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Bob McPhail 8:30 a.m., Aug. 17
Back in the '60s, there was a kid who lived on a cul-de-sac with a yard facing the drainage ditch that ran behind the houses on the east side of College Avenue, between Adelaide and University. He was my inseparable childhood buddy, and still a fellow that I share a unique connection with even though we don't see each other much. The house next door to his changed hands several times while we were growing up, the only continuity being the irritation of whoever the current residents were with our inability to comprehend the concept of "private property."
To us and the other neighborhood kids, the ditch and the hillside above it were one big wondrous playground where we had some of the best times of our lives. We pretended to be soldiers or cowboys or big game hunters, rolled our wagons around, and collected bugs and such. Most of the neighbors with yards facing the ditch likewise regarded the area as a kind of community property, since the city had an easement through it anyway and workmen in hard hats were a common sight. We'd pretend they were enemy soldiers and shoot at them with our popguns; occasionally one would hold up a wrench or something and play along, pretending to shoot back. The owners of the house next to my best buddy, on the other hand, always wanted to spoil the fun by pointing out where the property line was while going on about this "private property" business.
One holiday season in the early '60s though, those people did something really neat. They decorated their house with an illuminated star, about halfway up their TV antenna, and lit it up each night. It glowed with an eerie blue color, and was visible from the backyard of our house, a couple hundred feet up the ditch. My sister, just a little bit of a kid then, was especially intrigued by it. She called it "Boo Tar," or Blue Star.
Every couple of evenings throughout the holiday season, she'd ask to go out to the back lot to see Boo Tar, so all of us would put on our jackets and have a look. It became as much a part of our collection of pleasant holiday memories as going down to the Richfield Station at College and University to pick out the family Christmas tree.
Now, for a kid not far along in grade school, the real standout holiday was Halloween rather than Christmas. How could you top a day when you could dress up in whatever costume you choose, go to the school carnival, and collect candy from the neighbors? For sheer volume of cool things to do, Halloween beat Christmas anytime. Yet there was something special about the Christmas season, in the way adults seemed to genuinely get into it too rather than just patronize us kids somewhat dismissively like they did at Halloween. Adults put decorations and strings of bulbs and such on their TV aerials and all around the house, climbing on ladders and going to all sorts of lengths.
Just the same, my friend, in that way of his, couldn't understand my sister's fascination with the Blue Star. It was just a somewhat ordinary looking electrical fixture mounted on the TV antenna of his neighbors' house, and probably not all that impressive to look at even when illuminated if you're living next door to it. I myself thought it looked kind of neat at night, but agreed that there was nothing special about it while we played in its vicinity on the back lot. At some point, though, we agreed upon the idea that we ought to bring my sister down and show it to her up close in the light of day.
This was around the time in my life when I was finding out that the department store Santas were just hired help in seasonal costumes. I'd often wondered how the heck Santa could be taking requests in any number of places at once, and how he got into OUR house, which lacked a chimney. After several attempts at lame explanations about magic keys and such, the folks sat me down and confirmed the rumours my friend had heard from the group of kids his older brother hung around with; there was no Santa Claus.
The revelation didn't really bother me all that much, as I'd had my suspicions over the past few years. Then, when my Godmother came by for a visit that Christmas season and started going on about Santa Claus, I told her calmly that I'd heard the bad news. She was an older lady, much older than my folks, and she took me aside and fixed me with a grandmotherly look. In a very simple yet profound way, she explained that things do not have to be physically real to have reality, that it isn't so much the appearance as the feeling something gives to one's heart. Each of the department store Santas have the capacity to carry part of the spirit of the season within them, and if they truly possess that spirit they embody the real deal.
It was the way of adults, and as a philosophical thought somewhat over my head. Yet my attitude was somewhat different from my friend's when one afternoon we brought my sister down the ditch for a close look at the Blue Star. My sister, like most of the women in my family, especially on my mother's side, was never a particularly talkative person. We stood there for a minute, my friend and my brother and sister and I, four JFK-era kids in hooded sweatshirts and elastic waistband blue jeans and tennis shoes, staring wordlessly at the cheap fixture on the TV antenna.
A few evenings later, my brother and I were in our room playing. We heard footsteps crunching on the gravel walkway and the sound of the back gate opening. Hearing someone outside after dark was an unusual thing, so I sneaked out back for a look. My brother wanted to come along, but unlike my sister he had an endless capacity for making noise and I wanted to investigate this matter unnoticed. Peering between the slats on the fence, I saw my dad and sister standing on the back lot, gazing down the hill at the illuminated Blue Star. It all seemed so peaceful and happy that I simply made my way quietly back to the house.