My Grandfather’s Lasting Christmas Gift
From what I’ve been told my Grandfather Gordon struggled to provide for his family. Not for lack of ambition but he was a product of his times. Born on a farm in Missouri his family later moved to a small farm in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. He grew up and worked alongside his father and shortly after the Great Depression came along he married. Two children died at birth and were buried under a tree and four children born over a period of six years survived. Finally there just wasn’t any room left under one roof for all the new mouths. He had been trained as an electrician and the family moved to Black Creek, a hamlet of some 150 souls, where they settled into a house across the street from the two room school.
Work as you can imagine was sparse for an electrician in such a small community and there wasn’t much of a building boom as the economy limped along. Then war broke out. Electricians could find work in Buffalo. Which was some 50 miles away (as the crow flies) and in an era when there were no major Interstates driving distance could be 75 miles or more. Throw in some of the worst winter weather in America and traveling involved some serious white knuckle driving.
The story which will unfold in the next few paragraphs was shared with me when I was in junior high school. “Grampa” had been dead for more than 10 years. I’ve no recollection of the man. He likely held me when I was a baby. My grandparents lived only a few miles away and he died when I was 16 months old and, yet. All I know are black and white photographs now long yellowed and the stories shared by my mother, her three brothers and my grandmother. My Uncle Paul, the oldest of the children, is the only survivor among the group. The benefit of living decades alcohol and nicotine free, mixed with a strong commitment to Christian faith.
“Grampa” found a job working in the city. I imagine he spent some nights at his brother’s place in Springville, which was about the halfway point. Springville is also one of the snowiest places in America where totals for storms are measured in feet instead of inches. Imagine driving some of the cars of that era through the squalls! Automobile production was halted during the war and my grandfather certainly wasn’t driving anything relatively new.
There must have been nights when he drove home, after sunset, in snow and on rough roads on worn tires. A drive measured in hours and in the morning repeated on a couple of hours of sleep. During one of those bleak winters during the early years of the war there wasn’t much money around the house for Christmas. Walking one evening when he should have been sleeping he came across a neighbor throwing away four beat up old runner sleds. The metal was rusted, the steering ropes gone and the wood chipped or broken. “I can take them off your hands,” I can imagine him offering. And he did.
He kept the wreckage hidden in the garage and over the course of the next several weeks and, with little sleep and few guarantees he would survive the commute to work and back, he sanded and sawed and painted. He found new wood and polish and rope. From a garbage heap he created what looked like four brand new sleds.
The Christmas Days of the era didn’t resemble the modern credit fueled gift-giving orgy. Usually a child received a small toy (my mother kept until her death a few strips of vinyl cut into the shape of an elephant and stuffed with cotton gifted by a relative) and an orange.
Most of us will grow old and die and be remembered only by the people who knew us during our brief time on earth. Most of my grandfather’s grandchildren have no recollection of the man and yet we know the story. Our children now know the story and some of our grandchildren will hear it some cold winter night near the glow of lights reflecting off the ornaments hanging from a Christmas tree. It’s the story of four little children bounding from bed one cold and late December morning to find four shining sleds beneath the tree. In Asia and Europe there were shrieks of fear where the young, the old and the innocent ran from bombs. On that Christmas Day in Black Creek there were shrieks of joy as children raced downhill atop runner sleds. Happiness and also evidence the sacrifice of one can ensure the blessings of many.