Thursday, December 22, 2011


…a cautionary tale about the office party
circa 196x…

CHICO’S KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS HALL, even fifty years ago, was a cavernous old building. Exterior walls were washed white and the window trim was black. Inside, bare floor planking was worn from decades of dance events, potlucks, receptions and various and sundry gatherings. All the corners of the great hall were dark, especially those back of a stage partially hidden by an ancient maroon velveteen curtain.  

Or was it forest green?

The doors from the main floor were white with blackened metal doorknobs, knobs that were always locked no matter how many times a curious little hand twisted and pulled to gain entry or simply peek inside. To be sure, looking through the skeleton keyholes, everything in the chambers beyond those doors was dark, mysterious and therefore, wonderful.

Even full of celebrants, the Knights of Columbus Hall smelled like old, cold dust. And once a year, just before Christmas, the place would teem with celebrants. Postal families – families of the guys who carried the holiday mail – gathered for cheer, for heaping plates of saucy spaghetti topped with a buttery slab of French bread, and for a visit with Santa.

The kids my age – sixish – and those both a little older and much younger, skated around the great hall, up and down the aisles between the alignments of oil-clothed tables sliding in stockinged feet, until one of us would pick up a painful sliver from the planking. There’d be a shriek. The injured party repaired to his or her particular mother who would remove the wood piece with surgical precision using only long, painted fingernails. Warned about the dangers of our frolic, we would not return to the skating activity for at least another five minutes.

During that recess, I would find Don VanMeter, the man who carried our mail, look up at him and say “Hello.” With a bottle of Miller High Life in one hand, he’d rub my burr-cut head with the other and say “Hello yourself.” Then I’d go find Glenn Walker, the neighbor who owned eight acres of almonds directly behind our place, also a letter carrier, and get similar treatment. Dad’s hiking buddy, Bill George responded in the same way as did the countless others who took this evening to eat and celebrate before returning to their holiday-heavy duties, ensuring that Christmas would arrive on time in Chico.

Dad’s closest work mate, Terrence, wasn’t on hand. I searched for him – he wrote little poems and gave them to kids – but I couldn’t find him.

When the bell rang for dinner, we all sat down, family style, on hard wooden benches pulled close to the long rows of tables. The postmaster stood up and offered thanks to the Lord while most of us kids nibbled at the sweet French bread until our respective mothers slapped our hands, glaring down at us as only mothers can. Next we’d dig into that saucy spaghetti having been admonished by the man who’d so recently been in conversation with the Lord: “San-tee Claus won’t come ‘til you’ve cleaned up your plate.”

An eternity passed while we ate the meal. Then, unexpectedly, the lights went out. An audible whoosh emptied the air from the room as everyone’s surprised breath sucked in. All was silent save for an infant or two. A tiny crease of light shown from beneath the velveteen curtain, and after a time appropriate for raising anxiety, the curtains split. There sat Santa. We cheered.

Santa read The Night Before Christmas. We then lined up – littlest ones first – to climb onto the stage and receive our presents from Santa and his helper: a peppermint stick, a naval orange, and a six-and-a-half ounce bottle of Coca Cola. Santa’s helper, Terrence’s “girl,” mom told us, hurried us off the stage so the line would keep moving.

Once back on the floor, the oldest of the boys would place penny bets about something embossed on the bottom of their soda bottles. I turned mine over, but was far more interested with what was inside. Some of the girls broke the ends off their candy canes and poked them through the rind of their naval oranges, using the candy as a straw to draw out the juice. The kids my age and younger just wandered about, trying to negotiate holding three precious gifts while walking across the slick wood floor in stockinged feet and grinning because we’d all just seen “San-tee Claus.”

Christmas was here.


ONE HOLIDAY, maybe four or five years on in this tradition, Dad announced to Mom that, “You should run along over to the Knights of Columbus and go ahead and enjoy yourselves.”

Dad wasn’t coming!

The hall was as big as ever, as dusty as ever, but somehow colder than usual this time. I sat on a bench next to Mom choosing not to ice skate on the wooden floor. I didn’t nibble at the French bread atop my mound of spaghetti while thanks was offered. I only wished that the postmaster would ask God to somehow send Dad to the party. I stabbed and twisted my dinner and let it grow cold.

Then the lights went out. When the curtain opened, before the kids lined up, I looked to my left where Mom was sitting, but she was gone.


Now, too big to cry or yell out – the year prior, I’d won six or eight cents from the other boys because my Coke bottle had the word Louisville embossed on its bottom – I sat on the wooden bench like a stone. As the kids lined up to walk across the stage, it seemed that the room had grown colder. My eyes filmed over and I blinked to clear them. Why, I didn’t know. It’d just be a haggard procession of children getting a peppermint stick, an orange and a bottle of Coke. And Santa’s 'helper' would hurry them off the stage to keep the line moving.

Sitting among the long rows of tables, I was the only kid left on the floor. I swiped a finger across my eyes and watched. Immediately, I saw:

Mom was up there! Mom was San-tee Claus’s helper!

Like peering through a keyhole into a fully lit room, I understood a number of other things – frightening things, things steeped in a new and confusing reality.

After the procession, Mom brought me an orange, a candy cane and a Coke, which I consumed slowly but didn’t really enjoy. Once the hall was all cleaned up, we got in the car and drove home with Dad.

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press

1 comment:

  1. Sad but true when we realize who Santa is in person. Very nice memories of a close family, thanks for sharing with us.......Papa-Ken