Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - December 22, 2023

Art's Christmas treasures

Some weeks ago, husband Art's daughter Karen asked him to write family tales for her. While editing the following one, I couldn't help but think how this special time of year can mean different things to each of us. I think Art's stories are better than any material gift. So in the spirit of the holidays, I offer you the following - Art's recollections of his childhood Christmas celebrations.

Gloria has often said I was "born old," and Christmas time may illustrate her point well.

As far as I'm concerned, Christmas is the only holiday each year. But that status has little to do with presents. By the time I was 9, Christmas season commenced the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I went to bed at 8 p.m. so I could awaken at 1 a.m. and be ready when uncle Art arrived with his truck. We headed northwest out of my hometown, dropping The Milwaukee Journal Sunday edition at various small towns. By sunrise, we arrived at the Waldvogel farm.

In 1934, my grandfather began selling Christmas trees. When I began going on the tree-buying trips, Grandpa was 74 and Art did much of the work. My brother had accompanied him in earlier years, but in 1953, Tommy was in the Army so that job moved on to me. I was the biggest kid in my class, and was strong enough to hand trees to Art while he stood on the load and placed each on the ones below.

Meeting the Waldvogels was an eye-opening experience. The father, Ed, had died the year before and the family was dreadfully poor. Chickens sometimes came into the home. There wasn't a lick of paint on any outbuilding. But the people were the nicest. They always insisted we eat with them, but we felt guilty taking some of what little they had. They couldn't afford antifreeze for the tractor, so when winter came, they drained it. When they needed the tractor, they would run it until it became warm, then turn it off and wait until it cooled. Many times, we paused in snow-covered fields for this to occur.

We bought around 100 trees per load, cut from the Waldvogel land and their neighbor's land. We left by noon and returned home by mid-afternoon. Grandpa had convinced the owner of the empty lot between them to let him use it to sell the trees. Art strung lights criss-crossing the area. It was magical at night, particularly after a fresh snow.

But every year, one trip was an exception. Before insurers put an end to it, all churches had one or more trees 15-25 feet tall. A large one went for almost as much as a whole load of home trees, so Art preferred to choose them himself. One year when the Waldvogels had been unsuccessful locating good church trees, I commented that the ones in their windbreak were nice. It was intended as a joke, but within seconds, the trees were felled.

Most years, Ed's kids Frankie, Rosalie and Dennis helped. Frankie found a neighbor who let us cruise his property and he cut Art's selected trees with an ax. Rosalie and I carried them to the trailer, Dennis carted them back to their farm, and then we loaded the truck. On those trips, we arrived home well after dark.

When school was over each weekday or when the holiday break arrived, I walked to my grandparents' home to sell trees, sometimes trimming the excess foliage for buyers.

My mother enjoyed Christmas trees, but wasn't keen on trimming them, so I took over that job as well. My touch of obsessive-compulsiveness made me perfect for putting tinsel on the tree and arranging the lights just so. Soon, I was decorating the huge tree at my grandparents' home because grandma's multiple sclerosis made it hard for her to stand for long periods.

But Christmas was more than trees. My father was the mail messenger in my hometown, which meant he hauled the mail between the trains that moved it between cities and the local post office. Starting near Thanksgiving, the mail increased dramatically, and parcels were shipped in boxcars in addition to ordinary rail cars. Dad needed help and I was a cheap, convenient, and willing alternative to hired help. He backed the truck up to the boxcar and I retrieved parcels while he stacked them in the truck. When the latter was full, we drove to the post office and unloaded the truck’s contents onto the post office’s platform trucks to be transported inside for processing.

While this was not as much fun as the Christmas tree jaunts, it was interesting seeing packages from all corners of the country. Every year, at least one Avon package got crushed and the perfume leaking into surrounding packages made working in the boxcar overwhelming.

I felt Christmas was truly at hand when Aunt Ione arrived from Chicago. She worked for Revlon and gave classes for cosmetologists at major department stores. But about a week before Christmas, the company felt the counter gals were as up-to-speed as they were going to be and so Ione could begin her break. One night after her arrival, Ione joined my mother and their sister Arline at our home for a gift-wrapping session. Re-using paper from previous years was the norm and I was often the paper go-fer.

I was already into electronics and I typically asked for some piece of test equipment. My folks didn't understand the equipment's purpose, so they relied on my judgment ... meaning I always knew what "important" gift I was getting.

For me, Christmas night at my grandparents' home where we all gathered was the capping celebration. It wasn't the gifts as much as the conversations, joking, and having everyone together at one time.

Looking back over those years, I recall few of the gifts I received, but the memory of those experiences is something I treasure.

Christmas evening of more than 75 years ago. Art's uncle Art, still in his Air Force khakis with his dog Butch; Art's aunt Betty, his uncle Pete's wife; Pete; his aunt Arline holding her son Jeff; his aunt Ione behind Pete's and Betty's children Judy and Betsy; Art's dad Tom; Art's mom Donna holding Art; Art's brother Tommy; and his grandpa Charles and grandma Alvina. A Waldvogel tree graces the living room.

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