It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Directed by Frank Capra
Written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Frank Capra
Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Ward Bond, Frank Faylen, and Gloria Grahame
130 minutes, rated PG
I was seven years old when I saw the duck in the trunk of my father’s car. I mean, it wasn’t a real duck. It was just a drawing of an animated duck. But it was in the trunk, and every one insisted that I didn’t see it when I knew for a fact that I had.
We lived in Sidney, Illinois at the time. My mother worked part-time on weekends at a pharmacy/lunch counter in the tiny business district downtown. My father had parked the car in front of the establishment, so that he could run inside and drop something off for my mother. My siblings and I waited in the car.
What was supposed to be a run in/run out sort of deal was taking much longer than that. I think maybe ten minutes had passed. I was getting bored, so I had turned around in the backseat and began playing with two Star Wars action figures on the panel behind the headrests. It was plastic figures of Obiwan Kenobi and Darth Vader. I remember what figures they were vividly– they were my two favorites of the four I owned and they went with me pretty much everywhere that I might have gone. I wanted a Han Solo figure, but we hadn’t been able to find one. I had asked Santa for one (and a Millennium Falcon) just a few days prior.
At any rate, I was recreating the final light saber sequence on the back panel, much to the annoyance of my sister. Knowing that I was pestering her, I began to recreate the sequence much more loudly and excitedly, complete with dialogue that I had known by heart for many weeks. Eventually, I dropped one of the action figures in a hole about ten inches wide. Ordinarily, if the car were in better shape, there would be a speaker in that hole, but our speaker was non-existent, our car having been purchased used.
It was a large hole. A child of seven could probably fit his entire arm into that hole, so I tried, digging down into the trunk of the car to retrieve my beloved toy. I couldn’t find it. I peeked into the hole to see if I could see it. I couldn’t see it either, but I did see a drawing of an animated duck.
“There’s a duck in there,” I told my sister. She was enthralled by an Elisabeth Gail novel and ignoring me completely.
“No, really,” I said louder. “There’s a duck in the trunk.”
My sister reminded me that a duck in our trunk would die from lack of oxygen.
“It’s not a real duck,” I informed her. “It’s a cartoon duck. Like Daffy.”
I invited my sister to peek into the hole and see the duck for herself, but she wasn’t interested. Not even remotely. “Leave me alone,” she said. “I’m reading.”
When my father finally returned from the pharmacy, I asked him about the duck. He ignored me.
I asked about the duck again. Again. A third time.
“What duck?” he responded.
“The one in the trunk,” I explained.
“I promise you there is no duck in the trunk.”
“But there is,” I insisted. “I looked through the speaker hole and saw a duck.”
My father made eye contact with me in the rearview mirror. He seemed concerned. I could tell by the expression on his face that he was busy in his head, trying to come up with an explanation for why a duck might be visible through the hole where the previous owner’s speaker used to reside. I could also tell by his expression that he wasn’t coming up with one. This might have been the cause for his concern.
Without a word, my father got out of the car. He walked around to the back of the vehicle and popped open the trunk. I couldn’t see him as the trunk lid blocked my view of him, but the car shifted slightly back and forth a few times as my father hurriedly rearranged whatever it was in the trunk. I tried to peek back into the hole in the back panel, but I was too late. If there had been a drawing of an animated duck back there (and I’m telling you, dammit, there was!), it was gone now, replaced by a quilt that was partially singed from the time my sister had set her bedroom on fire by leaving a curling iron on the bed before remembering to turn it off.
SLAM! My father closed the trunk. We made eye contact again through the back window. He had a smirk on his face, one that I knew from seven years of experience with this man meant that he was up to no good. That he was hiding something, or joking with me, or not completely telling the truth. He appeared for a brief moment to be trying to decide how to proceed, a dilemma that I recused him from when I noticed my Darth Vader figure in his hand.
When my father returned to the driver’s seat of the car, and I was happy to have had my misplaced toy retrieved, he said, gruffly, “Stay out of the trunk.”
Nothing else was said about the animated duck until almost two weeks later. But I’ll come back to that. Drawings of animated ducks and secret things in the trunk of the car will have to wait until the punchline of this tale. Suffice it to say– for now– that they are important to the story that I’m about to relay, even if its relevance wouldn’t become clear to me for almost two weeks. I promise not to leave you hanging. We will return to the animated duck. For now, before we skip ahead fourteen days, I will just note that, later that day, my father used a sheet of paper and grey electrical tape to cover up the hole where the speaker was supposed to be.
