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A Beggar's Christmas, 1947, Parts One and Two

Published by JIM HARSTAD | Saturday, December 10, 2016 12:30 AM


Part Two is my December entry. 1,333 words.


Editor's note. To make this month's entry easier to understand, Part One, here, was submitted last year. You will see Part Two below. Part One was also published in Bamboo Ridge.

East Bremerton was called Manette back then, and it had the same
relationship to the Navy town of Bremerton as Brooklyn has to
Manhattan: Inferior. Also, a tall bridge over tidal water connected
them.

Manette featured several World War II-era barracks-style housing
projects, still occupied by holdover military families. Those were the
good neighborhoods, well-maintained by the government, as the homes of
heroes should be. We lived in one of the civilian districts, among the
quonset huts and tar paper boxes that sheltered shipyard scrabblers,
evangelists, hookers, Okies, Irish, and Swedes.

For all that, it did not feel to us like a dangerous neighborhood or a
dangerous town. First graders walked to school accompanied only by
other young scholars a full mile through sometimes inclement weather
and always varied streets and alleys. Armed with good advice — walk
fast; don't talk to strangers — there were never problems. Strangers
apparently got the message and showed no interest in us.

Each Saturday Leonard Seifers and I would meet at the Perry Avenue bus
stop, then ride, all by ourselves, across the Manette Bridge to
downtown Bremerton for the Saturday Matinee at the Tower Theater.
After feasting on Jujubes, Tootsie Rolls, and Big Screen Serial
Adventure with a lot of other kids our age, we'd catch the Perry Ave.
bus and head home, hours later, still all by ourselves.

So there was really no sense of foolhardiness or irresponsibility on
either my or my parents' parts when I as a second-grader was allowed
to take the bus to Bremerton to do my Christmas shopping. It would be
an adventure, to be sure. I'd be all by myself this time, not with a
buddy.

"Are you sure you can do it?" my mother asks, her head bent forward so
she can look squarely into my eyes. "You won't get lost or lose your
money? Will you?"

"Of course not."

"Don't be afraid to ask a policeman for directions."

"I won't."

"Don't be afraid to run away if somebody talks to you mean or looks
wrong at you," adds my father, standing straight up behind Mom. "Find
a cop if you need help."

Although I hadn't any idea what looking "wrong" meant, I assumed that
if it happened I'd know it. "I will," I reply.

I don't know how much money I had or how I carried it. Did I have a
coin purse? I'm sure I didn't have a wallet. Maybe I had my money
tucked away in a tobacco-fragrant Bull Durham sack?

Crossing the bridge all by myself in the front seat of the bus where I
looked straight down at the pavement through the stairwell windows,
riding poised within inches of falling-off-straight-into-the-water far
below, I imagined how I would get out of the upside-down bus from
underwater. And then how I would save my fellow passengers, modestly
flaunting my remarkable, Saturday-serial-honed courage and
resourcefulness to reporters afterward. Wasn't it cold and wet? Wasn't
the current dangerously strong? How had I managed to save that frail
old man, that helpless woman with her baby? Honestly, I'd protest, I'd
just done what any other boy on his way to buy Christmas presents for
his family would do. And if you'll excuse me, I've still got some
shopping.

Soon I was off the bus in the middle of holiday-festooned Bremerton,
the streets decorated with evergreens and colored lights, Salvation
Army bellringers on every corner, people dressed up for the holidays
moving quickly from store to store, diesel and gasoline fumes clouding
the air, overlapping Christmas carols from unseen sources: "round yon
virgin mother still we see thee lie right down Santa Claus Lane".
Everything and everybody was suddenly much bigger than it had ever
been before. Was it already starting to get dark? Did I remember where
to catch the bus home? If I needed a policeman, where would I look?
Was it cold enough to snow?

- - - - -

Begin Part Two, December 2016 entry:

Probably not coincidentally, Bremerton's main drag runs south toward
the shipyard's main gate. Stopping at an intersection, I plotted my
mission quickly. Two-thirds of what I wanted was waiting for me at the
Bremerton Sport Shop and at Woolworth's, directly across the street.

The Salvation Army bellringer was especially lively there, ringing and
gesticulating and nodding from the waist to one and all celebrants of
the nativity to the strains of "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" and the
sounds of shifting gears as traffic lights mandated.

First the Sport Shop, where I'd get my dad the trophy I'd first
spotted through the window weeks ago. I just hoped it would still be
there or that they had more than one. It was pleasantly warm inside
and smelled vaguely of tanned leather. That would be from the Wilson
and Spalding baseball gloves on display against one wall and the
footballs and basketballs in bins.

On the wall behind the cash register hung a cluster of small wooden
shields on which were mounted artistic renderings of golf clubs,
baseball bats, and bowling balls in miniature. None of those would
appeal to my dad, but among them was something that stood out from the
rest: a rainbow trout suspended forever at the curved apogee of its
graceful leap. My dad was no more a fisherman than a golfer or bowler,
but he liked animals, and who could resist so achingly beautiful an
object as a perpetually leaping fish?

"I'll need six cents more for the governor," the man at the cash
register said. "He gets mad when he doesn't get his cut."

I understood about state sales tax and even had a few tokens in my
pocket. They were made of aluminum and had a hole in the middle so you
could string them. I handed the man three tokens and a nickel. "The
governor thanks you," he said, rapping his furry knuckles on the
counter. I tried to catch some sign of sadness or regret at having to
give up so beautiful a possession as the leaping trout, but found
none.

