checked out a couple of Bob Vila’s videos on "This Old House" and got some helpful hints. I wish I were as good at woodworking as Norm Abrams is. However, my friend was good at woodworking and had helped others with their home remodeling projects. It was estimated that it would take an additional week to remodel the room. It was well within the time frame we were working under.
The following week I rented a steamer and we began to peel the wallpaper off; it was while we were removing the wood paneling that had been glued and nailed to the wall we made a small discovery. An old small closet that had been covered up with a sheet of plywood and the paneling laid over it. The little closet would make a nice little built-in library I thought.
The closet held a surprise. There was an upper shelf in the closet, hidden from view by the door jam. Attempting to remove the shelf I found it still contained an old cardboard box filled with some old ledgers left over from the farming days and a bundle of old letters, cards, and papers etc. I removed it and sat down to examine its contents. I found an old Wallace Farmer magazine dated Feb. 1903. I read its yellowed pages. It was interesting to see how prices have changed over the years for milk was five cents a quart, eggs were fourteen cents a dozen, sugar four cents a pound, coffee fifteen cents a pound, and gasoline ten cents a gallon. There was a recipe written on a small card for a woman’s shampoo. I learned that most women washed their hair once a month with borax and eggs for shampoo. This would be followed by a lemon juice rinse. Old newspaper clippings were inserted here and there in the ledger: Dillinger seen in northern Wisconsin was one of the featured stories dated from April 1934, and a pair of movie tickets stubs to the Majestic Theater, dated 1919. I remember hearing about it at a local meeting of the Historical Society. It was one of the three movie theaters our town had at one time. Now we do not have any. Another era in our town’s history has quietly passed by. A collection postcards from friends and pictures of Glenn’s family filled a small scrapbook. It was a time capsule of their social gatherings and trips. I found a train schedule of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, a token for the trolley car No. 26 that once traveled down Mill Street and a receipt from Dr. Nutt for some apples reminded me of the ski hill where an apple orchard once stood. The family ties began to emerge. I found a small bundle of letters, one of which had been sent to Emily from her twin sister. Also wrapped in a plain vanilla envelope was a small journal she had kept as a young girl. It was within this journal I began to find out who Emily was and why the Christmas of 1903 was so dear to her. It too held a "Christmas Walk."
Getting back to the house, Martha and the local merchants began arriving at our door to decorate the house the week before Thanksgiving. The florist was there placing some early red poinsettias around the house and a large pine wreath was hung on the side of the house with a spotlight directed towards it. A smaller wreath made from some grapevines hung on the front door. It was tied with a gold bow and some pinecones. A Christmas tree was set up in the living room in front of the double bay window. Old glass Christmas tree ornaments that Martha had been passed down to Martha from her mother in Germany were tastefully hung on the tree. I again got to hang the little "pickle" for children to find on the tree. A local antique dealer placed an old wooden rocking horse next to the tree. Martha let me set up my Lionel train around the base of the tree. It made me feel like a kid again. An old toy fire truck, a Mrs. Beasley doll, and an old Victorian dollhouse were added beneath the tree. A special arrangement of white poinsettias in a wicker basket was placed on the coffee table in front of the fireplace. A pinecone wreath was hung over the fireplace and a couple of old lanterns I had refinished were tied with red bows and placed on the mantle. An antique brass carriage clock from France that reminded me of the time of day was placed on the opposite end of the mantle next to the Nutcracker standing at attention. The Nutcracker was dressed in his uniform of blue trousers, red jacket and black hat. His jaw was set firm and straight.
Across the room stood a piece of furniture handed down from my mother. It was an Early American pine hutch decorated with some draping garland interwoven with small white lights. A small wooden replica of a sleigh sat on the buffet. It served as a Christmas card holder. The sleigh was filled with old Christmas cards from the turn of the century, part of my collection of old holiday postcards. Martha placed an arrangement of three white Christmas candles tied together with a red and green plaid ribbon next to it. On top of the hutch was placed an animated Salvation Army band. They were little chipmunks that played Christmas carols when plugged in. "How cute!" everyone would say. The upstairs bedrooms were trimmed in matching antique white pillows and comforters. An old trunk added a bit of nostalgia to the room. The book The Night Before Christmas was opened and placed on an end table. An old gas lamp that had been electrified and its white bowl added a warm touch. Martha had picked it out because of the little blue flowers in its crown that set it apart from other lamps of the era. Antique pictures frames were purchased and placed throughout the house. Some of the relatives I had not seen before were spending Christmas with us, so to say.
