Santa and the Secret Place

December 20, 2020

As a kid, we looked forward to going to downtown Columbus, Georgia, at Christmas time to see the beautiful window displays, but more importantly, to see Santa Claus. According to my parents, the only real Santa was in Kirven’s Department Store. The other Santas around town, including the one at the new Kirven’s in Columbus Square, were “Santas helpers.”

To see Santa, you walked up white stone stairs to a balcony that overlooked the store. I distinctly remember the smell of hair dye from the adjacent beauty parlor in that area. The majority of the balcony was set aside for Santa Claus. I can remember sitting in Santa’s lap and looking down at the shoppers on the main floor.

“What do you want from Santa this Christmas? Have you been a good boy? Ho ho ho!” I’m sure I answered in the affirmative whether it was true or not. I don’t remember what I asked for that particular year, but my idyllic Christmas with Santa, reindeer, and the North Pole and all that comes with it was soon shattered. Let me explain.

Our house on 33rd Place in Phenix City, Alabama (a short jaunt over the Chattahoochee and you were in downtown Columbus) was built with a split-level design that overlooked the river’s muddy water. There was a small utility room underneath the stairs that was a great hiding place for games of hide and seek. I don’t recall why I opened the door to the room that day. I just remember the elation I felt at the scene that was laid out before me.

Toys everywhere!. New toys! They were already assembled, and as far as I was concerned, they were all mine. Besides the Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots, one I distinctly remember seeing had a blue track that a space-like vehicle hung onto as it flipped upside down. Now my seven-year-old self did not put Christmas and these toys in the same category. I believed someone had put them in there, and it was a secret from the entire family. I didn’t tell a soul, not even my siblings. I did not like to share. I spent hours in that room under the stairs playing with toys that no one else knew about.

 Christmas Eve was always spent with my maternal grandparents. After I stood at the head of the table and read the Christmas story from Luke chapter two, we would enjoy dinner together and then, of course, the real reason we were there, presents! These gifts were from Granny and Paw Paw, not Santa. On the way home, we would stop by Golden Donuts and buy fresh, hot, wonderfully smelling donuts for Christmas morning, and a snack for Santa. The real Saint Nick ate Golden donuts, not cookies. Those must’ve been for Santas helpers!

On Christmas morning, I remember coming up the stairs and being blinded by the Super Eight camera, and it’s corresponding light bar. I would have green spots where the four bulbs were in my eyes for the next 10 minutes. Opening presents in our household was way different than opening presents with my wife’s family. We all grabbed a box and opened them at the same time. It was loud and chaotic. Imagine my dismay when one of those presents that had been designated to my brother, Ande, had the very same toy that I had been playing with in the room under the stairs. I remember thinking, “Wait a minute! These are the same toys I’ve been playing with for the last week. Does that mean Santa is not real?” I was disillusioned.

My parents came up with a creative explanation that Santa had to drop those toys off earlier in the week and place them in that room under the stairs. He has lots of little boys and girls he has to deliver to, so he delivered to our house first. It seemed a plausible explanation, and for the next year or so or a regained my trust in Santa.  

By the time I was 10, I was reasonably sure that Santa did not exist, but of course, I still hedged my bets and asked him for a minibike. I really wanted one of those motorized beauties to ride around our acre property anytime I wanted. I was convinced that Santa was going to provide such a vehicle. If he didn’t, then I’d be sure he was not real!

Christmas morning came, and we once again,” faced the bright lights” and headed upstairs. I remember doing a quick survey of the room, and to my dismay, there was no minibike. Opening my other presents did not feel magical. I was disappointed. I know my parents could read my face. That minibike was all that I had talked about for weeks. When the presents were unwrapped, my mom asked me to go into the kitchen and get a pair of scissors. Imagine my excitement when I walked into the kitchen, and there IT was! A beautiful blue mini bike and it was all mine! Despite my doubts, Santa came through for me, after all.

That was the last year I bought the myth that was Santa Claus. It didn’t matter. At that time, Santa was real and brought me exactly what I wanted.

If Santa asks this year, I have been a good boy in 2020.

