An ordinary boy discovers the magic of Christmas and the magic within himself.
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It’s Christmas Eve in sleepy little Gambier, Ohio, and a massive snowstorm is giving the rural town more than just a white Christmas. Roads are closed, everything is shut down, and the monster outside is angry, rattling the windows and howling in the chimney.
Harry Ryan, a sophomore at the college there, decided to stay at school over winter break to finish his term paper, but it’s not going well, and now he regrets the decision that left him stranded so far from his family on such an important occasion. You see, as well as being Christmas, December 25th is also Harry’s birthday.
As he looks out his window at the stark and beautiful campus, at the icicles on the bushes along Middle Path, and the snow pasted on the windward sides of trees, and the layers of vanilla icing covering the world’s chocolate cake, it reminds him of a Christmas a long time ago.
Buffalo Nickel Christmas is the story of that special day. It begins with an ordinary boy in an ordinary world, but as a monster storm approaches, and Christmas Eve finally arrives, the boy discovers that he is anything but ordinary, and that the world is a very magical place indeed.
You will meet some unusual people in this story, and hear unbelievable things. You might even see a wizard and a king or two. Sixteen forevers will pass in this book. That’s a very long time, and many magical things can happen when it’s sixteen forevers and still no Christmas. Whatever you do, don’t listen to that little voice inside your head that tells you it’s illogical, that it doesn’t make sense. Listen for the whistling teakettle and be ready with your wish.
Harry Ryan wasn’t anyone special. He wasn’t a hero or a knight in shining armor, and he wasn’t someone you would have heard on the news or seen on TV. He was just a kid away at college over Christmas, sitting at his desk, chewing his pencil, and staring at the crumpled up wads of paper overflowing his trashcan.
It had been snowing since yesterday, and the college closed a day early that year for Christmas. The weathermen said it was going to be a monster. Mostly everyone took their advice and left before the storm hit, except the students who couldn’t afford to go home for the holidays, or the few, like Harry, who decided to spend Christmas in Gambier, Ohio. Harry liked Gambier, and on days in the fall when the campus was awash in color, or in the spring when the scents and sounds of life filled him with joy, he had a notion he’d like to live there someday. It was nice little town, and he’d met many wonderful people — Mrs. Hoople, for one. He had boarded with the kind old lady since freshman year in her quaint house on Wiggin Street, across the road from the main campus. She reminded him of his mom and family, and in thinking of her, he thought of them and how much he missed them.
He wished he could have gone home, but he had too much schoolwork. It was 3:00 a.m. and after a wastebasket full of attempts, he still hadn’t started his term paper for his creative writing class. He’d been up all night, and it was due a week ago. His professor had given him the break to finish it, but at the rate he was going, he would need sixteen breaks, and that was forever.
Harry read aloud what he had written, “I should have majored in Poli Sci. No one expects creativity there.”
He wanted a cup of tea, but he didn’t want to disturb Mrs. Hoople. She was a light sleeper, and the wooden stairs to the first floor had acquired a telltale creak over the years. He crushed his latest effort into a ball and bounced it off the wastebasket, where it fell to floor like a giant snowflake. Outside, the wind whistled, rattled the window, and howled in the chimney.
Kenyon College was stark and beautiful in winter: the icicles on the bushes along Middle Path, the snow pasted on the windward sides of trees, and the layers of vanilla icing covering world’s chocolate cake. Whenever a monster storm hit the place they called “The Hill,” it crafted a new landscape of mountains and valleys from drifted snow, and Kenyon became a different, magical place, reminiscent of a Christmas a very long time ago.
2 –The Monster
I remember Christmas 1956. It’s hard not to remember Christmas when it’s your birthday, but that one was very special. It was snowy, like every other winter growing up in Pittsburgh. We loved snow. The stuff was magical —big thick piles of whipped cream everywhere, just waiting for our imaginations to use as the topping for a game or adventure. That year we got enough of it to make even the cars with chains on their tires skid on the steep Pittsburgh hills, enough to make sliding down Hastie Road to school an Olympic event, and enough to shut down Saint Catherine’s a day early for the holidays.
We’d had our first snow of the season in late November that year. That one didn’t even get us an hour off from school — hardly worth the snowballs, as my brother Tom said. Tom is the oldest of the Ryans. He was ten at the time, a sixth grader, and leader of The Caswells. That’s what we called ourselves. We were an honest-to-goodness gang with official Pirate baseball caps, a gang treasury, and a secret hideout in a valley in the woods next to our house. Tom made the rules, and he wrote them down in a composition notebook he called the Book of Tom. It was a journal he had to keep for Sister Jeanne Lorette in sixth grade, a punishment for misbehaving. The other members were Mary, Kate, and Sam, my other older siblings, and four of Tom’s fellow sixth graders: Wayne, Bobby Fey, Braithwaite, and Big Bob. I was only five and in first grade, but I’d be six soon, and Tom told me that I’d move up from diversion to cannon fodder on my next birthday. We weren’t much of a gang really, but we played together, we all went to Saint Catherine’s, and every day was a new adventure for us.
