By Louis A. Zona
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – When I think back to my childhood in the 1950s, so many of my happiest moments involved toys at Christmas. Mom and Dad had little money but the Christmas Club at the local bank made it possible to save money to make the holidays a very special time.
Augmenting my parents’ Christmas savings was my dad’s luck at hitting the lottery right around the holiday season. We are not talking major money from this source but those $35-winnings helped out, for sure. Now every state has a lottery and recent jackpots can reach the billion-dollar mark.
But back then it was against the law to play “the number” or as it was known years ago, “the bug.” It is hard to believe, but people who played the number back then were breaking the law. Two ladies from our street did go to prison for booking numbers.
But hey, the number that my dad played made possible the purchase of our American Flyer train and my treasured Erector Set.
I doubt that kids today would even know what an Erector Set is. It was a toy that gave me so much joy that I saved it these many years. The other toy that I did not have the heart to dispose of in adulthood was my red wagon that we still use for various gardening activities like carrying leaves or moving mulch across the yard. But that red wagon ruled my backyard when I was a kid.
One Christmas gift of years past now hangs in my garage. How could I possibly dispose of my Silver Streak, my faithful sled that went down numerous hills and snow-covered streets? That sled reminds me so much of winter activities that made for many hours of outdoor fun from the building of snow forts to snowball fights that always seemed to end when one of the guys would catch one in the face and needed to go home.
When a snowball hit one of us in the face, I remember a parish priest by the name of Father Cornelius Becker who would address the children with a warning against snowballs since he lost an eye to a snowball when he was a youngster. Being kids, we heeded Father for a week or two and then it was back to snow forts and snowballs, even those that hit us directly in the face.
Two of my favorite Christmas presents from Mom and Dad were a new baseball glove (a Johnny Kucks model that I still own) and a transistor radio that brought me many a Pirates baseball game from my front porch and even played under my pillow when my team played teams on the West Coast with the three-hour time difference.
I swear that Dad loved my transistor radio as much as I did, since the transistor was a newer technology back then and replaced the bulkier vacuum tube. Transistor technology excited Dad so much that it became a favorite topic of conversation. A spinoff of course was digital technology that Dad would have loved had he been alive when that technology made computers and the flat television screen that Dad predicted would one day allow TV sets to hang on the wall.
When I was a kid, I basically lived outside and so many of my toys involved outdoor fun. I am thankful that my generation did not rely upon video games for entertainment. Sleds and wagons hold no interest for kids today.
Maybe I’m not being fair since my generation did not have video games and other electronic offerings to divert and entertain us.
I recall my little friend Ricky and I spending hours dressing up our wagons to look like hot rod cars. On one occasion we used his uncle’s silver paint to make our imaginary hot rod look cool and grab attention.
As I recall, though, we had more silver paint on our shirts and trousers than on “The Silver Eagle” as we dubbed our creation. At least we were using our creative juices as opposed to the packaged fun of the video game that most kids prize today.
While my mom and dad made Christmas so special in our little house in New Castle, it was my dad who was the real Santa Clause when it came to toys and other Christmas presents.
My father quit school to help his parents through the Great Depression and made Christmas possible for each of his eight brothers and sisters. Eventually going to barber school and opening a barbershop to pay the bills also meant that Santa would be able to stop by each Christmas Eve for every member of his family.
He once told me that Christmas, when he was a kid, meant receiving an apple or an orange from his parents. He made sure that fruit was not the only present under the tree for his sisters and brothers.