The most meaningful gift I ever received

Christmas, 1949: We weren’t poor, we weren’t rich. We were working-class people lucky to be living at a time when people with strong backs and no allergies to work could land decent paying jobs. Dad had one on the Ford line, and Mom worked in the plant cafeteria, peeling potatoes and operating the cash register. They were thankful for their Christmas blessings.

  • Books by Walter Farley that Bruce Clayton, of Southampton, received as a Christmas gift in 1949. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • “We weren’t a bookish family — The Bible, said mom, was the only book anyone needed,” remembers Clayton, “But dad triumphed in 1949: He had St. Nick put Walter Farley novels under the tree, three of his exciting Black Stallion adventure books.” Captivated by the books, the author read them in bed under the covers, with a flashlight. Above image, Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Childhood photos, courtesy Bruce Clayton

  • Bruce Clayton, of Southampton, holds books by Walter Farley that he received as a Christmas gift in 1949. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Bruce Clayton at his home in Southampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Books by Walter Farley that Bruce Clayton, of Southampton, received as a Christmas gift in 1949. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Bruce Clayton at his home in Southampton, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Bruce Clayton at his home in Southampton, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Bruce Clayton at his home in Southampton, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

For Hampshire Life
Published: 12/14/2018 1:16:03 PM

No i-Phones, no game boys, no computers, no electronic playthings guaranteed to bring universal happiness. Nary a one of those glossy gizmos lay nestled under the tree my father had cut and wrestled into place while muttering barely audible imprecations.

Welcome to my boyhood Christmas — out in the Missouri cow town of Kansas City. It was 1949, and I was ten.

Our tree was draped with strings of popcorn and paper chains and lights that went dark every time a single bulb burnt out, short circuiting the chain into infuriating darkness. More oaths from my father, Roy Roosevelt Clayton, named after the great Theodore Roosevelt.

My stocking usually sagged with an orange, an apple, a bag of walnuts, perhaps a box of raisins, a chocolate bar if I’d been good. Mom, an inveterate list maker, penciled in every item. Candied apples were a special treat.

My personal gifts, each neatly wrapped, included practical items — socks, pajamas, a starched white dress shirt for church. Or for ‘funeralizin,’ as my irreverent older brother quipped. My pious mother frowned; my agnostic father smiled wryly.

We weren’t poor, we weren’t rich. We were working-class people lucky to be living at a time when people with strong backs and no allergies to work could land decent paying jobs.

“Eisenhower prosperity” ruled the land and our industrialized part of it; nearby Sheffield Steel boomed, with shifts working around the clock; next door sat the Ford Plant, where my dad, several cousins, and half a dozen fellow church members worked, as new cars and trucks rolled off the assembly line.

Workers, many of them young vets like my brother, who were only half adjusted to civilian life again, lived close enough to walk to work, carrying their lunch pails, sometimes shouting that they were “working stiffs.”

Nether of my parents, refugees from a rural America still feeling the sting of the Great Depression, had high school diplomas to help them down the bumpy road of urban life. Still. Dad had a good paying job on the Ford line.

Mom worked in the plant cafeteria where I would soon join her in the summers thanks to lax child labor laws. “Hard work don’t hurt you none,” my father said if I complained.

Mom made decent wages, doing everything from peeling potatoes to operating the cash register. They were thankful for their Christmas blessings.

But good night, nurse! Hershey bars, oranges, white shirts — you call those good Christmas presents? It all sounds more like threadbare nostalgia, memory rubbed dumb by the passing years. Was that Tiny Tim lurking about, crying for gruel? Should millennials with their sacks of toys feel sorry for us?

Not on your life! One Christmas, Santa Claus left regulation sized shoulder pads and a football helmet for me, and the neighborhood kids gathered in our postage-stamp size backyard for a rousing, bruising game of tackle football. In the snow, no less.

And get this: One Christmas, my overly indulgent mother spoiled me rotten giving me a whole box of Mars bars, the Cadillac of candy bars back then. My sterner father, unsentimental and given to commenting, unkindly, on my chubby waistline, was not amused. And he said so. More than once. And loudly.

But dad triumphed in 1949: He had St. Nick put Walter Farley novels under the tree, three of his exciting Black Stallion adventure books for boys and girls. We weren’t a bookish family — The Bible, said mom, was the only book anyone needed.

Dad religiously read Kansas City’s morning and afternoon newspapers and kept a few dog eared copies of the National Geographic around plus a few old issues of the Saturday Evening Post.

In 1949 I wasn’t reading much of anything except comic books — the silly adventures of Archie, Veronica, Jug Head and Superman. Schoolbooks held no charms. In truth, I was well on my way to being a full-fledged galoot, a moron, a jughead not worth a dime, madly in love with baseball, a game my father thought stupid, much like me.

But the Kansas City Star and Times had excellent sportswriters — the morning Star boasted Ernie Mehl, a real wordsmith, a worthy rival to New York’s Red Smith. I looked forward to reading Mehl and his mates, Knights of the Keyboard, as Boston’s Ted Williams derisively referred to Boston sportswriters.

In time, I stumbled upon the boyhood sports books of John R. Tunis, author of the immortal morality tale, “The Kid From Tomkinsville,” and other classics for kids. “Those are just trivial baseball books,” my father thundered.

