Christmas In Niles, 1963

niles-house

by Brule Eagan

Christmas was a secular holiday for us. Every year, Pop would string the lights on our little house in Niles. We had a couple of big hollow plastic candles lit from within which proclaimed “Noël”. They flanked the front stoop. And until I was seven, a real tree was in the front room every year. Pop finally got fed up hauling trees around, and bought one of those silver foil trees that needed assembly, and a floodlight that sat on the floor with a wheel of different colored gels that spun around. The tree was in a motorized stand that revolved, and Mom festooned the tree with blue ornaments. With a nativity set in front, it made for a truly Cold War-Mad Men Christmas. During the day, Mom would have a Bing Crosby album playing. But at night, when the folks were watching TV in the back room that Pop built, I sat alone in the dark on the couch in the front room, spellbound by that tree…and the glow of the lights…and the stillness of the December nights.

We lived at 6952 Monroe Court.

Monroe Court was a quiet cul-de-sac with quiet neighbors. My folks were the youngest homeowners on the street, if you didn’t include the Ecks, but their house had a Newland Street address, so we won on a technicality.

Everybody knew everybody on the whole block. It was us, then the Hultmans, then Mr. Olson, a lovely old man who lived alone, then the Johnsons, the Swansons, and the Ecks.

On the other side were the Brandts and the Tanners, then around the corner, the Currys, and the Cockerells.

Then, around that corner onto Madison Street, were the Caesars, the Ennises, and the Davises, who lived directly behind us.

The Davises. Mr. and Mrs. Davis and their six sons. Mac, just out of high school, was the oldest, then Chuck, Gary, Fred, Tom, who was my age, and Johnny, two years younger. They were good Catholics, the Davises. (Evidently a little too good.) They were a noisy bunch. Nice people, but when you’ve got six boys in a house no bigger than ours, no one’s going to confuse it with the public library.

They were next-door neighbors to the Ennises, who had two boys. Joey was my age, and his brother Terry was a year or two older. And the Davises and the Ennises were the local Hatfields and McCoys.

I have no idea who started the trouble. None of them probably did, either, but that didn’t stop them. Anyone caught talking to a Davis by one of the Ennis boys was in for scorn and derision, and anyone caught talking to an Ennis by one of the Davis boys was in for a fat lip. Ever the coward, I made sure when I was talking to a member of one family, it was out of the sight and earshot of the other.

Just after Labor Day of 1963, the Davises had a new garage built. A two-car garage, built by the Danley Lumber Company in the space of a day. Very nice, and very visible from the TV room of our house. The last coat of paint went on it the week before JFK was killed.

I was ten that December, sitting in that little TV room watching Garfield Goose or some such, when I glanced out the window to see the Davis’ new garage engulfed in flames. I never saw a fire that big before. I called for Mom, who was busy preparing dinner. She stormed in muttering something, clearly annoyed at having been disturbed. She took one look out the window and completely freaked.

“Ooo! Don’t look!”, she screeched, trying to cover my eyes. Why, I don’t know. I guess she thought I might be possessed by some evil entity in the flames (little did she know).

“Oh, my God! It’s on fire!”

I said to her somebody should call the fire department.

“Tch! I’d better call the fire department!”

I was happy I kept my mouth shut.

By the time she got back to the phone (in the utility room next to the kitchen), the Niles hose brigade had arrived, and they proceeded to douse the fire, for all the good it did; the garage burned to the ground.

The great mystery around the neighborhood was, of course, how the fire started. There was some speculation that the neighborhood feud might have gone too far, but nobody believed that. The neighbors might have been feuding, but it wasn’t all-out bloodsport.

Finally, I heard that the fire was accidentally set. That’s what I heard. I’ll never know.

Things settled down quickly once the fire was out. Everyone was relieved that nobody was killed or hurt, and everyone went back to preparing for Christmas, including us. The lights went up, the giant candles took their posts, Der Bingle crooned his guts out, and that preposterous tree went up again. And I spent the evenings alone in the dark on the couch in the front room watching that tree slowly spin, seeing the colors change from that floodlight; first blue, then green, then yellow, then red. And the snow would fall, the flurries apparent in the glow of the outdoor lights and those candles. About then, I’d notice the lights twinkling along Monroe Court, and I’d just sit at the window and watch.

It’s funny; I got tons of presents that year, but the memory of them has evaporated. I remember everything else like it happened last week.

We moved to Des Plaines the next summer to a bigger house with a Danley Lumber garage of our own. I don’t know if the Davis’ garage ever got rebuilt. I suspect it did, but in subsequent visits, I never thought to look. That little house of the Davis’ is still there, though. So is the Ennis’ next door. And the Caesars next to that, and the Cockerells next to that. I can’t imagine any of their family members still live there. Back on Monroe Court, the Brandts’ house, and the Hultmans’ were replaced by McMansions, which are completely out-of-scale to what that neighborhood should be; at least, what I think it should be.

6952 hasn’t changed. And even though I’ve seen it several times, I’ve never given a thought about who lives there until now. Can’t be a very big family (unless they’ve followed the Davis’ example), but I hope there’s a little boy in there.

And I hope his folks give him the chance for a moment’s solitude.

Especially at Christmastime.

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