Christmas, 1945, was Tappahannock’s first peaceful holiday in four years. War was concluded – her citizens worn down, but there was general thanksgiving this necessary turmoil had passed.
The DAW Theater – “Where Friends Meet Friends” – launched its seasonal movie lineup. Going My Way, starring Bing Crosby, Rise Stevens, and Barry Fitzgerald played December 10-14. Home in Indiana, with Lon McCallister, Jeanne Crain, and Charlotte Greenwood followed. Christmas weekend exhibited, Hail The Conquering Hero, with hysterical Eddie Bracken. So….Essex County quickly took refuge in her normality, by the river.
Current Comments – front page column by A.D. Latane, and erstwhile Clerk of Essex County, began: “The Christmas story is an old, old story. Through the eon of years it comes back to us again and again in its beautiful simplicity and clothed in a mystery of eternal things in which is encompassed in the hope of the Christian…..”
This same issue of the Rappahannock Times (RT), Thursday, December 20, 1945; took sustenance in headline: Santa Clause To Hand out Goodies at Xmas Tree Here on Christmas Eve: “Santa Clause has notified Mayor C. A. Warner that he will be at the Tappahannock Community Christmas Tree on the night of Christmas Eve (Monday) at about 8 P.M….Santa asked Mayor Warner to remind the people he is bringing (gifts) to both colored and white, and he hoped a large number of children would meet him….Mrs. P.R. Eubank and Miss Augusta Wright are arranging a program of singing and other music which will be enjoyed by all. “ No wonky reporting here.
The Wallace children, 6 and 8 years, respectively, joined that Essex Courthouse gathering; it remains seared in memory some 68 years later – nagging still. Apparently, this holiday gathering of Essex children was well intentioned, but hardly lavish. Throngs of these young recipients, both races, seemed a showcase for impoverishment. Sister, Marty Gordon, and I, eagerly sauntered up Prince Street to join in carol singing, uncomplainingly expecting little else….hard times still prevailed.
As anticipated, distributed gifts were modest – small brown Kraft bags replete with hard candy – maybe a candy cane. Sad, overwhelmed as any 8 year old boy might be, I sensed that most of these children were really poor – strikingly deprived. Squeezed into the sizeable crowd, with the inventory of “gifts” running low, it seemed best to stand aside – not participate, urging sister to join me. She, having none of this, grabbed her prize in great delight, with other recipients; sister probably thought older brother was a pain.
In my mind, this little Christmas Eve gathering achieved a sad, unanticipated dynamic – becoming a transfixing and dramatic human story for me. Assuring myself there was no reason to feel guilty about young county kids being deprived, didn’t easily wash. It was peculiarly unforgettable – suddenly; Christmas took on new meaning in 1945.
“Dammit, Martha, I told you the shipment would come AFTER Thanksgiving!” Martha was mother (Martha Latane Wallace); the admonition – from big Preston Derieaux, of Derieaux’s Store, on Prince Street. Latane and Derieux families were next door neighbors – the Customs House and Scots Arms Tavern. The gist of the matter: Derieux Store’s famous annual shipment of rich Christmas Candy had not arrived. Martha, half the size of Preston, didn’t budge, “Preston, you said it would be here by now …don’t give me that business.” They’d grown up together; mother, slightly older, enjoyed as strong a capacity for ferocity as that of garrulous Pres Derieux…so goes the holiday, 1945.
DILLARD & HENDLEY, General Insurance; NORTHERN NECK CREAMERY, Inc.; BROOKS & SON, Inc. (Appliances); ANDERTON’s DEPARTMENT STORE; CARL D. SILVER USED CARS; J.M. EVANS, General Insurance; WARE OIL COMPANY; BANK OF ESSEX; BAREFORD ESSO; CLANTON CLEANERS; C. A. GRESHAM INSURANCE; J. M. EVANS, General Insurance; TAPPAHANNOCK BUS TERMINAL, Wes Lowery, Prop.; and SOUTHSIDE BANK in advertisements, wished Tappahannock a Merry Christmas. Alex Dillard, Billy Ware, and Ray Wallace, Jr. could not wait for school to give way for vacation.
Christmas at the Latane’s passed nicely. Big fireplace fires brought security, warmth from cold winds off the Rappahannock. The tree was decorated with dancing lights – if one blew, all lights failed. It reminded me of one’s ineptness, when figuring out which festive bulb bummed out….chasing those dead Christmas lights sometimes consumed hours, becoming part of holiday ritual.
Late 1945, Christmas decorative items were rarely available on store shelves – even if one had money. Getting that U.S. economy on war-footing produced shortages galore; Christmas time suffered. People’s Drug Store, under Dr. Allen Lassiter, made strong attempts to promote what gifts were available, with exciting lighting, plus Christmas music. I loved going there.
On some level, Riverside Hotel, across and below the Customs House, would sweeten our holiday week. Echoing the triumphalism of Christmas, Riverside merriment continuously churned there – holiday partying prevailed. Seasonal pop-music floated up, dinner parties, restaurant visitors…laughter, and chatter rarely abated. Recordings of Bing Crosby, Gene Autrey, big bands with talented instrumentalists, loaded night air sounds to everyone’s satisfaction.
C.A. Wachsmuth (dad called him Captain Wachsmuth), proprietor of the Riverside Hotel, with deep voice, was gregarious, charming, to a fault, knowing intuitively how to meet and greet. His guests felt welcomed – at home there. Day to day operations fell to Stanley Mundy, efficient and organizational, with Allen Mundy always busy, Brother, Allen Wallace, and I were always attentive to the Mundy daughters, Betty Lee and Dorothy Mundy… they were our ages. Allen was smitten with Betty Lee.
In isolated winter months, I’d venture out to the River Porch, looking east – through the leafless trees fronting the Riverside Hotel – staring – intrigued at the “mystery ship” far out, sand barred at the mouth of Hoskins Creek, wondering what in the world it was….why it stopped. At that point, the name, Caponka, was not in our vocabulary; it remained mysterious.
Christmas obligations were accepted quietly; this included participating in St. John’s Episcopal Church’s Christmas Pageant – the wheel chaired Reverend Dr. H. S. Osburn officiating. A required visit, accompanying mother, to Cousin Edith Latane’s – down Water Lane – across from 25 year old St. Margaret’s School for Girls, was not particularly relished. While very academic, Edith Latane, unlike my grandfather, was hard as a pine knot.
Latane, languid and serenely self-possessed, served as Headmistress at St. Margaret’s for years; she lived across the street, in the first little home built by my parents. Sadly, my lovely grandmother experienced a huge kerfuffle with Cousin Edith – over a Senior Prize choice – deserved -but not awarded, to mother’s younger sister, Emma “Dolly” Latane (Hammond). The breach between the two strong willed ladies remained.
Asking my lovely, gentile, grandmother, Emma Cauthorne Latane, (Mena, to me) what her favorite Christmas music might be, she softly shot back: Silent Night. Frank Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” had no Christmas appeal to her.
October 2, 2013
With deep apologies to Harper Lee, this retired CEO, public school teacher, Trustee for the Virginia Retirement System – now columnist, can be reached at (rbwallace01@ verizon.net).