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 Deborah

    Dan. Thanks for your story. I grew up in the 60’s and remember a simpler Chitsmas. We mostly make our gifts,still Honey from the bees, granola with cherries, lots of nuts sweetened with maple syrup and dark chocolate amaretto truffles from my mom’s Recipe. Boxes get shipped late every year
    . In addition to being a cancer researcher, I’m a pretty good good silversmith, so my gifts are predictably bracelets, necklaces and money clips. The guys just don’t wear jewelry much, so now I’m making, with my husband’s help lovely antler candle holders out of copper and shed. Or shot antlers. They look nice on the table…lit with beeswax candles.
    My dad was an incredible metalsmith and fabricator. So both my brothers and I learned to solder and weld at an early age, as well as being “hand me the wrench” mechanics. But we were working on his . 36 roadster with a flathead Ford V8, so we felt lucky just to be with him and that lovely machine,
    My younger brother is an incredible knife maker. This year I got a beautiful Damascus steel knife with a buffalo horn handle.
    Buffalo is his favorite material for knife and hatchet scales. Lucky me!
    And Dan,We also feasted on your bison steaks for Christmas dinner, thank you so much for your provisioning. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

  • Posted on by Jeanette Hayes

    Our youngest son has one of those steam engines much like the one you remember seeing in the catalog. It was his Christmas gift in the late 1960’s or maybe 1970. Now a grown man with a college age daughter and a high school son, he and his brothers were cleaning our garage here in Michigan in November for their Dad, when he came across it and was as excited as when he opened it that long ago Christmas. It now resides in his home in Oregon. What a wonderful gift that excitement for that long ago present was for his father,who left this earth in early December of this year.

  • Posted on by Diane Thill

    Another beautiful, poetic and heartwarming story. Your childhood memories of Christmas brought my own flood of memories and tears. It is still hard to believe that the little Jillian in your first book about starting your buffalo ranch is all grown up with little ones of her own. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  • Posted on by Francis and Teresa

    Very well put… love the true spirit of gift giving you expressed. That would be the HEART of Christmas.
    Merry Christmas

  • Posted on by michel vincent

    joyeux Noel de France ,,, awesome ,,,, géniale comme toujours pour ce récit de la vie ,,,,, longue vie a vous ,,,,

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