Pleasures of Life

Great Discoveries

All happen in good time

By Scott Sheffield

It was December of 1956 and I was 9 years old, turning 10 three days after Christmas. My brother, Steve, was 7. My awareness of the world was just beginning to widen, and I asked my parents and my fourth-grade teacher a lot of questions about what I saw and heard. The questions led to revelations about many things, including a recently acquired knowledge about where my Christmas presents really came from. My brother still believed they came down the chimney.

My new knowledge was conferred upon me by my parents out of frustration from my continuous barrage of questions concerning the matter:

How does Santa get down the chimney? I looked up there and there isn’t enough room for someone that fat.

What if there’s a fire in the fireplace? Won’t he get burned?

How can he carry all the toys for everyone on one sleigh? Does he go back to the North Pole for more when he runs out?

How can he deliver all the toys in one night? Et cetera, et cetera.

My parents surrendered this new information reluctantly with the strict prohibition that I not tell my brother anything that might ruin his belief in the story that, only a short time before, I had shared. Of course, after basking in the glow of having my suspicions confirmed, the first thing I wanted to do was tell my brother everything I had just learned. But, it was also cool that I knew something he didn’t, and, that I shared this secret with Mom and Dad. It made me feel grown up.

I weighed the two options and decided not to say anything about it to my brother. The fact that a different decision most certainly would have carried consequences of an unpleasant nature probably also played a part. It was very difficult, though, not telling him something of such seismic impact.

In the latter days of December, after Christmas and my birthday, Dad took us all out to dinner at the local Howard Johnson’s. Next to McDonald’s, HoJo’s was our favorite place to go. The menu listed food that boys our age loved: chicken pot pies, hot dogs — especially hot dogs. We liked the way they called them “frankforts” and because the buns were exotically sliced open from the top, not from the side like the ones we always had at home. It was a treat to order one of those.

We walked into the restaurant and entered the glass-enclosed vestibule where the checkout counter stood. Dad asked the hostess for a table for four. Then, as the hostess left us to check on seating, he moved, suddenly, across the vestibule to stand by the front glass wall. It seemed strange that he would do that, but by the look on his face something must have alarmed him.

Trying hard not to alert anyone else, Dad stood there until the hostess came back to seat us. He motioned for us to go ahead, and once we were all through the door he followed us in.

Curious, I walked back through the door and looked around. I saw nothing unusual. I looked out through the windows on both sides and saw nothing unusual outside either. Then I noticed a magazine stand sitting in the corner where Dad had positioned himself. I walked over to it and saw that it held copies of the latest issue of The Saturday Evening Post. They were standing on end so they were easy to see, which was obviously the supplier’s objective. I leaned in closer.

On the cover of the magazine was a picture of a boy, about my brother’s age, clad in pajamas, standing in front of a chest of drawers. Wide-eyed, mouth agape, his expression was one of total surprise, if not shock. The bottom drawer of the chest was open, and the boy had apparently pulled some things out of it. In his left hand he held a red coat, and in his right, a white beard attached to a red cap trimmed in white fur. Exploring where he shouldn’t have been, this cover boy had made a discovery, and an unsettling one at that.

It all became clear to me. Dad had moved in front of that display to hide it from my brother! He was obviously concerned that Steve would see it and start questioning his belief the way I had but, in his case, much too early in the learning curve.

I hurried to catch up with the family and sat down. Steve and I had our frankforts, as usual, and drank the cream that came in the little glass vials with our parents’ coffee, as usual. When it was time to leave, I walked ahead of everyone and stationed myself in front of the magazine stand. When Dad came through the door, he looked over at me, gave me a smile and turned to pay the bill.

Steve, being only 7, might have noticed The Saturday Evening Post, or maybe he wouldn’t have. He may not have understood what he was seeing even if he had. But I thought at the time that what Dad did was neat. And, just as we shared the secret, I felt that I had shared the experience of sparing Steve from enduring this element of growing up a little too soon. In the fullness of time since that night, as I have become a parent and a grandparent, I appreciate that what Dad did was far beyond neat.

We never spoke about what took place that night, Dad and I, and I never told Steve about it. He probably doesn’t know to this day. He learned the truth about Santa right when he should have.  PS

Scott Sheffield moved to the Sandhills from Northern Virginia in 2004. He feels like a native but understands he can never be one.

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