The kitchen would be the place of entry, as people would come into the home. Before they would go into the house the guest would slip into surgical footwear so as not to track into snow, mud or dirt into the house. Once in the kitchen they would see a collection of fine cheeses that our community is proud of. Two wineries from our state would offer a wine tasting to the guests along with the cheese and crackers. A plate of Christmas cookies would be on display but a "Do Not Touch" sign was added for my benefit. Christmas cookies would be on sale in the garage along with hot cinnamon-flavored apple cider at the end of the tour by the Jr. Woman’s Club. With the purchase of your ticket you could also ride a horse drawn sleigh down Forest Avenue to the bike path and then along the Mill Pond, enjoying the sound of the clopping hoofs and jingling bells on the harness of the one horse drawn sleigh. Along the way other homes would be decorated in the spirit of Christmas. If the weather is cold you could enjoy the softness of the fresh-fallen snow and the ice-skating on the frozen millpond. Carolers from local church choirs would stand next to an enameled black sleigh with its gold trim in the yard. The carolers would rejoice in the songs of the season as guests arrived at our home. In the windows of the house, Martha placed grapevine wreaths with little candles aglow, making the house look warm and cozy.
It is now December, 2003, I remind myself, and we are trying to capture a brief moment of Christmas past. What was it like in 1903? The first automobile to drive across the United States makes its way from San Francisco to New York City in sixty-three days … no highways then, lucky to find gasoline. No motels, restaurants, service stations or garages to repair you car. It is the time of the Wright Brother’s first powered flight of the airplane at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Theodore Roosevelt is president and is off camping in Yosemite with John Muir after making a visit to San Francisco. This was the year of the now famous "Teddy Bear." Electricity is coming into the towns and villages of Wisconsin. There is a local phone company and phones are becoming more popular in the homes of our town. Steam powered trains move from cities to town to villages on a regular basis. People walk to church, walk to one-room schoolhouses, walk to a neighbor’s house for a visit. I gathered this from the newspaper clippings and postcards and letters I found of Emily’s. It was in a letter that she had saved from her twin sister and through her journal that I learned about how she and Glenn had met. The Christmas present she received in 1903 when she was just fifteen years old began to unwrap itself.
I discovered that Emily had been an orphan. She had been given a ticket and placed aboard a train along with other orphans from the east and taken to small towns in the Midwest and placed into homes. Churches often had in their bulletins a notice announcing the arrival of the Orphan Train. The Churches were seeking families to take in the children. Emily had been in three or four homes by the time she was fifteen. She had worked hard as a domestic in helping other families with the household work. Cooking, cleaning, baking, sewing, cutting firewood, and milking cows were some of her chores. When times got hard for a family where they no longer could afford to feed or clothe her they notified the superintendent of the orphanage of her return. Most often she was glad to get out of the household and all the work and poor living conditions she had to live under. She began to see this happening again in the fall of 1903. The family that had taken her in was breaking apart. The father was spending more time in the tavern, spending what little money there was. The mother and her baby were moving out, back to Minneapolis where her parents lived. The move was to take place by the end of the year if the mother’s baby remained healthy. Emily did not want to go back to the orphanage, and tried in vain to find her twin sister for help, to no avail. The records of the orphanage were sealed and not open to children. It would be another twenty years before they would reunite.
Emily had attended a small country school at various times. She wanted to be a schoolteacher if she ever got the chance to go to high school, and then a normal school for her teacher certificate. She met Glenn at a church picnic the summer of 1903. They developed a friendship. Glenn was three years her senior. She worked out of the house at times to earn extra money. Glenn had started to help his ailing father run the farm. They milked sixteen head of Holstein cows twice a day. Emily would be sent over to help during harvest time and was paid ten cents an hour for her work. (Most workers earned twenty cents an hour.) She saved her earnings. This allowed her to buy a few yards of fabric from the mercantile to make a dress for church. She had one pair of shoes, shoes now too small for her feet as she was still growing. Most often she went barefoot in summer and wore old leather work boots for shoes, except for Sunday when she wore those tight fitting shoes as she walked to the small country church.
