Note: A personal New Year’s story from 61 years ago. A version of this story was first posted to this Blog on December 31, 2007.
It was December 28, 1950. The small apartment over a Main Street store over looked the movie theater across the street. I only remember two things about the place. Once the movie theater caught fire and I watched the fire trucks and the scurrying men out the window. But mostly I remember the perfectly round holes in the white ceiling. I spent a good deal of my time on my back in the crib with my brother Tim staring at those holes. We were twenty-one months old, my twin brother and I, on that winter morning in Delta, Colorado.
A half a world away that day, in the worst winter weather ever recorded on the peninsula, the Chinese Communists crossed the 38th parallel in Korea. American, South Korean and United Nations forces were reeling before a seemingly irresistible avalanche of Chinese in their quilted uniforms and fur hats, their bugles crying through a frozen night. Just days before they had poured over the frozen Yalu and encircled a whole Marine division at Chosin Reservoir in frantic fighting at twenty below zero. Somehow a remnant of the Marines had broken out and fled south, but the Chinese surged forward. Pyongyang had fallen on Christmas Eve. Now they were threatening Seoul.
Other things were on my mother’s mind. Christmas had seemed small this year in the little apartment. She had grown used to living in houses since the war—small houses, rented houses, but places with yards and trees. This place was so small that the crib took up half of the front room leaving barely enough room for her and Murf’s chairs, the pre-war floor model radio, a brass floor lamp with a silk shade and a magazine table between the chairs. Now a miniature tree set on the table, lights shining with futile festivity.
It was as if they were just starting out again, like the little apartment in Hibbing, Minnesota. They had moved there from Des Moines when Murf was finally able to get a real job as a bank teller and they were able at last to move out from her Aunt Myrtle’s. Then the Sears and Roebuck furniture and the radio had made her proud of her new found independence and it was with delight they had posed for pictures to send back to the folks at home as evidence of their prosperity. That was fifteen years and a lifetime ago. It all seemed small now.
But it wasn’t just the cramped drabness that vexed my mother that winter. It was the terrible loneliness. Her family, his family, they were all back east in Iowa and Missouri. Even during war, when Murf was in North Africa or on some sweltering Pacific island, there was always family at Christmas—her mother, brother Pearl, little Mildred and all of his sprawling, rollicking kin. But not this year in this fly speck town in the middle of nowhere.
Delta lay at confluence of the Upper and Lower branches of the Gunnison River as the western slope of the Rockies slid into dusty semi-desert, miles above where the Gunnison, flowing north, joined the Colorado and made the beginning of a decent river. No one had ever heard of the place and likely no one ever would, despite Murf’s best efforts to make something of the town.
It was for her, exile. Murf had lost the sporting goods store and hunting guide business in West Yellowstone, Montana. His partner, a lay about drinking buddy with a glib tongue and fast roadster, emptied the bank account and made off to parts unknown and left Murf with all of the debts and a store full of unpaid for merchandise. It was only the unexpected discovery of his talent for Chamber of Commerce work while he was in business that led him to this new path as a professional Chamber executive. Delta, Colorado was the first town willing to give him a try for nearly $2000 a year and it was close enough to the high country so that he could keep the family in game and trout most of the year. It was an adventure for him and he poured every waking hour into finding ways to convince tourists to come.
It had been months now and she, cramped in the apartment with toddlers, hardly knew a soul. Of course every one knew Murf. All of the merchants called him by name on the street, bought him hamburgers for lunch at the Woolworth Luncheonette when he could have been home with her, stood him for drinks and hunting yarns in the tavern after the office was locked. The ranchers came in to discuss putting up guest cabins for eastern dudes or setting themselves up with strings of mules to pack the greenhorns into the high country after elk in the fall. But the wives didn’t invite her to play bridge, though she played brilliantly, or to join the Literary Guild, though she made it a point to read all of the latest best sellers, or to do charity work, though she had once ran the entire Boy’s State program for the State of Montana. Even the pastor’s wife at the Methodist church had not invited her for tea.
At the age of 37 she was still slender and pretty. She tried to stay as stylish as budget and a wish book catalogue would allow. On Sunday she wore a netted cloche hat over her soft brown hair, silk dresses that showed off her arms and her legs, a string of cultured pearls, white gloves, shiny black pumps with a pretty leather bow, and cloth coat with an arctic fox fur collar. Perhaps she was a threat to frumpier wives or perhaps they thought she put on airs.
But my mother was an independent, intelligent and determined woman. There had to be some way of attracting notice, of crashing the closed circle of respectable society in a town like this. Some time just after Christmas, alone in the little apartment with us boys, the cathedral radio humming and popping behind some far away soap opera, reading a flimsy copy of the Delta Indpedent, she had a brilliant idea.
She picked up the phone from the table by the pathetic tree and asked the operator to ring the paper. “I want to speak to the editor,” she said. “What are you doing for the front page New Year’s Eve?” she demanded. “You know it’s going to be not just any New Year, but the first year of the second half of the century and a stock cartoon of a baby and father time just won’t do. Don’t worry, I have just the thing for you…”
Mother busied herself until the photographer came. Out came the globe on which she had traced my father’s movement during the War. She cobbled a sword from some pieces of lathing, grabbed her shiniest pot from the kitchen, and even found silk opera hat my father had once used in some Masonic ritual. The last touch was a small cloth stuffed partridge with a pink feather tail that had hung on the Christmas tree.
When the photographer knocked on the door, she hurriedly let him in. At first she tried to put the pot helmet on me, but I kept swinging wildly with the wooden sword and nearly knocked down the Christmas tree and impaled my brother. Tim, smaller than me, was as always calm and compliant, so she gave him the helmet and sword. She quickly put the topper on my head and gave me the bird to squeeze tightly. Positioning us on either side of the globe, she barked an order to the photographer, “Snap them quick, they won’t stand still for long.”
Her triumph came on Sunday morning. All over Delta folks picked copies of the Sunday Independent from their stoops or doorways and saw Mrs. Murfin’s twins, in all of our diapered glory, the spirits of war and peace contesting for the world in a new age.
Later the ladies at church surrounded her after services, cooed over the picture, stroked her arms and invited her for tea with The Aid.