In December 1974, I spent my weeknights standing frozen in a living Nativity scene. The Nativity was on the church steps of the local Methodist church. I played a shepherd, the lowest-rent part among the choices, a definite peck down in the order from the wise men (who got to wear fake beards), the Angels (who got to wear wings) and the Mary and Joseph (who got to crouch down by the creche containing the Baby Doll Jesus). But a shepherd got to carry a staff, and wear cool robes, and stand, frozen, while Angels singing on high from hi-fi speakers sang Christmas music (or is memory playing at trick on me,and the music was in my head?).
It turns out that 15 year old shepherds wore Converse coach tennis shoes, which must have been quite handy in the sheepfields above Bethlehem. Also, shepherds got to take breaks from standing stock still like living picture nativity postcards for all to see, at which huge thermos bottles of hot chocolate were consumed, and stern but well-meaning schoolteachery church volunteers would caution the Blessed Virgin to stop giggling and help adjust the magi beards.
In December 1974, I asked to receive Sparks' Kimono My House album for Christmas, after seeing the Mael brothers on a midnight rock TV show called "In Concert", where they sang "Talent is an Asset", but I thought the words were "Terence is on Acid".
In December 1974, I spent my daylight hours planting pine trees with a brother and some cousins, on days that alternated between cold and warmish. We'd drink hot chocolate from huge thermos bottles (the huge thermos bottle of cocoa meaning Christmas to me as surely as gingerbread men and sugar cookies shaped like Santa). We'd use divots, long metal rods with footholds terminating in a broad sharp triangle,
which we'd drive into the ground, pull upward, and open a hole for each tree. We'd walk broad rows with sacks of fresh green pine trees, trying to get them to "take" on bottom land not far from Chidester, Arkansas. The trees never took all that well, although if one drives to that land now, I suppose one might see towering 30 year old trees that my cousins, my brother and I planted.
The understory plants in that woodland included holly trees in berry, which always seemed very Christmassy to me, except that some understory trees were rather thorny which, if you ask my opinion, is more Easter than Christmas. Sometimes, it would warm up in the afternoon, and we could take our breaks
in the pine straw on warm hills. When it was cold, we dined on peanut butter sandwiches in a pickup truck.
In December 1974, I was spending my last Christmas in Gurdon, Arkansas, although I did not know it at the time. I had some inkling we might move someday, for my father had applied to return to the Air Force. The military at that time was recruiting heavily for doctors to re-up, and my father, who had been out for years, was thinking of going back in. But by the time they got Congressional approval for his new commission, he had already relocated us to another city. I think he did a year or so of reserve duty, but I cannot recall exactly.
In December 1974, we celebrated Christmas as we always did. We decorated a cut Christmas tree as soon as school let out, a week or two before Christmas. On that same day, my mother would pull down the huge Nativity set she kept wrapped in newspaper. The wise men looked very wise, although they looked more imploring than adoring. The shepherd with the lamb on this shoulders was very cool, but the fellow with the spring whip-like thing had his whip-like thing twisted all wrong, somehow. We watched Christmas specials--the "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" special, with Norelco Santa razor commercials at every break, and a Charlie Brown Christmas, which I credit for most of my current notions about and love of jazz.
On Christmas Eve, we ate t-bone steaks grilled in an electric skillet, and baked potatoes. Then we all got into the car and drove to see the Christmas lights. Santa came while we were out driving, perhaps the last Santa my 10 year old sister would take literally.
We'd all break into the presents and unwrapping in a mad, disordered dash, a tradition which maintains to this day. When I visit my wife's Kansas City family, who run Christmas like a well-ordered piano recital, I'm always appreciative of the sheer wondrous virtue of wrapping paper being ripped and
There are so many things I don't clearly remember. Did we lose my father's father whom we called Pappy, in 1975,or 1974 or 1973? He came to stay with us each Christmas. I remember we lost him during the Summer, when I was in church camp, because I can remember my parents picking me up to go to the funeral. But I don't remember if we still had him in 1974.
In December 1974, my favorite class was physical education. I had been on the football team in junior high, and although I lettered my ninth grade year, my lack of talent for the game was palpable. I stopped playing football and began enjoying gym class games like dodge ball and basketball. I won the award for P.E. Boy of the Year that year, which is among my favorite academic achievements.
In December 1974, I worked in the library as my elective credit. I eschewed Shop II, as I barely got promoted from wood-working in ninth grade. This meant I failed to renew my brief stint in the Future Farmers of America. I worked in the library, stacking books and helping kids get magazines to read during study hall. I have always thought, since that time, that librarian is about the coolest thing one could be. In the early mornings, I played chess with friends in the biology lab prior to the start of school, often on our cheap plastic set with the Chinese figures. In December 1974, I was in charge of feeding and caring for the tropical fish in the biology lab.
In December 1974, I took tenth grade geometry, where we learned how to solve equations using a curious mnemonic in which we drew a man's face on the equation called "George Doolittle". I no longer remember how the mnemonic worked, but I signed all my papers "George Doolittle and.." my name.
In December 1974, we ate huge sugar cookies and the street lights all were decorated with aluminum fringe and plastic bells. The vogue that year was painting nutcrackers and soldiers onto the fire hydrants.
In December 1974, our family sang Christmas carols as we drove around, "Jingle Bells" and "We wish you a Merry Christmas". The teens practiced songs for church on the handbells--I was assigned a single bell, the lowest G in the set. I rarely got to ring it, but when I did, it resonated like a cannon.
In December 1974, I had a terrible crush on two girls. I never told one of them. I had already been scorned by the other one, so I suppose it was less a crush than a moment of pointless longing. 1974 stands out to me as a wonderful time of pointless longing, and I don't know why.
In December 1974, we hung ornaments on a pine tree, either native or Scotch, and we always noticed how good our tree looked when you drove by our house. We ate turkey and dressing and casseroles featuring marshmallows or corn, and we ate rolls from Heaven. Christmas dessert featured pumpkin bread and gingerbread men and sometimes a meringue pie, perhaps coconut. We made our Christmas lists from the Sears and Spiegel catalog, and if we did not believe in Santa, we nonetheless believed in Christmas.
In December 1974, everything was on the verge of change, but if you had asked me then, I would have told you that everything was timeless, and permanent.