Sunday, December 24, 2006

Another Night Before Christmas...

Anyone who thinks that time flows at a steady, consistent pace couldn't have possibly been an eleven year old on Christmas Eve.

December 24th was a celebratory day at our house; Mom filled our table with a Christmas feast on that day, preparing so much turkey and dressing and potato salad and green beans and sweet potatoes and Waldorf salad and cranberry sauce that a family of four could gorge themselves and still have plenty left over for multiple meals of leftovers. For dessert, there was pineapple upside down cake, smooth and moist and redolent of pineapple and brown sugar; fudge, dark with cocoa and almost crystalline with sugar, that crumbled indulgently at the first bite; caramel frosted cake, a lustrous brown-frosted concoction whose color always reminded me of that distinctive shade of brown found on Fantastic Four #11 and a few other Marvel Comics of the era, a shade that no other comics publisher—and no other Mom—could duplicate; and there was always chocolate cake. Sometimes there would also be pecan pie, but that wasn't an every-year thing. We would usually eat earlier than most of my friends; dinner time was typically 4:30, sometimes pushing as late as 5:00, but hardly ever later than that.

After we could eat no more, we'd all relocate to the living room, lounging around the large console television set-home entertainment system that combined a 25" black and white television with a turntable, AM/FM radio,a and built-in speakers. Dad would claim his large, overstuffed chair; Mom would take the sofa, often stretching out to relax after her culinary labors. Kim and I always took the floor, dragging our pillows into the living room and stretching out as close to the television set as we could get before Mom or Dad made us move back.

About 7:30, Mom put Kim to bed; since Kim was only 3 1/2 years old, that was plenty late enough to leave her ready to sleep. She knew Christmas was an event--after all, the presence of a decorated tree in the living room served as a daily reminder that things were different at this time of year--but she wasn't so attuned to the event that she had trouble sleeping.

Me, I was 11--heck, I was almost a teenager! As far as I was concerned, I could stay up as late as my parents. Of course, they saw things differently; they let me stay awake later than my usual bedtime, but by 9:30 they were hinting that it was time to end the evening. I'd get ready for bed, and by 10:00 pm, I semi-willingly retired to my bedroom, closed the door, and turned out the lights.

And from that time until 5:30 the next morning--the time that I considered the earliest acceptable time to arise, since that was about the time that Dad got up to get ready for work during the week--I bore witness to the fact that time is not a constant. No, the progress of the minutes slowed perceptibly, with each minute running slightly longer than the one before, until it seemed like it the night had gone on forever. I'd finally sneak a look at the clock, and learn that it was only an hour later than the time I'd gone to bed.

In the other end of the house, I could hear my parents doing things; I know now that they were getting out the presents that Santa would bring, and I actually knew even then that Santa came in the form of Mom and Dad, but there was still a part of me that thought that they surely must have had some extra help from that magical fellow in order to get so many presents into our house in so little time. Mom and Dad tried to be quiet, but the house was small, and the distance from the living room to my bedroom was less than 20 feet, with only thin walls and hollow doors in between. I hear the creaks of the floorboards, the rustle of moving objects, the muffled conversations that the televison couldn't quite mask. Then I'd hear the sounds that told me that their activities were ending--the clink of coffee cups as Mom got the dishes ready for breakfast the next morning, the sound of running water as she measured out the right balance of coffee grounds and water so that all she had to do the next morning was plug in the percolator. That was a sound I heard every evening, and it was the sure sign that bedtime had arrived for my parents as well.

The last lights would go out, and I saw not even the slightest glint of light under my doorway. Now everyone was asleep, and that meant that I had to be particularly quiet. My parents' bedroom was directly across the narrow hallway from mine, and the restless creakings of my bed were clearly discernible in their room--I knew that from past experiences, when my parents seemed almost supernaturally attuned to my slightest movements if I got out of bed and tried to tiptoe to the other end of the house in the middle of the night.

So I lay there, awake, looking into the darkness to pick out what details I could in my shadowed room; the only light came through the curtained windows, the indirect glow of a streetlight between our house and the Greshams. And I speculated; what gifts might be under the tree? I wanted a copy of The Beatles on VeeJay Records; Phil Patterson had that album, and we had listened to it incessantly at his house, but I knew I would appreciate it even more if I had my very own copy. And I wanted a Creature of the Black Lagoon model kit; I had many other Aurora monster models, but that intensely-green reptilian horror had eluded me. And of course, there were airplane models on my list; in particular, I wanted a Messerschmidt ME-109, a sleek and deadly WWII fighter that would occupy a place of prominence in the aerial display of other WWII models that hung from my ceiling, suspended by string and thumbtacks.

Hours later... it had to be hours... I looked again. And I saw that it was only 12:45 am.

Looking for something to help while away the time, I thought of the AM radio that sat on the desk at the head of the bunkbeds on which I was sleeping. I took the bottom bunk ever since I had found a spider on the top bunk; I have always had a phobic reaction to spiders, so I viewed the top mattress as a protective barrier between me and spidery doom. The desk was built into the end of the bunk bed, and I could reach between the support beams to turn the radio around so that it faced the bed rather than facing the desk chair. I turned the volume way down, then turned the radio on. It lit up as the internal tubes warmed up; a few seconds later, I began to turn the radio up slightly.

And I heard static. Rome's stations cut their power to low levels after sunset; by 12:45, some of the stations were off the air entirely. So I began to tune up the dial, looking for someone else who, like me, was unable to sleep.

It was then that I found a distant signal--it seemed to me like it must have come half a world away--and heard a voice introducing a song. A voice speaking Spanish. I didn't know what he was saying, but it was a voice. I pulled the radio close to me, since the volume was turned down so low that it couldn't have been heard on the other side of my nine foot by eleven foot room, much less across the hallway.

Did he know that it was Christmas now? Was it Christmas now where he was? Why wasn't he playing Christmas songs? These, and many other questions, came to mind, but there was no one to answer. He spoke for a while, then he played songs--some in Spanish, some in English with a country twang. And for that time, I had found a kindred spirit who was just as unable to sleep as I was. He played and talked, I listened...

I must have fallen asleep, because I became aware that there was a sound of water running, and that meant that my parents were awake (or that someone had gotten up to go to the bathroom). I looked at the clock and it was 5:23... seven minutes earlier than my self-appointed deadline for arising from bed and starting the Christmas gift-opening festivities, but 5:23 was close enough...

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