When I was a kid, my family lived in old Corona del Mar and opened presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning. It was a tradition from Kansas, where my folks came of age in the Great Depression. We never got elaborate presents. They were small and inexpensive. Anything else would have been deemed ostentatious.
Our best presents came from grandmother, who lived with my cousins back in Marion, Kan., in the same home where my father grew up. She mailed them. I only met her once, when she was old and infirm. It was right after the Christmas when I was 12. Mom and Dad put me and my three siblings onto a train to Kansas without them. We were alone.
If you were from Kansas, you were stoic. You did not complain. If a Depression came, you dealt with it. The same with personal feelings. My parents did not show much.
Right after he graduated from college, my father married my mother and the next day took the freight trains west. There was no money and riding the freights was how you traveled. He was a hobo. The jobs were in California. For five years, he traveled back and forth.
During his travels, Dad twice saw men killed by the trains. One stumbled while sprinting for a freight and was cut in half by the wheels. Another was laying next to Dad on the top of a refrigerator car riding through winter weather in the Rockies. It was freezing and the train was rounding a long bend on a bridge and the man lost his grip. Dad remembered the man’s screams as he slid off the roof and into the chasm.
Dad wanted us to experience, I think, the long sweep of the frontier he had traveled, to hear the clickity-clack, to travel like he traveled, albeit in a passenger train. It took two days. It was monotonous and tiring. We hardly slept because we were jammed into small, hard seats.
After boarding in L.A., we traveled east through San Bernardino and the Coachella Valley and we saw the mighty snow-covered Rockies and the vast, flat western plains.
Uncle Rusty met us in Wichita, the nearest stop to Marion. It was a two-hour drive. It was night. Uncle Rusty drove fast and skidded a few times under bridges where the ice had refrozen. It did not faze him. He knew about the ice.
We got to Marion late, but everyone was awake. Aunt Mary and her three kids, who were our ages. Grandmother had waited up too. I thought she was ancient, but she had the most melodious, wonderful voice, like the words were a song.
The town had a population of 2,000, the same as a 100 years prior. Near the family house was the town’s only hill. It was 15-feet high and where we went sledding. We had never played in the snow and stayed for hours.
All the cars were American and battered. The main street was two blocks long. It was mostly half-empty storefronts 50 years old.
On New Year’s morning, the “men” went coyote hunting. It was another tradition. The day before, Uncle Rusty gave me a small shotgun and showed me how to shoot. It was easy. You pointed. You pulled the trigger. The trick was to hug the rifle butt tight against your shoulder so the kick would not bruise it.
The next morning found us in a truck with the local men, all with thick jackets and either regular or dark glasses. That was so stray shotgun pellets could not hurt you.
We went hunting a section, which is a giant square a mile on each side.
The men were dropped off on the perimeter and slowly walked to the middle. The idea was to flush the coyotes. There was a $200 bounty for each one. The locals hated the coyotes. They killed their livestock and pets and ate everything not properly secured.
Sure enough, as the men slowly converged, coyotes were flushed and ran in circles as the men shot at them. I did not feel sorry for the coyotes. I was in Kansas and hunting was part of it.
A few days later, we were back home to Newport where people were at the beach and the cars were new and the CdM strip was vibrant.
It took me half a lifetime to realize it was the best Christmas present I ever got. By then, both Mom and Dad had died.
Michael Ray grew up in CdM and now lives in Laguna Beach. He makes a living as a real estate entrepreneur and is involved in many non-profits.