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Cracker Barrel: Elves at work

The basement of my boyhood was not a large one, barely big enough to house the furnace, Mom’s laundry tubs and wringer washing machine, a sump pump, the water pump and a little workshop. Once the big coal furnace was replaced by a smaller gas unit and the coal bin was removed, the workshop doubled in size, which still left it roughly half the size of a narrow one-car garage.

But tiny as it was, for several months each year the basement workshop became the site of vigorous activity on the part of me and many of my friends. Like Santa’s elves, we worked creating many Christmas gifts, most of them fashioned from wood or plaster of Paris.

The items of wood took many forms, ranging from wood-burned coasters and plaques, toy pistols and swords, crudely fashioned model bi-planes, classier race cars, at least one recipe box, and a painstakingly hand-sawed-and-nailed, pitched-roofed, dark-stained, plywood manger a foot or so in height, breadth and depth, kept in annual Christmas service for the ensuing 60 years.

As to those things made of plaster, the size of the item was dictated by the size of the mold into which the plaster was poured. Given the limited number of molds at our disposal, this meant large or small.

Large included a dozen different characters from Disney comics, including such luminaries as Mickey and Minnie, Goofy, Pluto and Donald Duck. Small meant tiny brooches and decorative pins cast with a safety-pin catch.

Creations of both sizes, once cured and stripped from the mold, were dutifully painted with as much artistic skill as we could muster. One of my favorites was a delicate fawn coat pin painted light brown and speckled with white dots.

As I recall, it measured less than two inches in length and because of its size was difficult to paint. The brushes we had seemed much too large for the dainty work at hand, which, coupled with our lack of skill, made the outcomes rather disappointing.

But despite the imperfections, we never quit trying, and over time produced many dozens of gifts, almost all of which were then wrapped up and given away at Christmas. Our mothers, paragons of patience and diplomacy, never failed to express delight and surprise at the opening of yet another set of coasters or decorative plaster finery.

And younger siblings came to possess whole families of brightly painted figurines modeled after their favorite cartoon characters, though many of the plaster bodies soon sported missing arms and ears and even heads, given the softness of their material and the youthful vigor of their owners.

While most of our basement efforts were spent making gifts, we also managed to build a couple of trestles on which to place a 6-foot length of plywood upon which we occasionally played ping pong, but more commonly used as a base for our model electric trains.

The trains afforded hours of winter delight. We fashioned mountains of papier-mache, created tunnels through a few of them, constructed whole villages of cardboard buildings, strung telephone and power lines of thread between Tinkertoy poles, and stacked piles of Lincoln Logs adjacent to the railroad station.

I don’t recall the various brands of toy train sets, other than Lionel and American Flyer, but I do remember feeling an uncommon degree of affection for them and, along with my friends, was truly moved at the sight of a circling model train, delighted at the clickety click it made as it rolled over the jointed sections of track, and loved inhaling deep drafts of the unique electrical-storm smell that issued from the train’s transformer.

But then it was time to get back to work.

(Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at