New Year’s Eve sometime in the 1940’s. Charlie Klein, my brother-in-law, was sitting on our front porch with his shotgun on his lap.

In all the counties in Maine, that would go unnoticed, but this would have been an uncommon sight in St. Louis, Missouri. My mother, terrified of firearms, knew what was coming. It came every year.

So Mom locked herself in the bathroom. My sister Eileen, Charlie’s wife, was in the kitchen making fudge. Imagine someone making fudge at 11:45 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. But it was what she did every year, and firing off his shotgun at midnight was what Charlie did. Tradition.

Yes, this usually happened from Charlie’s own front porch down in quiet Lemay County, but this year the party was at our house across from the convent of the Sisters of Saint Joseph.

My mother was terrified. “Don’t let him shoot that gun at the convent,” she shouted out. “He’ll scare the nuns.”

In the years of the Great Depression, my two older brothers often joined Charlie out there, but this New Year’s Eve arrived on Dec. 31 in the middle of the war, and my brothers were all somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with bigger guns. And so it was left to Charlie Klein, a 4F military aircraft mechanic, to announce the arrival of the new year alone.

Why do I remember this particular night? It snowed. After the first snowless Christmas that anyone could remember, now it was snowing. I longed to get out and make a snowman, but I was upstairs in bed with the measles and chapped lips. Measles, chapped lips and new snow. You don’t forget stuff like that.

There were, of course, no television shots of celebrations around the world as we have now, no Times Square confetti. The world was at war, and the city was dark. Even the street lights were darkened to follow the black out rules imposed by the city.

I remember families buying black out shades and curtains at Woolworth’s on South Broadway, and on this night, like all others that winter, they were drawn. But Charlie sat out there on one of our kitchen chairs in his big hunting coat waiting to fulfill his duty.

Since supper, I had sat upstairs in the dark with my blackout shade illegally up, watching the snow fall and waiting for the blast of Charlie’s gun.

Everyone in those days had their own traditions. I knew that our cousins, the Bradys and Mortons, would go out on their porch and shout and bang kitchen pots. That was the extent of their noise making.

I knew as well that the firehouse down the block on Michigan Avenue would sound the fire alarm and the sirens on the four trucks, and that the church bells all across the city would start ringing,

New Year’s Eve was the only night that Skeeter O’Neil’s saloon would be open that late to accommodate the local firemen and cops who in those days walked their beats, checking store doors and calling in on the bright red call boxes, even in the drifting snow, bless their hearts.

With seconds to go, my mother opened the bathroom door right outside my bedroom and shouted down to Eileen, “Don’t let him shoot that gun, you hear me? He’ll scare the nuns.”

From my window I could see the long rows of windows in the red brick building where the sisters slept. Everyone in the neighborhood knew the sisters went to bed right after their evening meal.

To us kids on the block, especially on the summer nights that stayed bright until nine, that seemed to be a punishment. We were told to keep our shouting down, but none of us ever did.

However, this was different. This was New Year’s Eve, and neither Hitler nor the Japanese could mess with that. So Charlie stood up, aimed at the sky and BAM! let loose both barrels. Not a light in the convent went on.

I fell asleep that wonderful night with crumbs of fudge on my night table, as silence descended and the new snow fell softly across the city. Some things are still unforgettable.

 

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.


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