In many ways, I was always a pestilential child, at least when it came to my siblings.
At Christmas, I was even worse.
That particular year, I had become markedly skeptical about Santa Claus. The idea of him coming through the side door of the house was reasonable, since we had no chimney large enough for even the most magical rotund elf to squeeze down. Besides, all our fireplaces were long since sealed, their faces covered with masonry and ugly, if utilitarian, oil heaters. The one chimney Saint Nick might have wiggled through was in a room we never used. The fireplace itself was bricked in, but there were green marble squares and other fancy work decorating the surrounding columns and floor.
That fireplace was just one of the reminders that our old house was no longer the grand home it had been, nearly a century before, when there was a big barn out back, and the oaks and magnolia trees were young. The oaks were as thick as I was tall, and the main magnolia took three or four men to reach around its girth. Nailed to the tree and half-swallowed by the bark was a rusty old chain, reportedly snatched from the remains of the aforementioned barn sometime right after the Second World War.
Our old house was big, with plenty of room for our mother Miss Lois, the Old Man, myself, Brother Mike, Sister Becky, a dog, a cat or two, Mother’s sewing room, a dining room that we actually used (because families did that back then), the library where Papa had a desk for working at home, and several other rooms. There were terraces on the front, a porch on the side, and the backyard where the barn and pasture had been was big enough for a small baseball diamond.
But there was no chimney Santa Claus could climb down. I willingly bought into the idea that he could land the sleigh and reindeer in the alley, and slide through the side door, but I was still having my doubts about the whole Santa thing.
But one crisp, starlit Christmas Eve, Brother Mike helped me believe again.
Mike’s bedroom had been a sleeping porch, decades before. It had a door to the roof to allow access to the oil tank for the second floor. That door led to much more than the oil tanks – it was a grand way to get a sweeping view of the neighborhood, as well as frightening my parents. I have an enduring image of Mike sitting on the stoop of the door to nowhere, smoking a cigarette and listening to his big multiband radio. Mike, our other brother Jim and his wife Onyx (they were real, live hippies) took their instruments to the peak of the roof during one visit. The other kids in the neighborhood thought it was cool, especially the older boys. Most, if not all, of the ladies were scandalized, but that’s a column for another day.
Brother Mike was my hero back then; he dealt with bullies, despaired of teaching me to ride a bike, and took me fishing. We harassed Sister Becky to exhaustion.
I wasn’t generally allowed in his room. He was grown when I was a little kid, and I think Miss Lois was also worried about me falling off the roof.
But on this Christmas Eve, I was being allowed to spend the night in his room. I was ecstatic. I think our parents had despaired of keeping my ever-spying eyes from seeing what Santa Claus had planned for under the tree. Mother may have struck a deal with Mike, or he may have just offered to keep me out of their hair (and out of the library).
I remember it was bitterly cold, and we were bundled in quilts. I had a flannel bathrobe and pajamas. There may have been a small space heater in the room, but I cannot recall. I am not sure where it would have fit, what with the books and albums and radios and things Mike brought home.
One of the oak trees shaded the window, but out the door to nowhere, the vista was wide and clear all the way to the edge of town. Our house stood on a slight rise, along with the other houses on our street, and the lack of big trees in the back gave one a view from the railroad to the river, or so it seemed.
We sat in the doorway as Mike tuned the radio to the “state” station. The fellow working Christmas Eve knew what he was doing – he said he had a contact with the military, and they were helping him update Santa’s progress toward North Carolina. I was worried that the Army or Air Force at Fort Bragg and Pope might mistake Santa for a bad guy and shoot him down (if, indeed, he existed), but Mike assured me Santa had connections and was cleared for the air space.
The stars were as brilliantly clear as they can ever be on a winter night, sharp and frozen against a blue-black sky, uncountable yet almost within reach. We didn’t have many white Christmases, but the growing frost that night gave the impression of a light snow.
We sat there listening to the radio, long past my usual bedtime, and the announcer said that Santa had been spotted near Fort Bragg. That was only 45 minutes or so away. I was still skeptical, but that doubt was fading.
Then my brother pointed toward the horizon.
“Look!” he said.
Almost a half-century later, I can still envision the red, green and white lights dipping and rising south of town. I could see Santa and his sleigh.
There was no more doubt.
“We might better get to bed,” Mike suggested. “We don’t want Santa to find out you’re still up.”
Sometime in the night, I looked out the window and heard hooves on the roof of the side porch. I could see red and green lights through the curtain. It might have been the big ivy-covered oak scraping the roof in the wind, and the traffic lights a couple blocks away, but I happily burrowed back beneath the covers, sure it was Santa.
The old house has been gone now for decades; I won’t get into why or who or anything else, because none of that matters. There’s a church parking lot where I used to live and play.
I was grown when I found out that a friend of my father’s, a man who was a naval aviator in World War II, would occasionally attach Christmas lights to his Cessna and fly around on Christmas Eve. It was kept secret by some great adult conspiracy to help kids believe in Santa Claus for just one more year.
I reckon it’s possible that was what we saw that night, but for a few years thereafter, I was sure we saw Santa as we sat on the stoop of the door to nowhere.
There are times I’d love to be that kid again, and for just a little while sit on the roof, shivering with my brother, waiting to see Santa one more time.