“Now Walter Farley writes about life, real life!” my dad said with great passion.

“The Black Stallion” was Farley’s initial book, written when the New Yorker was but a college freshman at Columbia University. What a grand story it was!

Young Alec Ramsey had been in India assisting his uncle, a missionary. They were homeward bound aboard a tramp steamer stopping at a port on the Arabia dessert and Alec watched a splendid black horse being boarded. He fell in love with the wild creature and visited him regularly in the hold with cubes of sugar. Then tragedy. A mighty storm destroyed the ship, dumping the boy and “Black” (as they called the majestic stallion) on a deserted island.

Thank goodness, the castaways are rescued. And big Black, a wild, mighty, Arabian colossus — “all muscle, all power, all beauty,” a horse faster than the wind — is tamed.

Alec and Black come to a special understanding, and young Alec’s derring-do adventures with the beautiful and fastest horse on the planet brought joy to his world.

And mine. I read the book in bed, under the covers, with just a flashlight. And had wonderful dreams.

“The Black Stallion Returns” was just as good. The true owner of Black takes him back to Arabia but Alec’s heroic effort to reclaim the great horse fascinated me and caused me to read through the night. Alec retrieved his boon companion. It all sounds too farfetched for words today. But I was riveted and believed every word.

“Son of Black Stallion,” the third book in what would turn out to be 20 novels in the acclaimed series, made awfully good reading too, though today readers will wince at the lapses into political incorrectness, a phrase not current then. Still, my windshield sociology tells me that children are still reading about the Black Stallion. Barnes and Noble carries paperback copies of some of Farley’s books. His publisher offers boxed sets of the first four novels.

But back to 1949. Thanks, dad! And thanks to you, too, mom, for also making sure I had all the Walter Farley thrillers I needed.

Thanking my dad even at this late date — he died years ago — brings some pain. I never thanked him for much of anything while he was alive. We simply weren’t close. Our interests, our passions were too far apart. He wasn’t a hugger. He was laconic, taciturn by nature. A manly handshake expressed his praise or warm congratulations.

But it’s ok. It was ok. I was a self-absorbed teenager. My father’s generation of working men, I’ve learned from conversations with friends my age, tended not to be buddy-buddy, eager to shoot some hoops or have a game of catch at the mere sight of a baseball.

Dad didn’t know a catcher’s mitt from a rosin bag. Ok, that’s an exaggeration. But men like my father were tired at the end of a day’s work and had neither the strength nor the inclination for a comradely game of baseball. Dads of the 1940s and 1950s considered their kids children and were waiting for them to grow up, to become adults.

He was an adult, of course, and an enigma to me, someone I doubted I would ever truly know.

Indeed, he was a full-blown paradox when it came to religion, especially at Christmas. For all of his often (and anguished) assertions that he couldn’t believe in God — to my mother’s angry perplexity — he complained bitterly every late November when Kansas City started to decorate for Christmas.

“It’s too damned early,” he groused. The “true spirit” of Christ’s birthday (which he apparently didn’t believe in) was being bastardized in the name of the Almighty Dollar. Everything even “remotely sacred” (his words) was being lost.

Then there were his commandments: “Don’t get me anything for Christmas,” he’d bark. “Save your money,” because he didn’t need anything.

But in all things he observed his rituals. On Christmas Eve, just hours before the stores closed, he stereotypically dashed downtown, buying presents right and left, often ignoring the price. He gloried in giving gifts. There wasn’t a selfish bone in his body.

He also rigorously observed his sacred commandant: he only bought you what HE knew you needed, not what YOU thought you needed or wanted. When I completed the eighth grade in 1953 we marched downtown to an elegant jeweler, and he plopped down good money for an expensive wristwatch for me. I didn’t want it.

Later I quietly slipped the watch in a drawer where it gathered dust for years.

But there’s a coda: last highly surprising, ironic action of the man who still makes Christmas 1949 burn so brightly in my memory.

I turned sixteen in March 1955. No birthday gift, no happy birthday wish, not even a firm handshake came from my old man, as my buddies and I referred to our fathers.

But on the Sunday evening following the week of my birthday as we rode home from church, my old man announced that we would swing by a used car lot he knew was open. He’d had his eye on a good-lookin’ Chevrolet; in fact he’d on his own checked it out.

Mom demanded to know why we needed a second car. Dad didn’t answer. We pulled into the lot and told the stunned salesman that we intended to buy the car and would pay the asking price, in cash. Without a word of haggling my dad wrote out a check for $250.00 and my father and I pulled away with a second car we sure didn’t need.

Actually, I drove it off the lot. The sleek Chevy was my birthday gift. That was it. No hugs or outpourings of congratulations on becoming sixteen, a man. But no admonitions about safe driving or observing the speed limits, either. A manly hand shake sealed the deal. In the twinkling of an eye my enigmatic father had bought me a nice, truly nifty Chevy. It was black, of course. And it was a 1949, too.

Bruce Clayton is a retired history professor and author of the memoir, “Praying for Base Hits: An American Boyhood.”




Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

© 2018 Daily Hampshire Gazette