My Early Christmas Memories

Here’s some memories of Christmas when I was a kid. Originally written for my Storyworth project in January 2020.

This recollection of Christmas as a child was written a year ago as part of my Storyworth writing project. These are essays reflecting personal thoughts that are written and collected to be passed on later to the family. I believe we all have fond memories at this time of the year. 

I include this story in this blog to help remember and savor those simple and good times as a child, especially as we work our way to the end of another tough year in 2021. Many traditions will be paused or changed due to Covid this year. I trust children will still see the best in this holiday season and remember it fondly anyway, even if it's not all it could be. 

Christmastime brings back old memories more than any other time of the year. Regardless of how old you are (I’m 72 as I write this), or where you were that Christmas, there’s always a warm memory of giving and sharing with others. It’s a time of mystery, music and carrying forth customs from long ago. Even corny decorations, questionable food choices and extreme commercialization can’t get in the way of enjoying the spirit of the season, especially as a child.

For as long as I can remember, Christmas has been a personal family tradition that we gratefully accept, look forward to and even add to as the years go on. Some Christmas traditions fade over time. And, rightly so. This year we have been forced to change or eliminate many routines that might be called traditions. Hopefully, good old traditions will make it back in future years. Or, we move on with new traditions, still keeping fragments of memories of what used to be.

Here’s some of my memories of Christmas before I turned into a teenager and became a product of the 1960’s. By then I think we had our mind on other things but we always looked forward to coming home for Christmas.

Christmas Presents at Christmas

Some of my oldest memories as a kid were of toys and presents of the day. Boys wanted guns and outfits like those worn in westerns or the military. We wanted to look like Davy Crockett or The Lone Ranger. We took our play seriously with cool toys and games that were interactive. At the time, Monopoly, Electric Football and Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots were popular. Girls wished for dolls that shed tears like Tiny Tears or talked like Chatty Cathy by pulling on a string or those that looked like a teenage Barbie.

Wanna-be Cowboys in the mid 1950’s – Me, John, Cousin Bernadette and sister Chris

My brother John (two years older) and I had hobbies that kept us busy over many years; collecting stamps, coins, trading cards and building our HO train set in the basement. Stamp collecting, filling coin books and collecting baseball cards were ongoing, year-round projects. While that miniature HO town spent much of the year in storage. It came to life in glorious detail, like a lot of things do, each Christmas season.

When I was very young, we rode trains, buses or walked more than we used cars. Most major highways had yet to be built. My father and mother moved to Roselle from Jersey City when I was just a few years old but still connected to family using the Jersey Central Railroad. They did not even have a drivers license or car for several years.

It was easy to see how you could build a miniature imaginative city around a HO train line including a smoking engine, switch tracks, an elevated trestle, street lights, miniature farms, factories and parks. We plowed back the money we made on our newspaper routes into our growing town, which became really special at Christmas.

Typical wishlist presents in the 1950’s – 1960’s

Hobby stores were fairly common businesses in those days and a great place for gifts. There were Revell plastic model kits that taught you the parts of a 32’ Duce Coup, a B-52 bomber or even the parts of a body like “The Visible Man” (or Visible Woman). You could even get creative by customizing your “Hot Rod” car with paint, decals and optional parts like fender skirts and a continental kit.

As we got older there were more challenging kits to build working models like airplanes, boats and cars. Companies like Heathkit and Radio Shack encouraged building real electronic devices that worked, like transistor radios and TVs. Model kits helped us understand a complicated world but one where you could still take something apart – to learn how it works – or to fix it.

Commercializing Christmas

Christmas represented a once-a-year chance to earn some real cash for a pre-teen with a newspaper route. It instilled in me a love of being an entrepreneur and learning customer service and how to interact with adults. You would be extra careful each year at this time to deliver your papers on time and at the doorstep. Of course, you would sneak a Christmas card into the newspaper a couple weeks before to butter up your clients. In those days, you went door-to-door each month collecting, hopefully receiving a special season tip or gift from many of your customers. This bonus money would help fund our ongoing interests in trains, stamps, trading cards, coins and sports equipment.

