Christmas is nearly upon us now. And even those who don't celebrate the birth of the Christ child still seem to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the holiday, whether it's through the traditions and recitations of Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, the lines and traffic of shopping for presents, or even just the year end rush to get things done at the office before year's end.
In the spirit of peace -- and quite literally as an offered respite -- I present to you the following story, as recounted by my good friend Larry Joyner. Larry is a True Southerner and a raconteur of fine repute. All the words are his; my only regret is that you cannot hear them with the full effect of his Tidewater drawl and animated expressions. It's a tad longer than the usual offerings here; believe me, your day, no matter how harried, will be better for the reading of it, and I trust you'll find it time well-spent and a much-needed break from the rushing around.
Merry Christmas to all, y'all. And bring some peace into the new year, y'hear?
This is a Christmas story. It is also a story about the Old Man and my first real understanding of redemption. The Old Man was, of course, my old man, better known around the house as "Daddy" by my brother and sisters. He was "Daddy" at one time to me, earlier in my life, but somehow that term seemed to dissipate over time. Most of my life I have just referred to him as the old man even though he was quite young to be a father. He was 21 when I was born, and that always set him apart from my contemporaries, whose fathers were much older.
He was the product of a difficult upbringing in the heart of the Great Depression. His mother died early in his life from childbirth complications. His father was more successful in engaging a bottle of Jack Daniels, than engaging his own children. Eventually, all of the old mans brothers and sisters, six in all, were farmed out to other households. The old man ended up in the home of Elisha Luter, where he earned his keep on the Luter family farm. He only completed the third grade in school. This, however, served as more of a challenge than an impediment.
He had a keen mind and was an astute observer of human nature. His childhood poverty motivated him to engage in a life-long pursuit for the almighty dollar. Money brought access to the many things he did not have as a child, so when opportunity presented itself, the old man was always a willing accomplice. He would work long, hard hours as a heavy equipment operator to get ahead, and he always kept his eyes open for a deal. Getting a deal on something seemed to validate his existence. I remember vividly Mr. T.M. Marr, a local businessman, commenting on the street savvy of the old man. He declared the old man would have been dangerous if he had a high school education. The old man prided himself at mastering the skill of counting money. He absolutely reveled in counting his "dead presidents."
His obsession for money, however, never seemed to temper his sense of humor. He was an evening regular at Herman Bowden's Gulf Station and Roy Rainey's Country Store. He could sit and exchange stories for hours with the regulars, whom my mother declared, unabashedly, to be unfit for socialization. When he came in late, always around eight o'clock, my mother would swear up and down she was going to get him a bed down at the filling station. Her worst fears were realized when the old man would allow me to make the rounds with him, usually on Sunday mornings, which conveniently conflicted with church services. I would leap at the opportunity to go and hear some of the biggest lies and yarns ever concocted by mankind.
The characters on the tour were a mixed bag. Captain and Jim Whitt were the town drunks. They drove around in an old beat up car with their pet dog, Rabbit. Rabbit was a mixed-breed dog in dire need of psychological help. Captain and Jim were involved in so many accidents and fender benders that the poor dog was always one bark away from a complete nervous breakdown. He always had a disheveled look, as if he had just inserted his tail in a light socket. Despite Captain and Jim's inability to resist strong drink, I found them both to be affable sorts. I can recall they were always interested in what we got for Christmas -- so much so, in fact, that they always took it upon themselves to visit every Christmas morning to wish us well and get a "Taste of Christmas." The old man always obliged, much to the chagrin of my mother, whose idea of Christmas morning did not include the town drunks.
What really upset Momma were my ventures with the old man to the residence of Bull and Vick Tutor. I use the word "residence" somewhat loosely, because they lived in a converted school bus. What was really neat was the fact that the bus was hoisted up about eight feet between four pine trees. You literally had to climb a ladder to gain entry into the damn thing. Bull and Vick always had a pot of beans on the stove. I am convinced that for other than an occasional squirrel, beans were the staple of their diet. They loved to tell stories, and I liked to hear them. Tragedy struck suddenly, one fall, when a hurricane came ashore and proceeded to blow the bus about 30 yards across a vacant field. Never to be deterred for too long, Bull and Vick decided to live out the remainder of their years in the bus where it landed. There were countless other characters in town that we would visit, but the school bus trips were hard to beat!
When the new minister for the Presbyterian church came to town, Momma saw her opening and quickly enrolled me in confirmation classes. This virtually eliminated me from taking those side trips with the old man. It didn't, however, stop me from listening to town characters on my own. I would sneak up to Roy Rainey's store and listen to Zukie Payton relate how he single-handedly won World War II, or listen to William Sassar tell stories while he simultaneously sucked his teeth. My favorite involved the many trials and tribulations of Richard "Oyster Man" Durber.
