Memo To: Website fans, browsers, clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: A Christmas-Eve memory
[This memo initially appeared on Christmas Eve, 1998]
It was the evening before the first Christmas after the war and I was 9-1/2 years old. My father (Michael) and I and my brother Terry, who had just turned 8 years old earlier in the month, were headed out to buy a Christmas tree. We had to walk quite a distance because we lived at an apartment house at 50th Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway in Borough Park, Brooklyn, in the heart of an orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Of the 53 families at 1042 50th Street, ours was the only Catholic family -- the only family that observed Christmas and had a Christmas tree. Of course, there were no Christmas trees for sale in the neighborhood, so we had to trek three avenue blocks, to 13th Avenue, then ten street blocks, to 40th Street, to the market in the midst of a solidly Italian-American neighborhood.
When we got a bit older, we would get the Christmas tree a few weeks earlier than Christmas Eve, but in 1945, my father was looking for a bargain, and he knew the tree vendors would practically give trees away with only hours to go on Christmas eve. He'd had a good job as a machinist at the Army war plant, but when the war ended, so did the job, and in that December he was working as an apprentice bookbinder at a plant than turned out comic books. The apprenticeship would normally be six or seven years, but because there were lots of jobs for bookbinders and few available, Dad only had to work six months with his machinist card, and he could be a journeyman and earn $60 a week, but he was still at the $35 a week level. Hence, the search for a bargain tree.
It was cold and dark and the streets were slushy and I was happy to finally get to the empty lot where a small number of trees were still for sale. My father, 43 years old, had spent his life looking for bargains, especially through the Depression years. He haggled with the vendor for a few minutes and bought TWO of the scraggliest trees on the lot for 25 cents each. I think I remember thinking how sad they looked, but they were seven or eight feet tall, and we tied them together and carted them the 13 blocks back home.
It was still the tradition when my brother and I were that young that Santa Claus would come to trim the tree. My brother and I knew by then that there was no Santa, but still we went to bed when we got the trees home to our one-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor (4-D). Terry and I had the one bedroom, Dad and Mom slept in the living room, where the Christmas tree would be placed at the casement windows that looked out over the entrance to the building. I still had no idea why we had two trees and where they would go.
Christmas morning Terry and I found out. At first light, we knew it would be okay to creep down the hall to get a look at the scene. There at the window was the most gorgeous tree I had ever seen, thick with branches, the angel on top brushing the ceiling. I can remember all this because it was such a surprise. What my father had done is push the two trees together in a way that made them look like one, then wire them together from top to bottom. When the ornaments and lights were on, and a generous coat of silver icicles were draped over the branches, it was impossible to see inside what appeared to be a tree that had to cost at least $10!!!
What a smart guy my father was. Who else would have thought of this? Throughout Christmas Day the neighbors came in to gawk and wonder at the only Christmas tree in the building or the neighborhood. Frieda and Ben Satkowitz, Gert and Jack Beigelson, the Goldbergs, the Youngs, Mrs. Friedman from the sixth floor, Trudy Vietze and her husband, Eric (who taught me that year how to collect postage stamps and it is still my hobby). They all came to see our tree and the Nativity scene at the base, and they all marveled at the gorgeous tree... It had to cost at least $10! In each case my Dad would let them marvel, but then take them close, lift a branch, show the wires, and tell them how the tree cost 50 cents! What a bargain! What a Christmas! What a tree(s)!