Jump ahead two weeks, give or take a day to two. It’s Christmas Eve. The entire family is in the car, heading north on Highway 130 into Urbana. It’s approximately 8:30 in the morning.
My parents– in addition to each having a full-time job and a part-time apiece– helped make ends meet by working part-time as gatepeople at The Assembly Hall. They took tickets at the door for sporting events and concerts. They manned the doors during such events to make sure that no one tried to sneak in once a performance or basketball game had started. On this particular Christmas Eve, this is where they were headed. A large religious organization was having a public Christmas mass and my parents had drawn short straws for working on the holiday. While they were at work, my siblings– an older sister that I have already mentioned and a younger brother– and I were going to spend the day at Dee’s house in Urbana. Dee was a cousin of my mother, and she often saved my parents a ton of money by agreeing to babysit. Their plan, at this point in time, was to drop us off at Dee’s house and then head to The Assembly Hall to make a few extra dollars for a few hours.
We never made it to Dee’s.
On Christmas Eve in 1983, the area got hit by a nasty blizzard. By “nasty”, I mean possibly the worst blizzard I have ever experienced in my lifetime. It was already snowing hard when we left our house, but my father wanted to press on, despite warnings from the weatherman on the radio that perhaps it was best if people just stayed off the highways today. I remember my parents arguing in the car as we drove further and further into the wintery mess. Should we turn around and go home? My father felt it prudent to show up for work, figuring that, if the snow was too treacherous when the time came to head toward home, we all still had a place to sleep for the night at Dee’s house. My mother wanted to turn around and go back. “It’s Christmas Eve,” she kept reminding my dad. “We should be at home.”
Eventually, a decision was made for us, and it wasn’t one that either of my parents had even considered. The drifts had gotten so deep across the country highway that our junker of a car got stuck. We could not go forward and we could not go back. We were legitimately stuck right in the middle of the road. The wind rocked our little car back and forth as we sat in the middle of the highway trying to decide what we should do. I can recall my father angrily turning off the radio when the on-air voice suggested, yet again, that it was too dangerous for anyone to leave their homes. I can recall my little brother crying because my parents were yelling at each other.
After what seemed an interminable amount of time, my father decided to trek through the foot-deep snow to a house that we could barely see on the horizon. My mother gave him her coat so that he could bundle up warmer, and then pulled my little brother into the front seat with her. He had just turned five a few days prior to this and her maternal instinct to comfort him had kicked into high gear. I recall a very odd thing about the time that we spent waiting for my father to return: my sister holding my hand. I remember her asking me if I was scared. I also remember her telling me that it was okay to be frightened because she was scared as well.
The wind was loud enough to drown out the radio. I recall a gust of wind that actually pushed the back end of our car to the side a little, leaving us even more entrenched in the middle of the highway. The snow was falling continually, and, since our car was not in motion, it was getting covered. The windshield wipers were ineffective against the heavy descent of flakes. I can recall noticing that the temperature was dropping inside the automobile. I could see my breath. I began to worry that we were all going to be buried in the snow with no conceivable path of escape.
My father, however, soon arrived back at the car. With him, was an older man who carried a shovel. At first, I thought he was going to help dig out our car, but our situation was more dire than that. The shovel had been used to dig a path to the car. The snow was falling heavily enough now that he had to use the shovel to dig a path back toward his house. He led the way with my father directly behind him. My father carried my brother wrapped in his coat. My sister was next. My mother and I took up the rear. She carried me, taking time before we embarked on our arctic trek to wrap me in a blanket.
The family whose house we had wandered to were named Powell. It was an elderly couple who lived there, a retired farmer and his wife. He had, apparently, built this house on one end of his acreage to live in when his son decided to also become a farmer and carry on the family business. The son– and his wife and children– lived in a farmhouse on the opposite end of the acreage in the house that Mr. Powell had built many years ago when he and his wife purchased the land. “Two miles thataway,” he told me, pointing out the window toward a house that we couldn’t see because of the white-out conditions.
We would end up at that house later, eventually bedding down and sleeping there for the night. We were not the last family to show up at the Powell residence before night fell.
My memories of that day are broken, only little bits come back. I remember that Mrs. Powell had a lot of jigsaw puzzles that kept me busy. I remember trying fruitcake and not wanting to be rude, so I ate it, even though I didn’t like it. I remember watching through the window as Mr. Powell’s son drove a plow through the field, building a lackluster road between the two houses. It was this road that my family eventually walked on to get to the other house. By nightfall, it had stopped snowing, but it was still frigidly cold. There were too many unexpected guests by this time, though, so my parents made the decision to take Mr. Powell’s son up on his kind offer to let us stay the night there. My mother and father carried my brother and I– wrapped tightly in heavy quilts– to safety on the makeshift path. My father went back on a second trip to bring my sister back. I remember watching through the window, waiting for them to appear in the yard.
