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  • December 21st, 2018

SILENT NIGHT

By Joel M. Vance

 

The machine itself has long since gone to the great dustbin of useless appliances that have outlived their life and practicality, along with coffeemakers, toasters, and other kitchen utensils with a built-in shelf life which give up the ghost, not with a bang or even a whimper but that simply quit working.

 

This machine was obsolete before I got it uncomfortably more than half a century ago, but one artifact from its short and unremarkable life still exists somewhere in the clutter of my audio recordings which range from 78 RPM discs barely out of the Edison era to today’s compact disc which, they tell me, also is obsolete. Forgive me for feeling more than a little obsolete myself as we close in on yet another Christmas.

 

The artifact that still exists is a recording, made with a disc recording machine, which is the way that old Tom Edison did it, and the reason that we still today can hear the voice of Enrico Caruso and other long dead historic personages. On this particular disc recording, there are no Carusos— only the Joel Vance family, father mother and son, singing “ Silent Night”. The von Trapp family we are not.

 

If you have heard Johnny Cash and the Carter Family sing “Daddy Sang Bass” you can get some idea of what we were trying to achieve on that long ago Christmas recording. Not that we would ever be mistaken for the Carter/Cash clan. My daddy was singing bass, obviously self-consciously, and mama I think was trying to be as inaudible as possible in the background, while I contributed a warbley barely post-adolescent tenor.

 

The recording machine was my parents’ gift to me for Christmas, 1949, something I had lusted over so I could record myself, the first step toward country music stardom. That goofy dream, along with the recording machine, which already had been superseded in electronic invention by tape-recording, also has joined the toasters and coffee machines of yesteryear in the dustbin of memory.

 

On this recording, I am accompanying the family choir on a Sears Silvertone, orchestra model guitar, which had the action of a fence post strung with baling wire. After a session, wrestling with this so-called musical instrument my fingers felt as if I had been pounding on them with a meat mallet, and if the old Silvertone is any indication, it’s no wonder that Sears and Company has followed its infernal recording device and condemned musical instrument into history.

 

The process of recording was to position a blank recording disk on the turntable of the machine, needle resting on what would become the first groove in the wax of the disc, set the controls for volume, tone and whatever else was involved, position the microphone so it would capture the voices of Vances, pere, mere, and squeaky kid, caution everyone to be at their vocal best and launch into the unknown.

 

It has been a long time since I’ve resuscitated that recording of “Silent Night,“ but with Christmas upon us, I would like to unearth it from the audio vault and hear once again my father and mother—not so much me, but those voices of loved ones long gone.

 

I’ve had two Christmas traditions in my life, one the first 14 years of it when I was born and raised in Chicago and if you have seen the movie A Christmas Story (and who hasn’t) you see the story of those 14 years. I was the living Ralphie. Virtually the only thing different was that no aging aunt gave me a bunny costume. But the careful selection of a tree (which usually looked like the one that was left when all the good ones had been selected), careful stringing of lights, the trip downtown to see the window displays at Marshall Field’s department store, the snow!, Ah, the snow! White Christmas! We had snow. Lake Michigan hulked right at Chicago’s doorstep and howling northern winds sucked up lake water and created snow that blanketed the city. Snowmen, snowball fights, angel figures in newfallen snow, galoshes, “be sure to wear your gloves so your hands don’t get cold”

 

But they did get cold, blue and numb with the cold and we didn’t care. Christmas was coming! I didn’t want a Red Ryder BB gun more than anything (I actually did get one a year or two later)–I wanted a Sears and Roebuck Silvertone guitar so I could sing like Gene Autry and maybe, if there was such a thing as a Red Ryder Colt 45 BB gun, that too so I could shoot Black Bart and his gang of old West desperados. But I settled for snowballs which, if you kneaded them long enough, turned to ice balls that were every bit as lethal as 45 caliber slugs. In summer time, we played burnout catch with baseballs so I could throw with pretty good velocity and an ice ball accurately placed could have the neighbor kid howling for his mama.

 

Once I saved the pennies from my meager allowance and bought my mother tea kettle for Christmas. She didn’t drink tea and a kettle for heating water was about as useful to her as a calf roping lariat, but she hugged me and thanked me with moist eyes and I felt 10 feet tall and every bit as noble as Gene Autry. I just couldn’t sing and play the guitar like him. That damn Silvertone. And then we moved to Missouri and a whole new world of Christmases.

 

My father gave up a middle-class salesman’s job and a comfortable apartment in Chicago for a ramshackle former railroad hotel in Dalton Missouri with an income that was, to put it charitably, limited. All the money that came in from a large farm investment went right back into the debt on the farm and what was left over was what we lived on. Christmas presents were likely to be, for me anyway, a new shirt or two and a new pair of jeans.  And that would get me through the school year. We moved from that Chicago apartment to a wreck of a building that had been built largely from timbers salvaged from an 1800s Missouri River steamboat wreck.

