A Beggar’s Christmas, 1947, Parts One and Two

Editor’s note. To make this month’s entry easier to understand, Part One, here, was submitted last year. You will see Part Two below. Part One was also published in Bamboo Ridge.

East Bremerton was called Manette back then, and it had the same

relationship to the Navy town of Bremerton as Brooklyn has to

Manhattan: Inferior. Also, a tall bridge over tidal water connected


Manette featured several World War II-era barracks-style housing

projects, still occupied by holdover military families. Those were the

good neighborhoods, well-maintained by the government, as the homes of

heroes should be. We lived in one of the civilian districts, among the

quonset huts and tar paper boxes that sheltered shipyard scrabblers,

evangelists, hookers, Okies, Irish, and Swedes.

For all that, it did not feel to us like a dangerous neighborhood or a

dangerous town. First graders walked to school accompanied only by

other young scholars a full mile through sometimes inclement weather

and always varied streets and alleys. Armed with good advice — walk

fast; don’t talk to strangers — there were never problems. Strangers

apparently got the message and showed no interest in us.

Each Saturday Leonard Seifers and I would meet at the Perry Avenue bus

stop, then ride, all by ourselves, across the Manette Bridge to

downtown Bremerton for the Saturday Matinee at the Tower Theater.

After feasting on Jujubes, Tootsie Rolls, and Big Screen Serial

Adventure with a lot of other kids our age, we’d catch the Perry Ave.

bus and head home, hours later, still all by ourselves.

So there was really no sense of foolhardiness or irresponsibility on

either my or my parents’ parts when I as a second-grader was allowed

to take the bus to Bremerton to do my Christmas shopping. It would be

an adventure, to be sure. I’d be all by myself this time, not with a


“Are you sure you can do it?” my mother asks, her head bent forward so

she can look squarely into my eyes. “You won’t get lost or lose your

money? Will you?”

“Of course not.”

“Don’t be afraid to ask a policeman for directions.”

“I won’t.”

“Don’t be afraid to run away if somebody talks to you mean or looks

wrong at you,” adds my father, standing straight up behind Mom. “Find

a cop if you need help.”

Although I hadn’t any idea what looking “wrong” meant, I assumed that

if it happened I’d know it. “I will,” I reply.

I don’t know how much money I had or how I carried it. Did I have a

coin purse? I’m sure I didn’t have a wallet. Maybe I had my money

tucked away in a tobacco-fragrant Bull Durham sack?

Crossing the bridge all by myself in the front seat of the bus where I

looked straight down at the pavement through the stairwell windows,

riding poised within inches of falling-off-straight-into-the-water far

below, I imagined how I would get out of the upside-down bus from

underwater. And then how I would save my fellow passengers, modestly

flaunting my remarkable, Saturday-serial-honed courage and

resourcefulness to reporters afterward. Wasn’t it cold and wet? Wasn’t

the current dangerously strong? How had I managed to save that frail

old man, that helpless woman with her baby? Honestly, I’d protest, I’d

just done what any other boy on his way to buy Christmas presents for

his family would do. And if you’ll excuse me, I’ve still got some


Soon I was off the bus in the middle of holiday-festooned Bremerton,

the streets decorated with evergreens and colored lights, Salvation

Army bellringers on every corner, people dressed up for the holidays

moving quickly from store to store, diesel and gasoline fumes clouding

the air, overlapping Christmas carols from unseen sources: “round yon

virgin mother still we see thee lie right down Santa Claus Lane”.

Everything and everybody was suddenly much bigger than it had ever

been before. Was it already starting to get dark? Did I remember where

to catch the bus home? If I needed a policeman, where would I look?

Was it cold enough to snow?

– – – – –

Begin Part Two, December 2016 entry:

Probably not coincidentally, Bremerton’s main drag runs south toward

the shipyard’s main gate. Stopping at an intersection, I plotted my

mission quickly. Two-thirds of what I wanted was waiting for me at the

Bremerton Sport Shop and at Woolworth’s, directly across the street.

The Salvation Army bellringer was especially lively there, ringing and

gesticulating and nodding from the waist to one and all celebrants of

the nativity to the strains of “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” and the

sounds of shifting gears as traffic lights mandated.

First the Sport Shop, where I’d get my dad the trophy I’d first

spotted through the window weeks ago. I just hoped it would still be

there or that they had more than one. It was pleasantly warm inside

and smelled vaguely of tanned leather. That would be from the Wilson

and Spalding baseball gloves on display against one wall and the

footballs and basketballs in bins.

On the wall behind the cash register hung a cluster of small wooden

shields on which were mounted artistic renderings of golf clubs,

baseball bats, and bowling balls in miniature. None of those would

appeal to my dad, but among them was something that stood out from the

rest: a rainbow trout suspended forever at the curved apogee of its

graceful leap. My dad was no more a fisherman than a golfer or bowler,

but he liked animals, and who could resist so achingly beautiful an

object as a perpetually leaping fish?

“I’ll need six cents more for the governor,” the man at the cash

register said. “He gets mad when he doesn’t get his cut.”

I understood about state sales tax and even had a few tokens in my

pocket. They were made of aluminum and had a hole in the middle so you

could string them. I handed the man three tokens and a nickel. “The

governor thanks you,” he said, rapping his furry knuckles on the

counter. I tried to catch some sign of sadness or regret at having to

give up so beautiful a possession as the leaping trout, but found


“It’s for my dad,” I said. “For Christmas.”

