ONE RED SOCK, A QUARTER AND THE VOICES OF CHRISTMAS IN THE CONGO
It seems that every year at the holidays we post a Christmas story. Last year was a fantasy of spending Christmas night at Home Goods. This year’s post is more serious and more personal.
In December of 1963, I was a student at Northeastern University which is located on Huntington Avenue, in Boston. More than 50 years ago, Northeastern was a “commuter college,” with most of the students living off- campus.
The Green Line trolley let us off just outside of the tunnel on Huntington Avenue, which meant that when we wanted to catch the subway back into Boston and then home, we had to wait in the cold. Depending upon the weather, our coats were either soaked with rain, or snow collected on our shoulders.
There had been talk that the subway fare was going to be raised a dime, and there were ardent discussions about how to avoid paying that extra dime each way.
Many of us talked about walking to the Symphony stop to avoid the higher fare, even if it meant carrying an armload of books. It’s hard to believe that a dime meant so much to us then, but you could buy a submarine sandwich at the Northeastern Lunch Room for 30 cents. Granted it had one slice of bologna, 1 slice of American cheese, 1 slice of ham and two transparent slices of tomato squeezed into a soft roll. Ice cream sandwiches were 20 cents, and we sometimes made a lunch of one. “Cheap and Filling,” was our motto.
We later found that the subway fare would remain the same because Northeastern was the first stop out of the tunnel. We never figured out why, but the fare was raised for the next subway stop, but not ours.
My mother had died the year before, and it was still difficult realizing that she was no longer alive. I was still numb from the loss. It was December in Boston, and it was cold, and I had to find a book that was required for one of my courses. I went to almost every bookstore in Cambridge and Boston. There was no Internet and no Amazon.com then.
The most technical approach I had to a book search was to call every bookstore in the Yellow Pages, and ask if they had the book I needed. Because it was before Christmas, most of the clerks, part-time student help, didn’t have the time to search for the book on their shelves.
The title of the book was Letters From an American Farmer by St. Jean De Crevecoeur, written by a Frenchman to his English friend, describing the persons inhabiting the British Colonies, their lives, and their political views.
I tramped through avenues of grey slush, worn by the still painful grief for my mother. No one had the elusive book I needed. I finally went to the Boston Public Library, and found that the book was not available.
People were running around the library chatting about the holiday, about the presents they had bought, and the holiday parties they were hosting or attending. I felt terribly alone and overwhelmed by a sense of exclusion.
Disheartened, I paused for a few minutes outside the room where patrons of the library could listen to recordings. Joyful choral music spilled from the open door. I listened, and it was as if the music from the recording was filling me with the joy created by those voices.
I asked someone who the singers were, and I was told it was a recording called Christmas In The Congo. A few years before, there had been massacres in the Congo, and, to me, it was almost unbelievable that something so beautiful had come from that chaos and slaughter. It is hard to believe that I can still feel the same elation I felt more than 50 years ago when I listened to that music.
I continued my search for Crevecoeur’s book, and I finally found it in a bookstore on West Street. I had built up this search into something with an almost impossible result. I had pictured this required book as being large and expensive and unattainable. Instead, I found myself buying a modest little paperback with a cover the color of sunshine. For the agreeable price of $1.50 I was able to learn about De Crevcoeur’s experiences in what was then considered an “uncivilized” country, but later proved to be the birthplace of a nation.
Carefully pocketing my treasure, I took the subway back to Northeastern. As I stepped off the subway train on Huntington Avenue, I could feel the chill, but I was filled with hope, and I finally realized it was a holiday.
I went to the campus bookstore and bought myself an extravagant present – a pair of red wool knee socks. They were expensive, $1.75, but they were warm, and they were red, part of the red and black of Northeastern’s colors.
Wearing my new knee socks, standing at the subway stop traveling home, it was a different cold I felt, bearable, not bone-chilling. The socks did make a difference.
Flush with good cheer and the holiday spirit, I put a quarter in the Salvation Army kettle at the Park Street Station. “God bless you,” said the steward of the kettle. I believed him, and I lived off his blessing for a very long time.
So many years have gone by. I have only one red knee sock. I never found out what happened to the other one. I wore those socks for years, and they kept me warm. I can’t bring myself to throw away the solitary sock, because it reminds me of my own spiritual rebirth on a cold day in December when I heard beautiful music and gave a quarter to the Salvation Army.
I enjoyed reading De Crevecoeur’s little book, and I probably should re-read it again because they say things often seem different when you re-visit them. I know I will bring a half-century’s worth of knowledge, and, I hope, a little wisdom to the re-reading.
Every year, I plan my charitable donations, and I am happy to say they are substantial, but for years I couldn’t resist dropping a quarter in the Salvation Army kettle because I wanted to hear someone say, “God bless you.” Now, I usually “drop” something folded into the kettle because, let’s face it, a quarter isn’t what it used to be.
Christmas In The Congo was recorded by Les Troubadours du Roi Baudouin.