Home, for Christmas

by L. S. Hicks


From earliest memories until I was seven, my father worked as an itinerant chef following the convention circuit from Florida in the winter months, up the east coast to New York as springtime brought better weather, west toward Denver as summer bloomed, then south into Texas and back toward Florida during the fall. Moving from hotel to hotel in an old Packard, we travelled light – a few odd-shaped items like an ironing board and fold up table and chairs tied to the roof, a few boxes with room to spare in the trunk, Mom and Dad in the front, and me, an only child, in the back seat wedged between piles of clothes Mom said would protect me in an accident.

August of 1956 marked a change of lifestyle for us. Having turned down a gig in Denver to work the Democratic National Convention in Chicago for better pay, Dad was left without a kitchen to run until November in Houston. So, we headed west to the Kansas farming community where he’d grown up. He thought he could find day labor getting the wheat fields ready for planting until time to leave for Texas. The day we got to town, we learned Dad’s plan had three strikes against it. Because the harvest had been too good, over-supply had dropped wheat prices below loan levels, then the dry weather that helped make the harvest so abundant was expected to continue into the planting season when rain would be needed, and finally, the Soil Bank incentives Congress put into the recently passed Agricultural Act of 1956 had led local farmers to let some 40% of acreage go to grass.

It was good that people in the area knew Dad and respected his war record, even though he’d joined the Canadian Army to go fight the Germans a few months before Pearl Harbor but got sent to Hong Kong instead where he was captured by the Japanese a couple of days before Christmas in 1941—but that’s another story. The owner of the truck stop a couple miles from town out on U.S. Highway 24 remembered Dad and hired him as a short-order cook, and hired Mom to wait tables. Things were going ok, so we rented a small house in town from a farmer who took his Soil Bank subsidy money and moved to Florida with it and I got enrolled in third grade. And then, Mom started making her own plans.

She had heard some radio show about real estate back in the spring, and decided to give it a try. Dad was skeptical because so many jobs had left the area, but Mom thought a depressed economy was the best time to buy. She made a rent-to-own deal on the little house we were living in, and within weeks, she’d found a bigger house she thought was a good investment, talked its living-in-Florida owner into a similar rent-to-own deal, and found a renter for the little house.

When she started negotiating for a huge house outside of town owned by the Snyders who were moving to – you got it, Florida – Dad called and cancelled Houston. I remember him saying to Mom, “That Snyder place is bigger than a barn, Mary. If we move there, we’re not moving again.” So, the Snyder house became ours and Mom became a real estate mogul, actually earning a bit more from the big house and the little house than due on their mortgages.

The Snyder house had two stories over a full basement with a propane water heater and a coal furnace which became my job to stoke first thing in the mornings after the weather turned cold. Downstairs, going counterclockwise were the living room, dining room, kitchen and mud room, a hall to the bathroom, stairs up, and the guest bedroom that also opened into the living room. Upstairs were Mom and Dad’s bedroom, a walk-in storage closet, my bedroom, another bedroom that eventually became a library, and the sewing room. The property had two outbuildings, one was a garage and workshop combination, and the other was a large chicken coup in disrepair that had been there when the Snyder family purchased the land and built the house and garage some years before.

The chicken coup came in handy a couple of weeks after we moved in, though it took some time and effort to refurbish it. We’d gone over to the county dump looking for usable furniture for the house. On Wednesdays, you could pay a dollar to drive in and load up your vehicle with whatever you found there. The man at the gate told Mom he thought he’d seen a couple good pieces “back by the eggs.”

The eggs were mounds of overtime eggs from the hatchery in the next town – anything not hatched after twenty-two days in the incubators went to the dump. You can imagine how powerful a smell thousands of pounds of rotten eggs would generate, so we were careful to try and stay upwind. Walking by, Mom thought she heard peeping and made Dad and me stop for a couple of minutes while she listened. She reached into the closest mound, scattering shells and unbroken eggs until she held up a chick covered in goo. “Orin,” she said to Dad with a look on her face crossed between far away and right-here-right-now (a look I came to both fear and appreciate as I grew older), “Go find me a box, a big one.” For the next couple of hours, we waded into those mounds searching for sound and movement, saving maybe fifty late hatchlings. Here’s a strange fact for you, hydrogen sulfide doesn’t smell all that bad once you’re covered in it.

