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Gift sends memory rolling down the track Christmas: A toy from youth brings story of a family holiday full circle.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Twelve days ago, a stranger with a kind face, an old man in topcoat and hat, handed me a gift. It was a rectangular box, roughly the size of a carton of cigarettes, wrapped handsomely and neatly in holiday paper. "Please, open it," he said, and I carefully pulled away the wrapping. When I saw the markings on the box, and understood its contents, I dissolved instantly into a quivering mound of sobs, crying as I had not cried since the day my father died.

Midst the two worst things that ever happened to my family when I was a kid, the president of the United States was assassinated. I don't mean to suggest that my family felt the pain in some unique way; the whole world seemed to sag under the weight of John F. Kennedy's death on Nov. 22, 1963. It's that now, looking at the event in the intimate context of my family's experience, I can finally appreciate how my parents must have felt at the time, with JFK's death coming in the middle of the mess. Going into the Christmas season that year, my parents must have felt overwhelmed, perhaps defeated, most likely depressed.

Consider that just a month before Dallas, my father's business had burned to the ground.

Joe Rodricks, a muscular Portuguese immigrant, had gone into a foundry venture with four Italian-American friends who lived in southeastern Massachusetts. Each of the guys had worked in various iron works and mills. My father had taken a job in a small-town foundry when he was only 14, after his own father died of pneumonia. He never finished school. Making things from cast iron -- machine parts, some ornamental stuff -- was what Joe Rodricks knew.

In 1949, he and his partners had pooled their savings and borrowed some money to buy the small foundry near Woonsocket, R.I. My father, 38 years old at the time, was listed as the Cumberland Foundry "president," but no one ever had a more overstated title; he spent his days in dirty khakis and steel-toed boots, sweating with the rest of the men, his lungs filled with fumes, his hair and skin coated with the blackish dust that settled, like dry fog, on everyone and everything.

The foundry had about 30 employees, mostly of Italian, Portuguese or French-Canadian ancestry. They had a modest profit- sharing plan, which produced, at Christmas, a modest bonus for each man. But then came that fire, in October 1963.

The phone rang in my house a few hours before dawn. Something about a propane leak. My father slid into his Chrysler and, with Uncle Ralph, his business partner and my godfather, roared off into the darkness.

When he returned home after the longest day of his life, my father was silent. His only words were, "No more foundry," uttered in a quivering voice as he disappeared into a bedroom. That was the first time I ever saw Joe Rodricks appear to cry.

The following Sunday, he drove my mother, my little brother and me to the foundry. He did not speak a word but chained-smoked his filterless Pall Malls, holding the lighted tip by the vent window of the Chrysler as he drove.

When we turned the last corner, the foundry appeared. It was a junkyard -- tin roofing and twisted steel girders already orange with a rusty film, charred wheelbarrows and steel drums, the scorched carcasses of machinery. Nothing was salvageable. I remember running around the place, looking for stuff to loot and to play with, and being scolded for doing so. I was 9, my brother Eddie 7. We couldn't fully grasp what had just happened to our family, and particularly to my father.

Later, when I could better understand, I learned that the foundry was not insured. If my father and his partners were to revive the dream of running their own business, they would have to raise money themselves. That was going to take time.

No money, no savings

In the meantime, there was no income. Nothing. Another deceiving thing about my father's corporate title was the "president" of the Cumberland Foundry never made much money. He took home enough for mortgage and car payments, to keep us fed and clothed, to treat himself to a six-pack of Knickerbocker and a few strings of 10-pin every week. He didn't save money. He certainly hadn't had enough to send my older brother to college. The foundry was a small, hard-sweat business that provided minimal reward to its owners. My father once said that some of his employees, molders who were paid on a per-job basis, took home more pay than he did.

When the foundry went, so did the income.

And then, in early December, my father went into the hospital -- diagnosed with emphysema, 35 years of foundry fumes and cigarette smoke choking his lungs. He was hospitalized in Boston for several weeks. I thought he was going to die.

