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The Good Ol’ Days: Christmas in Rugby

By Staff | Dec 28, 2015

My earliest memories of Rugby Christmases past are of lots of snow on the ground, multicolored lights decorating our house and lots of presents under a beautiful tree. Perhaps my memory is a little sharper because my dad chronicled our annual Yuletide observances with an 8 mm Kodak movie camera.

My mother spoke of the Blizzard of ’49, when a deadly January storm dumped a record snowfall on Rugby and Pierce County. There are unimaginable images of drifts so high that they reached the tops of telephone poles. The Army had to come and dig us out of our house, Mom said. There are photos of country roads literally carved into giant snow drifts with a wall of snow 10-15 feet high on each side of the road. If one can’t recall a storm, does one still get credit for surviving it?

My first 19 Christmases were spent in Rugby. They all sort of run together and the one that stands out is 1964, the last Christmas Eve that we celebrated with my grandmother Alice Gronvold. It was bitterly cold that night and there had been a fresh snowfall earlier. I had to ensure that the sidewalk and steps from the curb to our front door were as clear of snow and ice as possible.

My grandmother was 87 and homebound in her large house across from the Memorial Hall. With age, Grandma had become unsteady on her pins while walking and so she kept a firm grip on my arm as we slowly made our way like two penguins to and from the car. The 25 below zero temperature, coupled with calm air and a clear, star-filled sky created an effect that was like sparkling diamonds in the air that night.

While in the FAA, I was certified in weather briefing and weather observation. During my initial training in Oklahoma City in 1979 I learned about various weather phenomena. So, some 15 years after observing them on that Christmas Eve in 1964, I discovered that those so-called diamonds in the air are officially called “ice crystals”. In 27+ years of weather observations, including Alaska, I never saw ice crystals again. But being as how I spent the first 17+ years in the Southeast, I would have been surprised if I had.

Dad sold the family business in 1968 and he and Mom began wintering in Orlando. Christmas of 1968 was our family’s first away from Rugby, snow and cold weather. Orlando was still a sleepy citrus town back then. My parents lived in an apartment complex and we could pick oranges and grapefruit from citrus trees that would soon be felled to build more apartments. I was a junior at Miami and was working part-time at an AM/FM “good music” station called WOCN (“the Ocean”).

I was assigned to work from 6 p.m. Christmas Eve until 6 a.m. Christmas morning playing holiday-related records, separating each selection with little nautical-related jingles mixed with the sound of the surf and seagulls. The entire twelve hours was sponsored by a bank. Although I did no announcing during the program, I playfully came on at about 3 a.m. to tell whoever was still up that Santa’s sleigh had been spotted in the sky over Miami.

The station’s studios and offices were on the second floor in one of the four towers of a hotel near downtown Miami. I could call for room service. A slice of Southern pecan pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a frosty glass of milk did wonders for my morale, if not my waistline. When I went off duty at 6 a.m. Christmas morning, the plan was for me to get some rest before the four-hour drive to Orlando, but I couldn’t sleep and soon found myself driving north on Florida’s Turnpike enroute to the so-called “City Beautiful”.

As I passed through the Turnpike’s southern entrance, my radio’s Top 40 station said, “It’s 9 a.m. Merry Christmas from WQAM”. I was getting pretty weary, having been awake for most of the past 48 hours, and I had difficulty dealing with the monotony that is turnpike driving. There were small green mile markers to help us gauge our progress. Suddenly the radio said, “It’s 10 a.m. Merry Christmas from WQAM.” A mile marker told me that I had driven 55 miles, most of them apparently sound asleep.

I spent Christmas Eve of 1971 in South Korea. About the only thing Christmassy that year was the foot of snow on the ground of our little post some two hours by jeep south of Seoul. Most of the citizens were Buddhist, if anything. There was no festive festooning anywhere. Our little officers’ club had a tiny tabletop tree to go along with a b&w television that didn’t work and a slot machine as our only holiday decorations.

After supper in the post’s mess hall, I went to my room in the complex of Quonset huts that served as quarters for 6-8 officers and 4 or 5 civilian DOD employees. We had nothing planned and, like me, the others went to their rooms to be alone with their seasonal thoughts.

My radio picked up scores of stations, all in Korean, Japanese or Chinese. Unlike in America at that time, at least 50% of the voices were female announcers. The one English language outlet that I could receive was the Armed Forces Radio Network station in nearby Osan Air Force Base. They were playing holiday music and as I sat listening, thoughts of Christmases past surged relentlessly through my mind.

Spending Christmas in another country and away from family can be difficult, especially if one is in the military. My friends who served in Europe may have enjoyed the brightly decorated cities in Germany, France, Austria, England, Norway, etc. but in Asia the theme of Christmas was totally foreign. We were a half a world away from the U.S. and fifteen hours ahead of Rugby time. Super Bowl Sunday (VI) between Dallas and Miami, for instance, kicked off at 5:18 p.m. CST, which was 8:18 a.m. Monday morning in Korea. As I tuned in to listen, it felt like I was wearing two left shoes.

If I had wanted to phone home, it was a collect call and would cost the callee $55 ($324 in 2015) and you had to go through a military auxiliary radio system (MARS) station. I’ve never been into space and don’t handle weightlessness well, so I just had to man up and deal with not being able to wish my parents a Merry Christmas either in person or by phone on the day in question for the first and only time in my life.

On that Christmas Eve in 1971, after about a half hour of trying not to let thoughts of family separation get to me, I had to turn off the radio and its holiday memories in self-defense. I decided to go back into the empty O club. Mr. Kim, the club’s efficient and polite manager, was bartending. I had a beer and because his English and my Korean were not compatible to my pouring out my heart to him, we just sat in the comfortable silence of companionship.

A few minutes later one of the DOD civilians came in. We greeted each other as if we were long-lost friends. Then a fellow officer came in. Then another civilian who never hung out in the bar most nights. By 9 p.m. all of us had gathered, keeping Mr. Kim busy, and someone said, “Let’s have a Christmas party”. Although we had sent no invitations, the R.S.V.P.s were unanimous. We laughed, talked, played cards and listened to music until the wee hours. Although there were no Christmas presents, we were able to enjoy each other’s Christmas presence.

Bill is a Rugby native, graduating from RHS in 1966. His family operated the Gronvold Motor Company until 1968. He is a retired FAA air traffic controller and although he resides in Orlando, Florida, his heart will always be with the Heart of America.

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