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Searching for answers to life's great mysteries

While poets, philosophers and scientists have struggled with the great mysteries of life such as "why are we here?" -- childhood holds just two such deep questions. Young children wonder where all those Christmas gifts really come from, while older kids puzzle over the ultimate unknown: sex. My brother, three years my senior, chose Christmas Eve, 1961, to reveal details of the age-old question: Is the North Pole story just another adult scam?

As a child, I believed that the real Kris Kringle was on Channel 4, WBEN TV, and he had a skinny, wrinkly old elf named Forgetful. The Santas at AM&A's and Hens & Kelly's were merely cheap substitutes for the big guy. One smelled like cigar smoke and the other had breath worse than a reindeer.

Each night, my siblings and I would sit transfixed in front of the old black-and-white console watching Forgetful mess up in some way or another. As Christmas Eve approached, there was serious doubt as to whether Santa was going to be ready for the big night. At age 6, I remember going to bed truly believing that Channel 4 Santa was on his way to South Buffalo to reward me for being a fairly good boy all year long.

Anyway, big brother told me that all those presents come from our parents. "Well," he whispered. "The presents really come from Grandma, because we're poor." I was devastated. Not only was Santa a cruel myth, but we were as poor as the Cunninghams from "To Kill a Mockingbird."

The real reason he spilled the beans was because he needed an accomplice for his raid. He woke me at 5 a.m. Christmas morning. I was ordered to act as lookout as he crawled, commando-style, down the long hallway from our bedroom to the front of the house. A few minutes later, he came back, breathlessly holding just one present. "What about me?" I protested. He gave me the older brother stare that says, "I'll pound you into cat food." We silently moved into the bathroom, where brother unwrapped his gift with great care.

"What is it?" I asked. He told me it was something called a crystal radio set. I watched, awestruck in my Mighty Mouse PJs, as he began to assemble this little mess of wires and gizmos onto a piece of cardboard with symbols and pictures on it. I couldn't understand what he was doing then and, half a century later, I am still clueless.

Brother pointed to this little hunk of metal about the size of an M&M and told me that was the crystal. He used an alligator clip to attach an antenna to the big metal heat register next to the sink and he put on an earplug. He then slowly moved a little slider up and down and listened intently. Soon his eyes lit up and he shoved the plug in my ear. I heard some preacher talking in a silky voice about the miracle of Christmas.

A few minutes later, we heard footsteps. Someone stopped just outside the bathroom door. We heard a chuckle, and whoever it was moved back up the hall. "That was Santa!" I gasped. My brother shook his head slowly. "Nooooo," he said. "That was dad."

Brother slipped the assembled radio back into the wrapping paper, crawled back to the living room and expertly replaced the gift. We sneaked back into our bunk beds, exhausted from all the espionage. Three hours later, we were awakened by our other half-dozen siblings and discovered what seemed like hundreds of presents under the tree. Even Grandma didn't have enough money to afford all that loot. So, no matter what my brother told me, there was a Santa Claus -- at least for one more year.

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Bob O'Connor, who lives in Hamburg, has vivid memories of Christmas Eve in 1961.

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