As I got a bit older, I added to my resume selling Christmas trees. Our Stewart’s Root Beer drive-in, a couple blocks away, sold trees during the holiday and I quickly learned that there were big tips to be had for a kid with a little hustle.

Decking the Halls

A string of lights, a big illuminated Santa face on the front door and plastic statues of carolers decorated the outside of our house at 626 East 2nd Ave. The Christmas tree took up a third of the living room with its soft glowing screw-in light bulbs, shining glass ornaments and silver tinsel or garland. Of course, there was the nativity scene with plaster-cast characters of wisemen, shepherds and the holy family, which always seemed to need some glue repair from the previous year’s wear.

Holiday Music in the Air

At least as important as the tree was the Sylvania TV to see the holiday specials and the sounds of our our Zenith stereo set with its radio, record player with odd-looking cone speakers.

These were the early days of  ​33 1⁄3 rpm LP vinyl record albums. Ordinary people obsessed over “stereo” and “high fidelity” and improving sound quality with the right “diamond” needle that played in the record grooves. We bought our “stereo” at a local radio/TV store to provide the best holiday music. And, in our family it was watching Christmas specials or playing albums of Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Mitch Miller, and of course, Lawrence Welk.

My father, an amateur harmonica player (learned in the Army), believed in the beauty of music and wouldn’t mind singing along if the occasion called for it. The popular musical instrument to learn at the time, especially if you were Polish, was the accordian.

One year the family broke down and bought a Yamaha organ which my youngest sister Carolyn (11 years younger than me) took lessons. My other sisters, Christine and Barbara and even Mom and Dad took some free lessons but did not get far. John and I were not motivated enough to learn any instrument. In time, the musical fad faded and I think we passed the organ  to an aspiring neighbor, which probably became a tradition. I’m still wondering how it fit in that small living room.

Christmas Mass

John (altar boy) Me (choir boy)

Christmas Mass was always a center of time during the holiday. I remember in grade school being in the special Christmas choir dressed in a red cassock, starched collar and a big bow. Our parish, St. Joseph’s, took this seriously. It was probably a Latin mass at that time. Also, an altar boy, you had to know the Latin responses during the Mass, but we had no idea what they translated to. We typically went to either the special Christmas Eve mass with the singing or midnight Mass which was “Standing Room Only”.

A Polish Christmas Eve

My Parents: Stella and John Kiczek

Since my Mom (Stella) and Dad (John, Sr.) had very ethnic and religious childhoods growing up in Jersey City, there was a strong desire to carry on some of the sacred Polish traditions at Christmas. My Dad was the youngest of 9 children. My Mom was an only child. Dad’s closest siblings were aunt (Polish: “Cioci”) Frances and aunt Josephine who lived next door to us in Roselle.

A new look at our old family house.

His oldest brother, Father Al, a well-respected priest and pastor at St. Casmir’s and Sacred Heart in Newark, his cousin Joe and his sister Mary “May” Slawinski with her family might visit and we usually made the long journey out to Jersey City to visit them after Christmas.

As kids, holiday old country traditions were almost dreaded. It was hard to be on your best behavior with the company of strange food, a strange language being spoken and relatives that seemed to come from a different world. Jersey City was rough, noisy and crowded. We wondered why everyone lived there in small apartments when they could move out to the suburbs. Little did I know then that my son Justin and daughter Alison would gladly choose to settle there once they started their careers.

My uncle Stan (Slawinski, Sr., husband of May) was a jolly old, stout guy. He set a light hearted-tone for their family and our gatherings. He had a distinctive mustache, much like Charlie Chaplin. I do remember vaguely (spoiler alert) that he showed up at our place on at least one Christmas Eve dressed perfectly as the real Santa Claus. Can you imagine that!

Uncle Stan (aka Santa) with sister Carolyn (1962)

For our family there was probably no tradition more memorable than the Christmas Eve celebration otherwise known as Wigilia. With aunts Frances and Josephine  next door in Roselle, we ate this sacred meal either at home or at their place. Cousin Joe or Father Al might drop by. This is a time where it is traditional to get together and invite others for a polish meal with 12 meatless dishes (12 signifying the 12 apostles). It’s also a tradition to set an extra empty plate for anyone who might drop by representing a true Christmas spirit.

