Christmas Day 1950 was one of only two white Christmases I recall from my life in Philadelphia. I was six and living in a small row house on Pacific Street in Kensington, along with my mother, father, younger brother and aunt.
We had a dog, a small white terrier named Toy, friendly but kind of dumb. Because the house stood only one block from the Frankford Elevated and two blocks from the Frankford Junction, it wasn't a good idea to let the dog run free. Toy was restricted to our back yard, if you can call it a yard, all eight square feet of concrete ending at a rickety old fence separating our house from an alley that ran between the rows of similar houses.
During the winter months Toy had the run of the house, as well as the dank basement. Somehow, on Christmas Eve day Toy escaped into the neighborhood, just before the snow began to fall.
An annual creation
We awoke early on Christmas Day. The snow had fallen gently throughout the night; there was an odd stillness to the neighborhood, something rare in those times when heavy industry dominated the neighborhood. My brother and I descended eagerly from the second floor to the first, accompanied by the soft sounds from my father's eminent creation— his magnum opus, "The Platform."
"The Platform" was an annual construct, a ritual of creation that occupied my father's spare time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when he removed from musty storage all the hardware and software of his one and only cultural diversion. I served as his construction assistant as he tightened a screw or wrapped tape to secure some component of the "Platform" into place.
In essence it was a pretty simple design: a three-by-six plywood slab painted green and set on two wooden sawhorses. On top Dad placed a wondrous array of small plastic houses and equally small plastic people around various plastic civic institutions: a hospital, a school, a church, all set along on the side of carefully demarcated streets adorned with small plastic trees and benches and light-posts.
Through the center of this fantastic plastic village ran plastic automobiles stapled onto a three-inch-wide leather belt that ran over metal rollers placed in cut-out openings about three feet apart from one another. These rollers were driven by two electric motors my father had built and placed beneath the Platform, hidden from view by red-and-white fake brick paper, made from the crinkly tissue paper that adorned many Kensington houses during the holidays.
As the large wheels on the motor turned— pushing and pulling the leather conveyor belt— the plastic cars appeared to travel through the village, making a distinct sound each time one of them appeared from beneath the platform to begin its journey along the "highway" before disappearing down into the bowels of the imaginary earth.
Each of these "up" and "down" positions was covered by a papier-mâché tunnel, or what appeared to be a tunnel opening. Each time the cars came up, you'd hear a sound like a plastic slap; each time a car descended at the other end of the highway, you'd hear a slight plastic thunk.
Errant milk cans
This village was surrounded, of course, by a set of Lionel trains, pulled by a black locomotive puffing smoke from a valve located on its topside, with a fairly well-tuned whistle that could be sounded from the command post— a wood stand where the black transformer was located.
The train was equipped with the requisite milk can-dispensing car, complete with a small mechanical figure of a man who, at the touch of a button on the transformer, appeared through an open door on the milk car with a miniature milk can and threw it, inevitably missing its target: a small magnetized platform located beside the village dairy.
A mess of miniature milk cans eventually amassed next to the small platform along with some plastic people and trees lying on their backs and sides, all victims of those errant milk cans. It was almost as if a miniature earthquake had just struck this fantastic village.
My father always placed this wonderfully weird serene village to the right of the Christmas tree, which in turn stood next to a window with a view into our concrete back yard. Just outside the window we kept the garbage can. On this Christmas Day we could see that the garbage can lid was covered with about eight inches of pure white crystalline snow.
Next to the garbage can, on the window sill, sat a small white dog peering mournfully through the window at our joyous celebration, at the fantastic plastic village and the lighted Christmas tree with the angel on top. It was Toy, shivering and covered in blood.
My father and one of his brothers, my Uncle Ed— visiting us that day— went outside to retrieve old Toy, gently picking him up in their large callused hands. They surmised that a car had probably hit Toy and left him to die in the snowy street. In that case, old Toy wasn't as dumb as we'd thought, since he'd navigated himself back to our house in truly bad weather.
Fetching the rifle
But he was in terrible shape, probably dying from a combination of his injuries, shock and mystification over what all those little plastic houses and people were doing standing around watching small plastic cars— the same ones every time!— pass by while a small replica of the trains he probably heard passing over the black bridge at the end of our street every day went zooming around and around this strange little village.
Whatever the case, there didn't appear to be much left in the old little guy. So, my father and his usually potted older brother took charge of the matter.
It was unlikely that they could locate a veterinarian on this White Christmas day, so they decided to take Toy outside and put him out of his misery. With the sole weapon my mom allowed in the house— a .22 caliber rifle— they planned to shoot Toy.
Man of action
I was both horrified and saddened. Fortunately, I guess, Toy expired before a .22 caliber bullet could spread his small body over the new-fallen snow in our backyard. All father's efforts to give us a Merry Christmas were obliterated, at least for me, by the sight that was etched indelibly in my memory at that moment: Toy lying in the snow, bloody and still.
Yet another equally powerful memory stamped itself on my brain that day: The sight of my father firmly taking matters into his hands during a crisis. Clearly, it was not easy for him to decide to shoot our dying dog, even as the rest of the family reacted in disbelief. Fortunately he didn't have to. But he was ready act— to do what he considered the right thing. In some subliminal way, I resolved then and there to become as strong as my dad had been that day.
As I grew older, my father and I grew apart, but not before he taught me the basic skills of survival in an often-hostile world. He insisted— sometimes too sternly— that I confront adversity instead of shrinking from it, that I take a firm stand when I feel strongly about something. I've tried to follow his advice ever since. But nothing he said spoke as loudly to me as his actions on that Christmas Day.♦
Excerpted from Settling Scores: A Life in the Margins of American Music, published by Sunstone Press.♦
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