By Mike McCaffrey

I wrote this several nights ago, on Christmas Eve here in Virginia, while I was thinking of Christmas in the Lowell of my youth.

The downtown section was very vibrant in those days before the huge proliferation of cars, which led to the advent of the many shopping centers outside of the city center. Stores like Pollards, Cherry & Webb, The Bon Marche, Kresge's, the 5 &10, etc., etc., were highly successful back then.

At Christmas, I can well recall all the Christmas lights hanging across Merrimack Street; everything looked so cheerful. So many of us took the bus back then, and we'd do our Christmas shopping downtown and catch the bus back home from in front of Kresge's, more than likely admiring the snow falling on the large clock on the sidewalk at Kearney Square.

In thinking of the above, I'm particularly reminded of "Freddie the Cop." He was a Lowell policeman, and a great guy. Freddie (never did know his last name) was assigned to the Outer Gorham Street section. I and many of my friends lived in the Veterans Housing Project -- Shaughnessy Terrace -- adjacent to the old 1400 Motors dealership. That Project was brand new and very nice when we moved in circa 1953.

The requirement to gain admission to live there was that one's father had to have been a veteran, predominantly of WWII. The fact these fathers were products of the then fairly recently concluded war, and imbued with strict military discipline, ensured their kids "toed the line" ... or else.

The neighbor next door was a former paratrooper, tough as nails. Another was a former Marine, totally no nonsense. With over 300 townhouse units, that equaled an impressive number of "drill sergeants" to keep the younger folks in line. Thus, the project was a place of peace and remained immaculate in those earlier years.

It changed, very much, over subsequent years when the veterans qualification was dropped, and was renamed the Julian Steele Housing Project (after I graduated from high school and moved on in the Air Force), which was totally razed and is no longer in existence.

Freddie was extra "insurance" to make sure the young guys stayed out of trouble. He used to come by and stop to talk with us kids just about every day, or wave and beep the horn, or briefly sound the siren on his squad car as he was passing us walking home from school. We liked him as a friend, and also respected him greatly. We felt he cared for us, and we cared for him. And this all ties in with life in Lowell back then; it was a totally different time.

People in positions of authority, such as Freddie the Cop, one's parish priests, and teachers in school were admired and their instructions followed. Christmas was a time of a different type joy, not dominated by iPads, iPhones, video games, etc. (though, being honest, we would have loved to have had such gadgets back then). It was a time to be with family and friends, a time to go to church and give thanks to God.

A favorite pastime during that time was to take the bus downtown to movie theaters such as the Strand or the Rialto. I can recall our little group going down to the Strand to see Godzilla, and all of us were suitably scared. All the way home on the bus, we were sure that scaly overgrown reptile would devour our bus, much like he inhaled that unsuspecting fishing boat bobbing on the sea outside of Tokyo.

Another fixture in downtown at that time was Brockelman's Market in Kearney Square, across the street from The Sun Building, on the corner of Bridge and Merrimack streets. I can still recall they had sawdust all over the floor in there! You just don't see too many food markets these days with floors wallowing in sawdust!

And I would surely be remiss should I forget to mention Lull & Hartford's Sporting Goods on Prescott Street. Seems just about everybody went there at one time or another. Lastly, before I leave my memories behind and attempt to figure out how much I owe for all those Christmas gifts, I draw attention to City Hall, with that marvelous design and stone exterior. I loved the way that place looked, so unique.

Christmas past, for me, is not only recalling the many aspects of my old hometown, but also about people. Christmas present involves ensuring I never forget those people, including our childhood hero: Freddie the Cop. But I cannot, for a second, fail to mention a wonderful gentleman who became my "life mentor" -- Professor Ernest P. (Ernie) James. Ernie is a legend from his old Lowell Tech/UMass Lowell days. I am so honored to have known this most wonderful of men from when I was a student at Lowell State College/UMass Lowell, and doubly honored that we became very good lifelong friends.

From Virginia, I wish my Lowell friends what will be a belated Merry Christmas and sincerely hope the Year 2014 will be a wonderful one for all.