I am not a Christmas kind of guy. I suspect that there is a touch of the Grinch in my DNA because all the Christmas carols and the commercial frenzy has driven me crazy enough to sit out a few Christmases entirely.
Of course, it has not always been that way. In the 1950’s and early sixties, when I grew up, there wasn’t nearly so much stuff to make me nuts. Don’t misunderstand, compared to most 1950s families we had plenty. There was always an abundance of food, cookies, candy, a few lights on the shrubs in front of the house, and a carefully decorated tree. The presents under that tree were more than adequate but not ridiculous. Most things were practical. There were always things like socks, a warm sweater, school supplies. But there was also something that was fun, like a bicycle, a skateboard, a hula-hoop, or the latest toy from Mattel. I don’t really remember any of those toys. What I remember is a steam turbine engine that my father built for us.
I had somehow found an advertisement for a working model steam engine. In the catalogue photograph you could see that the engine was black iron with a shiny brass piston and trim. It was built on a hardwood base and sported a fire box rigged to burn lighter fluid. My brothers and I really wanted that engine but, when my dad looked at the price, he inhaled through clenched teeth. He began to shake his head and I could see that it hurt him to have to say, no.
Christmas was still two weeks off and instead of falling into the mania of most children I spent a lot of time staring at that picture in the catalogue and puzzling over how that darn thing worked. My dad hovered over me and tried to explain that when water turned from a liquid to a gas that its volume expands by 1100 times. The steam that is produced pushes the piston out and turns the shaft were the power is transferred to whatever work you want the engine to perform. I could see that Dad was enjoying the fact that I was fascinated by his explanation. His face lit up when I asked questions. He would chuckle as he disappeared into the back of our garage where he fiddled with household repairs.
I have a workshop on the ranch that my dad would have loved. When I work out there, I often wish he was still around so we could build something together. My grandsons, Lincoln and Barrett like to hang out in the shop with me. They sit on the concrete floor and play with the scraps of wood left over from one of many projects. I can’t help myself and crawl down there with them and we build towers with the scrapes and knock them over with joy and laughter. Barrett can’t say much yet but Lincoln has started wondering about Christmas. Jilian and Colton understand the commercial pressure on their children and I do my best to support them in that struggle.
I think back to the Christmases of my childhood and my mind settles on that Christmas when I was fascinated by steam engines. I remember coming down the stairs early that morning and seeing the lighted tree and the colorful packages scattered below. My brothers and I dug into those presents with gusto and I’m sure that the gifts were wonderful, but I remember only one. It was about the size of a shoe box, wrapped in the brown paper of a grocery bag, and taped clumsily, in a way my mother would never have done. The names of all three of us boys were written in pencil and, though we knew it was from our dad, we had no idea what it was. When we stripped the paper away, we found a crudely built, but absolutely marvelous, steam engine.
The boiler was made from an old coffee percolator and the plumbing was small copper piping soldered by my father’s steady hands. The pipes necked down to a pinhole that concentrated the stem and pushed it out with enough force to turn a tiny turbine attached to the shaft where the power could be utilized for whatever three small boys could imagine. I’ll never forget that Christmas gift and I will never forget the look of joy on my father’s face. It is the way I want my grandchildren to remember me and this Christmas. As I sand and paint the wooden blocks that I’m making for my grandson’s, I sense that my smile is as radiant as the one I remember.
Merry Christmas Everyone. Dan