Tuesday, December 20, 2011
The Radio: A Christmas Story
Copyright © Linda Goodman 1989
Christmas was a heartbeat away. Dressed warmly in my frayed winter coat and hat, my hands snug inside and old fur muff, I waited patiently in line to talk to Santa Claus. The line of chattering children seemed endless, and I knew that I was just one face amid this sea of hopefuls. Was Santa such a genius that he could remember what all these children wanted? And the children of the day before? And the day before that?
I had decided not to confuse Santa with a long list this year. After all, whenever I did that, I got only some of the things on the list. And usually the things that were omitted were the things I wanted most. And so this year, I was going to ask Santa for just that one thing that I wanted more than anything else. And that one thing was a radio.
Of course, my family already had a radio. But it was a huge console radio that sat in the living room, the same room as the television. Whenever I would turn that radio on after school, my mother would protest, "Now, Linda, you know that I watch The Guiding Light at this hour. So, turn that thing off, now, you hear?" Or if I turned it on after supper, my father would inform me, "Linda, Walter Cronkite is on the television, and I have got to know what's going on in the world. Turn that thing off, now." I thought that if I could get Santa to bring me a small portable radio for Christmas, I could take it into my bedroom and play it whenever I wanted and never again have to hear the words, "Turn that thing off!"
At last it was my turn to sit on Santa's pudgy knee. I looked up into his twinkling eyes that sat atop rosy cheeks surrounded by a cottony white beard. He looked just like my picture book.
"Hello, little girl," he greeted me. "What is your name?"
"Linda," I replied.
"Linda, have you been a good girl this year?" he queried.
"Oh, yes sir!" I attested. (Of course, there had been the ordinary, everyday indiscretions. But everybody knows that they don't count).
"Good. And what do you want Santa to bring you this year, Linda?"
"A radio," I replied without hesitation.
"And what else?"
"Nothing else. All's I want is a radio!"
"Well, then, ho,ho,ho! We'll see what Santa can do about that." Then he reached his hand into his bottomless bag and brought out a ring for me. As he did that, a bright light exploded in my face, and I could hear my mother saying in the background, "I’m sorry, I don't have any money for pictures today."
Then my mother took me by the hand and we began our long walk home. As we walked, I asked her if God was anything like Santa Claus. She replied, “Not really. God is more like a loving parent. His love is unconditional and self-sacrificing, though sometimes hard to understand. I sure feel mighty lucky to have it.”
Home was about a mile away, and it was the coldest day of the year. By the time we got there my fingers were purple. But my poor mother, who went without cap and gloves so that we children could have the things we needed, was practically frostbitten.
We entered our apartment building and hurried up the stairs to our apartment. As we pushed open the door a great wave of heat rushed out to greet us, and it felt good. But we knew it wouldn't be long until that heat was unbearable.
We lived in an apartment building that was heated by a huge furnace in the back, and that furnace had only two settings: off and on. Once it was turned on in October, the temperature would reach ninety-five degrees in a matter of minutes and stay there until late April. In the dead of winter, I used to open my window and hang my head outside for relief. But whenever I would complain, my father would say, "Now, Linda, you ought not to complain about the heat. Why, many's the time when I was a boy, back on the frontier (my father always referred to his boyhood home in Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains as the frontier), that I like to froze to death. My ten brothers and sisters and me used to sleep in one room huddled around a coal burning stove just to keep warm at night. You wouldn't complain about the heat, Linda, if you knew what it was like not to have any."
My father had been born in a little coal mining camp in Virginia City, Virginia. In order to help support his family, he had gone to work in the mines at the age of fourteen. He was there only a few years, though, when he saw a good buddy killed by a falling rock. It was then that he decided that he "could think of better ways to die."
From there he embarked upon a series of occupations. He had his own newspaper column for a while. Then he was a gander dancer for the railroad. During the Great Depression he was hobo, then a forest ranger for the CCC. After that, he went to work in the "scorching hot sands" of the foundry in Richmond, Virginia. That's where he was when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. As soon as he heard the news, he walked off his job and marched straight to the Navy recruiting office and tried to enlist. He was turned down due to high blood pressure. Upon seeing the disappointed look on his face, the recruiting officer consoled him, "Don't worry, Bub. The army'll take you."
My father didn't enlist in the army. He didn't have to. They drafted him. At the age of thirty-seven, he became Private Theodore Alexander Wright.
After the war, my father came back to his mountain home. Virginia City had become a ghost town, so he settled in Saint Paul. There he married my mother and had four children. Once he had a family, he started thinking about financial security. That is what made him decide to leave the mountains and accept at job at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia.
And that is how we came to live in this rundown apartment complex. I can still remember the look on my mother's face when she first saw the apartment: she was delighted. After all, she had never had indoor plumbing or electricity before. Now there was water at the turn of a faucet and lights at the flick of a switch. Minor annoyances, such as the occasional cockroach or rodent, could be overlooked, because life in general was much easier.
While my father had the job that brought home a paycheck, my mother had the job of making that paycheck stretch from week to week. I can still remember watching her work up her weekly budget on Sunday evenings. "We're riding a bicycle now instead of walking," she once said, "but it's still uphill all the way."
Sometimes when my mother and I would go shopping downtown, I would catch her gazing longingly in the windows of the dress boutiques that we couldn't afford to even go into. And that would make me wonder if perhaps she might have been better off if we had stayed in the mountains, where it seemed like everybody we knew was poor and she wasn't reminded so often of the things that she didn't have.
To be honest, though, there were lots of people in our neighborhood who were worse off than we were. Charlene Miller, for instance. Her husband had taken off one spring morning and never returned. Now she was raising six hungry children by herself on welfare. Charlene just happened to be in our apartment that afternoon that my mother and I got back from seeing Santa Claus.
"Mr. Wright," she was complaining, "It just doesn't seem fair. Here I am able to work and willing to work, but I can't find a job that will pay me enough to hire someone to take care of my young’uns while I'm working. Why don't those politicians up in Richmond or Washington do something to help people like me, who want to help themselves?"
My father’s reply stayed with me for a long time. "Now Charlene,” my father chided, "You know that the politician is the friend of the rich man. He doesn't care about little folk like you or me."
Two weeks later, it was Christmas Eve. My mother sent me to bed early, just in case we were the first stop on Santa's trip. But I couldn't sleep because I couldn't stop thinking about the radio that Santa was going to bring me. I was imagining how much fun I was going to have turning it on to WGH AM and listening to the top forty hits. Or I could even put it on the talkie station and listen to tales about the folks down in Mount Airey.
Then a chilling thought occurred to me. What if I was the last stop on Santa's trip and he ran out of radios before he got to me! Sleep was impossible now.
At about one o'clock in the morning, I could stand it no longer. I quietly got out of my bed, tiptoed across the floor, cracked my bedroom door, and peered into the kitchen. The plate of cookies and glass of milk that I had left for Santa were empty, a sure sign that he had already come and gone!
"Mama," I hollered.
"What?" she answered sleepily.
"I have to go to the bathroom!"
"Well, all right," she assented. "But don't you go anywhere near that tree, now, you hear?"
I did as I was told. I didn't go anywhere near that tree. But she didn't say I couldn't look, and look I did. There, illuminated by the Christmas tree lights, was a box with the letters RADIO emblazoned across it! I had gotten it! I had gotten that radio! I started to dance a little jig, but then I remembered that I was not supposed to know yet. So I returned to my room and fell into a peaceful sleep full of blissful dreams. For the first time, I really did see sugar plums dancing in my head.
The next morning my mother gently shook me by the shoulders to awaken me. "Ain’t you ashamed, you sleepy head?” she asked playfully. “Are you going to sleep all day? It's Christmas!" she announced.
I jumped out of bed and ran to the tree in the livingroom. There were three packages there for me. I decided to save the best for last.
In the first package was underwear. Normally, I would have been upset to get underwear for Christmas, but, somehow, this year it didn't seem like such a bad idea. " A girl can always use new underwear!" I affirmed.
In the second package was a gift I truly loved: a set of Winnie the Pooh books. "You know how I love to read!" I laughed.
Of course, the next package had the radio inside. I looked at my parents. They were more excited than I was! I put my hand in the box and pulled out its contents. "A radio!" I cried.
Then something strange caught my eye. This was an unusual radio. It had only one dial. I turned the dial and a familiar childhood tune began to play: John Brown had a little Indian. It wasn't a real radio at all! It was just a toy, a music box that played only one tune while small pictures of Indian children rotated around the dial. Santa was either not very smart, or he was playing a cruel joke on me.
In the afternoon, company started dropping by, and in the midst of all the Christmas cheer, I forgot about my disappointment over the radio. In fact, I had no trouble enjoying the rest my Christmas vacation.
But on January second, I went back to school. The school was abuzz with chattering children talking about their wonderful Christmas gifts. I noticed that the children who lived in my neighborhood faired about like I had. But the children who lived in the rich part of town had gotten some fantastic gifts. Joe Sam Delpino, whose father was a doctor, had gotten a bicycle that I had seen in the window of Miller's sporting goods for $150.00. And Gloria Hempel, whose father owned the biggest and most exclusive department store in town, had gotten a color television! I lied and said I got a stereo.
"You didn't get a stereo!" taunted Gloria Hempel. "Why, I bet Santa is afraid to go into your neighborhood after dark. I bet you didn’t get anything at all."
"How would you know?" I retorted. "What have you got? A crystal ball?
I was seething with anger, but I wasn't about to let anyone at school know that, and I managed to contain my hostility throughout the school day. But by the time I got home I could contain it not longer. I ran into my room, slammed the door, threw my books against the wall, threw myself on the bed and started sobbing
Within seconds, my mother had marched into my room. "What's going on here? You know that I don't allow this kind of behavior in my home!" she scolded.
"Santa Claus is a politician!" I screamed. "He brought Gloria Hempel a color television, when her own daddy could afford to buy her three of them if he wanted to. But me - I couldn't even get a lousy radio!"
My mother stood there in stunned silence. Then she turned her back to me and said quietly, "Honey, this world is a rough row to hoe. We just have to do the best we can." Then I heard a sound that I had never heard come from my mother before. It was a sniffle. A sniffle? My mother never cried.
I grew up a little in that moment. Suddenly, without being told, I knew that it was all a myth. There was no man in a red suit flying through the air in a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer on Christmas Eve. My mother had gotten me what she thought I wanted, and with precious little money to spare.
I walked up to my mother, put my arms around her, and looked up into her tear-stained face. She looked back at me with wet eyes, and I could see that she knew that I knew that she knew. "I sure do love you, Mama," I whispered.
And she cupped her hands under my chin and said, "We don't have much money, but we've got lots and lots of love. And that make us the richest people of all."
And that little toy radio became my most prized possession. Today it sits on the dresser in my bedroom, where I keep it as a symbol of a parent's love for a child: love that is unconditional and self-sacrificing, though sometimes hard to understand. I sure feel mighty lucky to have had it.