The winter of 1903 was snowy and cold. The woodstove burned almost constantly at times to keep the house warmed. Emily often had to split the wood from the woodpile and fill the wood box in the house three times a day. Her journal was her closest friend. She was not looking foreward to the celebration of Christmas; she did not know when a letter might arrive with a ticket for her to return to the orphanage out East. At church the week before Christmas, Glenn had asked if she would like to go to church with him on Christmas Eve. She agreed and was happy just to get out of the house. It was then she would tell Glenn of her return to the orphanage. Where was she going and what family would she be living with next? These were the questions that kept her awake into the long night. She remained a custodian of the orphanage until the age of sixteen. Boys were often let go as soon as they found work, often as early as twelve or thirteen. It was in her journal that I found out how she escaped from the control of the orphanage.
From her journal she writes:
December 25th, 1903
My Dear Friend,
Last night Glenn stopped by the house and walked me to church. I dressed in my best dress, and borrowed a coat and scarf from my stepmother. It was a quiet winter evening; stars glistened in the cold air and the snow cracked beneath our footsteps. I could hear sleigh bells of the horse drawn-sleighs as they passed down the road in front of my house. I thought Glenn might pick me up in a sleigh but Toby, Glenn’s horse, went lame from pulling some logs out of the timber and was kept in the barn until he got better. We walked the remaining two miles to church. Inside the church there was a Christmas tree, decorated with little white candles. They were carefully lit as the sermon began. The lanterns burned brightly from overhead as the old pump organ came to life. Each member was given a small candle. The light was passed from one to another as the service began. The church glowed in the candlelight with the spirit of Christmas. We sang "It Came upon a Midnight Clear," "A way in the Manger", and "We Three Kings". A young woman stood in front of the congregation and played "Silent Night "on a violin. It was so beautiful I wiped tears from my eyes. The story of Christmas was told again. We sang our last hymn "Joy To The World." Glenn has such a nice singing voice . I told him should be in the church choir as we finished the hymn. As we left the church we wished the pastor Merry Christmas and shook his hand. Glenn’s Uncle Albert and Aunt Tillie stopped to offer us a ride home. We accepted and Glenn told of his problems with his horse. His uncle George said that Glenn could borrow the sleigh and horse for the rest of the night. He could then take me home and return it in the morning. But first we were invited to their farmhouse for hot cider and fruitcake if we wanted. Glenn graciously accepted and we visited awhile. His aunt gave me a small present of some red mittens that she had knitted. I was so thankful. We looked at some pictures through a lanternslide projector of far away places in the world. His Uncle Albert put a record on the Victrola and we listened to it. It was beautiful music. "Such luxury !" I thought.. Glenn said we should be getting on and walked me to the sleigh. We got in, his aunt Tillie place a couple of warm bricks in a tin box to help keep our feet warm. We bundled ourselves up in an old buffalo robe at our feet and we drove down the lane, bells jingling along the way. Glenn drove the sleigh across an open field down towards an old gristmill. There he parked the sleigh and we walked beneath the moonlight out onto the millpond and we pretended to ice skate. It was so much fun! As we walked back to the sleigh I asked him to stop for a moment as I had something to say to him. He said to me in his quiet voice " Let’s continue to walk on this Christmas evening, for I have something to ask of you." We turned around and walked back out onto the ice of the frozen stream and we quietly pretended to skate again. "Who goes first?" I asked. "Ladies first." he said. With a heavy heart I proceeded to explain to him my situation: I was about to return to the orphanage and that this would be the last time he might ever see me. How fortunate he was to have a family of relatives nearby. I had no father or mother. I did have a twin sister, but I have not been able to persuade the orphanage to tell me of her whereabouts. I was legally the custodian of the orphanage until I reached my sixteenth birthday. The superintendent had been notified that I would be returning for placement again. I was simply waiting for a train ticket back East to begin all over again.
