Can you believe it? said Alner, standing in my doorway. I waited for hours in that parking lot, and when I finally got into the store they told me all the 50-inch TVs on special were gone and there'd be no rainchecks.
Well, I'm no psychologist, but I know a problem when I see it.
Alner, I began.
No, no, he brushed me off with a wave of the hand. How am I supposed to watch the bowl games?
Sometimes Alner pushes me right to the edge. There was only one thing to do.
Is it my imagination, or has it suddenly turned freezing? Alner said, zipping up his coat around his neck and tightening his scarf as we headed down the street.
I think it might be colder than anything we've ever seen, I answered. This is December, 1932, and thanks to my powers of metaphysical travel we're going to take a little sightseeing trip here in Wyoming Valley of 80 years ago.
He stopped and looked at a group of men standing in line.
Don't stare, I said. They're not waiting for any 50-inch TV. They're hoping for something to eat. A little thing called the Great Depression is going on. Nearly a quarter of all the people who want to work can't find jobs.
We passed a store with gaily decorated show windows full of clothing and games. Lots of nice stuff, he said, nodding.
True, I replied. If you can buy it, and that's a big if. Americans are learning to patch up the old clothing and stretch every dime. There was no ‘Black Friday' this year, and nobody's running around waving credit cards.
I read about this era, said Alner. I guess it was pretty bad.
I nodded. You know as well as I the terrible things going on in our own day. But if we look back we can see we're not alone. Now let's drop in someplace else.
Wow, the downtown is sure busy, he said. I guess the depression is over.
Oh, it is, I said. But there's something else going on.
I bought a newspaper from a boy standing next to a big bundle. Latest war news; getcha Leader paper, he was shouting to passersby.
Now we're in… Alner began.
We're here on Dec. 23, 1942 – two days before one of the bleakest Christmases this country has ever seen. Look, I said, holding out the paper to him.
The front page, he said. It's nearly all about the war.
Sure is, I said. A couple of guys named Hitler and Tojo have decided we're going to dance to their tune.
Kind of puts the damper on the holidays, said Alner.
Actually, in tough times like these, people draw together. A letter from a faraway loved one, read aloud to the family, is considered the best Christmas gift of all.
Alner nodded. I'm beginning to get the point.
People will try to carry on as usual. They'll wrap gifts and bake cookies and listen to holiday songs on the radio. But it's going to be years of air raid drills, rationing and – worst of all – the telegrams about sons, husbands and brothers who won't be coming back for any Christmas, ever.
Alner was staring off into space.
Let's go, he said.
Anyplace in particular?
I understand there's this time called 2012. I think I'm ready to face it – really face it.
Now that's the spirit, my friend.
Tom Mooney is a Times Leader columnist. Reach him at [email protected].