Not many Christmas stories begin in October. Mine does.
We were living in Beltzhoover, at 811 Gearing Avenue. My parents, Bob and Betty Johnson, my 3-year-old brother Bill, my teenaged brother John (we called him Buddy) and 6-year-old me. We’d moved across the street from 814 after my older sisters, Catherine and Rose, had both eloped within months of each other.
Beltzhoover was a different neighborhood back then. The predominately white middle class area had wide streets filled with well-kept homes, where fathers went to work in the city on the trolley each day, and mothers stayed home, tended to their kids and kept house. The people shopped at their own drug store, bakery and small A&P market at the bottom of Gearing towards Climax.
In the summer, we went to concerts in the McKinley Park band shell at the other end of Gearing.
On this cool October evening in the early 1940s, Bud was in the second floor bathroom preparing for a date when he yelled down the stairs for someone to “turn down the hot water tank. This water is boiling up here.”
There were no automatic water heaters in those days. When we wanted to take a bath, wash clothes or do laundry, someone would light a fire in the galvanized tank in the cellar, then turn it off when we were done.
In response to Bud’s plea, my Mum, or maybe Dad, opened the cellar door and was greeted by dense black smoke. There was a fire downstairs!
We hustled out of the smoke-filled house to stay with neighbors until the firemen came and extinguished the flames. The fire had been contained to the cellar. The only first floor damage was to the wall behind the kitchen stove, where firefighters had chopped a big hole to better fight the fire.
But horror of horrors, all the Christmas ornaments had been stored in the cellar until Santa would bring them up on Christmas Eve to put on the tree and the platform. In those days, almost every family had a platform, a sheet of plywood set on six legs that supported the Christmas tree, a Christmas village and at least a single-track Lionel train. Now all those things were gone.
What would Santa do now? What would be waiting for me and Bill when we came down the stairs on Christmas morning? I couldn’t believe this tragedy.
The morning after the fire, I was sent to stay with my oldest sister, Catherine, who lived with her husband Cy in his family’s home in East Liberty. A few days later, when our house was back in some order and the kitchen wall repaired, I returned home. Our families’ lives slowly returned to normal.
But on many an evening, when my Daddy came home from work at the Post-Gazette, he’d go downstairs to the cellar to “clean up.” He warned me not to come down because it was so “dirty down there” after the fire.
October slipped into November and soon it was Thanksgiving. The day after that holiday was the official start of the Christmas shopping season. There would be a big parade Downtown. The department stores would unveil their animated Christmas window displays, and Santa would be stationed on his throne in toy departments, ready to hear whispered wish lists from good little boys and girls.
Across from our house, a young woman named Helen lived with her two aunts, uncle and her brother Andy. Helen and I were friends. She often invited me inside their home on Saturdays to chat while she did her weekend chores.
Helen had asked my Mum if she could take me Downtown to see the parade and windows and to visit Santa. I was overjoyed when Mum said yes.
So the day after Thanksgiving, we went, Helen and I on the yellow 46 streetcar. We got off at Sixth Street, in front of Gimbels department store, to watch the parade.
The weather was cold, the parade was long and filled with bands, costumed characters, beautiful floats and last of all, Santa on his sleigh. When it was over, we headed inside to the store’s toy department for my visit with Santa.
The jolly old elf sat on his throne high above a crowd of hundreds of parents and children. To get there, I had to join dozens of children lined up to walk up the ramp, give Santa my wish list, and go down the other side to join the grownups.
But Helen told me to go down the “up” ramp instead, and she would be waiting where I had left her. Easier said than done.
Picture Ralphie in “A Christmas Story.” That was me, gazing down at hundreds of faces and trying to reach the “up” ramp against the crowd. But the monitor elves wouldn’t let me go that way, and pointed me towards the “down.”
Of course, I couldn’t find Helen and burst into tears of frustration. But soon I was rescued by a store employee who took me to an office.
A man in the office asked me my name and where I lived and if I knew my phone number. Telephones were a novelty in those days. I knew we had one, a party line where you would sometimes pick up the receiver and hear the other “party” in the midst of a conversation. But I didn’t know our number.
What I did know was that my uncle, George Gerstacker, worked in the store. They called him to the office, and soon we were back on the streetcar, headed home.
Things quieted down after the fire and my Santa Claus adventure, and we all went back to our routines. Mum took care of the house and kids, Bud did his teenaged things, and I went back to my favorite pastime, listening to the radio.
The big Philco floor model sat in the living room, and I sat on the floor in front of it listening to the escapades of Gene Autry, The Green Hornet and The Shadow.
But one Sunday in December, there was no Gene Autry on the Philco. All day, my parents had been listening with sad faces to newscasts and to President Roosevelt.
I cried when it was time for Autry and his voice wasn’t coming from the radio. I asked Daddy what happened and he told me some bad men had done a bad thing to our country. The date was Sunday, December 7th, 1941 and the “bad thing” was the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
December days passed slowly after that, with the airwaves continually filled with war stories. My seventh birthday came and went on December 16, and before long, it was Christmas Eve.
Bill and I were hurried off to bed a little earlier than usual. I had a hard time getting to sleep, anxious for it to be morning, yet fearing it wouldn’t be the same as Christmases past, with the tree in the living room, standing tall on the platform amidst the houses of the Christmas village.
After waking our sleepy-eyed parents at dawn’s first light, Bill and I crept down the stairs and peeked around the corner and into the living room. And suddenly, there it was.
A Christmas tree. Maybe it was a little smaller than usual, with fewer and newer ornaments, but it stood on a platform. And on that platform there was a farm, with a farmhouse and a big red barn. There were chickens and horses and cows and a farmer and his wife. And around the edge ran a new Lionel train, past mountains made of brown paper, crinkled and dotted with black shoe polish and sprinkled with flour “snow.”
The magic of Christmas had accomplished this miracle, along with a lot of help from my Daddy. It wasn’t until years later that I learned what he was really doing in the cellar during all those nights after the fire. He’d been creating this magic village out of wooden cheese boxes, hammering and sawing into the night to make this a special Christmas for us.
More than 70 Christmases have passed since that special one at 811 Gearing Avenue. Most all were happy ones, a few, memorable. But none that stick in my memory the way that one in 1941 does.
(Roberta Smith is the retired editor and publisher of the South Pittsburgh Reporter.)