"It's for my dad," I said. "For Christmas."

"I'm sure he'll like it," he said, smiling too broadly it seemed to me.

O'Neal's Shoe Repair was right next door, and you didn't have to go
inside to catch the strong cowhide smell that hung about the entrance.
They displayed a black, high-topped leather shoe, an enormous item
made for the world's tallest man, shown in a black-and-white
photograph wearing a pair of shoes exactly like it. Even my
six-foot-three Uncle Ben did not wear shoes anywhere near that big.
The world's tallest man was over eight feet tall. What did it feel
like to be that tall? What could you do to get that tall? Just eat a
lot, I guessed.

My next stop was Woolworth's, and I passed through the entrance
without even giving the bellringer a tax token. Maybe on my way out,
if I had enough to spare. Woolworth's had a popcorn machine that gave
the store a pleasant smell and an over-warm ambience that I liked.

They'd moved things around since the last time I was there, no doubt
making room for Christmas ornamentation, and at first I couldn't find
what I was looking for: the Barbie dolls. They weren't all Barbies,
but they were costumed to appeal to little girls like my sister. She
already had three or four displayed on her side of our shared bedroom,
still in their white boxes with cellophane windows like the objects of
art they assuredly were. For reasons I couldn't fathom, my sister
still didn't have a platinum-haired doll, but now she'd have one,
thanks to me.

"It's for my little sister," I told the lady cashier.

"I didn't think it was for you," she laughed.

"Did I give you enough for the governor?" I asked.

"Three cents to the dollar," she said. "Just the right amount."

It felt so good to make such progress that I dropped a nickel into the
bellringer's red kettle. on the way out, an impulse I immediately
regretted. I could be running short and still had no idea what to get
my mom. I should have looked around Woolworth's, but I didn't want to
go back. Besides, it was definitely getting darker now, and colder.
Peoples' breath was plainly visible now and cars spewed rich clouds of
exhaust. I'd go to Kress's and see what they offered.

Kress's felt like Woolworth's low-rent cousin, stripped down to the
open-bin essentials. Maybe Mom would like a spatula or a pair of salad
tongs? Not very Christmassy. Then how about a head scarf or perfume?
But what fragrance, what color? Anyway, Kress's didn't look like a
very likely place. Woolworth's would have been better.

Then how about Sears? They might have such items, and it was on my way
to the bus stop. Overhead, the evergreen garlands strung on poles and
across streets were illuminated by brightly colored lightls, and the
music seemed ever louder. City sidewalks, dressed in holiday style.

They'd gone all-out on the main entrance to Sears, a big manger scene
with all the trimmings just inside the glass double doors, complete
with its own sound system, set up to compete with the holiday
cacophony outside: Silent night, holy night.

Beautifully inspirational though it was, I realized I didn't have time
to stop and appreciate it. Where could I find ladies' scarves and
perfume? Or candy? Was candy a good Christmas gift? Perfume would be
better. Or a scarf.

Just off to the side of the manger scene were shelves of smaller
mangers and Marys and Wise Men and babies Jesus and lambs of God and
so forth so you could build your own manger scene. And on one small
shelf, off to the side and all by its lonesome, the most gorgeous
piece of sculpture I had ever laid eyes on. Tall and graceful and
green, it had to be the most stupendous Christmas decoration ever
conceived. A tree, you might guess. But no.

A camel. But not just any ordinary camel. It was a big, tall, broad,
chalk replica ship of the desert, painted a kind of bright avocado
green and shown best in profile. And I loved it and wanted to buy it
and give it my my mom for Christmas. But I didn't have enough money.

So I stopped to ponder a bit about the Christmas season and people
giving to bellringers and just feeling kind and generous. And, to make
a long ponder short, why not?

Standiing just outside the main entrance to Sears, but away from any
bellringer, I hunched up my shoulders and held out my hand. Lo and
behold, some people put money in it. Others asked what I needed money
for, and when I told them I needed bus money to get home to Manette,
they put money in it too, money that I quickly transferred to my
now-bulging front pocket.

Before long I had enough money to buy the camel, so I did. But I
discovered that after giving the governor his cut, I didn't have
enough left over for the bus, which sent me back to the sidewalk with
my hand out.

A well-dressed guy and his beautiful wife walked up to me. I
remembered them well. And they remembered me. "Hey, I thought you
needed bus money?" the man said.

"I did. I still do."

"I gave you a quarter. You said that was all you needed."

"I counted wrong."

"How much do you need? This time?"

"A dime is all. Sir."

"Here's another quarter. Don't count wrong this time." His beautiful
wife smiled but looked vaguely worried.

"Thank you, sir. I won't. Sir."

And I didn't. I found my way to the Perry Avenue bus stop and finished
my day by walking home in the dark to my parents, who said they were
beginning to worry.

At Christmas everybody liked their gifts -- especially my mom. She
loved the camel as much as I did, and maybe more. She adored it,
displayed it with great pride all the rest of that Christmas season.
When visitors called she'd say, "Well you know he did his Christmas
shopping all by himself. Took the bus to Bremerton and came back with
presents for everybody."

"All by himself. My my."

And that was the last I saw of the camel. Apparently it got misplaced
somehow when we moved out to Bear Creek. Oh well. My sister and I had
our own bedrooms there, and my dad generously let me hang the leaping
trout on my very own wall, where I admired it for many years.



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