Birthday checker sets: always in style

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Remember when?

By Bill Evans

Feb. 9, 1940, was about to be a glorious day, or so I hoped.

Anything would beat the cold spell we had just come through. The winter was colder than usual and after parts of the Catawba River iced over, they turned out Lancaster High School, and several others. It was just too hard to heat most of the school houses. There was a lot of stuff going on around town the week before my seventh birthday.

Seems this Jones fella broke into the Fox Hall Cafe stole $17 and hightailed out of tour. He was arrested at the bus station in Winston Salem.

Uncle Harry said there was was a rumor floating around town that Lancaster was fixin’ to get a new county doctor to replace Dr. Garvin, who left for Spartanburg.

“Don’t know who it is, yet,” he said.   

Most of the service station talk between men swirled around this Thomasson fella from the Collossus of the South. He was coming here for WBT radio to do a special on downtown Lancaster. Yes sir, that was big doings in these parts. But somehow Mama and Aunt Bess figured out a way to make my birthday a big doing, too. They had always took charge.

The two of ’em had some kind of fool-proof plan to go by, ’cause about everyone of my birthdays was the same. Now, don’t think I didn’t appreciate all the work they put into it. Given the time of year, with a birthday coming in February, throwin’ a birth gala isn’t easy. You gotta plan to have everything inside, or least some stuff to do on a big wrap-around front porch.

No, it probably wouldn’t compare to the local House of Lance president’s birthday shindig that raised $175 for infancy paralysis, but hey, everything can’t be.  It seemed like the weather forecast every Feb. 9 always called for rain and some real cold weather. Mama, always faithful, prayed for sunshine and clear skies.  

“With about 20 or so children, they’re bound to track in a lot of wet leaves and mud,” Mama said to Aunt Bess.

Aunt Bess shook her head and got out last year’s list of invited guests from her circle book.

She added a couple of names to it who were newly arrived in Sunday School or in my second-grade class.

I knew what was coming next. Me and Aunt Bess got into a disagreement about somebody I didn’t want to invite. It happened every year. Bless Pete, she knew me like a book. A good buddy today is tomorrow’s enemy, which makes it difficult to send out invitations. I always had a reason for not wanting somebody to come, but it was a battle I never won.

Then there’s the presents stuff. To tell the truth, some of my friends were known by the birthday gifts they brought. Sure as shooting, somebody would give me a Chinese Checker set every year, plus another one at Christmas. I tried my best to get rid of the marbles, but you can’t shoot Chinese Checkers marbles with the fellas. Shucks, they’d laugh you out of the game.
Plus, I wanted real toys, like a silver pistol and holster set or a toy truck. The Chinese Checkers boxes were already stacked up like cord wood in the plunder house.

Although I tried to get out of it, I even had a job to do for my own birthday party, which started the about the time the sun went down the night before. Aunt Bess sent me to get the old hand tire pump from the trunk in the Model A. When I returned, she handed me a brown poke of colored balloons and a ball of string to tie them.

“You need to get these ‘blowed up’ and hung from the ceiling,” she said. “Don’t forget to put the pump back when you’re done. That way, it’ll be there in the morning.”  

You know, it wasn’t even my birthday, but I was already starting to get the birthday blues.

While I was inflating the balloons, I overheard Mama talkin’ to Mr. Pierce Horton at the Corner Drug.

A few days earlier, she had ordered those little Dixie cups of ice cream from the store and wanted to make sure they had arrived.

Mama’s pretty smart. She had learned a long time ago to only order vanilla ice cream. That stopped all the grabbing for different flavors.

“Besides, vanilla is easier to clean up,” she said.

She said she also had to stop by Mr. Courtney’s bakery.  

Normally when Mama went there, it was to deliver eggs; but this time, she was picking up something.
“He’s putting some of his special icing on your cake,” she said.

There were also paper napkins, party hats, whistles and crepe paper streamers to get from the dime store.

Sure enough, we worked in the downstairs dining room until after supper time to get stuff ready.
The next morning I got up early, went straight to the window and peered outside.
You guessed right, it was cold, cloudy and a gentle winter rain had everything soaking wet.

I was just about worn out walking in and out of the dining room and around the porch most of the day.
Finally, party time arrived and the house was full of noisy children.

In no time at all, there were piles of crumpled wrapping paper scattered throughout the room.

The ice cream and cake with Mr. Courtney’s special icing was gone, replaced by two brand new sets of Chinese Checkers.

You guessed right again.

I already knew Mama would never let me pass those checkers onto someone else.

Oh, well, life goes on. These days, I’m just glad I can look back and remember when.

I turned 80 on Saturday.

A few days ago, I noticed a package on my granddaughter’s closet shelf which looked sorta like a Chinese Checker set.

You reckon fate is taking another swing at me?