Checking the egg mounds on Wednesdays at the county dump became a weekly outing until we had some twenty-five hundred hens and a few roosters residing in that chicken coup. We pulled ten to fifteen gross of eggs a day, used some, gave some to neighbors, and sold the rest to the local Co-op market for eighty cents a gross – good money, plus Dad could cook chicken twenty different ways.

All the activity with the chickens took me away from what I thought was the best feature of the Snyder house, the veranda across the front. Under the veranda, lathing was nailed across the outer supports, giving the space a shadowy light that invited daydreams and the hiding of secret treasures found in the fields and alongside the county roads. My favorite treasures were an old steering wheel, the remains of a dashboard radio, and a gearshift with an 8-ball knob stuck in the dirt in front of a dilapidated car seat. That fall, being under the veranda was being in a cab-over Pete, driving between cities, the smell of damp earth doubling for diesel and the panting of Whitey, a stray dog that had adopted me the day after we moved in, giving me the sound of tires on asphalt. It was the first time I can remember being lonely.

The truck stop was always busy with semis delivering loads of all kinds of things between the cities, but they never came away from the highway, never brought anything into town – local deliveries were transferred to flat beds or vans or wagons in an area behind the truck stop. Still, it served as a constant reminder of my old life – part city hotel, part highway car – and I missed being out on the road among those trucks, missed being in those hotels, missed seeing new kids in new schools every few weeks.

It’s one thing to meet kids you’ll never see again after a month or two – to chameleon around the playground pecking order because you’ll be gone before they’ve sized you up – and it’s something very different to see the same faces three months later and realize you’ll still be seeing them a year later. The idea of making friends scared me to death.

And living in a small farming community? No parks, no zoos, no museums, no movie theaters across the street and down the block. I was doomed to eternal boredom and slavery in the chicken coup. I thought about sneaking into one of those trailers out at the truck stop to go back to the cities again.

It took until Christmas to lose my desire to run away. No, it wasn’t because I finally figured out a seven-year old wouldn’t make it far before Mom and Dad showed up to collect him, and it wasn’t Charlie, a kid from school that somehow became my best-friend-for-life until three years later when Dad took us back to Florida after most of the truckers had moved their routes to Interstate 70 and the truck stop closed down. It was because it’s one thing to sit down in a hotel restaurant for turkey and dressing, and something very different to smell the turkey roasting in an oven three feet away and having the flour from rolling out the dough for biscuits and pumpkin pie crusts making you sneeze.

It’s one thing to help Mom hang a string of bubble lights around a Ft Lauderdale hotel room window with an eye-level view of the grease pit, and something very different to help decorate a ten-foot tall Christmas tree loaded with colorful lights and balls and garlands and tinsel, sitting on Dad’s shoulders and leaning waaaaaay over to put a star on top while he stands on a fireplace log on a chair, with Mom holding his legs and begging us to be careful.

That first Christmas Eve in the Snyder house I had all the excitement and impatience an almost eight-year old boy could contain, thinking that for once, even though he didn’t really exist, Santa didn’t have to work down through half a dozen floors with a hundred and fifty rooms to find me and put one or two small presents on the table next to a six-inch tall plastic palm tree molded with Christmas decorations. I fell asleep wishing that Christmas Eve was over.

Never let it be said that wishes have no power! Christmas Eve came to an end just after 10pm when Santa Claus, disguised as my Dad, got clumsy. He tipped the tree over while he was trying to put presents behind it, tried to grab it as it went over, and went over with it. The crashing and banging and glass breaking and yelling woke me up and I went tearing downstairs to see Dad all wrapped up in Christmas tree surrounded by broken picture frames that had been swept off the living room wall and silverware and broken dishes that had been on the sideboard all ready for setting Christmas Dinner, and wet sand spilled out onto presents in crushed boxes and torn paper. At first, Mom stood there crying, but then she got the giggles as Dad wriggled his way out of the tree, spitting pine needles. Laughing amid the rubble and commenting on how much room a ten-foot tree takes up when it’s laying down, we opened our presents then and there.

That’s when I stopped missing the hotels and highways. It’s one thing to be wherever you are, and something very different to be home.

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