Friday, December 26, 2008

'Twas the Year After Christmas

Well, I thought I'd end this year's meanderings with a picture that was taken only yesterday. That way, if you curse at me, you'll know what I look like. The wine glass was a prop.....not.

Recently, I have been blest with a couple of e-mails from two brothers that had lived on the other side of my living room wall for the first nine years of my life. Their "official" names are Gene and Dennis but we knew them better as "Bug" (for June Bug...he was born in June) and Picky (you can add your own reason here). I want to thank both of them for reminding me of a few stories that my feeble brain could not retain over the years. So I'd like to remind you of what they reminded me about.

A couple of stories ago, I talked about "outside influences", referring to the trends and fashion from the big city of Uniontown and the bigger city of Pittsburgh. By the time these things got to Smock, they were about five to ten years old. And I thank God for that. But Bug reminded me that we had a load of outside influences since we spent most of our time outside. Leave it to Bug to set me straight, something he's been doing for many years.

Above the sloping ball field behind the house where I came to live after leaving my through the wall buddies was a pretty steep hill, mostly adorned with a narrow assortment of what we called "jagger" bushes. But there were paths. Paths that were there longer than we could all remember. Some of us thought that the Indians made them.

In the fall when Bill & Bob Constantine's sweet corn was ripe, many of us would follow these paths through the woods and end up in a huge cornfield. There, we would "borrow" as much as we thought we could eat and enjoy this in a clearing about halfway between the farm and Smock Hill. Some of the older boys would get an 8 gallon mini-keg of beer (brand was not important) and others would show up with butter, salt, hot dogs, fresh tomatoes (which were also borrowed) and other picnic food.

Now I want to stop right here and remind you that we were pretty much teenagers. Some even younger. And we played with fire. REAL fire. In today's world, I don't dare suggest what teenagers are doing when they are left to their own devices. The kids I grew up with had the knowledge of how to cook, make a fire, and hide an 8 gallon mini-keg from prying eyes. And we were discreet. We knew how to hunt down choke-cherries and harvest the hollow shoots of weeds that grew wild down by the creek to use as a primitive blow gun. When we had crab apple fights, we used young tree branches much like the slingshot that David used in the Old Testament. (No one got hurt; just a few black and blue marks). We knew how to fashion a gun from a piece of wood that could shoot a rubber band that would raise a welt on the victim. And I won't go into the mud ball fights in the "off season" and snowball fights in winter.

What harm did we really cause? What lives were destroyed? How much did all of this cost our parents?

The tattoos that we carry today aren't made of ink, but of memory that is literally emblazoned in our minds. They were good times that every kid from Smock yearns to re-live. And now that our parents know what we were doing out in those woods, I would say that they would not mind if we didn't change a thing had we the power to become teenagers again.

The real message here is that you will not find any stories like this on YouTube or MySpace today. But I sure wish that you could, if only for the sake of the kids.

And if I were somehow able to be transported back to those hills outside Smock with nothing more than a pen knife and a few matches, I'd want Bug and Picky at my side. And, if given a few hours, they and I would be enjoying things that the kids of today may call silly. But to us, we were truly on the top of the world.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Lights, camera, Christmas

Uniontown is just ten miles South of Smock on Route 51. That is where we used to go (and still go today) if we want to buy anything more than a postage stamp or a stale glass of beer. In the 1950's, Main Street in Uniontown had a brick surface. And on Friday nights, Main Street was closed to traffic to allow vendors to sell anything from cheese to cider. Those of you who remember G.C. Murphy's Department Store also remembered that you could get a coat, Christmas decorations and a milk shake from their soda fountain.

There were stores for the "normal" people and stores for those who were much more financially blest and obviously did not derive their income in a black, wet pit using a pick and shovel. I remember that the women who worked in these posh stores wore enough perfume to knock a fly off of a manure wagon. They also wore "rouge", something that you don't see women wearing in the Victoria's Secret catalog. I thought that they were from another planet where the inhabitants all had rosy cheeks and rivers of perfume made all of the flowers wither.

At Christmas, the women of Smock didn't really smell like anything. It was the men who smelled of things like Iron City beer and cabbage that had completed its alimentary journey. And it was those same men who would begin their Christmas preparations by insuring that the deer meat was still frozen and that mother had enough flour and walnuts to make kolatch, a rare delicacy that was only made at Christmas and Easter. And the men did not help out in the kitchen. They usually spent their time hunting or enjoying a beer and a bump at Bortz's tavern.

