“Write it tight; write it bright; write it tonight.” ~Jay Greene
Christmas arrives but once per year and both speeds up activity and slows down time itself as a stream-of-consciousness slide-show of vivid, or blurred, images of memories crowd the mind:
My mother whizzing to the top floor of Wolf & Dessauer’s Department Store, via elevator, to stand in line for her daughters to sit sequentially on Santa’s lap, her escalator-phobia never influencing us as the rest of the family ascended higher and higher as if suitcases on conveyor belts.
Lighting some candles and dimming all lights and scurrying about while waiting for the elderly childless couple, immediately next door, to join our family for Christmas Eve within our living room for a dozen holidays in a row.
Bustling off to Grace Lutheran church to select, quietly and unobtrusively, a velvet-upholstered pew and to view an officious parade, toward the chancel, of several elderly gentlemen dressed as “Christian Soldiers”, costumed as if they accompanied Francis Scott Key aboard the same frigate where that fellow supposedly popped up with THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER! Hymns included “Onward…Christian Soldiers” of course! “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger” to follow shortly–all of this pageantry and reverence at midnight!
Nothing wrong with recording one’s Yuletide thoughts before Thanksgiving even occurred, and I found myself properly provoked to do so. Blue Bell–“The World’s Largest Producer of Wrangler Jeans for Work and Play”–eternally scrolls across the marquee of my brain in flashing light bulbs which never will go dark.
Above the Post & Mail’s front-page fold, one recent November afternoon, a factory building–which assumed such importance in my life for most of my life–stands frozen, silent, unloved within the center of a dreary photograph. Its once proud banner of a sign is partially missing so that only the word “Blue” remains. Heart-breaking. Comforting thoughts from former employees and their children/grand-children/great grand-children managed to lift spirits: Chad Langohr, Laurie Coon Barton, Patricia Ward Luther, Jerrie Hammond-Begue, Niki Buse, Nancy Redman Brunner, Jay Parker, Roy Sexton, Nancy Sevits Schwartz, Harry Staley, Jr. “My grandma worked there, too–it was her first job! The first piece of furniture she bought with her earnings was a Hoosier Cabinet, which is in my dining room right now!” wrote Wendy Burgette Quinn.
I was asked to compose a Whitley County Historical Bulletin article, 25 years past, chronicling the “Life” of that handsome Art-Deco era structure born in 1938. Attacked by over-zealous editing, upon publication I hung my writer’s head in shame as each time the word “denim” appeared, the spelling had been “corrected” to “denum”? Having interviewed over a dozen folks, including Phyllis Mattix, Treva Wolfe, Bill Winters, Waldo Ferris and Leonard Barnum among them, I also submitted photos of the factory of which all of those former employees were still emphatically, enthusiastically proud. Mrs. Mattix’s original pen-and-ink drawing of the handsome building graced the cover.
I remembered, then and now, throngs of fabulous, productive, creative individuals whose loyalty to their employer and pride in their work provided an example which informs and impresses me to this moment.
Also, I recollect each holiday season how important employees’ work-and-home-lives were to my father. “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”, “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth”, “Reindolph the Rude-Nosed Red-Deer” (my little nephew’s garbled version), “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”, “Frosty the Snowman” and “Deck the Halls With Boughs of Holly”, all sung by Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, Burl Ives, and later Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis, originated from the switchboard area and blared throughout the eventual inter-com system. Blue Bell “kids” and other community children received special treatment at annual Christmas parties, one exceptionally exciting year receiving dolls dressed by expert Blue Bell seamstresses. My doll, a “majorette”, certainly did not suit my capabilities but thrilled me nonetheless.
Lucy Ricardo withstood RIcky hustling to rehearsals and night-club shows featuring Copacabana show girls. I empathize with that lady. As this holiday season approaches, I am living with a man who is heading up a “Blight Busters” campaign and on the top of his list of eye-sores–to complain about, to clean up or to clear out entirely–is my dad’s former plant/company which employed most of this community’s citizenry at one time or another. The stuff of which situation comedies are made. Script proposal?
My plan to record all of the happiness occurring at that locale during the holidays seemed doomed. Talk about conflict of interest(s)! Scrapbooks, filled with Kodak shots and 8″ by 10″ glossies of 40 plus years of the history of the Blue Bell factory and of its employees who made it all happen, upon review, now form a lump, rivalling the size of Texas, in my throat.
FortuitousIy, I recently stumbled upon life-affirming, sensible, assuring hand-written words of my brilliant paternal grandmother’s “once-upon-a-time” Sunday School lesson, entitled “The First Christmas Gifts”. She couched her 1942 narrative in accessible facts of history, geography, science, Mid-Eastern culture, archaeology and astronomy.
“We are accustomed at Christmastime to talk about the season from the divine side. Let us investigate the other side…it is a sublime picture. Wise scholars of the East following the skies’ signals, then bowing down at the feet of a little child, so poor that its cradle was a manger, while offering the wealth of the world in gold, frankincense and myrrh. It is not what we GET in this world, but what we GIVE which measures and develops character and marks the grade of humanity to which we belong.” Upon explanation of the actually “practical” signifcance of each of those material gifts, Grandmother wrote that she believed that “Greatness in character is graded by gifts of service. How many people can I nurture, burdens can I carry, hearts can I cheer, tears can I banish? How much joy can I bring to the world?” Gifts proffered by the Magi, to honor a new life, began a tradition–gifts from the rich to the poor, sharing wealth so that others might thrive, flourish and contribute their talents to a harmonious and an inclusive society.
The Nativity Story lightens our hearts, filling us with joy and hopefulness annually, like clock-work. I’ll survive the sadness which I feel that our community’s leaders failed to facilitate the development of the former Blue Bell building into some glorious operation such as my dad accomplished for decades, noteworthily “Mr. Day’s Park” located on the left hand side as one stands on Whitley Street and faces the currently dilapidated signage out front. When I pass by the building, once so valuable to our town, I focus on an artifact of a more prosperous time and a reminder of how local industry once kept this country humming, providing fruitful lives for countless families.
Allow us to recall and celebrate the Life of that structure rather than dwell on its demise. Cheers to those who populated that Blue Bell story–to the employees, to their families and to all who have enjoyed their durable Wrangler jeans and still do! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, and from now until the end of time “may your days be merry and bright and may all your Christmases be white.”