by David Neff
My father, Charles K. Neff, worked for the Wildwood W ater Dept. as a bookkeeper from the early 1930s to about 1947 at their Pine and New Jersey office. In 1937, he and my mother, Noreen, married. My brother Phillip was born in 1939 and I followed in 1941. I reckon that as I was growing up during the 1940s, our family of four fell somewhere between upper lower class and lower middle class, but back then many other Wildwood families were in the same financial situation. We had what we needed, but there was seldom any extra. Our mom was an expert at squeezing the most out of every dollar.
The Wildwood Water Department maintains water wells, a pumping station and wooded land out on Rt. 47 in Rio Grande. As an employee at that time, and for a few years thereafter, dad was given permission to cut a Christmas tree on their wooded land each year. We always made the best of whichever we chose each year, plus we had fun running through the woods searching for the best-looking tree.
By the early 1950s, the Water Department land was off limits, and we had to actually buy our tree from a tree lot. Back then on the property between 21st and 22nd Streets on New Jersey Avenue in North Wildwood on the West side of the street (most recently the now closed Bank of America), the Todd family owned and operated Todd’s Express, a trucking and moving company. On the large street to street lot, they parked their trucks and maintained an office building on the corner. Every holiday season, they used their trucks to bring trees down, most likely from Pennsylvania, and stick the trees into rows of holes they made in the ground on their unpaved lot. At night, the lot was lit with strings of light bulbs strung overhead. Our goal was to find an inexpensive tree that could be ‘doctored up’ with extra branches. Fortunately, in order to stick the trees into the holes in the ground most trees needed to have one or two of the lowest branches cut off at the bottom. Those branches were for sale as Christmas greens. Mom was our negotiator and always succeeded in getting a fixable tree along with a few extra branches at an affordable price.
Our chosen tree was placed outside in a bucket of water along with the extra branches. On Christmas Eve day, the tree was brought into the house and placed in its stand. Then the magic began. Dad would figure out the exact positions and angles to drill holes in the tree trunk. The extra branches would be sized, the stem ends whittled to a point and then jammed firmly into the holes so that the bark on the branch stems would meet the bark of the tree trunk. Our tree looked as good as any of the best trees on the tree lot.
The years my brother Phil and I believed in Santa, we would decorate our tree after dinner. Dad would place the strings of colored lights, then we would help with hanging the delicate balls and, finally, the lead tinsel (which was outlawed in 1972 due to lead’s poisonous qualities). The tree properly decorated, we were off to bed, awaiting Santa’s arrival.
Our sister Martha was born in 1950 followed by our brother Chuck in 1953. Phil and I would warn them to get to bed before Santa came or there would be no presents! We may not have always gotten what we wanted, but Santa always came, and we always had presents under our tree on Christmas morning.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to ALL!