An 11-Year-Old Attempts to Impress Girls

December 9, 2020

When I was 11 years old, my parents got a new ironing board. I painted a Frankenstein monster on said ironing board box. I proceeded to cut out eyes and slid the box all the way down to my ankles. I had a phenomenal plan! I would walk down to Tracie Vasquez’s home, knock on the door, and scare her. It was foolproof! I’m sure as I walked down the street the neighbors were saying to themselves, what is that Hamilton boy up to now? He’s a bit strange. As I carefully waddled toward her front door, I was gearing myself up for the big moment. When I went to ring the doorbell I realized that I could not use my arms or hands. I did what every other young American boy would do in a similar situation, just like any father would say, “use your head!” I used my headI knocked once “I’m so excited!” I knocked again’ “She is going to love me!” As I raised my clenched fist to make that third knock, something unexpected happened, she opened the door. With no way to stop my fall (my arms were plastered at my side), I went headfirst into the tile. There was no movement after I hit the ground. They pulled the box off my body and there I was a bleeding, slobbery mess.I regained consciousness and for some reason did not go home. I remember playing in her front yard and then I did something that I know just won her heart, I began vomiting, what my South Coast Christian Assembly kids in Southern California, called the “psychedelic yawn.” Mrs. Vazquez sensed something was awfully wrong.

My mom took me to the hospital. As I was laying in a hospital bed, the doctor walked into the room and asked me “How did this happen, son?” I remember thinking, that “This is not my dad.” I would like to note that I said this a good eight years before the Empire Strikes Back. We were still in the Lost in Space era at this point. I was diagnosed with a concussion. I would like to say I got my concussion on accident unlike those silly football players who do it on purpose (just kidding.) The moral of the story is very simple, do not put a box on your head and try to scare a girl because you like her.

The Worst Christmas Ever!

As a kid, growing up in Columbus, Georgia. I remember buying a Christmas Tree each year and decorating it together. We have continued that tradition in our own family. It brings back warm memories. I even flashback to visiting a friend’s house. They had this silver monstrosity that was lit up by a color wheel. I’m sure it would be a collector’s item today.

We have decorated our Christmas Tree together since we got married in 1984. We pick up each ornament and say where it was we had bought it or who gave it to us. There was baby’s first Christmas, the first Christmas together, a set of beautiful alabaster angels, and the 12 days of Christmas. It usually amounts to an hour’s long process but one we really enjoy doing together. On a side-note, this will be the first year we have not decorated the tree together as a family due to COVID-19.

One particular year, we had a bear of a time wrestling the tree into the stand. We discovered that the problem was in the trunk, it was crooked. Now, there are a million messages I can carve out from that story. If your base is uneven, you will not be able to stand. We proved it that night!

Once the tree was fully decorated with our unique ornaments including one I received as a kindergartener. It was a manger scene, and none of the cast was there. They had broken off after many, many years. The kids looked up as we turned on the lights and stood adoringly. Both simultaneously said, this is the best Christmas tree ever! We went to bed satisfied that night. Every year we still look for the biggest tree in the lot. It is a tradition!

We like to sleep in on Saturday mornings. We heard the kids as they were admiring our work of art with, when suddenly, there was a loud crash. Our beautiful 11-foot tree fell to the ground. Many of our unique ornaments were destroyed. The kids then proclaimed, “This is the worst Christmas ever!” Out of that experience, we created a special ornament. A clear plastic sphere that we placed all of the broken pieces into. Now, every year we say, “this was the year the Christmas tree fell.”

We bought an industrial type of stand that we could have the tree on it and it would not fall no matter how hard it was shaken. And every year we look very carefully at the base of our tree to make sure we don’t repeat the same problem. This year the tree we chose seems to be crooked. We looked at the base, and all seemed well. When we got home and began to put the lights on, we realized the tree was crooked. We pushed and pulled to no avail. Right now, our tree looks a bit like the leaning Tower of Pisa.

We all have broken pieces of our lives. I am going to sound like a preacher for a moment. What if we collectively put them together in one special decoration that reminds us that we have been healed? That would be a great start to 2021. Merry Christmas from the Hamilton household.

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You Can Go Home Again

“You can’t go home again.” Is a phrase that I have heard countless times. There is some reality to that statement, but also there is some truth.

I grew up in Columbus, Georgia. The houses that we lived in had rooms that were unfurnished. My recollection of shuffling my socked feet in our sunken living room and then touching the metal railing in order to see a static electricity spark is forever etched in my mind. I can picture my younger brothers and me trying to shock one another while listening to the latest Partridge Family album. They were certainly good times.

The furniture in the house was generally ubiquitous. There was nothing special about our furnishing, and so far as I know, only a bookcase survives from my growing up years.

We moved to California in October 1978. I moved away from home in the fall of 1979. I came home for a week or two but never again lived in my parents’ house.

There had always been a series of arts and crafts that my mom experimented with. There were the macramé plant holders that hung from the ceiling, and the unfortunate use of decoupage to preserve the family memories on a round coffee table that turned a putrid shade of green that ruined all those photographs.