Glenn listened closely and attentively with deep concern for my plight. "You know they can’t do that to you if you will marry me. That is what I wanted to ask you. Will you?" he asked in a calm and reassuring voice. It was then I fell into his arms and wept on his shoulder. He held me close and let me cry my happiness out. He comforted me with the words ," I won’t let them take you from me."
"I think you are trying to say yes." he said after awhile. He lifted me up, twirled me around and said, "Merry Christmas! "Emily …you have given me the one and only Christmas present I will ever need… yourself." Glenn simply said again in his soft and quiet reassuring voice "Merry Christmas!"
He placed his hand in mine and we walked back to the sleigh. We drove off to the jingle of the bells and fresh snow falling on a moonlit night. We took the long way home over snow covered fields, through a small woods and down the lane to my house. It was well past midnight and Christmas was never so merry.
I’m the happiest girl in the world!
May the Christmas Season find your "Christmas Walk" the beginning and a reawakening of the spirit of Christmas. Let your journey continue to be a blessed one with family and friends.
December 25, 2003
Norman Schroeder (December, 2014)
It looked like an early onset of winter. Last weeks overhead flocks of geese had foretold of it. Thanksgiving was over, and the ground was covered in white. Deer hunters, now out, were sure to be successful with this cold snap. I was out starting the decorations of the old farmstead for Christmas. After having had my coffee, I walked out to the faded red barn to start my small tractor and hooked it up to an old cutter sleigh . This was the same sleigh that brought my mother home when she was born on January 28, the year 1898. I had given it a fresh coat of black paint, removed any traces of rust from the runners, and painted them red. Then Grandma would take a couple of potato sacks and sew them together to make a big Santa sack to add to the sleigh with a few presents sticking out. When finished the Santa bag would go into the sleigh. The sleigh would sit out in front of the house in anticipation of Christmas.
With the arrival of the grandchildren and fresh snow, a snowman would be made. Then Grandma would place an old yellow broom by his side and tie a red scarf around his neck. Then she would pull my corn cob pipe out of my mouth and give it to the snowman. Good memories, I began to recall.
Just then as I was positioning the sled... Shultzie, our mailman, drove up into the driveway. He failed to make the usual stop at the mailbox out front. We exchanged “good mornings”. He said, “Got some special packages for you that you need to sign for. It is registered mail...and from over seas!” I signed the forms and placed the packages in the sleigh as he drove away. Next I drove the tractor back and parked it next to the barn.
I hurriedly walked back to the sleigh and brought the packages back into the house and placed them on the dining room table. Christmas cookies and a stollen were in preparation in the kitchen by Grandma. Grandma was busy gathering eggs from the hen house. The packages were from a law firm located in Liverpool, England. I had a sudden feeling of sadness as the only person I knew from Liverpool was my mother's pen pal. I called her my Aunt Nell. I had written to her of my mothers death almost 20 years ago now. We became pen pals. I recalled a visit to the farm she had made while my mother was still alive. The attorney's letter said she was 95 upon passing. The contents of the packages were part of her estate that she had willed to me. She knew that I would be appreciative of them and that they would be in safe keeping. I do recall she had no children. I would often write her with questions about the Blitz over London, as I had a keen interest in history, especially WWII. She told me of the loss of one of her brothers in the war, as well as the relentless bombings of London. I kept all of her letters and found several that my mother had received from her as well.
Finding a pair of scissors lying among some Christmas presents about to be wrapped, I cut the strings holding the packages together. Carefully I removed the brown wrapping paper from the packages. I opened the smaller packages first. Here I found a collection of manila envelopes, and in another a small carefully wrapped gold colored tin. It had the head of a young lady embossed into the lid and the date of 1914. I thought it may have held candy at onetime. In the first envelope were letters to her from my mother. She had saved them all. In the second envelope were my letters to her. And in the last were old news paper clippings of WW1, and letters from her father her mother had received when he served for King Edward II during the war. Lastly a small note with my name on it simply saying “ My father's Christmas” attached to the larger box. Next I removed the contents of this box. Here I found a scrapbook of old photographs of the war carefully preserved. There wee some loose photographs of her family when she was a child. There was also a diary that her dad had kept during the great war with its pages well worn and stained; the penciled entries were faded but still very legible. Next there were a few copies of Punch ( an English newspaper of the era) and a small folding camera he must have carried. I opened the last box somewhat larger than all the others. It had been very carefully wrapped in what I would call butcher block paper. To my surprise...there was a Picklehaube, a spiked German WWI helmet. I was overwhelmed and somewhat stunned.
