Christmas Eve 2001: It was a year ago on Christmas Eve, that I wrote my first short story "You Better Watch Out " for the Buzz and Pee Wee series. That story led me to writing "The Mansion" and has taken me on a separate odyssey this past year that I could of never imagined and has connected me with friends both new and old. On this side trip to explore the Knapp's and their Mansion on Ramshorn Drive , I have placed Buzz and Pee Wee Butchie and Me stories on the back burner, but never out of sight or mind. It seems fitting on this Christmas Eve, that I re visit some more Christmas Stories that Butchie and Me experienced while growing up in the
I have lots of memories of Mastic Beach Christmas', because after all we spent a lucky 13 of them there. Had we not moved away in June of '64, It would of been a luckier 14.... perhaps not. Thirteen it was and most were very, very nice. One of the earliest memories, was of the first Christmas Party I ever attended. It was held at the Mastic Beach Property Owners Association Clubhouse on Neighborhood Road. It must of been 1950 or '51. Our sister Gerry taught Sunday school there and I think it was the Church (St.Andrew's) that held the party. There we were, a whole bunch of happy kids getting presents early. I recall two things very clear. I think it was the first time, I became aware of variations in music when I locked in on Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem. The chord progression was quite different than most other Christmas Carols we sang that afternoon in the old wooden clubhouse, that was warmed by a big potbelly stove and lots of good cheer. The second was what Santa gave Butch. It was a gray plastic Studebaker Starlight Coupe. It was incredibly realistic, because it was one of the dealer promos. Our neighbors the Hauser's were very active church members. Mrs. Hauser, worked at the Studebaker dealer, ( Brookhaven Garage) on the fork of South Country Road and Montauk Highway.This Stude was made by AMT Corporation, a company I would spend 99% of my allowance on in years to come when they got into the consumer model kit business in the late 50's. I don't recall what I got, but I could not keep my eyes or hands off of Butchie's car. So there I was at age 4 already "programed" for life with music and cars. Butchie's affair with Studebakers would re occur as teenager, when Mr.Percoco's green '49 Stude Champion would become his first real car. His gray one however was real very to me and I racked up the miles on it on our living room rug while he was in a school I was too young to be in yet.
Our little town of Mastic Beach, never officially decorated itself like the "Big" towns of Patchogue and Center Moriches did, but that didn't stop the churches, merchants or residents from expressing themselves. One very vivid memory was how St. Jude's decorated their shrine in all blue lights. It gave off a very peaceful feeling to me. In bright contrast, the Burkhardt's,who lived a few blocks east of St. Jude's on Neighborhood Road would have their picture window painted with a classic Santa face and Season's Greetings and light it with an out door flood lamp. It gave off good cheer to all who drove or walked by. A few years later when we enclosed our porch, Gerry (Most likely inspired by the Burkhardt's ) painted our new picture window with a scene of the three wisemen following the star. For years after, one tiny gold star remained in the upper corner and Mom said "We are going to leave it"...for all I know it could still be there.
All through the years plastic models would play bigger and bigger role in the lives of Butchie and me and Christmas was a perfect time to increase our ever growing collections. Though mostly centered on cars, planes and boats were well represented through the years. By 1958 in our room, we had a 55 gallon cardboard drum covered with woodgrain contact paper that was full of model parts. The Christmas of 1960 really sticks out in my memory of models.
STEAMBOAT WHISTLE BLUES
It would be a decade later when I would first hear John Hartford's song Steamboat Whistle Blues with it's Christmas Eve lyric reference, but perhaps one of the reasons it resonated with me all these years was because of what happened on Christmas Eve of 1960. Jo -Don's was a little hobby shop in town that had occupied the former tiny barber shop of Joe Orlando. It was a great place to hang out and Don was a very friendly guy. In his Christmas inventory there were these big scale boats that caught the eyes of Butchie and me and we decided weeks before Christmas to get each other the one we liked the best. Butch wanted the Tugboat and I the Steamboat. Though cars always took first preference with both of us, perhaps because we were now official boat owners, having acquired the Little Chief just the summer before, that we chose boats instead....or it could of been the size of the boxes they were in...They were HUGE.