The second snowstorm came in early December, another six inches on top of what hadn’t melted from the first. The city was prepared for that one, and life went on without disruption, much to everyone’s disappointment. But the one that came the Thursday before Christmas 1956, the one we called the Monster, arrived in a wave of excitement, like a sequence of weekly previews of coming attractions at the movies. The first is always the teaser. That’s the one where they show you a few thrilling seconds from the movie, just enough to wet your whistle. Our teaser came when the long-range forecast mentioned the vague possibility of a blizzard sometime around the holidays. That little inkling was enough to start the buzz among all the little school bees.
After the teaser come the trailers, each a little more detailed than the last, and each with a slightly different twist to keep everyone guessing what the upcoming movie is really about. The Monster trailers were the nightly weather updates that changed slightly from one day to the next. They always put the weather last on the news, and it was torture sitting through boring stories and listening to Dad complain about the Steelers during the sports and the politicians during the world news, but nothing could unglue us from that TV until we had the latest scoop on the weather to take to school the next day. It became the only thing we talked about, to the point where any secret note passed during class that was not about the Monster was crumpled up and tossed out.
As the week progressed and the forecast solidified into a fifty percent probability that we would get two feet of snow, there was just no stopping the excitement. This forecast also meant that there was an equal chance that the storm would pass to the west and miss us entirely, but to a kid, fifty percent is as good as gold. All meaningful schoolwork at Saint Catherine’s ground to a halt. Lessons were postponed, homework cancelled. Mrs. Baxter had us do a lot of coloring, singing, and listening to stories that week.
On the big day, the first flakes began to fall before noon. We watched from the classroom windows in disappointment all through lunch as they melted on the sidewalk. Suddenly, fifty percent didn’t look so good anymore. But the soundless snow shower continued through recess, and as the temperature dropped, the school’s furnace kicked in. The radiators began to warm, crackle, and pop, and the parking lot, the sidewalks, and the corner of Willow Avenue and Rockwood donned a thin coat of white. Noses to the glass, we watched the storm intensify. The snow became so thick we couldn’t see Saint Catherine’s Church across the street. An eighth grader delivered a note to Mrs. Baxter, and she left us with our heads down on our desks for after-lunch quiet time. One of the braver kids in the class retrieved the paper from the wastebasket and passed it around the room. It had only two words on it — teachers’ meeting.
They let us out early, and the first exuberant kids burst through the doors into the mounting storm at one o’clock with strict instructions to get home as quickly as possible. The busses were already loading when the Caswells assembled at our regular meeting place in the parking lot behind the new building. I was the last to arrive. Somehow I had gotten my coat on inside out, and Mrs. Baxter had to fix me before I could be dismissed.
Mary pulled the ears on my hat down farther and buttoned the last button on my coat. “You’ll surely turn into a Popsicle someday, Harry Ryan, if you don’t pay more attention to yourself.”
I caught a snowflake on my tongue, then another. Each was different. Tom said that no two were ever the same, and so they all tasted differently, but a snowflake is like the attention of a child — the instant you try and catch it, it melts away and is gone.
Sam grabbed the next one before I could and popped it into his mouth. “You sound like Sister Beatrice, Mary.” He rubbed his stomach. “Mmmm, that one was chocolate.”
“There aren’t any chocolate snowflakes, you ding-dong,” Braithwaite said. “They’re all white.” Braithwaite’s first name was also Tom, but no one called him that.
“Oh yeah, Braithwaite? What about white chocolate? That’s white.”
“That isn’t chocolate. They just call it that so kids will eat it.”
Kate twirled around catching as many flakes as she could at once on her tongue. She smiled as they melted in her mouth. “I had a white chocolate rabbit last Easter.”
“And I’ll bet it didn’t taste like chocolate, did it?”
She stopped and looked thoughtfully at Braithwaite. “Well, it was different.”
“That’s because it isn’t real chocolate. It’s made of boogers.”
“It wasn’t made of boogers. It was good.”
“Good boogers then. And you ate them.”
Tom looked down the tracks. “Are the streetcars running?”
Snow was beginning to pile up between the tracks. A storm didn’t usually stop the streetcars, but ice on the overhead lines could shut down the whole thing without warning. We all remembered what happened the last time Tom had talked us into walking the streetcar tracks.
Wayne said what we were all thinking. “I’m not taking the tracks again, Tom. We almost got killed.” Wayne’s full name was Wayne Brubacher. Looking back on it, I don’t remember much about Wayne, but I do remember how scared he was when we were almost run over by a streetcar because of Tom’s shortcut.
Tom packed a snowball and fired it at a stop sign. The snow was too powdery and it broke apart in midair. “I was just wondering if we should take the streetcar home, that’s all.”
“Tom, we’re saving the treasury money for the Christmas party.” Mary was our treasurer and kept a tight rein on gang spending. That was a good thing, especially when we went to Isaly’s for a Klondike bar or Skyscraper cone.
“Party!” I grabbed Tom’s hands and jumped up and down.
“Not yet, squirt,” said Tom. “Not till Christmas.”
Bobby Fey picked up two handfuls of snow and smashed them again his face. His cheeks turned as red as a clown’s nose. He was always trying to be funny. “Where are we going to have it, Tom?”