The outside lights were huge and needed to be nailed to the wood frame of the house and front porch. And, they were red, orange, green and white. That's it. I learned some really good curse words helping my father nail those lights up along the porch.

But all of these traditions aside, our little St. Hedwig's Church took on a beauty that was only seen and felt at Christmas. The two trees with simple lights were near the side altars and a manger scene was always beneath the altar where Mary's statue stood. The figures had to be at least fifty years old. The church was central to our town and still is today.

I remember that the "richer" people in Smock bought motorized rotating Christmas trees that were aluminum and had shiny aluminum branches. A rotating color disc in front of a spotlight shined and made the tree change from crimson to a very realistic yellow. But manger scenes beneath these modern marvels were handed down through several generations.

So what do you hold sacred this time of year? I remember that we actually CELEBRATED Christmas. God sent his only Son to redeem us and provide salvation. And as we were properly taught as children, without the BIRTH, we could not have the DEATH, and without the death, we are lost. This is why Easter is even more important than Christmas.

And as in years past, those good people in my home town will remember Christmas in our tiny church that still smells of fresh pine (and not aluminum). They remember when they share the oplatky at the dinner table. And even if the old glass lights are now replaced with modern LEDs that light up our own silent nights, you can still see the holes where we placed the nails.

These memories will flood their minds and hearts and make another Christmas so worth while.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Holiday Pine & Party

Every year, businesses along with our friends at the ACLU manage to squeeze out a little more Christmas and squeeze in more terms that are less offensive. Macy's now has a "Holiday Parade" and many businesses have a "holiday party" for their employees. Oh, let's not mention the "C" word or we'll offend someone.

In response to these less offensive titles, well respected people like Paul Harvey, Andy Rooney and Ben Stein have created really excellent essays about the meaning of Christmas. And we read them and make positive comments. But somehow, we still fall in the "holiday" rut.

Back in the days when Smock had a serious population, a hotel, a railroad station and a company store, Christmas meant something. I remember going to the Union Supply Company Store with my great aunt Katie to find a manger scene. Try to find one today at K-Mart, WalMart, or any department store. If you do, Jesus and the Holy Family would be stuck behind some boxes that held the latest HXQTZ-9000 turbo computer.

Even the word "creche" which can mean "Nativity scene" isn't used much in the U.S. But in countries like Ireland, creche more commonly refers to a day nursery.

In Smock, several families which had a bit more money would place a life-sized Nativity scene in their front yards, right next to the Blessed Mother fountain or grotto that remained up all year. And no one stole the figures of the Wise Men or Baby Jesus. Today, you have to seriously consider covering the Baby Jesus with Geico instead of a blanket.

We used to go to the local farm that had CHRISTMAS trees and cut one down. I had to stand there holding the tree steady and upright while my Dad would saw away at the trunk and Mom would complain about how cold it was. And no matter how much plotting and calculating Dad would do, the cut at the base of the tree was always off a bit. Thank Goodness for those tree holders with the three screws that you had to endlessly adjust for windage and elevation, and Coriolis effect along with gravitational and y/z axis deviation. And when you were done, it was still crooked.

But among all of the whining and complaining, there were true holy moments. Moments like when you hang that ornament that was given to you by someone special who is no longer with you or like when you place that rather time-worn angel at the top of the tree, or when you lay the Baby Jesus in the manger. It seems like time stands still just for a few seconds. These are the truly treasured moments.

Well, it is during those times that I hope you remember the true meaning of Christmas. Sure, I can wax religious and spew out some Biblical references. But Christmas, not the "holiday season" is the second Thanksgiving at the end of the year. We give thanks for our friends. And relatives. Definitely in that order. And we pray that we can understand the difference between the things we need and the things we want. And as my friend the late Jones Pickens used to say at dinnertime, "keep us ever mindful of the needs of others." Now THAT'S Christmas.

Usually after "Rooshin Christmas" in Smock, everyone puts out their old dried up Christmas trees for H.C. Brown to collect in his all purpose garbage truck. One year, my friends and I placed piles of these trees on our sleds and took them to the top of the hill behind our house. It only took one match to set about 20 trees ablaze that had flames reaching at least 50 feet into the air. Everyone on Smock Hill came out of their houses to see that sight. And we were told that we had done a good thing to shout "Happy New Year" while the fire lit up the entire hillside that cold January night. I'd like to see Guy Lombardo top that.

So this year will most likely be like the others. Holiday this and seasonal that. But did you ever wonder why the churches are so crowded for Midnight Mass and Christmas vigil services?

I'll just bet that those atheists are jealous.

"Merry Christmas and God bless us all, cried Tiny Tim."