The Truth, Mainly - 12/24/2001

Getting Christmas, 1941, but no electric train
by Leon Satterfield

I don't get it.

It's December, 1941, and I'm seven years old and I go to church and I'm about to have a bad Christmas anyway. That'll be two in a row.

Last Christmas, we had to go to California to see my uncle who moved out there from Kansas to work in an airplane factory. My three-year-old sister and I got lost in L.A. and we ended up in the police station.

I liked Kansas better.

And this year it's almost as bad. Last year, it was the L.A. police station. This year, it's World War II.

At least we don't have to go to California this Christmas. We were planning to go, but then we got in World War II at Pearl Harbor and my mother's stepbrother, Raymond, was on the West Virginia and Tojo bombed him and we don't know yet if he got killed. And if we go to California, Tojo might bomb us too, so we stay in Kansas.

But the worst thing about this Christmas is that I'm not getting the electric train I need. And it's no fair because my third cousins are named Wilbur and Silas and they got an electric train for Christmas last year and my name is Noel spelled backward and I'm not getting an electric train for Christmas this year.

Because, my father says, all the electric trains this year are going to the war effort. Gasoline and sugar are going to the war effort too. I don't get it.

So on Christmas Eve, we go to church. We're Baptists. I have to wear my bathrobe and pretend I'm a sheep herder. So do all the other Baptist kids.

Up in front of everyone, we sing songs that I don't get. About a way in a manger. About harking the Harold angels sing. About round yon virgin.

My favorite is about the first Noel the angel did say, and the other kids are jealous because what the angel did say is my name spelled backward. Everyone else's name spelled backward isn't anything anybody can say. Except Bob Buck's and his name spelled backward is the same thing he started with.

Harold Sims says the Harold angels are named after him. I say like fun.

The last song we sing is about Gloria in excelsior and I don't get that one either. Who's Gloria? What's she doing in the excelsior?

Then our skinny preacher comes out dressed like Santa Claus with his stomach off to one side and he gives all us kids brown paper sacks of hard candy and walnuts and oranges. Like that will maybe make up for World War II and no electric train.

Then we go home and open presents. I get Dick Tracy handcuffs and a cap gun and three boxes of caps, one from each sister. I give my sisters hankies, my father some hot toothpicks, and my mother a glass salt shaker in a little box full of excelsior. It makes me wonder about Gloria again.

But no electric train.

After I go to bed I remember a picture show about a boy who wants a puppy and when he wakes up on Christmas morning there are five puppies in his bed and they lick his face. So maybe, I think, there'll be an electric train in my bed when I wake up in the morning.

But there isn't. So I know that World War II is serious.

And just after we sit down to Christmas dinner, my grandmother calls long distance to tell my mother she got a letter from Raymond and he said that he didn't get killed at Pearl Harbor, but some of his friends did.

After she hangs up, my mother cries a little bit without making any noise and I don't get that even more than I don't get Gloria in the excelsior. I thought my mother liked Raymond, so why is she crying because he didn't get killed?

I turn on the radio to cheer her up. But it's not time yet for Fibber McGee and Molly and some guy is singing about hearing bells on Christmas Day "their old familiar carols play, and wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, good will to men."

That sounds pretty cheerful, so I turn it up and the guy sings "And in despair I bowed my head, there is no peace on earth, I said, for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men."

And when my mother hears that, she turns the radio off.

But my little sister—who does things my mother doesn't want her to do because it makes my father laugh—turns the radio back on and the guy is singing "Then pealed the bells more loud and deep, God is not dead nor doth He sleep, the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men."

"Well," my mother says, dabbing her eyes with her Christmas napkin, "I hope so. I surely do hope so."

And this time I think maybe I get it. Then we eat.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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