Overall, the second home was a better place to keep my brother and I not only occupied by distracted from the fact that it was Christmas Eve and that we would be getting no presents tonight. Mr. Powell’s son had two boys of his own– one of which was only slightly older than me. He had toys to play with, was generous with his board games, and had an Intellivision (a luxury that seems quaint in retrospect, but was certainly something we would never have been allowed to have at home). I cannot recall his name, but his older brother was slightly older than my sister. The brother’s name was Todd, and my sister confessed once we returned home that her crush on him had no boundaries.
The Powell family certainly went out of their way to make us not feel like intruders. They shared a Christmas dinner that had been intended for the two Powell families combined. They used blankets to build make-shift beds on the living room floor where we ate popcorn and watched How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Later, the adults watched It’s A Wonderful Life, which was in black and white and of not much interest to my brother, the youngest Powell child (was his name Kevin?), and myself. I was aware of the movie– it’s a favorite of my mother’s to this day– but I don’t recall paying much attention to it. The youngest Powell boy and I played Uno and perused his considerable stack of Indiana Jones comic books. Incidentally, I remember having a flashback to this particular evening many, many years later when I sat down to actually watch this film. An overwhelming sense of deja vu overcame me when James and Donna sang “Buffalo gal, won’t you come out tonight? Won’t you come out tonight? Won’t you come out tonight?”– a song that had always sort of been in my head without any true knowledge or memory of where it came from.
Naturally, before bed, my brother asked my parents if Santa would be coming. My parents tried as best they could to avoid the subject but we were not about to let it go. Truth told, the thought of it hadn’t actually occurred to me until my brother brought it up, but it became an issue of utmost and dire importance. How would Santa visit us if we were in a stranger’s home? Were we going to have to sit the next morning and watch our new friend open his gifts from Santa while ours sat untouched at our home in Sidney? No one had been home to leave the big man milk and cookies!
On Christmas morning, the men got up bright and early and proceeded to do what needed to be done to get the various cars dug out of their various mires. The county snow plows had already begun coming through and it was imperative that the vehicles were operational so as not to clog up the highway and prevent the plow conductors from doing their jobs. The rest of us ate a hearty pancake breakfast. The youngest of us tried to ignore the fact that there had been no visit from Santa to this house last night. I remember hearing Mrs. Powell tell her son that Santa had made a mistake and taken his gifts to Grandpa’s house, but that they would head right over there as soon as the roads were clear. He seemed appeased by this announcement, but I was suspicious. How could Santa make a mistake like that?
For obvious reasons, it was clear when we finally made it home mid-afternoon on Christmas Day, that Santa had not visited our house either. My sister, who, as I said, was much older, found great amusement in my mother and father’s repeated excuses and explanations as to why Santa had decided to pass us by. My father kept insisting that Santa can’t visit a house without a chimney unless there is someone home to let him in. He told us that Santa would probably try again tonight. At one point, he tried telling us that there are too many children in the world for Santa to visit every one of them in one evening. “Santa sometimes comes on Christmas night when his workload is too big,” he lied.
I wasn’t buying any of this nonsense. After all, the whole point of the magic of Santa Claus is that he most certainly can visit all the children of the world in one night. This had been pounded into our heads ad nauseum. Do you think this is the first time we had ever questioned the implausibility of this? Further, nowhere in any of the poems, any of the various TV specials, anything that could have been, over the years, presented as evidence of Santa Claus’ existence, did it say anything about Santa stopping by later if you happened to not be home. Earlier this morning, we had been told that Santa went to the wrong house entirely and the grown-ups don’t find this strange? Something was fishy here.
Guess what? When we woke up on the morning of December 26, we had a bunch of gifts that we didn’t open the night before sitting in a huddled mass under the tree. Our spoils from Santa. Our promised visit for another day. My brother was elated. I was a little more dubious. Even with “proof” in front of my face that sometimes maybe Santa spreads his workload out across a few days, I was suspicious. There was something about this not right at all.
As I opened my gifts, I began to get more in the spirit of things. At the very least, it became easier to pretend that I didn’t believe I had been duped. At least one of these gifts– a box set of hardbound Star Wars comic books– was not even something I had told anyone I wanted. Santa had to have read my mind, right? I mean, yeah, it would have been pretty much a given that this very thing would be something I wanted, but to receive it felt a bit magical. That sense of preternatural warmth, though, was short-lived.