That Christmas Eve was a very dreary one. It was raining hard and we were bored. Though gifts had been a custom to be opened after dinner on Christmas eve since 1955, we kept bugging Mom to let us open "just one" that afternoon. She finally gave in, and we went straight to the boats. Although the riverboat was huge , it really didn't have that many parts , the hull , the deck, a few layers of cabin walls, and some railings. It was molded in white plastic and the painting suggestions were few. I painted the waterline and the stacks. I remember the stacks were still a little tacky from the black Testor's enamel, I had applied a few hours before when I hurriedly glued them on. The directions also suggested using cotton to simulate smoke coming out of the stacks. Always a detail guy, I raided the medicine cabinet and had enough cotton glued in the stacks and to make a respectable beard on a department store Santa. One more detail and my Mississippi Queen would be ready for her maiden voyage in our bathtub. The directions suggested using thread for rigging and I had it all done with just a straggling piece of thread, when I went to get the scissors. Butch said ,"No need to" and before I could say anything he flipped open his Zippo lighter to burn off the offending thread. Well in retrospect I could almost foretell what was to come. The thread became a fuse and lit up the cotton. In a split second we had more realism than anyone had bargained for. Huge flames shot out of the stacks and by the time we put out the fire, the stacks were distorted and melted. That poor boat sat that way for the rest of its years on the back of a shelf, collecting a lot of dust.
Mae Bowery had a gift store in town on Mastic Road, across the street from Lagumis' Liquor store. It was not a regular haunt for us kids, but it seemed to be the first place Butchie and me would look for gifts for Mom. I recall her birthday was coming up ( Sept 21) and we were on the prowl for something that an 8 and 11 year old kid would think was real nice and every Mom would love to have. We spotted it too, gleaming on the top shelf like the top prize that no one could ever win at a summer carnival. It was a chrome meat slicer. Not electric , just a hand crank, but what Mom wouldn't want one? The streamlined styling looked like it was may of been done by the renowned designer Raymond Loewy. The only problem was the price. It was far out of reach of what we had between us. So we both agreed to pool some of our allowance and save up for it for Christmas. I think it was somewhere around 9 or 10 bucks perhaps as high as twelve. When your operating on 50 cents a week each and you need necessities like bike accessories , BB's, bubble gum and comic books well 11 short weeks can still leave a guy short. We would check on it occasionally, to make sure it was still there, and a week before Christmas we were closing in on our goal. I think our sister contributed the funds we were short of, but horror struck when we walked into Mae's with our pockets full of quarters ready to claim our prize and instead seeing a vacant space where the gift of the decade had once sat calling to us. "Sorry boys, but I won't be getting any more of those in, till after the New Year" , Mrs. Bowery said. "I just got some new lamp shades in or perhaps one of these paintings?" I think we left with an 'earthenware' dinner service for 4 . By spring it was almost a memory as a piece seemed to break at every other washing, and it never really looked that hot on a table set for 5. Whatever we did get her that Christmas, it would not hold a candle in our minds to that gleaming piece of metal sculpture, that had enough chrome to plate a bumper of a '55 Olds.
Dick's Delicatessen and soda fountain on the corner of Neighborhood Road and Whittier Drive was always a great kid hang out. It was also a bus stop, that even though our regular stop at Jefferson Drive and Neighborhood was much closer to home, it was worth the walk to Dick's 'cause you could get candy, bubble gum , comics, and yes even cigarettes before boarding the bus. Right by the corner door Dick had a small glass showcase with a few gift items. It may of been around the fall of '61 that I spotted something for Mom that I knew she would just love. It was a little green bottle of perfume in the shape of a miniature oil lamp complete with a green plastic shade. At a $1.49, I did not hesitate. I think I asked my grandmother, Anna Spooner who lived with us by then to loan me a dollar. This was one prize that was not going to get away. I hid it in the loft of our garage. Though it wasn't the main present I got Mom that year, it was the most memorable. I used to ask her how come she never wore any of it and she would diplomatically say "Oh it looks too pretty in the bottle to use" She kept it on her dresser long after the color faded from both the perfume and the plastic shade and I wish I knew what happened to it.
It was around Christmas of '62, when Butchie and me got some personal knowledge of an elderly Mastic Beach family, that had just been through a lot of trauma and was not going to have a very nice Christmas. I got the bright idea to do something about it. There was this pond hidden in the woods near our house. We used to go kayaking in there with Doug Percoco's canvas kayak till a branch poked a hole in it and it sunk in the middle of the pond one January. I have since learned the pond was part of the Knapp Golf Course when they lived on their estate in the 1920's
I saw this perfect Christmas tree growing there (The Knapps were big on landscaping) and although I hated to cut it down, have no regrets about doing so. I couldn't carry it home so I got Butch who was driving by then and we loaded it into the back of Mom's '61 Falcon wagon. Butch was working at Kastar automotive then, and was able to spring for the lights and decorations probably from Izzy's Hardware store or the Mastic Beach 5 & 10. When we came knocking on their door, tree and trimmings in hand, the look on their faces was a real Christmas present to Butchie and me.