We traveled by train from Richmond since Dad liked the break and could point out things to us along the way. And while it wasn't even Thanksgiving yet, which was still about two weeks away, the City was decked out in its finest Christmas apparel, with decorations everywhere and Rockefeller Center sporting its huge Christmas tree. I remember we dined one night overlooking the ice and the skaters with the big tree stealing all the attention.
But the most wonderful thing in my book of memories from that trip was the rodeo at Madison Square Garden. It was a rodeo and variety show rolled into one. It included tough competition but also cowboy trick acts designed to awe the audience while seasonal music was also included. It was clearly a holiday show in the spirit of the rapidly approaching season and was a treasured annual Garden event. Making it even better, Dad had front row tickets and it was headlined by Gene Autry, one of the most famous cowboy celebrities of his time. Every little boy and probably little girl, too, knew Gene Autry, the singing cowboy.
Cowboy Gene with his impressive companion horse Champion came out under a spotlight before the lights were raised. Then Champion carried his rider around the big circle, stopping numerous times to rear high while his famous rider waved energetically at the crowd. And what a smile; you couldn't fake that smile. No, Gene Autry loved what he was doing to and it shined through. He looked around at the big gathering, talked for a moment about the event and the upcoming season, then slowly started walking his big, handsome Champion around the ring within touch of those in the front row. I was one lucky little fellow.
Suddenly the music started, it was the lead in to Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, and while it played he stopped by the stands wherever he saw children. He came right up to me, tousled the hair on my head while asking what I wanted for Christmas and signed an autographed program. Then he began singing that well known song again while he looked me in the eye with a twinkle before moving on to others. It was quite the moment and quite the memory for a little boy and I to this day remember it like it was yesterday.
That song, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, was inspired, of course, by the children's book of the same name. But when Autry recorded it and it was issued in the early fall of 1949, it became number one on the charts. And while its popularity would decline as all new songs do after their novelty wears off, it resurfaced each Christmas as a special song and has remained that way to this year. Sometimes we hear it performed by someone other than Gene Autry, but it's just not the same and his version always stands out with his clear and strong voice. And I must confess that every time I hear it at this time of year, the memories of that wonderful night return.
Oh, there were other great things we saw on that trip. We went to the top of the Empire State Building, the Hayden Planetarium and even the Statue of Liberty and the ice show at Rockefeller Center. But nothing could compare with that moment with Gene Autry and Champion for a five year old boy, except maybe that train ride in an era of classic engines, great accommodations and white gloved service. Thinking back, I know we had problems back then as societies do at any time, but those really were the days to be remembered.
And here's the most amazing thing about the whole trip. The name of the train routed both ways between Richmond and New York was The Champion as well. Coincidence? I think not.