“I’m not sure, but there’s a place I know that might be good. We’ll have to scout it out tomorrow.”
“But we have school tomorrow, don’t we?” asked Sam.
“I doubt it,” Big Bob said. “I heard Sister Concepta telling Robot Del Rey that they would be calling all the parents tonight. You know what that means.” Robot Del Rey was really Sister Del Rey, the school disciplinarian. According to Tom, she was the latest model in robot nuns.
“It means snow angels!” Monster or no monster, I fell backward into the snow and made my first snow angel of the storm.
Wayne joined me and soon two angels stood foot to foot by the streetcar tracks. He sat up. “So we have one extra day off, right?”
Braithwaite wiped out Wayne’s angel with a few kicks. “Did you figure that out all by yourself, Wayne?”
“Don’t be so nasty all the time, Braithwaite.” Kate was mad. She was never very good at hiding her feelings.
“Yeah? What are you going to do about it?”
Tom just shook his head at them. Everyone knew that Braithwaite’s older brother was serving in Korea in the army, and that they hadn’t heard from him in weeks. He was part of the U.N. peacekeeping force and was on some kind of secret mission. We thought that was pretty neat, but Braithwaite’s mom and dad were worried, and Braithwaite was, too. Tom had told us to lay off him for a while, but it was hard, especially when Braithwaite was being more of a jerk than usual.
“Let’s get going,” Tom said, crossing the street.
We walked to the corner where Frankie Marx should have been. He was a patrol boy, and that was his station every morning and every day after school. He was also Tom’s archenemy. The street was deserted and the tracks of the kids who had already gone down Willow Avenue were filling up with new snow. The bushes in the yard of the house at the corner had become giant snowballs, and the bare limbs of the walnut tree near the front door looked like dark chocolate sticks coated with a topping of vanilla icing. A cat sat in the bay window of the house and blinked, more curious about the snow silently falling to earth than the group of kids outside his warm perch.
“Where’s Frankie? He should be here.” Mary didn’t like it when things were not the way they were supposed to be.
“I’m sure he’s fine, Mary,” Kate said. “Knowing him, his dad probably picked him up.”
“Yeah, him and his dumb shoes,” Braithwaite laughed.
Frankie Marx, notorious teacher’s pet and straight-A student, wore black leather penny loafers with a shiny new dime in each. When it rained or snowed, he had rubbers that fit over them to protect them. He never wore boots, and that made deep snow or deep puddles his Kryptonite.
“We’ll go by his house. It’s on the way.” Tom started down Willow leaving us looking at each other, wondering why our superhero would want to make sure his archenemy was okay.
“Who cares about Frankie Marx?” Braithwaite spat between his teeth into the snow. His older brother had taught him that. All the soldiers did it.
Sam took my hand. “Even with all his powers and all the times he could have let Lex Luthor die, Superman never did, Braithwaite. That’s what makes him super.”
We caught up with Tom and fell in behind. The snow was no longer coming straight down. The wind had picked up and was pushing it in our faces. And it was getting colder, so cold my nose hurt. I bunched my fingers together inside my mittens to keep them warm. The asphalt street had turned from black to white, and the road and sidewalk had become indistinguishable from the yards. The neighborhood was one huge snowdrift. Cars parked in driveways were turning into mountains of snow. Nobody was out shoveling. There was no point in trying to clear a path until the snow stopped and the wind died down.
Tom stopped where Willow met Hastie Road. We had come this far on flat ground but now Mount Everest loomed before us. Hastie was the steepest hill on our route to and from school, and I often wished we would take a different way home. I didn’t mind so much going to school that way, but the uphill climb home was hard, even for a kid.
“A guy in the shoveling business could make a lot of money off this,” Tom speculated, kicking up powder by the street sign on which only the letters “asti” peeked through the snow pack. As if insulted, the storm blew its white presents right back in his face. It didn’t want them returned to the sky, not now, not until some day in January when the sun would melt the snow enough to see the grass again, and the only reminder that the Monster had been here would be the hard-packed mountains of ice and gravel plowed into the corners of grocery store parking lots.
“The driveways would fill in almost as fast as you could shovel them, Tom.” Kate was right, but sometimes being right wasn’t always the point with Tom.
“That’s what I mean,” Tom said. “I could make a fortune shoveling and reshoveling the same driveway.” With his foot, he traced a dollar sign in the snow. “You could, too, if you want in.”
It was tantalizing. It was money. Mary was interested. “We could have a nice party with that kind of money.”
“Count me out. I hate shoveling,” Braithwaite said. Tom gave him a sour look but said nothing.
Big Bob stared at the snow-covered hill where Hastie Road should have been and shook his head. He didn’t like this part of the walk home either. “I’m in, Tom, but Dad will make me shovel our drive first. Okay?”
“No sweat. Just tell him that the smart thing to do is wait until the storm is over. If that doesn’t work, we’ll do yours first.”
When all votes were counted, it was settled. Except for Braithwaite, we were all in agreement with Tom’s plan. The Caswell coffers would soon be overflowing, and we would have the best Christmas party ever, thanks to the Monster.