“I’m sure he’ll like it,” he said, smiling too broadly it seemed to me.

O’Neal’s Shoe Repair was right next door, and you didn’t have to go

inside to catch the strong cowhide smell that hung about the entrance.

They displayed a black, high-topped leather shoe, an enormous item

made for the world’s tallest man, shown in a black-and-white

photograph wearing a pair of shoes exactly like it. Even my

six-foot-three Uncle Ben did not wear shoes anywhere near that big.

The world’s tallest man was over eight feet tall. What did it feel

like to be that tall? What could you do to get that tall? Just eat a

lot, I guessed.

My next stop was Woolworth’s, and I passed through the entrance

without even giving the bellringer a tax token. Maybe on my way out,

if I had enough to spare. Woolworth’s had a popcorn machine that gave

the store a pleasant smell and an over-warm ambience that I liked.

They’d moved things around since the last time I was there, no doubt

making room for Christmas ornamentation, and at first I couldn’t find

what I was looking for: the Barbie dolls. They weren’t all Barbies,

but they were costumed to appeal to little girls like my sister. She

already had three or four displayed on her side of our shared bedroom,

still in their white boxes with cellophane windows like the objects of

art they assuredly were. For reasons I couldn’t fathom, my sister

still didn’t have a platinum-haired doll, but now she’d have one,

thanks to me.

“It’s for my little sister,” I told the lady cashier.

“I didn’t think it was for you,” she laughed.

“Did I give you enough for the governor?” I asked.

“Three cents to the dollar,” she said. “Just the right amount.”

It felt so good to make such progress that I dropped a nickel into the

bellringer’s red kettle. on the way out, an impulse I immediately

regretted. I could be running short and still had no idea what to get

my mom. I should have looked around Woolworth’s, but I didn’t want to

go back. Besides, it was definitely getting darker now, and colder.

Peoples’ breath was plainly visible now and cars spewed rich clouds of

exhaust. I’d go to Kress’s and see what they offered.

Kress’s felt like Woolworth’s low-rent cousin, stripped down to the

open-bin essentials. Maybe Mom would like a spatula or a pair of salad

tongs? Not very Christmassy. Then how about a head scarf or perfume?

But what fragrance, what color? Anyway, Kress’s didn’t look like a

very likely place. Woolworth’s would have been better.

Then how about Sears? They might have such items, and it was on my way

to the bus stop. Overhead, the evergreen garlands strung on poles and

across streets were illuminated by brightly colored lightls, and the

music seemed ever louder. City sidewalks, dressed in holiday style.

They’d gone all-out on the main entrance to Sears, a big manger scene

with all the trimmings just inside the glass double doors, complete

with its own sound system, set up to compete with the holiday

cacophony outside: Silent night, holy night.

Beautifully inspirational though it was, I realized I didn’t have time

to stop and appreciate it. Where could I find ladies’ scarves and

perfume? Or candy? Was candy a good Christmas gift? Perfume would be

better. Or a scarf.

Just off to the side of the manger scene were shelves of smaller

mangers and Marys and Wise Men and babies Jesus and lambs of God and

so forth so you could build your own manger scene. And on one small

shelf, off to the side and all by its lonesome, the most gorgeous

piece of sculpture I had ever laid eyes on. Tall and graceful and

green, it had to be the most stupendous Christmas decoration ever

conceived. A tree, you might guess. But no.

A camel. But not just any ordinary camel. It was a big, tall, broad,

chalk replica ship of the desert, painted a kind of bright avocado

green and shown best in profile. And I loved it and wanted to buy it

and give it my my mom for Christmas. But I didn’t have enough money.

So I stopped to ponder a bit about the Christmas season and people

giving to bellringers and just feeling kind and generous. And, to make

a long ponder short, why not?

Standiing just outside the main entrance to Sears, but away from any

bellringer, I hunched up my shoulders and held out my hand. Lo and

behold, some people put money in it. Others asked what I needed money

for, and when I told them I needed bus money to get home to Manette,

they put money in it too, money that I quickly transferred to my

now-bulging front pocket.

Before long I had enough money to buy the camel, so I did. But I

discovered that after giving the governor his cut, I didn’t have

enough left over for the bus, which sent me back to the sidewalk with

my hand out.

A well-dressed guy and his beautiful wife walked up to me. I

remembered them well. And they remembered me. “Hey, I thought you

needed bus money?” the man said.

“I did. I still do.”

“I gave you a quarter. You said that was all you needed.”

“I counted wrong.”

“How much do you need? This time?”

“A dime is all. Sir.”

“Here’s another quarter. Don’t count wrong this time.” His beautiful

wife smiled but looked vaguely worried.

“Thank you, sir. I won’t. Sir.”

And I didn’t. I found my way to the Perry Avenue bus stop and finished

my day by walking home in the dark to my parents, who said they were

beginning to worry.

At Christmas everybody liked their gifts — especially my mom. She

loved the camel as much as I did, and maybe more. She adored it,

displayed it with great pride all the rest of that Christmas season.

When visitors called she’d say, “Well you know he did his Christmas

shopping all by himself. Took the bus to Bremerton and came back with

presents for everybody.”

“All by himself. My my.”

And that was the last I saw of the camel. Apparently it got misplaced

somehow when we moved out to Bear Creek. Oh well. My sister and I had

our own bedrooms there, and my dad generously let me hang the leaping

trout on my very own wall, where I admired it for many years.

Talk story

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