My suspicions about this whole situation were confirmed and proven legitimate when I opened the third gift from Santa. Ironically, it was my favorite of the three gifts he had delivered, and the one I probably wanted most (besides the aforementioned Han Solo and Millennium Falcon– my parents had given me that). It was my very own record player, something that I had been coveting since my sister had received one from my parents for her birthday in July. Accompanying the record player were four albums: a storybook record that told the story of Star Wars (complete with audio taken directly from the movie), a record of Alvin and the Chipmunks doing major radio hits of the day, a record of #1 hits from Elvis Presley, and a record by an artist named Rick Dees. The final album just about made my heart stop. Rick Dees is a comedian that I had, at the time, never heard of, but he was very famous for a 1976 novelty hit called “Disco Duck”. The song came from the album of the same name, and its cover . . . depicted the animated duck that I had seen through the empty speaker hole while in the car a couple of weeks ago.
The jig was up.
Largely for the sake of my brother, I did not let on that I had deduced the truth about St. Nick. It was, after all, easy to hide my disappointment because the gifts themselves were so exciting to me. I did question my sister later in the day, though, about my suspicions, and she found it very difficult to lie to me when I was bold enough to ask point blank. She warned me not to tell my brother, fearing that he would be heartbroken if he knew the truth. I understood that last part because heartbroken is exactly how I felt. Worse, I felt betrayed. It’s, perhaps, over dramatic, but I felt betrayed that my parents had been intentionally perpetuating a falsehood for, seemingly, no good reason. The very notion of every adult in the nation being in on this lie– a harmless lie, yes– but a lie perpetrated against innocent children, seemed, at the time, unspeakably cruel.
It’s hard to say now whether it was the tragic snowstorm on Christmas Eve or my father’s own stupidity in not hiding the presents in a better, less accessible location in the first place was the worst thing about that Christmas. I know that I probably could have used another Christmas or two of living with the delusion that this was “the most wonderful time of the year.” For years, I name-checked the Yuletide of 1983 as the benchmark for when everything around me started turning to shit. The moment when it became next to impossible to believe that anything good– or magical– was ever going to happen again. Shortly after that Christmas, my parents busted another illusion by announcing they were divorcing. Shortly after that, it was announced that we were going to have to move from Sidney into Champaign, which was a bigger town and far scarier than the little farming community where we knew the names of every one of our neighbors. In the end, obviously, every thing turned out okay, but it sure felt for a while there that I was not going to be allowed to be a kid any longer.
It’s important, I think, to note that I actually have a history with It’s A Wonderful Life beyond it being the movie playing on the night I stopped believing in Santa Claus. I officially saw the movie for the first time, from beginning to end, in December of 1998. It was Sara’s favorite holiday movie, and it was our first Christmas together, when we were happy and in love, more than a year away from our eventual mess. For a long time, watching the movie took me there, to West Virginia, where we had traveled so that I could meet her family while she was home from college on winter break. There are many movies that remind me of her that make me sad, but It’s A Wonderful Life isn’t one of them.
More than anything that I think of when viewing this film, and I’ll be honest and admit that Sara is not the only past love that I can connect to this film, I think of that Christmas in 1983. The Christmas where I saw this movie without watching it. The Christmas that sat in my mind for years as potentially the worst Christmas that I was ever going to have. The Christmas that still, years later, actually does reign as being the worst Christmas that I have ever had. I’ve had 36 Christmases since then, and they’ve all been pretty all right. Sometimes, it actually is a wonderful life, and, as an adult, you recognize that what you really learned back then was far more important than the fact that sometimes parents lie to you. What you really learned is about the kindness of strangers, a biblical good Samaritan story enacted right before your eyes.
I still have family that lives in Sidney. I still take Highway 30 whenever I go visit them. Usually, it’s around Christmas time. Once upon a time, I’d take the trek by myself, but over the last seven years or so, I’ve had my children with me. Yes, I lie to them about Santa Claus, but I also make sure that they know that, years ago, an elderly couple that lived in that house was very, very kind to me. They were kind to a lot of people who were stuck in a storm with nowhere to go.
One of my children once asked if The Powells still lived there. I admitted that I did not know. It seems likely that The Powells have long since left this mortal coil. It’s irrelevant, honestly. Their kindness haunts that stretch of country highway. If I had a bell I would ring it whenever I passed, because that’s how angels get their wings.