A Minuscule Gift – A Monumental Memory

A Minuscule Gift – A Monumental Memory
The spirit of St. Nicholas and the gratifying act of giving acquired yet another form while growing up in the Johnstown, PA area in the late fifties and early sixties. If you are a baby boomer and your father worked for US Steel in the city, you might remember the Christmas treat the mill provided for the children of the employees every year.

It was a ritual for our family, an annual tradition. Dad loaded all of us into his station wagon and drove us to the Cochran Junior High School in the Moxham section of Johnstown. The Sunday afternoon indulgence was always scheduled for the weekend before Christmas, and Mom no doubt appreciated the fact that she had a couple of hours to herself at that time of the year too.

At no cost to the family, we were treated to a few Disney cartoon features, with the full-length movie version of "Bambi" as the main attraction. Fortunately another cartoon always followed the movie, which never failed to make many of the children cry. I figured out long ago, that showing that final cartoon gave the kids a chance to dry their eyes before the lights were turned on. At the conclusion of the film, we lined up in the rear of the auditorium to receive our brown bag of goodies, all courtesy of US Steel Corporation.

The bag's contents would pale in comparison to what kids receive or expect to be given at holiday time today. As difficult as it might be to imagine, we were downright ecstatic with the single popcorn ball wrapped in green or red cellophane. An apple or orange, a candy cane, a Hershey or Three Musketeers bar and a box of Cracker Jacks completed the pre-packed gift.

This was also the time of year that Dad would remind us of his Christmases while growing up during the Great Depression, making sure we knew how lucky we were in comparison. In his youth, he may have been blessed to receive fruit only on sporadic occasions when it was available. For him and his siblings, a pair of socks was more appreciated than an apple or orange, even though the socks were rarely new. More often, they were part of the hand-me-downs so prevalent during those times.

It was years later when I finally began to understand the logic in his story. Not only did he feel fortunate to receive those trifling gifts during those decrepit economic times, but he hoped his commentary taught us to appreciate our meager endowment, too. "US Steel didn't have to do this for you. They did so because they wanted to," was part of his message.

Another by-gone sign of that worry-free era was that the Dads didn't sit with or near the children during the movie. They chose to stand in the back and chat with each other instead. That detail alone is now a mere memory never to be relived. An odd arrangement by today's standards, it was so common place then, a time when a child's world was safe and secure and a parent didn't feel obligated to supervise every detail of a child's life.

With age came another revelation on my part. Those dads made a huge sacrifice. Returning to that section of the city on a Sunday, their day off, couldn't possibly be high on their want-to-do list. This was especially true because they chose to transport a cargo of kids, each bubbling with excitement over the upcoming holiday. Yet, they made that trip over and over again, willingly, year in and year out.

Yes, a movie, a brown bag of goodies, time spent and a lesson made of love were all components of our treat. But, by far, the paramount part of that Christmas gift was the memories it provided for a lifetime.

For Johnstown Magazine - December, 2009 Edition - Angie Berzonski, Editor - reprinted with permission from Johnstown Magazine

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927
From Left: Son, Steve - Dad, Frank - Mom, Anastasia (Makar) - Sons; John, Mike, Frank, Chuck (Author's Dad) - Twins, Pete & Mary - Daughter, Catherine. Photo taken in Wilmore, PA