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James R. Stout

The Year Mr. Sparky Played Santa Claus

          It was December of 1958. I actually have some pretty clear memories of that Christmas despite being very young. I remember our house being decorated (Mom’s Gumdrop Christmas Tree comes to mind) and I remember knowing we were poor, but very happy. This particular Christmas was a very hard one for my parents. Dad was just back home from 2 years in the hospital following a nearly fatal car accident in February of 1956. He was crippled for life and at that point had to wear a horrible steel and leather brace on his right leg. He also had to use crutches for a few years to come. He would not be able to walk without the brace until 1961 following an operation, performed pro bono, by a surgeon who my mother’s boss knew and had asked to help.

          It was a time when working women didn’t make much money. I believe my mother made about $200 a month. Dad wasn’t able to work full-time yet and between the two of them they made about $400 a month. There were 5 mouths to feed, 5 bodies to clothe and keep warm, and money was a constant worry. As a very small child I didn’t know these specifics, but I certainly could feel the worry in my parent’s. And worry they did as Christmas approached and there was little they could spend on us. Any good parent wants to do for his/her children the best that they can and when their best is less than what they would like to do it hurts. I would learn this lesson myself 30 years later.

          A few blocks away from our house was a small grocery and five and dime store called “Sparky‘s“. Like most businesses in those days the owner worked there (known to everyone as Mr. Sparky) and in some cases lived in the back of the store. My Mother went into the store one day about 3 weeks before Christmas and asked Sparky if she could put some things on “lay-a-way” for Christmas. He said that would be no problem. Mom had a total of $15 that she could spend on Christmas for us. That was $5 a child. Even then, $5 didn’t go very far. So, she picked out a doll for each of my sisters along with some girl’s kinds of things like a brush and comb set and she picked out a cap gun (gasp!) and holster for me and so forth.

          That year Christmas fell on a Thursday. In those days EVERYBODY who worked was expected to work Christmas Eve. Earlier in the week Mom went to Sparky’s and told him she was ready to get the things she had put on lay-a-way. She had all three of us with her and not wanting us to see the presents she asked Mr. Sparky if he would watch us kids while she sneaked the presents into the trunk of the car outside. Mr. Sparky suggested that since it was cold out that if she would just give him her car keys he would load the presents in the trunk while Mom distracted us somewhere else in the store. Mom wasn’t about to argue with that suggestion! A few minutes later Mr. Sparky let Mom know the car was loaded and so she paid him, and we left. Knowing that it would be after we went to bed on Christmas Eve before she could get the presents under the tree Mom decided to just leave the presents in the trunk of the car. That way none of us would get a glimpse of what was to come down the chimney in Santa’s bag.

          Finally, on Christmas Eve Mom got us off to bed (with much giggling and laughter at the delight that Christmas brings to little children). When we were all sleeping soundly Mom went out to the 1951 Dodge (a beast of car it was) and opened the trunk. She immediately started to cry and went to the door and asked my Dad to come to the door. Through tears Mom told Dad that there was quite literally a trunk full of toys in the car for the children! It seems as though Mr. Sparky was Santa that year.

          Yes, I remember the cap gun and holster (Roy Roger’s would have been proud) and there was a magnificently huge green dump truck that I played with for years. It ended up at my grandparent’s house and every time I would come to spend a week with Grandma and Grandpa my Grandpa would get a trailer load of dirt (he would harvest it himself from the “John Russell Flats” near the farm) and that dump truck was the most used dump truck of all time!

          I didn’t know about this story for many years. After all, it was “Santa” that brought the presents. Years later when I heard about it from Mom she told it and still had mist in her eyes with the telling. The one thing about the story that I think touched my Mom, and me for that matter, was the fact that Mr. Sparky was Jewish. So many times, in those days negative things were said about someone if they were Jewish. It was a stupid prejudice, like most prejudices, and one that I personally will not tolerate. Forty years ago, I met someone who became a lifelong friend who happens to be Jewish. It didn’t matter then, and it doesn’t matter now. I am a Christian and while we do not agree on our faith, I know that this friend is a good and decent man who I am honored to know as a friend. And so, Mr. Sparky too was a good and loving man who definitely knew the meaning of “Christmas spirit.”

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