An unexpected Christmas treasure
It’s been 70 years since Park School closed. Most of the former students have died or grown old, and memories of that place have grown dim.
But Christmas is a good time to remember one of the special customs of that long-gone school: The Yule-log hunt and bonfire.
Every year, just before school closed for the Christmas break, Fox Smith, our sports coach, went out into the surrounding forest, (it’s still on the grounds of Park Synagogue) to find a log for our Christmas bonfire. He would mark it with a distinctive sprig of beribboned holly. Classes would be dismissed and all the students would spread out in the woods to find the log.
Eventually it would be found and all the students would converge on the spot. A sturdy rope would be secured on the log, and we would all join in pulling it through the woods and onto the sports field where it would be hoisted onto a bed of kindling.
The kindling would be set afire and “hot wassail” would be served while we all stood around and sang Christmas Carols.
A few years ago, I visited the old school buildings still standing on the Park Synagogue campus. They were used for a day care program run by a couple renting from the congregation. The manager had keys to the old combined lunchroom, theater, and gymnasium. That was where we ate lunch using worn orange mugs for our milk. Almost miraculously, there, on a shelf, were a score of the old mugs! My host said the building was to be torn down and the contents would be discarded. He invited me to take as many of the mugs as I wished.
I thought I was in heaven: Whoever has the chance to recapture a part of one’s life from so many years ago? I grabbed several, one for me and for each of several former classmates I am in touch with.
Now, I’m 79 years old, sitting here in my study in Oak Park, Ill., typing this story, and drinking my coffee out of my prized, orange Park School mug.
Robert Gaebler is a former Heights resident who now lives in Oak Park, Illinois.