But the first thing that night was to say a family prayer and share opłatek, the Christmas communion wafer. The custom is to take a larger piece and allow each person to break off a piece of yours and eat it, while you do the same to theirs. This commemorates the Last Supper and is a nice social way to wish everyone individually a Merry Christmas.

The meal began late because, as I learned recently, it was customary to start when “the first star can be seen” commemorating the Star of Bethlehem. The two most prominent dishes were a beet borscht soup and fish. Mushroom dishes (Poles are big on mushrooms) were many and varied. First, was the deep red beet soup served with potato dumplings then fried fish, then a mushroom dish. Pickled herring was also an option as it was seen as a sign of good luck for the new year.

Needless to say once the borscht and fish came out, all the kids would bolt away from the table or eat little, until better choices arrived like pierogis and/or potato pancakes (placki). Our favorite polish foods like kielbasa or gołąbki, stuffed cabbage, could not be served, at least not today. We were fasting from meat. Somewhere between dishes we were probably singing or at least listening to Polish and English Christmas songs.

My fondest food memory of the season was probably the buttery kolaczki cookies for dessert made by my Aunt Frances with raspberry, apricot, poppy and prune filling.  With 12 dishes to get through, conversation and some drinking it was a sit-down party lasted late into the night as we were sent to bed with beautiful visions of Santa on his sleigh and nightmares of borscht and fish in our heads.

Tradition Continues at Christmas

Old rituals that have stayed the same or maybe improved over time are especially significant to me as I get older. As kids, I’d like to think we behaved a little bit better during the season and learned the valuable lessons of giving and receiving . All this we experienced through the same legends of a jolly old man and a baby being born and through the lens of our own family customs. Tradition helps make the magic.

We might not have understood these mysteries, but we instinctively respected the forces around us and solemnness of the season. Christmastime is still the best of times which we continue to cherish and hope to pass on to other generations.

Catching Beatlemania

There are not many moments in life where you find yourself witnessing and participating in a significant historical event. You know it even then because there has never been anything like it before. You are gobsmacked with what you see, hear and feel. And, to top it off, all this happens accidentally by a fortunate set of circumstances.

It was on August 15, 1965 that the Beatles were scheduled to play Shea Stadium in Flushing Meadows, New York. My sisters Chris and Barbara and their friend Gail were rabid Beatle fans and they made sure they had their tickets as well as their white go-go boots ready. These were the days when large concerts were rare. This one would be their second tour of the U.S. but the first-ever “stadium concert” and the largest concert crowd (55,600) at any concert at that time.

Strangers in a Strange Land

Shea was completed only a year before and as the latest project promoted by Robert Moses, the famed New York City planner, to develop the Queens area. It was located in Flushing Meadows next to the grounds of the World’s Fair of 1964-65 in Corona Park.

Most of us had visited the World’s Fair the year before and marveled at exhibitions. It was a fascinating look at the future and and offered a taste of other countries. I still remember the Lowenbräu beer pavilion where we could drink beer freely, just like being in Bavaria, even though we were underaged and about as naive as we could be about the rest of the world. It seemed like we were moving into the future and becoming part of a bigger world.

1964-65 New York City World’s Fair

Accepting the Mission

In the original plan, my dad was supposed to drive my sisters to and from Shea since they were young teens not old enough to drive. Well, it turned out my buddy Mike Hayser and I were hanging around my house that hazy 80-degree Sunday with nothing particular to do so we volunteered to take them instead. Why my father allowed us to drive I’ll never know but probably the long ride and the need to wait for them were factors. And, it was, after all, the 1960’s and there was a certain freedom and permission that’s hard to reconcile with today’s helicopter parenting.

We didn’t even think about how crazy this could be with thousands of screaming fans. But we sensed that there would be lots of girls and a great adventure awaiting. Little did we know we would be driving directly into history.

At 17 years old I considered my six months of experience enough to tackle the big-game driving in New York City’s traffic and its strange mysterious boroughs. Shea was then a big new and bold stadium. It was built to last for the New York Mets franchise, which started only a few years before. Both the stadium and the team represented new hope for us bitter and abandoned ex-Brooklyn Dodger fans.

