“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Ghosts of Christmas Past: 1959
The family decided this year to continue our quest for a more authentic Christmas — the one before Madison Avenue, product placement and Black Friday; the one illustrated by Messrs. Currier & Ives. I was anxious to find the holiday Alastair Sim or Jimmy Stewart had tried to show us: the Christmas concerned more with spirit than spending. So, for the past week, I’ve been visited about 3:00 each morning by several of my own ghosts of Christmases past.
I was a lanky kid, uncomfortable in a skin that never caught up with my frame; not tall, just bony. Then there was the question of family: as a member of a prominent one, poor kids thought I was rich, and rich kids thought I was cheap. My sister got all the personality genes, too, which left me well outside the usual social groups — until the summer before high school, that is, when I got a part-time job at Cliff’s Garage.
Mr Pherson operated a gas station and auto repair shop on South Broad. My dad Warren was a customer and preferred to have mechanical work done there, rather than at the dealership in Fort Dodge. The garage was small and smoky — but so was everywhere else in the ’50s — and it served as a sort of demilitarized zone for puberty when so many other hangouts around town catered to one clique or another. I found acceptance there and gladly returned the favor.
Those who remember Cliff will recall he was open from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. six days a week and a half day on Sunday. He ran the place single-handedly, which may account for his wife taking off with a tobacco and novelty salesman some years before. He also ran the place single-leggedly (is that a word?), having lost one about the age of ten (I forget which leg). Missing digits, hands and arms are a common sight in farm towns like Agincourt, but Cliff gave his leg to a railroad train — catching a ride on a passing boxcar but losing his grip on a greasy rung.
Cliff didn’t have any kids of his own, which elevated the pubescent comfort level at the garage. More friend to us than parent, the gang that hung out there cut across boundaries of age, class and even gender. One day when he was under my dad’s car (a 1953 Buick), Cliff asked if I’d pump some gas into Mrs Schoenfeld’s Chevy, which must have been my audition, since I was soon taken on at a buck an hour. Years later, I learned that Warren had asked Cliff to keep an eye on me and make sure I didn’t start smoking like so many of my friends. I was grateful for the illusion of freedom then, and am equally grateful now for that secret oversight.
The winter of 1959 was early and wicked; soon we were up to our butts (and other anatomical appendages) in snow, with temps in the single digits both above and below zero. Cliff caught cold changing someone’s flat tire, and it soon developed into pneumonia by mid-December. His customers included rural folk with faith in home remedies, however, so I remember well when Trueman Hand stopped by one evening with some sheep-dung tea and the fixings for an herbal plaster. As cliff recuperated through Christmas Week, I ran the place from eight to four; then Jimmy Thurlow came in for the evening shift. I was only fourteen and probably breaking all sorts of laws, but it was the most adult thing I’d ever done as a scrawny unfocused kid with little confidence. Cliff got better, and I’d become his employee, working part-time through high school and full-time for the year after that, before I went to college. Much later, when I came home to work at the Plantagenet, it was good to renew my friendship with Cliff and run into so many people I’d got to know through him and a host of new ones.
People die. Funerals are fairly common in large families like mine. But when Cliff died in 1980 at sixty-two, his funeral may have been the first I attended out of respect, rather than any sense of duty. Remembering him now, as I look back fondly to that Christmas of 1959, the Christmas I grew up.