Oyster Man, as he was affectionately known, essentially made his living by walking into cars, as they traveled down Route 460. He was a master of just getting grazed by oncoming traffic and graciously accepting settlements from the insurance companies. Now, as you can imagine, Oyster Man was not steeped in social graces. He had this awful habit of coughing up big globs of phlegm. I never stopped to think that the poor man may have had some type of congestive lung disease. All I know is that it was always interesting to be singing hymns in church and having Oyster Man accent the crescendo with a huge hocker. His untimely disruptions were particularly annoying to Miss Mable Umphlett who seemed to have an uncanny knack for being the featured soloist during the weeks when Oyster Man was in his finest form, usually the months that had an "r" in them. My mother thought Richard was disgusting -- so much so that I could not bear to tell her about his grossest faux pas. Richard had a habit of putting his cigarette out in his shirt pocket, where he had previously supplied an ample dose of phlegm. This even grossed me out, but in some sort of eerie way I felt like I was part of an inner circle of individuals, a secret society if you will, who knew why Oyster Man's shirt pockets were always stained.
I guess you could say my mother eventually saved me from all of this, but somehow I still remember the old man telling her not to deride these people for their ignorance. He would declare that even the most ignorant men know something you do not know. I guess this was the old mans call to arms for everyone to listen -- and then listen some more. I must admit that it was often hard to find wisdom in some of their bizarre behaviors. However, it was always a treat to see them laugh and play jokes on each other, so it only made good sense for me to steal away to the General Store on Christmas Eve Day in 1962.
Things were not going well at the house. For the first and only time I can recall, the old man insisted on being with it. The live green Christmas tree that we always had on Christmas was replaced that year by some aluminum foil monstrosity that was illuminated by a rotating color wheel strategically placed near it. I have to admit that lots of people made the switch to aluminum that year. Those things seemed to be placed in front of every picture window in town. The problem was that we didn't like it. An even bigger problem was the fact that my mother didn't care for it either. You can figure the rest. The old man huffed out of the house to take care of some business. That meant he would be making his rounds. I rushed to get my jacket, but he pulled out of the driveway before I could even get to the door. Nonetheless, it was hardly pleasant at home, and I declared that I would be riding my bike down to the store.
It was a cold, overcast day as I made my way up the road to the store. It was certainly a welcome respite to come into an area heated by an old pot-bellied stove. All the regulars were there. The only thing missing was a snack. I soon took care of that by dispatching Mr. Crocker to fetch me a dozen, loose, ginger snap cookies and a slice of New York's finest extra sharp cheddar cheese, fresh cut from the block and strategically placed on a piece of wax paper before my very eyes. I supplied the finishing touch with an ice cold Coca-Cola and proceeded to make my way to the inner circle. I was expecting the usual lies and stories, peppered with a dash here and there of foolishness. Much to my surprise there was none of that. The conversation had taken a more somber tone. Tom Ashburn, who lived just up the street from us, was in a bad way. He had been out of work for some time. He and his family of three boys, a daughter and wife barely had enough to eat. The outlook for Christmas was worse than grim. There was nothing for the kids, not even hard candy. I had never seen these guys this way, and I ended up leaving that day depressed and upset over the Ashburns' situation.
When I returned home, even the aluminum tree was enough to elicit a sense of guilt on my part concerning their situation. I lived in a house of high expectations and hope. Their house was one of grief and despair. As the color wheel cast its extended light on the tree and on to the ceiling above, Christmas 1962 began to take on an identity quite different than those of the past.
Meanwhile, the Old Man was working his way in a way that only the Old Man could do. For many years, he had worked extra during the holiday season for a toy wholesaler named B.H. Saunders. The Old Man drove a truck for Mr. Saunders, delivering just about any kind of toy you could imagine to the various retailers in the area. News of the Ashburns plight had spread fast in the little village of Zuni, and as soon as the Old Man heard about it, a light went on in his head. He remembered that Mr. Saunders always had a truck full of returned toys that were either slightly damaged or were floor models. The Old Man passed the hat. These were not well-to-do people. They did not have much but somehow they managed to pull together $25. Mr. T.M. Marr supplemented the take with an additional $25 and that was all the Old Man needed. He borrowed Lonnie Babe Uzell's farm truck and headed to Portsmouth.