1956 Chevrolet Bel Air

The Way to Shea

This was my longest and most challenging drive with my hand-painted blue 56’ Chevy. Living in Roselle, the best way to get to Shea was to take the Goethals Bridge from Elizabeth to Staten Island and drive across the new and mammoth Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (which was another Robert Moses project.). The bridge had just opened in January 1964 and was an instant success allowing traffic to Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island via the Belt and Grand Central Parkways. To us on the Jersey side, these were legendary roads where we were warned daily of horrendous traffic conditions on the radio and assumed only brave and crazy drivers dare go. So, why not try?

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge led to a new world

The only way to get somewhere far away in those days was to rely on old-fashioned, artfully folded paper maps. Every car had dozens of maps in the glove compartment which were free to grab at any gas station. We relied on maps, intuition and signs (if they were still there) to find where we were going. So, we grabbed a map of New York and headed out like modern explorers to find Shea Stadium and experience the wild urban frontier.

Going with the Flow

As we approached Shea the traffic became heavy and led to a stop. A tremendous crowd was moving toward the stadium so we decided to find a parking spot along the road and walk to the stadium, even though our mission was to deliver my sisters and kill some time exploring the area – later to pick them up somehow. My sisters found the gates where ticket holders entered moving rapidly. Mike and I realized at this point that the action was inside the stadium and our best move would be to try and get in.

A $5.65 Box Seat Ticket to Ride

We studied the situation and realized that this was a sellout and there no tickets (Box seats cost $5.65 apiece!) to be bought and the security staff seemed only half-interested in checking tickets. So, we approached a guard to tell the story of our good deed of taking my sisters to the concert; only to be left outside waiting. Let’s just say on that day everyone was in a good mood. They turned away as we freely walked into the most important concert of our lives, without a ticket.

The Beatles had only broken into the U.S. market a couple years ago but by now they were known worldwide having created over a half-dozen albums and two films. This was the beginning of their North America tour having just released their album and film “Help!” less than two weeks ago and had appeared on the Ed Sullivan show the night before.

Experiencing Pandemonium

From dugout to stage

Pop concerts were not that common and were not believed to be big revenue generators. All that changed at Shea. The concert at Shea Stadium set a world record for attendance and gross revenue. The Beatles got $160,000 of the $304,000 box office sales and proved that there was money and other benefits in staging large concerts.

Lead off acts included Brenda Holloway, King Curtis, Sounds Incorporated, Killer Joe Piro and The Discothèque Dancers, The Young Rascals and Cannibal & the Headhunters. Hosts included Murray the K and Cousin Brucie Morrow. Television host Ed Sullivan introduced the band when they took the stage: “Now, ladies and gentlemen, honored by their country, decorated by their Queen, and loved here in America, here are The Beatles!”

The concert was ahead of the audio technology at the time and could not properly project the music in the massive stadium. Powerful stage amplifiers couldn’t play louder than the screaming crowd. Even the stadium’s P.A. system, normally used by baseball announcers, was also employed to help project the band’s sound. But, the roar of the crowd could be heard throughout their appearance.

Thousands of fans like these

Once the Beatles started playing, it didn’t matter where your tickets were or if you had one. Everyone spilled into the lower levels and stood for the entire concert in awe of the band and the crowd of frenzied fans. They continued to play 12 songs lasting about an hour. We had traveled two hours, witnessed the largest crowd we had ever seen, managed to crash the gate and listen to some great music. But, nothing compared to the electric reaction of this huge crowd. Girls were out of control and screaming everywhere. I remember getting goosebumps by just witnessing the joy and excitement that was beyond our imagination. It was obvious that Beatles were having as great a time as their audience.

Playing to the ecstatic noisy crowd

After the concert fans stormed the field and we made our way out. I’m still not sure how we found my sisters in that crowd of over 55,000. I don’t remember a thing about the ride home but I’m sure we basked in the good vibes of the event knowing that we were there for a very special event with memories that will last a lifetime.

