Monday, December 24, 2018

From a spirit of Christmas past

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To Kansas Citians of a hundred years from today:

I'm looking out my window on the morning of Christmas Eve, watching snowfall taper off after a heavy storm that began yesterday. It blew in from the southwest, from Arizona and New Mexico and Colorado, and swept across the plains. It now lies a foot deep across the city, and a driving wind has created even deeper drifts. I suppose it could have been worse. Western Kansas was hit harder, and parts of Oklahoma have as much as two feet of snow! Railroad men are calling it one of the worst storms they've ever seen. No trains are moving down at the Union Station. The place is full of passengers stranded for the holiday. Telephone lines are down. Mail delivery has stopped.

Traffic downtown is a mess, as you might imagine, and at the busiest time of the year for shoppers. There's a streetcar strike on (with some labor violence) so service was already limited before this storm hit. Now it's worse. Autos skidding on ice, clogging viaducts, abandoned in snowdrifts. Taxi and jitney drivers – those few who can negotiate deep snow – are taking full advantage, overcharging for rides. I hear some weary people couldn't get home last night – or wouldn't pay the profiteer's price – and simply checked into hotels.

We're only weeks past the Armistice that ended the Great War to End All Wars (surely you now enjoy Peace on Earth), but are only now receiving news of local casualties – the wounded, missing, or killed in action. Families will be without loved ones this Christmas, for even returning discharged soldiers are snowbound somewhere by this storm.

The influenza epidemic is still with us. Hospitals reported ten flu deaths here this week. Everyone has been trying to avoid large crowds, but that is a challenge this time of year. The weather is hardest on the poor, and on poor animals like working horses and stray dogs. Unemployed men down in the river wards, many without overcoats, shelter in dingy saloons and doorways out of the sharp wind.

All that on top of the usual crime – petty and violent – that seem to be part of city life these days. Through my window I see the sky and the pristine carpet of snow are darkening under sootfall from a thousand chimneys and smokestacks.

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Blogger interlude: I've often said that reading old newspapers is as close as you get to time travel. Old newspapers have been the primary inspiration all along for this blog, 10 years old this month. Repeatedly they show how much has changed over time, and how much human nature remains the same. This often appears in the smallest stories, what might be called ephemera and minutiae, found in "news briefs" or police reports or "city notes" or classified ads. The kind of stuff that flies under the radar in today's journalism. Not that sensation and provocation aren't part of the past, too. But an old daily newspaper presents a panoramic world, both dark and light. There is History, yes. But also small-h history, full of nuance and quiet wonder.

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Anyway, not all is dark. The young ones are out sledding, building forts and snowmen, including a Kaiser Wilhelm creation – mustache, helmet, sword – built for gleeful destruction. 

Down at the Union Station, people have waited all night for trains that didn’t arrive. But a choir sings Christmas carols from the south balcony, and the crowd below applauds after each selection. There are plenty of soldiers there. A round-bellied traveling salesman treats twenty of them to dinner in the Fred Harvey restaurant.  

The streetcar strike has actually helped improve the influenza crisis, and the city health director has lifted the ban on children attending large public events. He still recommends avoiding crowds if possible. 

There are Christmas trees in all the major hotels, and in the hospitals and orphans homes. Tom Pendergast will be feeding hundreds of down-and-outers (and several stray dogs) at his annual Christmas dinner in a North Side cafe. And a woman's club is again sponsoring a special dinner of oats for all working horses in the city. 

And it's a white Christmas, after all. People are making their way to work or to the stores for last-minute shopping. Some driving autos offer free rides downtown.  One man with a pair of homemade snowshoes seems to float above his fellow pedestrians. They slip and tramp and stomp through knee-high drifts in the streets, but many don't seem to mind. They make jokes and toss snowballs and shout to one another.

"Put on your Christmas smile," cries one, and many of them do.

Hoping you find many reasons to smile there in the future
– from Kansas City, 1918.

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