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Archive for December, 2011

Something a little different for Christmas. Got two e-mails this week from a stranger named Lee Nicholls, a 72-year-old resident of Greenwich in Washington County.

The second e-mail I will share first, as it was commissioned by me, after having received the first e-mail, which made me feel all good inside.

The object here is to maybe spark a memory in the mind of one of our dear readers and perhaps reunite a couple of strangers whose paths crossed one snowy Christmastime some 50 years ago.

It’s a long shot, but I’m taking it.

The second e-mail goes like this:

 

Dear Sir: Thank you so much for your interest and help. I have been going to write that letter [below] so many times over the years, yet Christmas, as you understand, gets a little frantic about the time I would contemplate doing so. 

At the time, Christmas 1959, I was serving on the USS Rushmore, LSD-14, in Little Creek, near Norfolk, Va., in the late 1950s. I later completed training with Underwater Demolition (BUDS) Class 24 and was assigned to UDT Team-21 in October 1960. 

After honorable discharge from the service in 1963, I attended the Munson Williams Proctor Museum School of Art for a year and later went to work in gold leaf in the Boston area. After getting married, my wife and I entered the Peace Corps, serving in Chile from 1965-1967. 

Back in the states I worked around the country as a billboard painter and as a steeple jack, painting, among other things, flagpoles of significant size, including many in the nation’s capital. 

From 1996-2006, I worked as the “city artist” for the city of Saratoga Springs’ Department of Public Works under Commissioner Thomas G. McTygue in restoration of the parks, design projects, and signage (such as located at the entrances to the city), retiring in 2006. 

My latest project of significance was to gold leaf the steeple dome, and letter the facade of Siena College’s administration building in Loudonville. 

Amsterdam, too, has been kind to me in that over the years I have been able to procure work there, painting the big flagpole at the armory a number of times before it closed, and the U.S. post office, before they removed the big pole and replaced it with that dinky aluminum pole they have there now. 

I now, at 72 years, reside in the wonderful village of Greenwich, where I dabble in amateur painting, (oil, watercolor, etc.) 

Happy to have done something so long overdue, I remain …

Sincerely yours, Lee Nicholls

 

The following is Mr. Nicholls’ original letter. I share it here in the spirit of the holidays. Enjoy:

 

Dear sir: As a young sailor in the U.S. Navy, I had leave from my ship to have Christmas with my family. This was 1959 and I was not much more than a “boot,” but I got the leave and had to go from Norfolk, Va., to Syracuse, N.Y. 

Naturally, money was tight for a Seaman 2nd Class, and so with help from travelers I knew, I reached about Catskill, N.Y. 

Here’s the thing. It’s night now and damn cold. It is me and my “pea” coat and sea bag. I am out along the Thruway at that time “hitching.” (The New York State troopers did not like to see military hitching at that time; this was a fact of life.) 

Nevertheless, a car came by in the increasing snow and stopped during the snowfall. Think of it: The snow is coming down heavier and heavier, as you people in Amsterdam know so well. They stopped and opened the door (you can imagine how the heat inside when they opened the door looked to a frozen “pup” of a sailor.) 

“Where are you headed, sailor?” 

“I’m on the way to get to my folks for Christmas in Syracuse.” 

“Well, you better get in.”

As New Yorkers you know well about that heavy snow as it comes across the state. 

I was glad for the ride. And as we rode along we talked about all the nice Christmas stuff, and the military, etc. He told me he was a veteran of Korea. He and his gal were happy, very much in love, and enjoying the ride as the road continued to worsen in that Thruway condition you know so well. 

Long and short: As I was thinking how I and my sea bag would have to contend getting out in the snow and continuing on, we passed the Amsterdam exit of the Thruway. 

“You know, we just passed your exit,” I said.

“Never mind, sailor. We’re taking you home for Christmas.”

That they were kind, and young and friendly, was obvious, but that they were determined to get me to my front door was a real Christmas story.

They delivered this young pup sailor to his front door, to Syracuse, a good hundred miles away, made sure there were lights on, refused to come in (“No, we’ve got to get back.”) It was snowing even harder.

And out the window to this sailor and his sea bag, said so sweetly, “Merry Christmas, sailor. Happy New Year.” 

I never knew who they were. I can still see their faces looking out the window of the car, smiling and waving their greetings. I don’t know now if they remember, or might, that snowy blizzard night. But I have never, ever forgotten them both over the years, nor how that sweet Amsterdam couple brought a sailor home to his people in the snow, all those extra miles, or how happy we all were when I got there. 

They still had to turn around and drive all the way back home. 

Time passes and the years go by. I don’t know if they live. I hope so. 

I hope somehow they hear me now over the years. But I never have forgotten them, not one Christmas. 

If they do live or not, from my heart, merry Christmas to them and the good people of Amsterdam. Thank goodness for the kindness that lives in all our hearts. 

Humbly, an old veteran.

Lee Nicholls

 

If any of this rings a bell, please feel free to contact me. I can get ahold of Mr. Nicholls and we can take it from there.

