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FIRST-PERSON: Best Christmas ever

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Christmas 1953 was fast approaching and my mother had warned my brothers and me that we might not find many presents under the tree this year. The warning came after my two younger brothers and I had requested stick horses for Christmas.

My father was the pastor of a small Baptist church in Wichita, Kan., at the time, but the church could not pay him a large enough salary to support a family. He had begun selling aluminum cookware door-to-door to supplement our income. I knew things were tight because my grandparents on my mother’s side came to visit quite often and brought glass jars of fruit, vegetables and jellies they had canned from harvesting their large home garden in the spare lots behind and beside their home.

My father would bring home delicious apple, peach and cherry pies from his mother, who worked as a pastry cook in a small restaurant on Douglas Avenue in Wichita.

From the vast array of food at dinnertime, we seemed to be doing quite well. However, several times I overheard my parents discussing finances. They said they didn’t know how they were going to pay the house payment and the utility bills. My oldest brother Steve was 11, I was 7 and brothers Bill and Phil were 6 and 4, respectively.

Steve was doing odd jobs to earn money to help our family. Phil, Bill and I spent much of our free time after school and on Saturdays playing cowboys with other boys on the 2200 block of South Victoria Street.

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We all had cowboy hats and bandannas, but the Fields boys were the only ones on the block who did not have stick horses to ride. We had to pretend. The other boys often made fun of us because we didn’t have horses.

“We have horses. They are just invisible,” we told the other boys. They were not convinced. Most of the neighbor boys’ horses were alike. The horses’ heads were cut in silhouette form from flat pieces of wood and painted, usually with a white background. The horses’ eyes, nose and mouth were painted in black.

Most had pieces of thin rope nailed to the head for the reins and an unpainted broomstick to straddle when “riding” the horse.

The boy who teased us the most had an official Roy Rogers “Trigger” horse that was painted pale yellow with black features and black reins. It was especially striking.

Although we were disappointed that we wouldn’t get stick horses for Christmas, it didn’t keep us from chasing outlaws on our pretend horses that could change colors daily at our whim. One day I could ride a black stallion and the next an Appaloosa. We were only limited by what kind of horse we could conjure up and describe to our playmates. Our identities could change as well. We chose who would be the robbers or outlaws and who would play the roles of our cowboy heroes Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers and The Lone Ranger. The most coveted character to role play was Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s Indian sidekick. Tonto was strong, brave, loyal and mysterious.

A few days before Christmas we returned home from an adventure-filled afternoon of playing cowboys and Indians on our invisible horses. As we ran into the house and headed straight for the bathroom, we surprised our mother, who was standing in the bathtub with an old apron around her waist, a paintbrush in one hand and a small can of red paint in the other. Hanging from a bare shower curtain rod were three broomsticks glistening with bright red paint. The fumes from the fresh paint filled the bathroom in spite of the partially opened bathroom window.

“Oh, you boys surprised me,” she said. “I didn’t expect you home so soon. Wash up and we’ll have supper in a few minutes,” she said with a smile.

“Why in the world are you painting those red sticks, Mom?” I asked.

“What are you going to do with those smelly things?” Bill queried.

“Well, boys, they’re for a little project I’m working on,” she replied cheerily. “Don’t touch the broomsticks — the paint is still wet. You’ll find out later what they are for,” she said with a gleam in her eyes.

We were hungry and soon forgot about the sticks, which were gone by the time we were ready for our Saturday evening baths in preparation for church on Sunday.

The days flew by, and Christmas Eve arrived. My father took us to purchase our tree from the Boy Scouts Christmas tree lot. He loved to bargain and informed the boys he was an Eagle Scout (the highest rank in scouting) and asked if that qualified him for a discount. They told my father he could have the tree for 50 cents since it was so close to Christmas and they would have to discard it if it hadn’t sold by the end of the day.

My father seemed pleased with his purchase, and he brought the tree home for us to decorate. We trimmed the tree with popcorn we strung with needle and thread and with ornaments made out of tinfoil and construction paper. We had a string of lights and some used metallic icicles from the previous Christmas. We hung a small homemade star on top of the tree to symbolize the star that guided the shepherds to baby Jesus on that first Christmas in Bethlehem. We positioned a white bulb from the string of lights so it illuminated the star.

Christmas morning dawned bright and sunny. We knew not to expect much, but all four of us boys were awake in our beds and on the count of “One, two, three, go!” We all clamored out of bed and ran for the tree in the living room.

Under the tree were numerous presents wrapped in Wichita Eagle newspaper comic pages. It was a colorful array. Leaned against a corner by the tree were three long packages almost as tall as we boys. We ran to my parents’ bedroom to awaken them and then we all returned to the living room to unwrap our presents. Mom seemed excited as each of us opened packages from our grandparents that contained pajamas, socks and oranges wrapped in colored tissue paper.

At last, all the presents had been opened except for the three tall ones in the corner. Mom asked Steve to distribute the presents to Bill, Phil and me. Steve had already opened his presents from my parents. He received a green wool sweater with a moose head embroidered in white yarn and a Boy Scout pocket knife.

Now it was time for each of us to open our last present. As we tore into the newspaper comic wrapping we all shouted with glee.

We lined up in order of age and mounted the most beautiful stick horses we had ever seen. My mother had taken men’s slacks that my father had outgrown when he gained weight and made three-dimensional horses’ heads that she had stuffed with scraps of material. Billy’s horse and mine were fine gray steeds fashioned from a blue-gray pair of tweed pants. Phil’s horse was smaller and was chocolate brown. The material had come from an old set of window drapes.

Mother had meticulously fashioned anatomically accurate heads. She was familiar with how a real horse should look. As a Kansas farm girl she had ridden horses and was almost killed one time when she and her sisters slid off a horse while riding it bareback up a steep, muddy bank.

Mother carefully fashioned the eyes, nose and mouth on each of our stick horses with embroidery thread. The mane on each horse was made from beautiful soft yarn that lay in tight curls against each horse’s head and neck.

The ears were perky three-dimensional creations that pointed upward, giving our steeds an alert and poised appearance.

My mother had fashioned intricate bridles and reins out of women’s old plastic belts fastened together at all the joints with bright shiny gold brads.

The horses’ heads were attached at the neck to bright shiny red broomsticks by upholstery tacks. They were the same broomsticks that had been hanging in our bathroom to dry only a few days earlier.

We hugged and kissed our mother and father and spent hours admiring and riding our new horses throughout the house.

As we met the neighbor boys later that Christmas morning, they were in total awe of our new stick horses that appeared more real than any they had ever seen before. We proudly rode our steeds for several years and never once made fun of the flat dime-store horses our friends continued to ride.

With lots of work, abundant love and a little money, my parents had given us the best Christmas ever.
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Copyright 2003, Timothy J. Fields (used by permission). This story is from “Indelible Ink Adventures of a Baby Boomer,” a new book by Tim Fields, director of communications for the Association of Southern Baptist Colleges and Schools and president of Fields Publishing Inc. in Nashville, Tenn., illustrated by Nancy Hall of Nashville. The book can be ordered from local bookstores in soft back (ISBN: 157843015-1) or hardback (ISBN: 157843016-X) or online from www.fieldspublishing.com.