Coal for Christmas? It can happen

The writer and his mom in post-coal times.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
The writer and his mom in post-coal times.

“You’re going to get coal in your stocking!”

Who didn’t hear that growing up, the warning from your mom as Christmas neared and you did something dumb, or maybe something not so nice?

Growing up on Gun Club Road on the outskirts of Altamont, my younger brother, Doug, myself and two of my older brothers, Chuck and Joe, had many opportunities to do questionable things. And sometimes, yeah, we did.

We heard the warning that coal might be coming. More than once.

We always shrugged it off, knowing Mom would never.

But on one snowy day in late December in mid-1970-something, we did, in fact, get coal.

Black chunks of it, instead of candy bars, Army men, baseball cards and all the other cool stuff that my mom, Betty, would usually gather with thought and care, and even wrap up before cramming our oversized stockings full.

Real coal. In our stockings. Each piece with our name on it.

Yikes!

OK, OK. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Just a gag that in time I found out was actually conceived by my dad, Sylvester, and OK’d by Mom.

It was a joke, but one that also sent a message that I believe, at least a little, sunk in.

That is, after the initial shock of a well-executed plan.

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We were 8, 11, 12 and 13 years old, after all. Never saw it coming. Never imagined it happening to us. Never forgot it, either, even as the specifics grow foggier with each year that passes.

“You raised a lot of hell but you weren’t bad kids,” my dad told me the other night.

We were rather sneaky when it came to our stockings, however, and Joe, who we lost several years ago, was always our master planner.

I can’t help but laugh when I think of a time before the coal year that Joe and I crawled silently from our room down the stairs, through a dark hallway and into the living room to not just take a midnight peak at our stuffed stockings, but to snag them before crawling back to an upstairs bathroom in stealth-like fashion.

What we were thinking as we opened a few gifts, I have no clue, but we did it.

We got caught, too. The rest of that story, like the coal saga, is rather hazy, but it’s true.

Silly, but true.

Getting back to the coal, I called Chuck the other day just before I called my dad to get his take, and Chuck’s first recollection was hearing the front doorbell ring, opening the door and seeing our “real” stockings loaded with goodies in a big box on the top step. The mystery to this day, he said, was that there were no tracks in the snow. No sign of a shoe print.

How’d that box get there?

And who rang that bell?

He thinks the box was left there overnight and that my dad, who used to do electric work among other things, had rigged something to get that bell to ring.

My dad said he didn’t recall doing that.

At least, that’s the story he stuck to when I asked.

I talked to Doug the other day and his first thought of the coal incident was seeing our late brother, Steve, who must have been 18 or 19 at the time and on leave from the Army, fleeing from the back door in an attempt to keep his name out of the dark deed.

I’m certain Steve was in on the whole thing, because one of my memories is of him coming through our back door holding a box with the stockings full of coal in it. I wasn’t supposed to see that. The coal was supposed to be Santa’s doing, after all.

My mom doesn’t say much when asked about details of that morning at the Schiltz house so many years ago. But she will smile and chuckle a bit as if to say, “It wasn’t me.”

The author is a longtime Daily Gazette sportswriter.

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