The Concert at Shea in the Beatles’ Words…

“I think we just went a bit hysterical that night; we couldn’t believe where we were and what was going on, we couldn’t hear a bloody thing and we thought ‘This isn’t very good, but it’s going down great.’ The hysteria started to kick in. That was a great one.”

Paul McCartney, Back To The World tour book

“Once you know you’ve filled a place that size, it’s magic; just walls of people. Half the fun was being involved in this gigantic event ourselves.”

Paul McCartney, The Beatles Bible

“What I remember most about the concert was that we were so far away from the audience. . . And screaming had become the thing to do. . . Everybody screamed. If you look at the footage, you can see how we reacted to the place. It was very big and very strange.”

Ringo Starr, The Beatles Anthology

“At Shea Stadium, I saw the top of the mountain.”

John Lennon, recalling the show in 1970 in a TV interview

Epilogue

It’s interesting to note that at the time of the concert the Watts Los Angeles riots were taking place with the black community angry about the police brutality and civil rights. Meanwhile, President Johnson signed the Voting Act of 1965 that very afternoon establishing new laws that were meant to provide free and fair elections forever.

The mighty Shea was demolished forty seven years later replaced by Citi Field, but the same roads and bridges remain. The Beatles were only in their 20s and at the height of their careers in 1965 but played their last concert together in 1970, just five years later. That last concert and the Beatles legend is still being explored with the release of the new Peter Jackson/Disney+ retrospective on the Beatles last project together, the making of “Let It Be.”

History, it seems, is never written in stone and just takes time to understand and appreciate.

The Beatles at Shea Stadium Video

The following video was purchased years ago online and represents a rough cut of the original special recording which appeared on British and American TV as a special. It is approximately 52 minutes long.

Video of the August 15,1965 Concert at Shea

Fond Memories of the Last Catastrophe

Living through a year of self-inflicted quarantine has been tough. Then, I remembered we had it rough before and made it thru.

This post is a story I wrote for my Storyworth project. It represents an installment of a personal compilation of stories I hope to complete this year. While the Covid pandemic has delayed long bike trips, I guess I have no excuse to stop writing.

How quickly we forget. 

Its been a year living through the Covid-19 pandemic. Our lives have been altered to avoid contracting the disease and to protect others from its spread. Basically, we have led a life that was 90% isolated except for a few selected safe relationships and occasional adventurous activities outside of our homes. Someday soon I hope we can look back on this with some nostalgia. But, not right now. 

Ironically, I just came across a note I wrote in 2012 during the last crisis we faced. I’m not even sure why I wrote the note or if I ever published it or showed it to anyone, but it struck me as oddly meaningful today. 

At that time, thank God, we did not have our Ortley Beach home when Hurricane Sandy hit. Still, after our Morristown home power lines went out and we tried living in a cold, dark house for days we decided to seek shelter. Ours was by no means the worse thing that happened at that time so we steeled ourselves and made the best of it.

Mary Ann’s mom Caroline, in her mid 80’s at the time and who has since passed, was living alone and independently in her home in Lake Parsippany. She welcomed company and we needed a lifeline.

As I remember it, it was a great relief to be in a warm home where mom appreciated the company and we sure appreciated the roof over our heads. This would do until the chaos passed and we could return to normal. It was not a perfect situation but we were all in this together. 

Here’s the note I wrote around mid November 2012 as our power was about to be restored after 12 days or so in my mother-in-law’s home:

It made me think that in any catastrophe there are those that suffer much worse than I. Also, overcoming the challenge can lead to good outcomes. Who knew that someday we would all look back on those days when being together in any form would be better than being alone?

In case you forgot what that time was all about…

The Thrills and Chills of 13 Bumps

As teens, we were looking for thrills and adventure. We found it along Route 22 and the Watchung mountains. Then, I found there was more to the story.

Get Your Kicks on Route 22

Maybe it was the radical change in the landscape with an abrupt rise of 500 feet that led to its reputation of mystery. Stories would be told of interesting places to visit in the mountains out west along the infamous Route 22. This road was our version of “Route 66”, a highway leading east to west across New Jersey to Pennsylvania and beyond. This was a time before the Interstate Highway system would speed travelers across the state by adding Routes 80 and 78, but bypass many local towns and areas of interest.