He arrived just as Mr. Saunders was about to close up for the night. The Old Man got right down to business, offering Mr. Saunders $50 for a selection of the reject toys. It was far too little, and the Old Man knew it, so he put his whole mission on the line by telling Mr. Saunders where the toys were going. Saunders shook his head, but somehow even he knew he had met his match. He was in the Old Man's house now, and the Old Man was not about to let him leave! In just a few more minutes, he sealed the deal of his life. He not only got a selection of toys, but he also got to keep the $50 to give to the family.
As he pulled out from B.H. Saunders' it was already nine o'clock. The old truck ran well for awhile, but alas it just was not suited for over-the-road activity. Somewhere about fifteen miles east of Zuni, the old girl just quit. As he pulled the truck off the road to allow for its final groan, the Old Man knew the odds were stacked against him. His only hope was to flag down someone and get a message to the guys back at the filling station.
Route 460 can be a very lonely highway late at night, and it was even more so on Christmas Eve 1962. No one came for what seemed like hours. Finally, however, someone did stop. The driver was going to Ivor and agreed to stop at Herman Bowden's Gulf Station on the way in. As his tail lights disappeared over the horizon, the Old Man returned to the truck to sit and wait, but before he opened the door, something made a sound in the brush next to the road. When he investigated, the Old Man was shocked to find a speckled puppy beside the highway. His mother was nowhere in sight, so the Old Man picked him up and wrapped him in a blanket. He and the pup just sat and waited.
Finally, over the hill, an intense light appeared. It was a virtual convoy of cars driven by the guys at the service station. Heading the pack was Captain, Jim and Rabbit. The toys were quickly transferred to the cars because they had asked Mr. Ashburn to please stay up until at least midnight.
As the caravan pulled out, the lead car -- with Captain, Jim, Rabbit, the Old Man and a speckled puppy -- moved at a pace that exceeded the posted speed. The rest of the group followed close behind. Trooper Dan Everhart was expecting a quiet Christmas Eve duty tour that night, when the speeding entourage passed by. Everhart did not recognize all of the cars, but he did recognize the lead car. He had written up countless citations involving that car, usually right after a big celebration at someone else's place! He made a hard U-turn, hit his blinking lights and put his cruiser in pursuit. Much to his surprise, the whole group did not slow down. As a matter of fact, they accelerated down the road like a bat out of hell. When the chase ended in front of the Ashburns' house, Everhart was ready to throw the book at the whole bunch. Backup was on the way, when he noticed the Old Man sitting in the back seat with Rabbit and the speckled puppy.
"Tom, what in the hell is this all about??!!" he shouted. The Old Man quietly got out and explained the mission. It was now midnight and there were toys to deliver. Everhart was touched by it all and called off his backups. He then took off his trooper's hat and helped the boys unload Santa's booty. The Old Man arrived to a home that was dark and quiet that night. All of us, including Momma, had long since gone to bed. As he retired he uttered not a sound. It was time to listen, not talk.
The Christmas morning that followed was one of the most memorable ones in my life -- not so much for what I got, but what I received.
Word of the late night Christmas Eve caper went through town like wild fire. The phone rang early that morning and Momma answered. I don't know to this day who made that call, but I do know that Mommas mood changed suddenly and dramatically. As the caravan participants came by that morning, one by one, for a "Taste of Christmas," she greeted them all in a warm and generous way. She even set aside two bowls of food for Rabbit and his new friend. Red bows were tied around their necks and Rabbit was as calm as I ever saw him.
As the day drew to a close, I realized that I, too, had experienced a Taste of Christmas. The Old Man had made the deal of his life, and an improbable group of reprobates, drunks and misfits had managed to keep the spirit of Christmas alive, when there appeared to be no hope.
Each of us has a value, however small, that is capable of rendering great and wondrous things to each and all. Let us not judge who among us is best, for in the end that is not the test. The contest belongs to those whose hearts are large, not small. It is for them that the spirit of Christmas calls.
If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.
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12.23.09 @ 9:48a
12.24.09 @ 4:49p
What a marvelous story. Merry Christmas, Russ.
12.25.09 @ 10:28a
Reminds me of a very rich man in my town in the late thirties and early forties who used to buy new shoes and coats every Christmas for all the poor kids in town, which at that time was nearly all of us. This man was a regular micro-financier the rest of the year when people were really hard up. He'd lend a five or a ten and most of the time he got paid back, but he just counted the rest of it as his contribution to "society." He was one of those rich men who could prolly get through the eye of that proverbial needle since he hired ex-cons and other people who were down on their luck for his business, paid better than average wages and then gave away a lot of his money to just about any good cause. But the new shoes and coats at Christmastime was one of the best things he ever did.