I never believed in Santa Claus. Never did I listen for reindeer on the rooftop or hang a stocking in anticipation of a payoff from a North Pole intruder. Never did I leave milk and cookies for a portly red-clad visitor. Letters to Santa? Why bother?
I spent my childhood in the 1960s, but not quite the version of that decade now recalled in the history books or pop culture. Our home was well removed (you might say insulated) from the turbulence of the times. In Ghana’s Upper Region, we weren’t quite off the grid, but we teetered on its spartan extremity.
Of necessity, my missionary parents were frugal. Born in the 1920s, they clung to keen memories of the Great Depression and World War II—a reality that catalyzed a remarkable degree of resourcefulness in them. Before enlisting in the Army, my dad had been a farm-boy in Michigan’s rugged Upper Peninsula. He fought in four major engagements in World War II, including the Battle of the Bulge. My parents knew how to survive in any situation. Christmas at the edge of civilization was no big deal.
Mom and Dad adopted me in the US when I was an infant. My American birthmother had returned from a lengthy stay in Europe with more than just memories; she was six months pregnant with me. My birthfather married someone else—a long and sad story all its own. So, with few real options, my mother placed me in a Christian adoption agency, and I was soon welcomed by the wonderful people I will forever know as Mom and Dad.
This out-of-the-ordinary start in life meant that none of my friends—save for a few missionary kids—even knew about Santa Claus. My parents wisely saw fit to tell me that he was just a fun story. But Christmas in the sub-Sahara with no prospect of snow, no visits from Santa, and no mountain of presents under the tree? Wasn’t that—deprivation?
Honestly, it was wonderful. We couldn’t wait for Christmas.
About a week before Christmas, Dad would take my brother and me out into the bush (just a short walk) to harvest a Christmas tree—really just a shrub that vaguely resembled a conifer. Mom would help us make red and green chains from construction paper she’d brought from the US, and we’d string them on the tree. Then she’d wind those large, old-school bulbs around it, add a few shiny ornaments and some tinsel, and it was Christmas. Each evening the lights would go off with the power at about 9:00 p.m. The whole town of Wa would go dark along with us.
On Christmas Day, my brother and I got to open five or six simple presents. One of them had been ordered from the Sears and Roebuck’s catalog. The other toys were shipped by relatives or had been hidden from us for months by Mom and Dad.
At some point during the next year a couple of toys would disappear from our meager collection. Then, at Christmas, we’d find them wrapped and back under the tree. We found joy in being reunited with an old friend—usually a Tonka truck—which immediately made its way back to the sandbox outside.
But the best gift I received? Well, that’s another story entirely. And it starts with a trip to see my parents.
I thought of those Christmas “hardships” when I visited my aged father a few months before his death. His mind was failing, but visits from family always energized him. On that day my appearance sparked his memories of our time in Africa.
“Do you remember that man on the ship?” he asked slowly. I knew what ship he was talking about. But what man?
A year-long interlude in America separates my childhood neatly into my earlier Ghanaian memories and the later ones. In 1966 we flew back to Michigan. When kindergarten picture day arrived, I proudly wore my Pan-Am pin to school. Our family may have been firmly entrenched in the lower middle class in an upscale Lake Michigan town, but none of the other kids had replica Pan-Am pilot-wings and stories of Africa.
When the school year ended, it was time to go back to Ghana. For the return trip, my family chose the most economical means of transportation. We booked passage on an ocean freighter, the African Lightning.
Now, as Dad looked back, he settled on this slice of his life to reminisce. He fumbled to describe the man. “You know,” he said, “the fellow who used to let you punch him in the stomach.”
It clicked in my head. “Oh, you mean Uncle Walt, the chief engineer.” (We called adults “uncle” or “aunt” out of respect.)
Dad looked a little surprised that I remembered the man so well. But that trip of a lifetime remains branded into my memory, including each port call. First the vibrancy of Dakar in Senegal, then the squalid poverty and listless dock workers of Marxist Conakry, Guinea—still the most depressing place I’ve ever visited. After that came Monrovia, Liberia, prior to its devastating civil wars. Then gorgeous Freetown, Sierra Leone, also before its war, followed by the equally beautiful Abidjan, Ivory Coast (again, pre-war).
For some reason, we skipped Ghana and its port in Accra and sailed to war-torn Nigeria. I remember that two-week stay in Lagos quite well—blackouts at night on the ship, which had to moor not pierside but in the harbor for security reasons. Then we went to Cameroon, and finally back to Ghana. The entire cruise with all the stops took us six weeks. Uncle Walt may have single-handedly rescued my younger brother and me from succumbing to cabin fever, roughhousing with us and giving the family tours of the nooks and crannies of the freighter.
What I did not remember was that Uncle Walt was African American, as Dad described him.
“No, Dad,” I insisted. “He wasn’t Black.”
“Ja,” said Dad, “he was.” Raised in a Swedish-American home, Dad usually used ja for yes.
It’s interesting how a child’s perceptions work. My world to that point consisted of only of all-black Ghana and a year of lily-white northern Michigan. In my young mind, “Black” was only the very darkest hues of skin I knew in Africa.
Then Dad shared a detail I had not known. “You know he came to me once and asked if it was okay that he played with you boys.”
That was American society in 1967. To think that the chief engineer of a ship would express concern about the ramifications of his kindness to children boggles my mind. To Dad’s credit, he assured Uncle Walt that it was no problem whatsoever.
Late in the voyage, Uncle Walt made a commitment to us. “I have a boy named Mike,” he mused. “He’s fourteen. He has two GI Joes, but he’s gotten too big for them now. When I get back to New York, I’m going to send them to you.”
My dad told me how his heart sank listening to that promise. He’ll never send them, he thought, assuming Uncle Walt would forget his words during the long journey back. My boys will be so disappointed.
We arrived in Ghana at the end of August. My family traveled north, driving out of the lush vegetation near the coast and into the hot, dusty interior. School would begin the next week. And a few months later, the holiday season would be upon us.
But then a package arrived in time for Christmas.
Santa may not have visited Ghana’s remote interior, but Uncle Walt sure did, in the form of a pair of eleven-inch-tall GI Joe action figures. One for my brother and one for me. Second best Christmas gifts ever. (We’ll never top the original.)
Cover image by Ian Simmonds.