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Christmas I Remember Best: Riding dreams on a pony
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A pony for Christmas? The year was 1953, and most American children were secretly wishing, praying and writing letters to Santa Claus promising to be nice rather than naughty in return for that ultimate desideratum of gifts: the real, live pony. - photo by Ken Jennings, Jr.
A pony for Christmas? The year was 1953, and most American children were secretly wishing, praying and writing letters to Santa Claus promising to be nice rather than naughty in return for that ultimate desideratum of gifts: the real, live pony.

Subtle hints were everywhere. The Lone Rangers face on the back of the Cheerios box revealed a sly, knowing grin if you looked at it just right. Trigger, Silver and Topper were inevitably the focus of comparative analysis when the neighborhood gathered for tag and philosophy. Silver was faster, but Trigger was smarter. Everyone could agree on that. Those secondary characters that tagged along with these great steeds? Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy? They were as fungible as the extras in last years western.

The irony of asking Santa for a pony when you lived in a third floor walk-up in Brooklyn totally escaped my generation.

We didnt live in a third-floor walk-up. We lived in Bothell, Washington, just beyond the suburbs of greater Seattle. We had chickens, rabbits, fruit trees and a kitchen garden sprawling over 5 acres that qualified as the wild frontier in my 4-year-old eyes. Bears had been seen on Pontius Road and salmon swimming upstream had once strayed into the ditch in front of our house. Plenty of room for a pony.

Only there would be no pony.

My 6-year-old sister had recently emerged from months in a cast and slept with braces on her legs every night. Mother was attending the University of Washington to qualify for a teaching certificate so she could help make ends meet. Dad was working extra hours in his grocery store trying to earn enough money to keep up with the hospital bills. Looking back, I know that in the weeks approaching Christmas, while my sisters and I lay sleepless but snug in our beds with visions of sugarplums and that real-live-pony dancing in our heads, in the quiet of the room next to ours, my parents lay sleepless and weeping that they had nothing to give their three children for Christmas.

But Mother had served in the Marine Corps during the recent world war. Once a Marine, always a Marine, they say, and she planned the operation and carried it out with Semper Fi precision. On her way home from the university a few days before Christmas, she stopped by the plywood mill near our home. Enduring the whistles and leers of the mill workers she begged them for a few cores from the turned logs and loaded them into the old Desoto. Dad found discarded lumber and an old tire under the chicken house. There was also a left-over gallon of that hideous swimming-pool-aquamarine paint that people used in kitchens and bathrooms in the '50s. The big splurge was probably 39 cents for a pint of black enamel.

Christmas Eve came and we sat together as a family while Dad read from Luke and Matthew. Decades hence, the images I still see of shepherds, angels, wise men and the babe in the manger surrounded by animals in a rustic stable retain the miraculous clarity and astonishment that were engraved on my 4-year old heart that night.

On Christmas morning the miracle! Standing patiently side by side in our back yard were three horses of slightly different stature, but custom made (literally) for a 4-year-old boy and his 5- and 6-year-old sisters. I didnt notice that their glistening coats were of a pale blue-green hue, that their two-by-four legs had knots in them, that their manes and tails were cut from an old tire, or that the saddles and faces were painted on. Those horses carried us across plains, forded streams, traversed mountains and deserts, and penetrated jungles in adventures that would have astounded John Wayne.

There have been many memorable Christmases since 1953. From my youth, I recall the Christmas of the electric train, the Christmas of the BB gun, and the Christmas of the shortwave radio. From my adult life, there was the first starving student Christmas with my sweet wife and subsequent Christmases with special gifts for one, two, three and finally four children. And now we watch as our grandchildren discover the magic, peace and holiness of the season.

A pony for Christmas? Yes, indeed. I will never forget the Christmas that we got horses! And now the irony that eluded me at age 4 has taken on a meaning worthy of wondering awe. That Christmas of 1953 is the one that I look to as an echo of the magnificent irony of the first Christmas, where sorrow, humble circumstances and perfect love combined to bestow the greatest gift of all.
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