Carefully, I moved the contents of the packages to my small den and sat down to examine the small candy box. It was colored gold and had embossed on it the figure of a young lady and the year 1914. Carefully opening it up I took out its contents: a Christmas card from King Edward! The lady embossed on the lid was his daughter, Mary. Also I found one pipe, a lighter, a small bag which held some very old tobacco and some brass buttons off a German's soldiers uniform, a few spent cartridge casings and two shillings. In a rather large bulky envelope were maps of the Western front and maps of the trenches in Luxembourg into Belgium through France, all the way to Switzerland. I began to read the letters and study the maps and scrapbook of photos of WWI. It took me a few days to put it all together.
Below is a summary of the contents. I have done my best to be sensitive to these artifacts and the stories held within. With deepest respect I share these with you now.
Papers of Interest.
This must have been her father that she never new as Nell was born September 1, 1919. Her mother had remarried she did once mention in one of the letters to my mother.
I unfolded the maps. Maps in detail of the trenches, gun placements, troop numbers and deaths of fellow soldiers, or Tommie’s as they were also called. The British lines extended over 27 miles, most of which were trenches into Belgium and northern France. There were several maps of troop movements and airfields in France. Some maps were heavily marked with lines drawn towards Paris. It must have been a retreat so I thought.
The tin box was a Christmas gift from Princess Mary, King Edward's daughter, that all British soldiers received. A shilling was a months pay for an enlistee. I learned later an enlistee had to be 5 foot 3 inches tall and have good-teeth... no doubt to eat the hard biscuits, one of the staples of their diet.
Newspapers printed some of the letters written by soldiers about the war far from home. I found these letters very interesting because you hear their voices coming through after 100 years of forgotten silence. The war pictures he must have taken himself with the little fold up camera. Pictures of water filled trenches and their pumping gear, the strange looking mechanical tanks, parapets showing soldiers with advance weaponry called machine guns. Pictures of British aircraft such as Sopwith Camel, and a captured German Albatross and several British De Havillands fighters. From the documents it looked like Will may have been doing reconnaissance or scouting work. Perhaps a special courier.
Nell had collected several personal letters from her friends as well as those published in newspaper accounts that had covered the war. One letter described a football game on Christmas day between the Saxons and the Liverpool Rifles. Still another talked about a Christmas truce being initiated by exchange of a chocolate cake. Others describe flares being shot into the sky late at night illuminating the no-man's land between the trenches and the burying of the dead. Others talked about small Christmas trees being decorated in the trenches, on both sides and being illuminated by small candles. Other letters talked about both sides exchanging Christmas carols. One letter reported a sing song which ended with “Silent Night” and “Auld Lang Syne” and all joined in. By all he meant English, Saxons, Irish, Prussians and Wurtenbergers.
But perhaps most poignant was a letter from Private Fredrick Heath. I have copied it below and wish to acknowledge my friend, Marian Robson, for her help. Nell placed it with the others as the envelope said “Please Save.” It has been ...I assure you, Nell.
Still looking and dreaming, my eyes
caught a flare
Came the dawn, penciling the sky with
I held the pages of the letter in my
hands for a moment, as I was about to return it to its forgotten home. It
was then I noticed my hands like the pages of the letter...old, worn tired,
wrinkled and cracked with the deep furrows of age. I thought about the hope
of prayers of peace these young men had.... and that we still have.
Merry Christmas and Peace on Earth for
Respond to Norm at
Photos and Stories from Grade School &
Jr. High Years, including the
Theatre Roy Rogers' Riders Club
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