 

It had served in its heyday as a haven for traveling salesman on the railroad which ran through Dalton. The all too common trains still passed through the town less than 100 yards across the gravel street from where we lived. It took adjustment to deal with the midnight blare from the passing freight trains, but we got used to it.

 

We still decorated a Christmas tree. Hanging lights and tinsel and the same ornaments we had used in Chicago. Christmas tree lights were a tribulation which, had my father been a cussing type like Ralphie’s Old Man, would’ve had him fuming because when one light in a string of those ancient times went out, they all went out and you spent hours trying to isolate the offender and replace it with a working bulb.

 

We didn’t decorate the ramshackle Dalton hotel the way Ralphie’s Old Man did their suburban home because, given the condition of the old building, the weight of the kind of Christmas light decorations, common today, probably would have caused the place to collapse. And my Old Man didn’t get a wonderful leg lamp as a major award by having the winning ticket in a local movie theater giveaway, since there was no local movie theater giving away leg lamps.

 

The only movie theater in the area was the El Jon in Brunswick where I once saw Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys live on stage before what probably was a gene Autry Western. I didn’t appreciate that I was experiencing country music history, trapped as I was in my fantasy of becoming a future Gene Autry, the original singing cowboy.

 

  I should have realized that fantasy was only a fantasy, when I was tapped by my mother into singing “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” for our Methodist Church congregation, and a wasp fell on my neck mid song and stung me and I said a word inappropriate for a house of worship. Fortunately, most everyone was bored to insensibility and didn’t hear me or I would’ve had my mouth washed out with soap, like Ralphie when he said the forbidden word. I did however experience a Lifeboy mouthwash once when I called a little kid a son of a B. I didn’t even finish the phrase, but my mother overheard the beginning and introduced me to the concept of sucking on a bar of soap to cure me of inappropriate comment.

 

Three people in a ramshackle old building in the year just before mid century (and that is the last century, not this one) tentatively singing “All is calm/all is bright” into a cheap microphone which in turn fed into an already obsolete recording machine. Chaps, the family half springer, half cocker spaniel lounged nearby and was in her prime and had adapted to life in the country, far removed from her origin in a pet shop in Chicago Illinois, to become a consummate squirrel dog in front of my father, armed with a 22 caliber Winchester single shot rifle.

 

This was a new life for me, a city kid from birth, but a return to their roots for my mother and father. My mother was born to a pioneer family in northern Wisconsin, a land of lakes and forest. My father was raised on a hard rock Missouri farm where self-sufficiency was imperative—either that or perish .

 

So this was 69 years ago, barely past the end of World War II and not quite the beginning of the Korean War. Since then we have been in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan—with no end of the latter war in sight. The world is in turmoil, the country is divided as never before, we’re saddled with a president who apparently was elected mostly by help from an enemy nation that was just becoming such when my parents and I sang “Silent Night” so long ago.

 

I remember…..

 

There is snow on the ground outside the old hotel and maybe the few Dalton kids will get together later on and sled down the hill a few feet east of the hotel, picking up speed, rocketing across the deserted street, angling left and across the railroad tracks and almost as far as the hardware store. This was when Bing Crosby’s recording of “White Christmas” meant just that. This was when Christmas was not just an occasion for a manic shopping spree, when people gathered in church whether they were churchy types or not, when everyone knew the words to familiar Christmas carols and when everyone believed in the concept of Santa Claus even when they knew better.

 

It takes the perspective of age to be able to remember that the years Immediately after the horror of World War II was an era of unbridled prosperity and that things were not just different but better. Climate change was there but we didn’t know it.  It snowed in wintertime and steamed in summer, but we had seasons and we made the best of them. We sledded and had snowball fights and built snowmen and made angels in the snow. Can’t we, as a world, take a day or two off from strife and anguish and live out the promise of the Christmas holiday of yesteryear, regardless of race, religion, ethnic background or any other consideration that muddies our lives in today’s world?

 

And we sang “Silent Night” as a family and Christmas came upon a midnight clear and we were happy and we huddled close to a microphone and sang for the ages. “Sleep in heavenly peace…..”  And that’s why I get a lump in my throat every time I hear “Silent Night” that has nothing to do sinus drainage.

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1 Comment

  1. Paul F. Vang

    December 21st, 2018 at 2:45 pm

    Reply

    Somewhere around that time I also got a Sears guitar for Christmas. I’d seen enough Gene Autry movies to figure that playing a guitar was easy. My mother was a piano teacher and she’d mostly given up on my learning 88 keys. I quickly learned that a guitar is a challenging musical instrument involving fingers on either hand doing different things.

    Thanks for sharing the memories.



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