But somewhere along the way, the decoupage, Macramé, and other arts and crafts gave way to my mom’s paintings. At first, she painted lighthouses that we had visited in Montauk, New York. Still lifes became portraits of children drawing gardens of chalk. She later had a painting that would earn her the Mayor’s Awards in San Diego. Commissioned art soon followed. It wasn’t long that her house became a unique gallery.

The house, located near Millington, Tennessee, is a showcase. I can spend hours documenting the different pieces located throughout her home. My dad’s pipes are still precisely where he laid them. The christening gown that my siblings and I wore when we were dedicated, a family Bible that is barely holding together, along with many other treasures.

The scent of pipe tobacco and tea rose perfume still lingers in my memory. I did not grow up in this house, but it is home. You can most certainly go there.

The Ghost of Halloween Past

October 30, 2020

As a kid growing up in the late 60s and early 70s, there were three holidays that were kid-centric, Christmas, Valentine’s Day (I will save the Columbus, Georgia tradition of “throwing valentines” for another post), and of course, Halloween.

Some kids liked putting together models of cars. I was the strange macabre kid who loved putting together models of monsters. I had a glow in the dark Frankenstein that scared my Aunt Kathy every time she babysat for us.

My fascination with horror films only added to the mystique. To this day, I like creepy movies (check out the movie Signs and A Quiet Place.) I remember watching Village of the Damned, a “B” movie classic about alien children with a death stare. I purchased books through Scholastic detailing the best scary movies of all time. To date, I believe the most suspenseful film is Jack Nicholson’s classic role in The Shining. When Shelley Duval’s character discovered reams of paper typed with the line, “all work and no play make Jack a dull boy,” it sent shivers down my spine.

I looked forward to the radio show produced in the early 70s on CBS, Mystery Theater, and the Friday Night Frights late in the evening. I rushed home every day from school to watch the cult classic, Dark Shadows. It was there I was educated on the rules of vampirism. After the third bite, they become full-fledged vampires, and vampires can’t see their reflection or go out in the sunlight. They certainly don’t “shimmer.”

I don’t know how many bottles of ketchup I used as blood in my driveway plays. Just typing this makes me worried that I was a disturbed child.

To this day, the Jaycee’s haunted house in Columbus was one of the scariest fright fests that I have ever experienced. In particular, I remember a platter with a live head being served for dinner and a realistic reenactment of the legend of Lizzie Borden, complete with her running after you with an ax as the climax.

After my parents declared that I was too old to trick-or-treat (I protested), I asked if I could make a haunted house with the expressed request to keep any leftover candy. That gave me the incentive of making the scariest haunted house possible.

Staples of my yearly House of Horrors included skeletons popping out of caskets made of cardboard rigged with fishing wire. My guillotine made of tin foil and a refrigerator box was terrifying. I remember collecting dark grapes and juicing them to produce a blood flow from a headless body. I greeted my guests with a clammy rubber hand that protruded from my jacket sleeve. The results were humorous. There was always candy leftover from frightened children.

Even today, I hide a speaker in our bushes and play ghost and screaming sounds when kids ring the doorbell. It brings me great entertainment and all the leftover candy.

Happy Halloween!

Visitin’ with Kinfolk

I was raised in Columbus, Georgia but moved away when I was 14 years old. I now reside in Southern California. Life here is sort of surfer casual yet a far cry from the warm, family charm of southern hospitality. This entry is best read in a slow, distinctive, Georgia accent.

Visitin’ time was divided equally at my three sets of grandparents’ homes, and you better not miss one of them! I was told we would cause “such a ruckus” if we skipped visiting someone. In my childhood memory, Saturday nights were spent with Carmen Brown, and Jesse James (seriously) Perry, Granny and PawPaw, my maternal grandparents. 

The Perry household, a small, two-bedroom home, had a formal living room that we were never allowed to play in. The sofa was encased in plastic (it’s that memory of something beautiful being wrapped in ugly material that has been my argument against an iPhone case.) I only remember two signature dishes being served on Saturday nights. It was either fish and grits or chipped beef on toast (I later learned there was also a vulgar name for that meal, but we were not allowed to cuss!). It was salty enough to raise even a child’s blood pressure.

