Life was great when Christmas came, back in Houston, Missouri, when I was a boy in the late 50’s and early 60’s. That was when I first heard those old Christmas carols they still play today, like “White Christmas” and “Silver Bells” and “Winter Wonderland”.
I got a new bicycle for Christmas in 1960. I think Dad traded a shotgun for it. You could tie a shotgun or fishing rod across the handle bars and head for the Big Piney River, only a mile or so away, for whatever season presented itself. A basket on the back helped me get a stringer of fish or a couple of fox squirrels home. And when I went to work at the pool hall that Dad and Grandpa McNew and I owned on Main Street I had a bicycle to get there on.
It was at that pool hall that Christmas-time was most enjoyable, because everyone got a little happier, a little nicer to each other than they were when it got up around 96 degrees in July. Most of the old men gave me some kind of small present at Christmas. Several of them got together that year and bought me a subscription to Outdoor Life, AND Field and Stream magazines.
I would buy one or the other every month from Herron’s Drug Store, but they cost 35¢ each and I could only afford one a month. That’s because once a week I also blew 35¢ on a piece of pecan pie from the West Side Café across the street from the pool hall. I would just ask Ol’ Jim and Ol’ Bill and Ol’ Jess to watch the place for just a minute or answer the phone if it rang. Everybody knew if it was Les Cantrell’s wife calling they had to tell her he wasn’t there.
Then I would wear the moneybag over there and get me a piece of pie on a paper plate to go, and eat it in the pool hall. The waiter there was Patricia, so I would just say, Patricia, a piece of paper-plated pecan pie for a pool player please. Not really– just thought I would throw in a little humor there.
Anyhow, one Christmas one of the Front Bench Regulars wives made me a whole pecan pie for my very own. Trouble with that kind of Christmas gift is it just don’t last very long. I hid it in the back of the soda pop cooler chest and ate it in a hurry, worried that someone else might want a sample.
I remember that Preacher Lampkin gave me a little worn Bible once, and I think it was Bill Hoyt, no I think it might have been Norman Salyer now that I think about, who gave me a used pocket knife with the blade sharpened so many times it was darn near gone. Bill Hoyt gave me that little book on how to cheat at poker and not get caught. It was pretty well worn, too.
Jess Wolf was a big old teddy bear of a man who must have been nearly 80 years old. I thought the world of him. He would sit on the front bench and watch a snooker game going on and just drift off to sleep. When he did I would gently take his cap off his head and hide it somewhere… behind the cigarette machine or in the big mouth of a sea-bass hanging on the wall above the coat rack.
Jess would act awfully grumpy when he woke up and tried to find it, but I don’t think he was ever all that mad. One Christmas he wrapped up one of his old caps with a faded card that said, “Merry Christmas.” Beneath the greeting he had written in pencil… “now yu can hide yer own dam cap an leeve mine alone.”.
I wrote one of my columns years ago about my old friend, Saldy Reardon, and how he gave me a two-dollar bill one Christmas Eve for a gift. It is a sad story, but the ending is good, because that Christ-child born in the manger allowed Ol’ Saldy to escape his demons.
At Christmas time, I helped Dad give away cigars and chewing tobacco and socks and brown cloth gloves to all the Front Bench Regulars. Was that ever a happy time for me. The celebration of Christmas just isn’t like it was when I was a kid. I think maybe I have heard those Christmas songs too many years now. And they just don’t sing those old hymns today in modern churches like they did in the little country church my Mom and Dad made me go to. I don’t think that after hearing Grandpa MeNew singing “It Came upon a Midnight Clear” and “Little Town of Bethlehem”, that I’ll ever cotton to modern church music where you just sing one line over and over.
Today more and more folks are working to eliminate the name of Christmas, substituting “Holiday” and trying to steer new generations away from the belief that it was God’s son born so long ago in Bethlehem. Why can’t we have manger scenes in front of the courthouse now… Is the birth of Jesus less important today? Anyone who thinks so isn’t seeing the world I am looking at.
There was one night, one Christmas Eve of importance in my young life, that the old men filed out of the pool hall, and I was just left waiting for Dad to come and close up, that me and Preacher Lampkin had a serious talk. You’ll remember that he was the old fellow who told me the reason you said ‘amen’ after a prayer was to let God know you were done. I asked him that night if he thought Jesus would come back to earth any time soon.
“I figger he will, maybe in yore lifetime,” he said. “I’d like to think he might walk in here and we’d all know him and give him a big hug. I’d hope he might play a game of pool or go fishin’ a time er two with some of us before he took all of us back to heaven.”
“When God sends Jesus back,” he went on, “It ort to be the happiest time ever. But if it goes like I reckon it might, I’m afeared this old world won’t know him a’tall.”
I think about that as I see this country decide that what Jesus told us was wrong is now right, and what he showed us was right is now looked upon as wrong. Those old men I idolized were wise, not intelligent, and wisdom carried the day when I was a boy. Not now. Evil has become an avalanche and sound reason has been buried beneath it.
On Christmas night, as I slip into the night far from the town’s lights, and look at the stars and listen to the owl and the coyote in the unchanging natural world that God created, I just say a simple prayer that big-time preachers and ‘religious’ folks might think sounds a little goofy. At times like that I wonder if someday soon we will have hustled and bustled and commercialized our way toward the last Christmas. Maybe it will be awhile longer if enough of us remember the first one.
I have written a lot of books but the one I get the most requests for is the book about my boyhood with those old-timers in the pool hall. It is entitled… “The Front Bench Regulars.” That book or others I have written might make a good Christmas gift. All money received in December for the sale of books goes to funding the Panther Creek Youth Retreat in 2018, paying for taxes, electricity and insurance. To order a book as a gift or for yourself, just call our office… 417-777-5227.