In addition to his physical decline, my father was deeply depressed. That's not something anyone mentioned at the time, but it's something I've come to know over the years. He had had a difficult life, losing his father at 14, bitter about never finishing school and being forced to work to support his mother. I suspect that, during the Cumberland Foundry years, he had terrible disagreements with his business partners. I think the fire, and the diagnosis, threw him into a spin. For a long time, either because of his mental or physical disability, he was out of commission as Iron Joe, the tough, masculine provider we had known.

So for several months, my mother, the former Rose Popolo, was a single parent. She went to work for minimum wage -- in late 1963 it was $1.25 an hour -- in an electronics component plant. She rose early and left before Eddie and I did, leaving us in the hands of my father's mother, who'd recently moved in to help out, and my older sister, Roseann.

In December, all signs pointed toward Christmas, except in our house. That year is remembered for the darkness in which it ended -- the destruction of the foundry, and my father's absence from our house, the loss of life's simple rhythms, and all the fears that visit a kid when his family seems adrift in loss and uncertainty. I have thought of that Christmas so many times -- because of the vivid memories and the strong feelings they stir, and because of the way things turned out.

Low expectations

My brother and I came to expect nothing that year, not even a tree. I could sense in my mother, in her hectic coming and going from work, an anxiousness and pensiveness I hadn't seen in her before. A kid sees a parent that way, a kid worries.

Rose dropped hints, too. "When I was little, all we got for Christmas was an orange in a stocking." She told us that every year, but in 1963 she seemed to say it every day. By age 9, I had heard enough arguments between my parents to understand the sad and vexing truths about money and expectations. I can tell you honestly -- the memory of this is clear -- that, going to bed Christmas Eve 1963, I expected nothing, and felt a strange sort of relief from it. I didn't want to compound my mother's problems by whining about a lack of Christmas. Her struggles -- going to work again, rolling pennies and nickels, concocting as many cheap but filling rice, pasta and polenta dishes as humanly possible -- saddened me as much as my father's absence did. I knew why there was no Christmas tree in the living room that year. I was 9, but I understood.

And yet, the next morning, when we arose, there was a white pine in our house, fully decorated with lights and ornaments too heavy for its branches, and glowing beneath it the only gift my little brother and I would share that day: an electric Lionel engine with one car, on a track with no straight pieces. It hummed and rattled, round and round and round, monotonously and beautifully. The engine was yellow. The one piece it hauled was a green cattle car that had a unique see-saw mechanism inside. As the train moved, a western outlaw with cowboy hat, bandanna and six-shooter popped his head through one end of the cattle car roof and, alternately, a sheriff figurine did likewise at the other end.

Remarkable, finding such a thing in that house that Christmas.

My mother -- with the help of my sister, I suspect -- had found a last-minute way to surprise us. My brother and I lay on the rug and watched the train go around the track a thousand times, the heads of the sheriff and the outlaw popping up and dropping down. In all the years since then, no gift has ever meant as much.

The gift of memory

My brother and I augmented the train set with new track and cars for a few years, but neither Eddie nor I had collecting Lionels in our destiny. Though I appreciated all my mother had done to surprise us with the best of all baby boomer boy toys, I developed other interests. The train set, with that special outlaw-sheriff car, went into a box in the basement, and eventually to some other kid, perhaps a nephew. I'm not sure.

Years later, after fruitlessly trying to determine the train set's whereabouts, I realized something: I may have lost the Lionel but, through the great gift of memory, I still had the feelings that went with it.

And then 12 days ago in Baltimore, a man named Ralph Fisher approached me with a wrapped gift. Fisher had never met me, but he had heard this story from a friend, to whom I had once confided the spare details, with a description of the green cattle car with the popping heads. Fisher, an avid collector of trains with a large display in his Baltimore County home, had never seen the car, but he set about to find one.

He succeeded, too -- at a model train show in Timonium a couple of weeks ago. "In all the shows I've been through over the years, I had never seen one, and there it was," he said. "A collector from New York had one."

And in its original orange box -- Lionel's No. 3077, the green "Animated Sheriff and Outlaw Car." I held it in my hands, clicked the gear underneath that made the heads pop up and down. It transported me, in the next instant, to that one and only remarkable Christmas, when my mother brought light to darkness. When I finished sobbing, I offered to pay Ralph Fisher for the car and the memory. "No," he said. "It's a gift."

Pub Date: 12/25/98

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