By Louis A. Zona
As the holiday season nears, my thoughts return to my old neighborhood and the people that I got to know and love on a dirt street in the heart of industrial New Castle, Pa.
Center Street could not be more different than my current neighborhood where a wave or a smile is a fairly rare occurrence.
My home on Center Street was not much. But Mom and Dad made it feel like Windsor Castle, especially during the Christmas season. And our neighbors were like family, sharing much.
You would never have guessed that Dad’s paycheck was cashed at the local A&P store or that the holiday decorations that made our little house glow at Christmastime were the handiwork of my dear Dad. Rain pipe became candles, a nativity scene was cut from plywood, and angels were fashioned out of painted cardboard.
In the 1950s, Dad suffered from a disease that our family physician was unable to detect. As his condition grew worse, I could not help thinking that Dad would be experiencing his very last one.
But a Christmas miracle happened when my sister Tina took matters into her own hands and contacted Dr. John Snyder on a friend’s recommendation.
On the very first visit, Dr. Snyder detected Addison’s disease and little white pills made Dad a new man. My father lived 20 more years thanks to that wonderful and caring doctor who gave the Zona family the greatest Christmas of all.
I remember walking to downtown New Castle with Dad to look at the electric trains at a store familiar to everyone, Kirk Hutton Hardware. Dad surprised my brother and me by purchasing an American Flyer train that we later found out was made possible because Dad had hit the number by playing 421.
Surprisingly, Dad would play that special number every holiday season with surprisingly good luck. In recent years, I’ve tried it a few times with no luck. Somehow, I feel that the 421 magic worked only with Louis Sr. and not with Louis Jr.
Mom was a great believer in what banks called the “Christmas Club,” which encouraged folks to put money aside for the holidays. That always surprised the rest of the family because Mom was not much interested in the trappings of Christmas. To Mom, Christmas was strictly a religious celebration and midnight Mass was always a must even though my brother and I would be thinking about our gifts that waited under the tree, not prayers in Latin.
I loved a TV show called “Circus Boy” when I was a kid. The musical theme for the show was extremely catchy, sounding like a calliope. One holiday season the church had a particularly dramatic celebration including a candlelit procession of all the young people in the church school.
One of the nuns saw to it that the procession followed a particular order. As she walked past my position in the procession, she said, “I hear what sounds like a calliope and whoever is making that sound had better stop.”
It had to have been me but how on earth could I have been capable of making that sound and especially not knowing what I was doing? Had she located the source of the circus music, my Christmas present would have been a slap on the back of my head.
My Dad and virtually every other father in the neighborhood was a member of the machinists’ union. My favorite part of Christmas growing up was to attend the machinists’ union Christmas party at the old Penn Theater in downtown New Castle.
We would first get to see an exciting movie and cartoon and then would be handed a brown paper bag filled with goodies. A large orange and apple would take up a lot of room in the bag where more chocolate candy would have been appreciated. But hey, the fruit was always great and probably reflected the fact that my father’s generation usually received a naval orange and delicious apple in their Christmas stocking and little else.
When I was in elementary school at the old St. Joseph parish, Christmas meant walking north on Jefferson Street, class by class, to the former Ecclesian Club to meet Santa Claus. We walked to that club hall because it was big enough to accommodate all the kids in the school.
As we filed past Santa, he handed each of us a white box filled with Caiazza chocolate candy. What a treat for a chocolate-loving kid from Center Street!
Father Cornelius Becker always took this opportunity to warn us about throwing snowballs. He pointed to his right eye that he told us he lost because of the careless throwing of a snowball.
One of my least favorite Christmases was when we were invited to spend the holidays with my mother’s brother in Cincinnati. Post Santa, Dad and I had picked out my present that year and I promised my parents that I would wait until we returned home to open it. It was an erector set in a red metal box that I could not wait to open and to build a drawbridge, a crane, and a five story-building elevator.
While I was away, I dreamt about my erector set sitting idly under our tree. It was almost more than I could bear. I lived through it and still have that set that, sentimentally, I cannot dispose of. I know….
What a wonderful gift that we have called memory. We can sit back in our easy chair and relive wonderful moments of Christmases past. Of Dad frying fish or roasting a turkey, of Mom excited to attend a special church service or to open a gift from my brother, Jerry, of a small statue of Babe Ruth pointing to center field before he hit that famous home run.
I remember my dad on the roof of our house putting up lights and of Christmas Eves when my entire family was intact and enjoying Frank Sinatra singing on our Silvertone 10-inch television set.
“It’s that time of year when the world falls in love …”