Tuesday, December 14, 2010

John Jackson: Christmas Memories

John and Cynthia Jackson.

Looking back over seventy years, I often have trouble separating Christmas stories from Thanksgiving stories, but some things stand out. One involves presents. There were many wonderful things about Christmas at the Jackson house but presents weren't one of them. In common with most of my working-class friends, it seemed like we got nothing but clothes. That's not entirely fair. There was usually a package of little metal figures, sometimes cowboys, sometimes soldiers—very useful for battles fought over the patterns on the living room rug. I say not entirely fair because I know that there were years when I got a wagon, or a bicycle and even, one year, the best and most wonderful Flexible Flyer sled in the world. But what I remember most is the clothes. After appreciating the clothes as best I could, I would go out and walk up to Bucky Bartlett's house.

George Robert Bartlett, Bucky's father, was Walden's most prominent lawyer. He was also a major figure in my father's circle of friends. I've mentioned in previous memoirs that Pop had a remarkable intelligence and a personality that made him many friends, crossing class boundaries in our small town. "Bob" as he was widely known, had built a small office building in town. It had his office on the first floor, which I remember as being wonderfully classy with an atmosphere like an English club with dark wooden Venetian blinds. In the back was a dental office for his father-in-law, Dr. Ward. Upstairs was an apartment for his executive secretary. My mother and father had a job maintaining the first floor, working many nights and weekends. During the depression, my father had occasional work serving legal papers for Bob, usually borrowing his car since we didn't have one. That sounds like he was an employee, which he was, but their relationship extended to fishing trips to the Adirondacks and the seashore. He even offered to help Pop adopt a daughter if he really wanted one.

What drew me to the Bartlett house, just a short walk away, were the wonderful presents. It seemed to me that anything Bucky wanted, he got. It not only included the most wonderful toys but even extended to an aviary in the back yard when Bucky got interested in pigeons. Not just ordinary pigeons but fancy pouters, rollers, and ones with fancy plumage. And there was the boathouse on the bank of the river. It was the only structure on the entire riverbank and it contained two canoes, the only ones I had ever seen up close. I remember a small pointed tower with a wire to a little airplane that flew in circles around the tower. Somehow you could make it speed up, slow down and even go up and down a little bit. There was always the best of assorted sports equipment. The Bartlett side lawn was the sight of vicious games of tackle football, of course with no pads or uniforms. Bucky was smart, an outstanding athlete, handsome almost to the point of prettiness, and of course the apple of his father's eye. As you can well guess, I fantasized about being Bucky instead of poor me.

Fast forward ten years or so. Because of a small difference in our ages, Bucky was one year ahead of me in school. In his senior year, he was captain of the football team and president of the student council. The night of his senior prom, he went home early feeling quite ill. It was 1945 and long before the Salk vaccine. Many people had mild cases of infantile paralysis, sometimes not even realizing they had it. Bucky's was a severe case. When I first went to see him in the hospital, he was in an iron lung. That was a large metal cylinder pressurized to help the patient breathe when his diaphragm was paralyzed. Fortunately, he recovered enough to breathe on his own, but he was in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Contrary to what you might think, it didn't completely ruin his life. He went on to graduate from law school, take over the law firm, marry, and have a family. But, as you might also guess, I stopped wishing that I were him.

No comments: