A New Kind of Christmas


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


  • Posted on by Pamela van Giessen

    Dear Dan and Jill – On Sunday 12/30 my husband and I will join a multitude of neighbors at the Heartland Cafe to say goodbye. As you know, Michael and Katy sold the place a few years ago though remained involved. The new owner tried but was not able to make a go of it. The reason is that the Heartland was never really a great restaurant; it was a neighborhood institution, a safe harbor, that also packed a lot of serendipity. For instance, my husband and I met a guy in Big Fork MT who did Flathead lake tours who used to live in Rogers Park a few blocks from our house and hung out at the Heartland and managed a neighborhood coop. Better serendipity: in the late 1990s I was working at home as an editor for a NY publishing house. Would go to Heartland for lunch in the company of a manuscript that needed massive editing. I’d enjoy a bison burger and stay through almost dinner, drinking coffee and editing. Years later I see a guy in the place reading the very book I labored over in the Heartland. Fast forward a few more years and a friend recommends I read A Wild Idea. Before I finished it I ordered both my brothers your gift baskets for Christmas. I so loved the idea of healthier meat that is also healthier for the environment. Then, my husband got me a gift basket. We love your meat (best beef stroganoff ever and fabulous burgers!). I finish Wild Idea only to discover that I’d enjoyed your bison years before — at the Heartland. So, thank you for selling your meat to that crazy Michael James. Thank you for all you do. I have been a fan for years, though didn’t know it until about a year ago. Now I tell everyone about Wild Idea and encourage them to source all their red meat from Wild Idea. On New Years Day we will be sharing a wet aged sirloin tip roast with a bunch of friends. Cheers to you and Wild Idea for a great 2019!

  • Posted on by Cheves

    Thank you for sharing your story. Your spirit and love is what we all need. Many happy returns of the season.

  • Posted on by Marie Parys

    Thank you for sharing your story of Christmas and I wanted to share a story my Christmas past. My mother passed away last year at 98 and I have a large container of family photos, and recently I looked at one from Christmas 1955. Included in the photo are my brother and two of my cousins, we were all sitting on the floor in front of a less than perfect Christmas tree. What strikes me about the picture is the dress I was wearing which my mother made for me from a worn out dress someone gave her. The striped taffeta skirt had been in good condition and she had made a new top for the dress from royal blue taffeta matching one of the colors in the stripe. She surprised me with the new dress on Christmas morning. I do not remember any toys I was given that year which were usually limited because my mother told us that Santa had a price limit. Although the photo is a sepia tone, I remember the vivid colors of the dress because my mother made the dress for me. This photo brings back the importance of love in our lives.

  • Posted on by Bob Steelquist

    Inside every Grinch there’s part Elf. Holiday Best Wishes to the whole family. Bob

  • Posted on by Keith Lewis

    That’s a beautiful story Dan. I admire your father’s ingenuity. You, Jill, Jilian, and Colton all have those vital qualities—that’s obvious from what you’ve accomplished, nurturing the Wild Idea. I’m delighted that you’re passing those qualities along to your grandchildren.
    As you know, I sailed as a merchant seaman for 34 years on big ships with small crews on the wide and lonely oceans of the world. Sailing as chief engineer on both steam and diesel vessels, I was always pleased when learning that a new engineer had grown up on a ranch or farm. That was just what we needed to operate those ships far from sources of help. Ranchers and farmers are smart, talented and resourceful, with a wide variety of skills: mechanical and electrical, machining and welding, both arc and gas, etc., etc. They’re self-reliant and accustomed to working alone, often for long hours under stressful conditions. And they’re good shipmates.
    So here we are on Planet Earth, alone in a dark unfathomable Cosmos—like a ship at sea powered only by its insular, self-sustaining machinery. All depends on the diligence of those on board caring for those intricate mechanisms—where Life itself depends on those interwoven ecological components. Thank you for all you’re doing to preserve this remarkable but delicate planet. You’re great shipmates—you’re my heroes!
    Keith Lewis

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