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Local View: The Christmas I'll never forget — spent in a coal shed

From the column: "It was not Santa, but my mother who finally came to unhook the door, as James retreated to the corner."

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Rick McKee / Cagle Cartoons
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We rely on Christmas for happy endings to life’s critical moments.

I’m thinking about the December of our last year at my parents’ old house in the city. I was 5, old enough to store memories I can summon today but young enough then that I believed in a mysterious trinity of Santa Claus, the Jesus hanging on the wall above my parents’ bed, and the man who used to stare from a second-story window of an apartment above Pearl’s Grocery at the end of the block. All three had beards.

The week before Christmas must have been rainy, or sleety, since my sister Rosemary, 6, and brother James, 8, and I were playing in the basement instead of outside in the sun or snow. As with other city bungalows, our basement housed the boiler and a storage area for coal that used to be delivered through a window-like chute. But when everyone converted from coal to oil heat, my father walled off and paneled the “coal shed” so we could safely play in the rest of the basement.

James sat cross-legged on the floor, winding up the tin tractor he had gotten the previous Christmas. Rosemary knelt next to him, waiting for the tractor to roll past the barn they had built with Lincoln Logs.

Curious, I slid Rosemary’s Thumbelina doll into its path, and the tractor crashed, its spring-activated wheel snarling and tangling in the doll’s dress.

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Rosemary screamed, and James scooted around to free poor Thumbelina and right the overturned tractor. I told Rosie that it was OK and not to cry, but her lips were clenched tightly together as she tried to smooth Thumbelina’s yellow dress.

Later, as I looked around for other toys, there was a forceful knock on the basement door leading to the backyard. James answered, then stepped back as Santa Claus came inside. He shook James’ hand and asked him a question in a deep, muffled voice. Rosie stood close to me, hugging Thumbelina to her chest. The manner of Santa’s walk and how he bent to give Rosemary a hug were oddly familiar. And when he stood back up and turned to me, his blue eyes flickered the way my mother’s did whenever the others tattled to her that, “David’s making trouble.”

Santa’s droopy beard brushed my head as he reached around my shoulder with a gloved hand and led me to the coal shed. He opened the panel door, moved me inside, then closed and hooked it.

Engulfed in darkness, I lost my breath. The shed had been used as punishment for James and Charlie, 10, but wasn’t I too little? When I could finally breathe, it came out in a wet and hysterical noise, filling my head and bouncing off the invisible walls. Crying loudly was my defense against the spirits, goblins, and rats that hid in the darkness.

After a minute — or an hour — I finally stopped. I cowered against the paneling, which smelled like our toy box. Slowly, things became visible: My hand. My sleeve. A blade of light across the floor in the rear corner. The tall stickman to my left: a shovel? A ghost?

I listened but could not hear the tin tractor which my brain knew was steps away on the other side of the door. But the toys and the two good children might just as well have been in another galaxy.

Suddenly, a slow cracking sound.

Monsters? Rats?

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“Mommy,” I whispered.

Then the cracking exploded into a crash. The ray of light emanating from the rear corner burst into a solid, yellow beam. I shut my eyes.

“It’s OK,” someone said.

I breathed. Opened one eye.

“I found the secret compartment,” said the voice.

The coal shed now semi-dark, I could make out James’ grin. He had broken in through a seam in the paneling. He said I’d be punished even worse if I escaped through the same crack, so he would stay with me until Santa let me out. Meanwhile, James inventoried the room’s contents, now that his break-in let in light. I watched him take down tools and old pictures from a metal shelf unit.

Another larger box on the floor contained clothing, and he started to check all the pockets for money. He said there were probably hundreds and millions of dollars from olden days and that we could buy our own toy TV and hide it in the shed so that next time we were punished, we could watch “I Love Lucy” in secret.

It was not Santa, but my mother who finally came to unhook the door, as James retreated to the corner. My heart no longer racing, my voice calm, I told Mom about Santa and promised I’d never tease Rosemary again.

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It was the last time I was confined in the shed, since we would move to a new home when I was 6.

It was not, however, the last of my punishments, as my parents were doing their best to manage eight children in an age when experts believed coal sheds and spankings were the bravest proof of love.

But what would experts know of love, having never met my brother James? He made Christmas 1955 the best I remember.

David McGrath is a former Hayward resident, an emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage in Illinois, the author of "South Siders," and a frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. He can be reached at profmcgrath2004@yahoo.com.

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David McGrath

Related Topics: CHRISTMAS
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