by marlys good
John Madsen’s most memorable Christmas memories go back to the 1950s, when his father, Earl Madsen, owned the Gambles Store, that was sandwiched between the Greybull Market and Harry Kimbell’s Helenary Shop and across the street from the Big Horn Theatre.
Madsen remembers that the basement of the store had walls gouged out of the sandstone, left unfinished and naked, a dark, gloomy place that was reserved for furniture most of the year. “But on Thanksgiving weekend it was transformed into a magical grotto filled with tables and shelves packed with colorful toys, games and dolls, wagons and sleds. Dad always had to hire extra help to handle the Christmas rush. This included my mom (Gladys), the wonderful Vera Kinnaird, whose husband Paul ran the Co-op filling station on the corner, and me after school and on weekends from the third grade on.
“Actually my Christmas began even earlier, because every July the Gamble Corporation invited all the store owners and their families from Wyoming and Montana to a giant toy expo to review and decide what toys to order for delivery six months later.”
The expo was held in Billings in a warehouse the size of a couple of football fields. Madsen said, “We lucky children were not only allowed, but INSTRUCTED, to open and play with anything we wanted.” He remembers a “riot of scrambling kids functioning as divining rods for the best toys to stock. As far as I was concerned this expo was darned near as good as Christmas itself.”
Come Christmas the back room in the basement of Gambles was used to keep the “lay-away” Christmas purchased by customers. “Here I digress,” Madsen said. “As a small child of 5 or 6, my present to Mother one Christmas was an enameled dustpan. Mom always seemed to be cleaning under my bed, so I hid her present very craftily under hers, figuring she was too busy with my room to bother with hers. For years afterward she laughed at how she was obliged to clean all around it without disturving its location and my surprise for her.
“At the age of 11 or 12, and much wiser, I bought my mother a TV lamp. Television was just coming to town, and people seemed to think they needed a small lamp up on top, the one I bought, from our store of course, was a plaster sculpture of a sailing ship on a froth of waves; the body of the ship was enameled avocado green, with little holes for an interior bulb to shine through, and shiny metal sails on top, shaped as if in a full wind. Mindful of my fabled dustpan fiasco, I asked Vera (Kinnaird) how I could hide it until Christmas. If I put it in the back room under my name my parents would see it and spoil the surprise.”
Kinnaird suggested he use a false name. Madsen thought this was a great idea and after much thought came up with “Bate Gordon.” Vera duly wrote it on the package and filed it in the back room. “Vera loved that name. For the rest of her life, whenever I was in town and happened to see her, Vera would sidle up to me and ask with a big grim, “How’s Bate Gordon these days? Is ole Bate doing okay?”
Madsen said the “grotesque TV lamp followed my parents through three different houses in Greybull, and then to Billings where they moved after Dad sold the store here and retired. They still had that monstrous and entirely unnecessary thing on their living room television set 40 years later. Go figure!”