By John Thomas Tuft

Mom would make us wear Sunday School clothes for the occasion. The couple would arrive, Dick, a supervisor at the WABCO plant in Wilmerding, and his wife Helen, a third-grade teacher in East McKeesport (in case you think I’m making all this up) whom you closed your eyes tight and prayed hard not to get when the third grade draft came up at the end of second grade. Our hair would be slicked down, admonitions given for NO FIGHTING or SPITTING—Danny always started it, in case you wondered—then bundled into the back of a huge monster with fins, a car that seemed bigger than our bedroom, and off to Pittsburgh we went. Through Forest Hills with the curiosity of trolley tracks, onto the Parkway East, to us what had to be an old cowboy trail that linked the Turnpike to the distant airport, vying with each other for the first glimpse of the Squirrel Hill tunnel and the rivers beyond which marked the entrance to the magic land of Downtown Pittsburgh.

Hornes. Gimbels. Kaufmanns. If you know, you know. The holy trinity of department stores in Pittsburgh in the 1960s, for our purposes here. The Christmas tree on the corner of the Hornes building. The clock at Kaufmanns which marked THE meeting spot for downtown rendezvous. The divine candy at Gimbels, purchased by the piece and savored as though stolen from the devil himself. Memories woven into a silken fabric that defies time itself. Disc Jockeys from KDKA in the windows plugging giving to the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Two little boys, Danny and Johnny, 8 and 9, noses pressed to the glass wondering at it all, the wonder of the Christmas dance. Or, in other words, children number 6 and 7 of the Tuft clan, two sensitive little blokes, taken downtown at Christmastime by a couple from our father’s church to see the sights and be allowed to pick out one thing each for a gift. From the couple to us. Ours to keep. All to ourselves. Hallelujah and amen. But be reasonable…grace and wallets share limits.

When we were shown the world and then told here are the limits on the piece of it we can own, our minds of course turned to toys. Particularly digger machines. No contest. The most bang for the buck, dirt for the dollar. Then downstairs into the emporium of a cafeteria, the Tic Toc, I believe. Acres of food in shiny cases. For two lads used to being at the bottom of the food chain, this was heaven itself opening up and saying “come, feast, eat all of it.” After the passing of some six decades, what do we remember most clearly of that day, however? A thoughtless, careless comment made to each of us. I stood in front of a shiny, yellow Tonka truck, certain as I was of anything that such a truck would complete my young life. With it I could build roads and bridges, move dirt like it had never been moved before. “No, you can’t get that. It’s too much for you, you wouldn’t use it right.” For Danny, it was filling his tray with all the food he could manage, smile on his face, only to be laughed at. “You’re too small for that, you can never carry all that. Put some back.”

We both swallowed those comments, kept them hidden in our hearts. And made that part of our Christmas dance. Don’t want too much. Don’t ask for what you really want. Don’t upset the members of the church. Don’t let them see you cry. Merry Christmas… There was more to the dance, of course. A pile of boxes of candy on the piano every year. Gifts from church members, piled there only to be touched after dinner when we could each choose one piece, WITHOUT SQUEEZING IT!, and then pass it on. Going into the bedroom one at a time to help my father wrap the mountain of presents for the others, oranges from my uncle in Florida, homemade sticky buns, caroling with the Faith and Fun kids, and the dance of why does Baby Jesus keep showing up every Christmas? The envelope of cash handed to my father after each Christmas Eve service, a token of appreciation to be squirreled away for next summer’s trip to the Massannetta Bible Conference. And…also…the nightly routine of sitting with our father to watch Walter Cronkite, invariably reporting on the War in Vietnam.

There were many strange phone calls and hushed meetings going on this year. Strange looking letters arrived in folded paper with blue and red markings. My parents put their heads together for guarded conversations. Talk of flight schedules and overseas timetables. Doors closed on the little kids so we wouldn’t spoil it all. What that meant, we did not know. But on a certain day my father announced that he had to go to the airport. While he was gone my mother made a special lunch, far beyond the Velveeta with catsup sandwiches that Danny and I lived on. Tension was in the air, something was about to happen. Was it dangerous? Difficult? Was someone leaving? Dying? Was Christmas in danger?

At long last, my father returned. We watched in awe as a young man in a full dress Army lieutenant’s uniform got out of the car. We knew him. He had gone to Vietnam, that place from the news, a year ago. He still smiled but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. He hugged my tearful mother as my father drove off again. My parents had invited this young man’s mother to have lunch with them. She was expecting her son to come back about six weeks hence. He hid in our sun parlor. My dad came back with the unsuspecting mother. She seemed puzzled by the invitation and a bit apprehensive. She stepped into our living room. The young man, returned safely from war, stepped out from his hiding place…

The Christmas dance goes on…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.