On Sundays after church, we packed the wood paneled station wagon and drove, without seatbelts mind you, to my Great Grandparent’s. William D. Hamilton and Annie May Kidd Hamilton’s house, which I wrote about in another entry to this blog. The adults sat around a large beautiful table while the kids were relegated to a card table. My Great Grandmother cooked up Turnip and Collard Greens (nasty!), always something fried which I bathed in ketchup (except fried chicken, even at that young age I knew that was a sacrilege!), and something sweet and yummy. After dinner, we would usually play tag or hide and seek with my cousins, Charles, Maryanne, Ronnie, and Leslie.

From there, we loaded the car to drive to my paternal grandmother’s apartment. I can still hear her deep voice (probably from being a smoker.) She was quite ill with cancer during most of my childhood years. I’m sure that memory prevented me for from never touching a cigarette.) I have a specific memory of her introducing me to American cheese, and I absolutely hated it! I would not try a cheeseburger for many years before falling in love with them.  As her treatment progressed, I remember her shocking the kids by pulling off her wig to reveal her bald head. It is a memory that forever is etched in my mind.

When we left Gram’s we headed for Evangel Temple for the 6 PM Service (because everyone knew true Christians went twice on Sundays.) It’s a good thing schools did not give homework over the weekend. There was little time for that!

I treasure growing up in a small, Georgia town with extended family close by. I played by the Chattahoochee River, ate boiled peanuts, drank Coca-Cola and sweet tea. I fished with a cane pole with a little floaty thingamabob that moved when the fish was nibbling, and went clear underwater when you had hooked one.

What memory brings you to that state of reverie? What stories bring a smile to your face? I would love to hear them. Please add them in the comments section.

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Sundays After Church in Columbus, Georgia

I felt ready. I had faced down this foe many a time but continued to falter. In Columbus, Georgia, the two brick-red pillars in front of the house at 1553 15th Ave. were something I determined to conquer. I do not remember when I finally landed that leap, but I know after many failed attempts, I was able to jump from one pillar to the next. I was on my way to much grander adventures.

We spent many a Sunday after church in this home. My great-grandfather, William Dolphus Hamilton, had built this house on a dirt road in the city of my birth. It was a gift to his new bride, Annie May Kidd Hamilton, the daughter of a widowed, fiery preacher (and proficient moonshiner,) Jefferson Davis Kidd.

The couple occupied the house after their nuptials, May 3, 1914, and lived there until Papa Bill’s (my great-grandfather) demise, February 14, 1978. Annie would stay there alone for the next seven years. She passed away August 3, 1985. She is buried next to her husband in Riverdale cemetery, not far from the slow moving Chattahoochee River, where she had lived all her life.

As you walked up those stairs you entered a traditional Southern patio complete with rocking chairs and gold spittoon for the two of them. I remember snapping snap peas from a bushel while the grown-ups shared some boring conversation as they rocked in their chairs and snapped peas themselves.

When you walked into that house, the first thing you noticed and the only furniture in the hallway, was a small table with the White Pages phone book and the most massive phone I have ever seen or felt. It was a black, rotary dialed monstrosity that could have easily been used as a weapon. The first door on the left led into what seemed to be an expansive living room that was far grander in my mind than it really was. Everything seemed so much bigger as a child.

Sunday dinners were always a treat in that house. The smell of poundcake and fried chicken permeated the small house almost every Sunday. My great-grandmother jarred apples that were candied by Red Hots and were a glorious shade of red.

The kids, who were numerous, were always relegated to card tables somewhere else in the room. The gathering was a conglomeration of cousins, aunts, uncles, and of course, our family of six, of which I was the eldest. When someone new was brought into the fold, the regulars knew to pass the food from both directions to that person at the same time, of course that led to much laughter from all of those in attendance.

Once the children had said, “thank you very much, I enjoyed that. May I be excused now?” we set out on the day’s adventures.

My great-grandmother liked to hide marbles in the darkest place of the house. The best way to describe it was a hub that led to the bathroom, dining room, spare bedroom, and the hall. The floor in that space was warped and creaky. Our treasures were found in small knickknacks, behind books, and old copies of True Detective magazines.

After completing our exhaustive search, we would often head out to the backyard. There was a garden for tomatoes and peppers, and then there was a freestanding metal garage. It was a foreboding place that I do not recall if a car was ever parked there. Inside there were rusty tools and old light fixtures all covered in cobwebs. I distinctly remember seeing a large wicker flower stand like the kind used for funerals. We were quite sure vampires lived in that garage.

We moved away from our hometown when I was 14. When I returned years later I found that house dilapidated and vacant. As I peered into those windows, I was so surprised to see how much smaller it was than what I remembered. Time marches on, but memories are sweet. I can almost smell the poundcake.