My dear readers, last Monday until Christmas!
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Ricky’s eyes took a full 10 minutes taking mental pictures of the Coca-Cola Christmas train, staring from the sidewalk through the plate glass window of the storefront that had it on display. Each car of the train set shiny red and white, with Coca-Cola Santa, falling snow, and other images that captured the magic of Christmas. There was even a Coca-Cola polar bear seated in one of the cars, wearing a little conductor’s hat and handkerchief, his paw holding a small bottle of Coke.
Ricky had never wanted something more in his whole 10 years of life, thinking about the amazing train set just about every minute of every day. But it wasn’t for sale, this one-of-a-kind collectible only available through the currency of special edition plastic Coca-Cola bottles. 999 to be precise. A number that might as well have been a million to the young boy, for he came from a family that could only afford one of the 50 cent bottles a week. By that calculation he would be as old as Santa before he could get it., the special offer so far long gone that it probably wouldn’t even be a memory.
But such impossible odds didn’t stop Ricky from dreaming, from hoping, from believing that it could somehow come true, even under the dire circumstances he and his parents lived.
The three had come over to The Land of Opportunity half of Ricky’s life ago, the boy only having two faded memories of the long dangerous trip. The first was the awful one, the feeling of clinching tightly, chest-to-chest, rapid heartbeat to rapid heartbeat as his father held him close with one hand and his mother with the other while running through darkness, occasional spotlights trying to hunt them down.
And then came the rhythmic sound of powerful wheels speeding over iron tracks, the family of three risking their lives to hop that train to freedom.
Once on board they had laid out on their backs, catching their breaths as the repetitive rhythmic steel matched their rapid heartbeats while at the same time reverberating through their bodies.
The only other memory comes on the tail of the first, only this one much happier. Finding the train car to be loaded with Coca-Cola, Ricky’s father opening a bottle and handing it off to him.
“This is the taste of America!
Of our dreams coming true!”
Such an indelible impression that Ricky knew it would never ever leave him, the ‘taste of America’ so refreshing, so exciting!
But opportunity really hadn’t presented itself the way his parents had hoped for, their first few weeks in the land of dreams spent with more running, more hiding, until they found the only so-called help they could, from those who spoke their language but didn’t share in their belief of what help really was.
They were sent to a hidden factory covered by a jungle of cement, where they were put to work alongside other immigrants and meant to sew for 12 hours a day, sometimes more, in exchange for a small room below the constant machine spinning, three so-called meals a day which mainly consisted of soup and sandwich, and 50 cents each for their dozen hours of labor, which basically translated to 4 pennies per hour, 1 every fifteen minutes.
Ricky, who was meant to stay in that little room of theirs all by himself as his parents overworked their fingers, didn’t even want to try and imagine how long it would take to reach 999 Christmas bottles of Coca-Cola, feeling bad at just accepting 1 per week from his hardworking Mama and Papa.
He’d fill his days drawing, reading, imagining, but lately his greatest pastime was building a landscape in their small room, a scale model of a whole other world, made from whatever he could find, all centered around imaginary tracks for his dream Coca-Cola Christmas train.
Ricky would get three hours every evening up in the real world, he and his parents venturing out for some fresh air and maybe a small treat here or there. His father insisted they’d have to return by 9 every night, even though curfew wasn’t until 10, a padlock being secured into place on the gated doors leading to their humble dwelling within seconds of the clock striking that specific hour.
“Better safe than sorry,” Ricky’s Papa would say when the boy would beg to stay out a little longer, and so for those three evening hours that would go by all too fast Ricky would absorb as much as he could, always on the lookout for something new along the sidewalks, streets and gutters to add to his scale model, while at the same time keeping his eyes peeled for that discarded plastic of special edition Coca-Cola bottles.
By the 23rd. of December Ricky had two grocery bags full, 99 to be precise, his mother, who was also his math teacher, making sure he knew the answer to how much more he needed for that Coca-Cola Christmas train.
“10 times more, plus 9” he answered with defeat in his voice. He had tried so hard for the past several weeks to reach his dream, but as his Mama always said, “Numbers don’t lie.” And so he had no choice but to accept such a fact, his parents letting him stare thirty minutes more than he normally got as he mourned the loss of something he never really had but in his mind.
When it was time to go the boy’s mother placed a consoling hand on his shoulder, letting him know the time had come to bid farewell. As he turned around to leave he noticed that his father was gone.
“Where’s Papa, Mama?”
“Oh, he just had to go take care of something. He’ll meet us back at home. Come now, we have to beat the padlock.”
Besides the open-wired light hanging from their ceiling Ricky and his parents only had one other electrical device in their room; a digital clock supplied by those who ran the factory, so as to ensure there would never be an excuse to be late for work.
The speed of the poor boy’s heart only increased with each passing minute, refusing to come into the room and shut the door as long as his Papa had yet to return.
When it finally struck 10 the loud hard clank of the metal gate could be heard slamming shut, but no sounds of footsteps followed. No signs of Papa…
“Mama, where is he?!” Ricky cried, thoughts of the bad people of the night hurting his dear father filling his head. For years his parents had told him of such scary thoughts, to ensure the precious one never ventured out alone.
“He’ll be fine, Ricky. Papa is big and strong, he’ll be fine. He may have picked up an extra shift upstairs. Sometimes they allow that. He’ll be fine.”
Mama’s words tried to comfort, but she couldn’t really hide the worry on her face she herself felt.
To help redirect his mind she laid him down and told him a story until his eyes got too heavy to hold open, at which time he couldn’t help but fall asleep.
Ricky woke at 5 a.m., like he and his parents always did, only this time it was not to the sound of the alarm, but rather to the sweet smell of hot chocolate.
He wiped his eyes and found a cup of it being offered to him, then looked up to find his Papa smiling down upon him. “Merry Christmas Eve, Ricky!
“Here you go, be careful, it’s hot.”
The boy took the cardboard cup into his hands, the cozy warmth of it spreading to his bones.
He blew through the small opening of the top before taking a cautious sip.
So sweet, so yummy, much better than the powdered milk he was given every other morning.
“When does the offer on that Coca-Cola Christmas train end?” Papa asked. “The day before Christmas? Christmas Eve? Today?”
Ricky froze in mid-sentence, Papa stepping aside to reveal three large garbage bags full of empty special edition Coca-Cola bottles.
The boy was speechless.
“Well, we better get up there and go get it then!”
Three decades later and that Coca-Cola Christmas train now sat in a six-figure home, Ricky, his wife, their three children and his dear parents all gathered around it, a toasty fireplace crackling on one side, a grand Christmas tree sparkling on the other as he tells the tale of their past, including how a determined Papa had spent all night rummaging the city for empty Coke bottles, and how that display of determination became instilled into Ricky, who eventually became an executive at the Coca-Cola company.
An annual story time tradition