If none of this sounds familiar, I hope it at least warmed a corner of your heart. It did mine.

 

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Couple things to clear up as we speed toward Christmas.

First, I wish everyone happy holidays. I have done it every year for as many years as I can remember. Ironically, as the years pile up, I seem to be remembering fewer of them, even though more of them are coming and going. This is not a good sign.

I wish people “happy holidays” because it’s all-inclusive. Humans, in their finite wisdom, when building the calendar and inventing greeting cards, went ahead and lumped many of the largest holidays onto one end of the calendar.

It’s as if they were bee-bopping along, inventing months and days and assigning numbers, and got through the first 10 and a half months and realized: Oh, shucks, we’ve forgotten Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s Day. We’d better cram them all in at the end here. The inventors of the calendar have been a rant topic in this space on previous occasions. I would rather not go down that road again. (https://mattisonsavenue.wordpress.com/2010/01/30/making-sense-of-the-calendar/)

They know how I feel about them.

So when I say “happy holidays” it is meant to cover everything that is coming up. I might not see you before all the holidays have passed, so by blanketing my good tidings, I feel as though I have all of my bases covered.

My intent is sincere, my aim is true, and my God, why are so many people losing their minds about “happy holidays?”

As if humanity’s collective sphincter was not clenched quite tightly enough, those of us who dare to say “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” have been under assault in recent years because our words have somehow taken the Christ out of Christmas, placing Santa Claus — that evil-doer — on a higher rung than Jesus.

Poverty, hunger and disease aren’t occupying enough of our time? We have to invent crap like this to sling at people who are guilty of nothing more than spreading a positive message?

Far too many of us are assigning to words a higher level of power than they actually carry. Words, on many occasions, are just words. Thoughts and actions still do account for something.

How about factoring them in. Like we used to. Remember? Probably not.

Very disappointing.

And more than a little ignorant.

We are socially networking, politically correcting and over-thinking ourselves past the point of common sense, good reason and happy fun.

Remember happy fun? It used to culminate during the holidays.

Back when they were happier.

Back when using those two words adjacent to one another in the same sentence was not akin to blasphemy.

Back when it wasn’t wrong to celebrate the holidays as each of us sees fit.

Another thing I wish is that we could agree on our choices of holiday music. (I would call it Christmas music, but not all of the music played only at Christmastime mentions the word Christmas. “Jingle Bells,” “Deck the Halls,” “Let it Snow,” “Frosty the Snowman” and “Sleigh Ride” among the blasphemous lot.)

Can we agree that there are a lot of really really bad, tired, over-played songs that really really need to be burned in a pile? I was reminded of this Friday morning when I heard “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.”

For the bazillionth time. Good grief.

“Jingle Bell Rock,” “Grandma Got Run Over …,” “Blue Christmas,” “Feliz Navidad,” “Santa Baby,” “Little Saint Nick,” “Wonderful Christmastime.” Done with all of these. There are more; I am sure of it. But with all the good holiday songs that are available, why is it we still waste the lives of our ear drums on this drivel?

As far as pop musicians are concerned, many, if not all, have tried to invent a standard that, more often than not, has either failed miserably or run its course.

One that hasn’t, and never will, is John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” The rest can’t hold a candle.

Also, is it OK to be done with “The 12 Days of Christmas” and the countless unfunny parodies that have sprung from it? Please? In general, I should add, all Christmas song parodies have run out their string. Just not funny.

Let’s do this: Let’s agree that the only holiday music we really need is the soundtrack from “Charlie Brown’s Christmas”?

If we need to add a few more, then maybe a little “Silent Night,” sung by a church choir at midnight Christmas Eve. And any Christmas carol. And songs with lyrics like “rum-pa-pum-pum.” Or other drummy sound effects.

And “Ring Christmas Bells.” (It has that while overlapping thing going on that is quite addictive.)

And “Christmas in America” by Melissa Etheridge. (Not the one by Pat Benatar; different song entirely.) Coming out of left field with this one, but if you haven’t heard it, you might be pleasantly surprised. It has a whole “bring my soldier-relative home” thing going on.

And anything sung by Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, and the Ray Conniff singers. People who were born with Christmas music voices. Their songs are still OK. (I have kept Burl Ives and Bing Crosby from this list because everything I hear from them sounds the same.)

I know. More blasphemy.

Happy holidays.

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There has always been something mystical, charming and alluring about the uncontrollable excitement (and runaway common sense) in which spouses are drenched when Thanksgiving (and the leftovers) have finally passed, the turkey carcass — boiled to smithereens and smelling like soup — has been transported to the landfill, and the delight, thrill and immeasurable joy of this most magical of all the seasons becomes the one true unbending focus (or it had at least better be mister) of everyone in the household (just help me get this box of decorations out of the attic right now or I swear to God I’ll lose it) always, forever (or else).