Before the age of shopping malls, Route 22 was a destination for shopping and entertainment. For the emerging automobile generation, there were large “discount stores” like Two Guys and E. J. Korvettes you could drive to and avoid the inconvenience of going into the city.

Route 22 had restaurants, gas stations, small and large businesses all along the road from Hillside to Somerville. There was even a night club turned into a clothing store built like a “Flagship.” . Back then, diners, drive-in theaters, bowling lanes, golf ranges and even an amusement park caused lots of driver distractions. Its unique commercial island between east and west traffic allowed right and left lane access adding to the driving danger that was Route 22. For us, the stories of accidents and fatalities on Route 22 only added to its challenging allure.

Bumps in the Road

One memorable destination worthy of a car trip out west was a road known as “13 Bumps.” To get there required about a 10 mile trip on Route 22 to the town of Scotch Plains, at the base of the Watchung Mountains. 13 Bumps was actually another name for Johnston Drive, a narrow two-lane road that paralleled Route 22 for a couple miles but rose several hundred feet above along the mountain ridge. A ride on Johnston Drive offered two unique benefits; a spectacular southern view of the suburban towns below and a place to experience a unique joy ride over 13 large bumps to the bottom.

As a teenager, with a car, a place to park with a view meant a high potential “make out” area for a date. Johnston Drive was a sparsely residential road then with houses built into the cliff and a few turnouts that could provide short-term parking with a view. With no authorized spot to linger and no shoulder, it would not be long before a cop would chase us away. That was probably a good thing. It was not uncommon for guys and girls to meet at Jahn’s in Union and adventure together on Route 22 to 13 Bumps, especially on a moonlit night ripe for the promise of adventure.

Of course, the proof of the quality of any ride was how much you would feel that tickle in your stomach as your organs try to defy gravity. Then, again and again, seconds apart. After each bump the custom was to count out loud the number of the bump until you reached “13” near the bottom of the road. 13 Bumps was our version of a DIY amusement ride which we usually repeated several times on any given night.

Falling into the Rabbit Hole

When I started thinking about 13 Bumps as a story, I decided to look online to see if others in the mid-1960’s had the same memories and experiences. But, what I found was that and more. It seems that Johnston Drive originated back in the mid 1800’s and legend has it that it used to be a unique carriage road that was always associated with mystery.

In 1845 a man by the name of David Felt built a small utopian industrial village in the Watchung’s called “Feltville” to support his printing business. To his disciplined and religious community he was known as “King David”. Feltville grew to over 175 residents in the first five years. Then, legend has it that in the next two years 11 children were captured from the town, mutilated, and died near the outskirts of the village.

As deaths appeared, most of the town believed the attacks to be animal related but the killings never stopped. Families began to turn on one other. They then blamed the murders on devils and demons. But, eventually, they blamed a family of 13 sisters who had lost both their parents at a young age. Because this mysterious family did not seem to be affected by the killings, their farm prospered and there were “13” sisters. the town claimed that they were “witches” who sacrificed the children to pagan gods for the good of their crops.

After a long trial the entire family of sisters were found guilty as witches and were hanged. As a reminder of the crimes. the bodies were buried along a local road creating 13 bumps which is now known as Johnston Drive. A rumor followed that before their death, the sisters put a curse on Feltville that would doom the village. However, no record of this murder spree is in the historical record, but remains an urban legend.

Feltville Becomes a Ghost Town

Update on the Witches of Watchung

First, let me tell you that the 13 Bumps are no longer there! I recently took a ride on Johnston Drive and there’s good news and bad. The good news is that it’s still a nice country road with magnificent houses and a great view. The bad news is that while the road is not perfectly smooth, you would not know that the bumps ever existed.

The municipalities of Scotch Plains and Watchung realized that the road was a problem over the years and attempted to flatten and repave the road multiple times. Locals claim even so, the bumps continued to mysteriously re-appear over the years. The last paving was over ten years ago. Maybe they got the paving right this time. Or, are they destined to come back? It’s possible I suppose that  the curse has been finally lifted. Or, Maybe this urban legend is just an old version of “Fake News.”

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