Christmas Day 1956, memoir by RC Larlham at
Ralph Nas

Christmas Day 1956

Christmas Day 1956

written by: RC Larlham



The sun rose in a cloudless sky. Christmas had come as Christmas should come in the heart of the Midwest. Northeast Ohio was glorious in the early morning sun.

Gifts had been selected for an early opening, and now I waded through more than a foot of new snow on my way to the poultry coops with water and mash. We kept few livestock over the winter, but a dozen laying hens were always resident, as were a pair of hen turkeys, a mixed flock of wild and domestic ducks, and two pairs of domestic white geese.

The old, blind pony that had come with the farm was two years gone, but we had agreed to board two horses from a day camp. The horses were used for both instructional and recreational riding by the children who populated the camp. My brother and I didn’t care where the horses had come from. We were simply happy to have two horses to ride whenever we wished. We were both substantially less pleased by the chores we were required to do to be allowed to ride the horses “whenever we wished.” Nonetheless, six years of farm life had taught both of us that animals required constant care and maintenance to remain healthy and useful.

We filled the feeders and automatic watering cans in the poultry coops and turned our attention to the barn… and the horses. First, we went up to the house and refilled the buckets we used to transport water to the barn. They were five-gallon paint buckets, and we each carried one in each hand, half full. That amounted to about twenty pounds per arm at eight pounds per gallon of water. We normally had to stop every twenty steps or so, but with snow above our knees, that was halved.

We eventually got to the barn, entered the horse section, and emptied the buckets into a trough. Then we put short “catch” ropes on the horses’ halters and led them out to the pen at the rear of the barn. We shooed them away from the barn and returned to their shared stall inside the barn.

We each took a pitchfork down from its wall hanger and began raking up and removing the straw, now heavily compacted with used hay and their overnight water ration. As the wheelbarrow was filled, I would wheel it out to the compost pile (no longer set against the barn to keep it stable), where I unloaded the wheelbarrow onto the pile. I laid the wet straw and used hay carefully to increase the rate of conversion to compost (and to avoid the prospect of the compost pile becoming a fire against the barn as the last pile had done).

We finished cleaning the stall, spread a heavy blanket of clean straw on the concrete floor, and loaded sheaves of alfalfa hay into their common manger. Unlike dogs, horses would not overeat to keep another horse from eating “their” food.

We walked out into the pen at the rear of the barn and collected the two horses. One, Tango by name, was a four-year-old mare who, until recently had been raced locally as a trotter. Someone gave her a blood-thinner and she began having nosebleeds. When they wouldn’t stop, she was banned from the local tracks. Before the racing regulatory agencies could get involved, she was sold to the day camp from which we had gotten her. Tango was appallingly fast. At a trot, she could outrun any of the neighbor kids’ horses running at a gallop. When she shifted to a gallop, she actually slowed down. Tango had an unfortunate dislike of children. If Giles or I tried to put her bridle on, she would clamp her teeth and turn her head. The Old Man could bridle her without a problem. It took the better part of two weeks to break her of that habit. The Old Man said it was because she didn’t trust children. The kids riding her were of highly varied handling ability and horse knowledge. Some might well have caused her pain or made her feel uncontrolled.

Our other horse was a Pinto named Domino (mostly white with a few black spots). Domino had been a wild horse (mustang) captured as a yearling and sold to the day camp at the government’s annual Mustang auction. Domino also disliked children. He expressed his dislike for children more aggressively. During saddling, he would try to bite the shoulder of the saddler. Upon being mounted and urged into a trot or a canter, Domino would sling his head back and try to bite the rider’s foot… often succeeding. He had another biting habit of which we (the Old Man and I) broke him, but that story was told in an earlier volume. He would also take the bit in his back teeth and break into a top-speed gallop. I broke him of that too. Once he understood that I was comfortable and consistent riding him, he quit, but we had a couple of adventures together before that.

At fourteen I was beginning to, as the Old Man put it, shape up, but I still wore husky clothes. Giles, two years my junior, and tall and skinny, was my implacable tormentor. This year he had agreed to a Christmas truce, but as we stepped out of the barn, he scooped up a handful of snow and began compacting a snowball. Certain that I was the intended recipient, I turned to try to get inside the house before he could throw it.

The snowball was a complete bust. The snow was too dry to compact in the hand. The snowball came apart as it left his hand (directed at the barn wall, not at me), causing an explosive sound from Giles that I assumed meant something like, “Aw phooey!” or words to that effect.

I stopped and took a good look at our surroundings. In all directions, flat or drifted snow, dry and light, was being blown across the snow-covered fields of our neighbors. Our own small fields were bordered by trees and shrubs that slowed the wind somewhat, so the snow was building up in the lee of their entwined branches. Those and other branches were covered with snow, making them look much larger than they were.

The day was a perfect Christmas Day. There was not a cloud, not even a haze in the sky. The shadows on the snow were black, sharp, and stark, and the snow was deep enough to cover all imperfections in the ground it lay on. The trees themselves were beautiful against the clear blue sky.