How each one of us enjoys and shares the holiday spirit is a very personal thing. Some of us like to lose our minds and decorate everything in sight. I have no problem with this at all. (Some of us never take our decorations down. I have no problem with this either, but it looks kinda goofy.)

I like to drive around at night and see all the Griswold houses in their festive finest. We have a couple of homes in our neighborhood that would make a person come thisclose to driving right off the road — they are that impressive.

I also like to see how others decorate the insides of their homes. I have to drive slower to do this, but sometimes it pays off. I suppose I could introduce myself, become friends, and get invited inside these places. But that seems like waaaay too much effort.

If I personally choose to take a more muted approach to holiday decorating it is only because, and this goes for just about everything, I am incredibly lazy. If there is a choice between watching “Decorate Your Head Off” on HGTV or actually getting out of the chair and hanging a red bow on the banister, I would prefer not to move.

Also, I would put it in the wrong place, forcing Karen to rehang it, using, instead of tape, a heavy sigh. So, to save her the extra step, I stay out of it as much as possible. Just doing my part.

Karen does a wonderful job of decorating the house for the holidays. She has everything neatly packed away in a giant box in the attic, which is conveniently located on the other side of a very small door in the back of a closet through which I can in no way ever fit, so, I’m pretty much excused from the get-go.

The picture frames get wrapped like presents and hang on the wall. All the little tchotchkes, small toys, gewgaws, knickknacks, lagniappes, trinkets, kitsch, baubles, bangles and beads fill all the nooks and crannies and shelves and every barren inch of every flat surface in every corner of the house so there is no place to toss a crinkled, festive candy wrapper that should instead go in the trash barrel which is all the way in the kitchen and that’s just too far away right now.

Seeing how many hidden candy wrappers make it all the way through the holiday season until undecorating day is one way a spouse can find joy and personal entertainment in the holiday season.

Mind you, I have never done this. I would have, but I didn’t think of it until just now. Mixing new traditions in with the old ones is an acceptable way to keep the holidays fresh and exciting. This is how I invented The Kitty’s Tail Needs a Bell.

The kitty, actually, is the reason the holidays and the decorating were mentioned the other day. This year, for the first time in a long time, we don’t have a kitty to keep us warm and fill the litter box in the upstairs closet with aromas unimagined.

I have used the kitty excuse — with 100 percent success — as the reason we don’t need to go, each year, through the gigantic Paul Bunyan-sized hassle of wrangling a Christmas tree. The cat would have the thing pulled over and torn apart while our backs were turned, I successfully convinced the love of my life, and wouldn’t it be a shame if she injured herself while doing it? How would you feel if the cat got glass in her paw because you needed to drag a forest into the living room? Besides, as Charlie Brown taught us, it’s not all about the tree.

Also, adults sound like trombones. But I digress.

See, to me, there are three Christmas tree arguments: Real tree; artificial tree; no tree.

I thought I had put the issue to bed for good last year after bringing home a Charlie Brown Christmas tree I received as a gift at work. We used that as our tree last year and, if I have any say in the matter, we’ll be using it this year and for all the years to come. It’s a wonderful thing and truly speaks the meaning of the holiday. Plus, it’s easy.

Personally, I don’t need a tree. But if I did, I would prefer it be artificial. Keep it in the foreign land of the attic, pull it out of a box once a year, stare at it for a couple of weeks, stuff it back in the box, and hide it away. No muss, no fuss.

I am married, however, to a charming individual who believes the tree — if we are going to have one and why can’t we this year because the cat is no longer a threat and I would like to have one but it has to be real — has to be real. What I don’t like about this idea is pretty much everything.

Needles everywhere — trunk of the car, the path through the house, the place in front of the window where it sits. Then, when it’s even more dead and needly, it gets dragged back through the house and sits on top of the snowbank until April.

The needles in the trunk of the car don’t go away until the car gets traded in. No matter how many times it’s vacuumed. I’ll be bringing groceries in in July and the needles that are stuck to the bags will get all over the kitchen.

The tree never sits straight in the little green and red three-legged tree holder stand. I’m supposed to keep water in this thing to keep the dead tree from dropping its needles or spontaneously combusting. The water idea is nice in principle but not in reality. And not only because someone has to pile presents around the base of the tree, making it impossible to reach the little water pan. But also because it plain doesn’t work. Cutting the tree off at ground level and dragging it into a structure warmed by furnace and fireplace pretty much puts the kibosh on keeping the needles in place.

Rearrange the furniture to accommodate this dead, molting fire hazard, make sure there’s a pan of water below it, then — now here’s an inspired proposal — wrap it with electrical cords covered in lights that have spent the summer in a giant knotted bundle under the intense boiler room heat of the attic.

Insecure electrical connections dangling over a pan of water, wrapped around a drying pine tree, below which sit boxes wrapped with tissue paper, adjacent to holiday candles.

Or, let’s get a fake tree. The same result without all the Paul Bunyan tomfoolery and the shattering of every fire code ever invented.

Or, better yet, let’s just get another cat.

Never pass up an opportunity to fight fir with fur.

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