It was lookin' to be the worst Christmas ever.
Oh, we'd gotten a tree from the Safeway lot. Papa tied it down on the roof of the Plymouth, the model with push-buttons instead of a gear shift.
But we didn't get the tree till about a week before Dec. 25. And, sure, we decorated it with the strings of lights (if one went out, they all went out); two- or three-year-old tinsel Mama saved after each holiday by wrapping it around a square of cardboard; shiny balls that we had to use a paperclip or rubber band with to hang 'em on the branches.
The manger set never varied. By now, Mary had a busted shoulder, and one of the Wise Men's gifts had chipped off from the rest of him. We couldn't tell if it was the gold, frankincense or myrrh -- not that we knew what the last two were. The snow was cotton we'd saved from aspirin and other medicine bottles all year long.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
But with less than a week to go, only a handful of presents lay under our tree in Topeka.
My brother James, 13 months younger, and I could put up with re-using (today it'd be called recycling) ornaments and even wrapping paper year to year. But usually by this time of the season, a dozen or more packages -- big, medium and small -- lay at kaleidoscopic angles all around the tree.
Upstairs in our room we shared our worries. "Man, this is gonna be a bad one," he said. "Yeah," I agreed. "I thought the Old Man got a raise."
The Old Man was our dad, Papagene. He was a railroad bull -- a detective -- for the Santa Fe. He carried a .38 Special snub-nosed revolver to work every day of his life. We thought he ranked somewhere between Superman and God.
But where were the presents?
We were both good Catholic boys. That meant we started praying for presents. Neither of us thought that was wrong. Hell, er, heck, we were altar boys. We knew Latin. We served 6:30 a.m. Mass every day. So we had plenty of chances to pray for presents.
Mama wouldn't budge. She grew up fast and early in west Texas, then joined a circus with her dad after her mom died. Saw 46 of the then 48 states by the time she was 20. Did a trapeze act with her two brothers, rode horses and elephants and hung from the top of the big canvas tent in an "iron jaw," a leather strap between her teeth.
She never got past seventh grade, and was one of the smartest people I've ever known.
She'd plucked chickens for a time in the '30s, after people got too poor to go to the circus. Learned how to stretch a dime -- or a nickel. Used to tell James and me (and I assume our older brothers Webb and Steve and sister Jeannine), "What you boys need is a damned good Depression!"
But she wouldn't talk about Christmas presents. Or why there were so few. Just went on sprinklin' flour and salt in the pan to make gravy with the fried chicken. (She'd eat fried chicken, but could never manage to eat an egg after yanking all those feathers.)
"Y'all need to think of somebody beside yourselves," Mama told us. "Think of all them pagan babies overseas that don't have nothin'."
At this point James and I thought we were Catholic kids in America who didn't have anything.
So we moped and muttered our way to Christmas Eve.
Tharp family rules let everybody open one present the night before Christmas. Only six or seven presents still lay underneath the tree. Brother Webb was there, and the Korean War hero told us we could open his first if we guessed what they were.
Couple inches wide, half-inch deep, eight inches long or so. We both held our packages up to our ears and shook 'em.
Pen and pencil set! we both shouted at the same time.
Nope, try again, said Webb. He was an incurable kidder and the funniest grownup we knew. But we had to keep guessing. Nope, wrong. No, that's not it. Guess again.
We were jumping around in our pajamas like the jack-in-the-box he gave one of us last year. OK, we give up!
He shook his head and handed the packages back to us: "Two dimes and a pair of socks," he said.
James looked at me, I looked back, and we tried to hide our frowns. We both thought this was just one more clue that we were gonna have the worst Christmas ever.
Our moods lightened a little when we found that Webb had indeed given us a pen and pencil set -- engraved with our names. Well, not too bad, we thought. But not enough to save Christmas.
Cocoa with marshmallows, watching Guy Mitchell on TV croon "I never felt more like singin' the blues..."
We knew how he felt.
We kissed our folks goodnight and trudged up the steps. I think by this time I'd outgrown Ellie the Elephant, but James still clutched Teddy the Bear. We knelt by our beds, prayed for our folks, family, friends and them little pagan babies overseas.
And for presents.
It was still dark, of course, when we woke up. I don't remember who got up first, but we both scrambled down the stairs as if they were on fire.
Skidding into the living room, we stopped and stared. The same small pile of presents rested under the tree. We looked at each other. Our faith was shaken.
So why were Mama, Papa and Webb smiling so big?
Then we heard a clickety-clack and a whistle like a tea kettle from the screened-in front porch.
We looked at each other.
We raced through the living room door, both able to squeeze through together.
There was our present.
Circling the track. Smoke coming from its silver engine painted with the red and yellow Santa Fe logo. Boxcars. Passenger cars. Caboose. Bridges, hills, trees, houses, animals and people. All to scale. We smelled the smoke and the electric tang from the transformer.
Webb was on his hands and knees, making the train speed up, then slow down. Papa was fixing a piece of track.
"Man oh man!" we yelled.
Papa and Webb just sat back and grinned.
We got down with 'em and started running our train.
James looked at me. I looked at him.
It wasn't the worst Christmas ever.
It was the best.
Reach Mike Tharp, executive editor, at (209) 385-2427 or firstname.lastname@example.org.