“C’mon Giles,” I yelled, “I want to borrow Mom’s camera and get some photos.” We waded through the snow and burst into the house, taking our boots off at the door and dropping them on a twisted rag carpet. It was time to open the rest of our Christmas gifts, of which I recall two… a bicycle and a camera!

Now, I had seen the bicycle before Giles and I left the house (hard to disguise a bicycle, so my folks hadn’t tried) but everything else was wrapped. The Old Man played Santa Claus, handing out gifts as he came to them. We tore into them impatiently, until one of them stopped me short.

In my left hand, I was holding a package, with my name on it. In my right hand I held the contents of the package… a snapshot camera! A bicycle was of no use to me until the snow cleared, this—a camera—was for now. Now I wouldn’t have to carry around Mother’s bulky camera with its pleated bellows-like structure that held the lens and the shutter trigger.

The gifts were all soon opened, and Giles and I, along with our young sister, Lyndella, headed back outdoors. While Mother bundled Lyndella for sledding, Giles and I retrieved three American Flyers, the steel runner, and flexible steering sleds that were the epitome of kids’ sleds.

When our little sister was ready, we handed her the pull rope to the short-bodied sled she had received for Christmas the year before, grabbed the ropes to the long-bodied sleds we had received, and headed across the road.

After several failed attempts to get the sleds to function in the deep snow that covered the tall grass on the gentle hills of the overgrown pasture, we discovered an open run through the adjacent wooded hill. The mix of leaves and snow under the trees that had intercepted much of the snowfall gave us a reasonably rapid ride down the run, ending in the deep snow and tall grass, which gave us a reasonably slow-stopping space.

It wasn’t long before Lyndella declared she was too cold to continue sledding. Giles, not known for his compassion toward his baby sister, volunteered to pull her home on her sled, if I would stack his sled on mine and bring it home. I agreed, but when we got to the back door of the house, I leaned the sleds against the wall and told Giles to inform Mother and the Old Man that I was going to go shoot some photos with my new camera.

Then I took off down the road, looking for well-defined winter photo opportunities. There were plenty of such opportunities, and I hadn’t walked a half-mile when I realized I couldn’t roll the film to one more frame, and I had no more rolls with me. There had been one roll in the box, and that was the roll in the camera. I didn’t know it, but three more rolls had been purchased, but no one had suggested I take them with me.

Trudging home, I met the Old Man coming for me. The excitement of finding so many stark black-and-white shots to take had worn off and my teeth were beginning to chatter. I climbed into the car with great gratitude and sank into the heat from the heater under the dash.

Being very cold, and then suddenly very warm produces a powerful drowsiness upon occasion, and I was startled to hear the Old Man ask, “Are you asleep, Charles? I’ve asked you twice now.”

“Asked me what, twice?”

“Did you forget we are heading for your Uncle Orville and Aunt Edna’s house for the Gadd sisters’ annual gift exchange and dinner?”

“Um-m, yeah I guess I kinda did.”

“Boy, you’re gonna get me in a lot of trouble with your mother and all her sisters if you make us later than you have already. Now, you go into the house and grab your Secret Santa gift. Tell your mother the car is warmed up and we’re ready to go.”

As the car came to a stop in the driveway, I bailed out and ran for the house. Telling Mother that the car was warmed up, I ran up to the bedroom Giles and I shared, found the gift for my cousin, and raced back down the stairs. Seeing no one else in the house, I ran for the back door… and almost bowled Mother over as she came back into the house.

“Charles, carry this box,” she ordered, pointing. “It has my share of Christmas dinner.”

With great care, I gathered up the box, waited while she added a couple of items, and walked with exaggerated steps down the entry stairs and out to our 1950 Studebaker two-door coupe, where I was stymied. Should I put the box in the trunk or carry it on my lap?

Mother solved my dilemma by reaching around me and opening the car door. “Get in,” she said, taking the box. “I’ll hand you the box once you’re settled.”

With three children in the back seat, it was a crowded ride. Giles and I each carried a box on our laps. Lyndella had only her Secret Santa gift, but the cramped rear seat meant she was squeezed between Giles and me for the twenty-minute ride. She complained constantly until Mother told her, in a tone that brooked no argument, to be quiet and stop bothering her brothers. If she made either of us spill anything, it was clear she would answer to Mother. She sat rigidly still for the remainder of the ride.

When we arrived, the Old Man and Mother each pushed a seatback forward over the front seat and took a box from Giles and me. As I trotted ahead to open the door to Aunt Edna’s house from the garage, the Old Man wordlessly handed me a paper bag. Upon inspection, it contained my camera and two rolls of film. When I thanked him for rescuing it and bringing the film, he said, “You can’t take photographs of Christmas Day without a camera and film.”

I spent the rest of Christmas Day interrupting everyone and demanding they show off their gifts of the day. It was one of the best Christmas Days ever!

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