Franklin D. Roosevelt had been in the White House less than a year, and I was only 4, when Christmas rolled around in 1933. That Christmas would become a colorful part of our family lore. I heard about it so many times, in such detail, that my memory attempts to trick me by claiming to recall more of it than could have been possible.
We lived on a hard-scrabble dirt farm in Eastland County, Tex., in a time when much more than one-third of the nation was "ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." In that bottoming-out-year of The Great Depression the King family owned no automobile, no telephone, no electric lights, no indoor plumbing, no running water and no cash.
The only heat in our farmhouse was provided by a rude stone fireplace in the living room and a woodburning stove in the kitchen. On bitter nights -- and it does get very cold in certain parts of Texas, Sun Belt myths to the contrary -- my mother wrapped hot irons or hot bricks in layers of cloth as foot-warmers. On frozen mornings, my parents broke the ice in a large kitchen bucket to wash the sleep from their eyes and to brew bracing coffee. Later, when the kitchen had warmed, but still before sunup and sometimes before first light, I would crawl from my chilly bed and dash to the fire in anticipation of hot biscuits, gravy and -- after hog-killing time -- home-cured sausage, ham or bacon.
At 4 years of age I knew nothing of umemployment, depressed farm prices, instant hobos riding the rails in search of work, the daily economic woes and fears of my parents. That would come soon enough, but in December of 1933 I innocently assumed the visit of a Santa Claus of generous spirit and limitless gifts.
"Your Momma had ordered your Santa Claus doodads from a mail-order house that year like she always done," my father would many times recall, "but for some blame reason it never come. She met the mailman every day for a week, fussing and fuming at him, but it never done no good.
"When your Christmas hadn't come by Christmas Eve day, Cora rung the dinner bell on the porch to call me in from work. I recollect I was chopping wood and stacking it to haul to Cisco to sell for $3 a cord. Well, I put down my ax and went to the house. Cora met me on the porch so you wouldn't hear her."
"Clyde," my mother said, "if that boy's gonna have any Santa Claus you're gonna have to go to town and buy it."
The Old Man (I think of him that way though he was short of his 46th birthday, six years younger than I am now) asked a direct and simple question: "What with?"
"You can ask Will Gaddis for credit."
Her husband shook his head and mumbled; he thought credit buying unwise, unmanly and probably unforgiveable in heaven. There was a shame attached to a man's not being able to make his own way on a cash-and-carry basis. When he said nothing more, she gave him an edict: "Clyde, there's not any choice. We can't disappoint that boy. hChristmas if for children."
"It was God-awful cold," my father would recall, "and getting colder. I could tell the clouds had snow in 'em. It was about six miles over to the little town of Scranton -- had two stores there, a couple churches and a post office -- and I didn't waste no time trying to hunt down a horse in the pasture to saddle. Figured I'd strike out walking and maybe somebody would come along and pick me up. At the least, I figured to run into somebody in town I could bum a ride from coming back home.
"I wrapped up in my heaviest old work jumper, put on heavy socks, long johns, and struck out afoot. Didn't cut through the fields and pastures, which would of save me more'n a mile and a half, on account of I had hopes of a car coming along. Well, I'll just be plagued -- none did. Before I'd went a mile the snow was falling so thick and fast I couldn't see but a few steps ahead of myself. The wind was blowing so hard I had to lean into it, which made mighty tough walking. Time I got to Scranton, I was snow head to toe and half-froze."
Not much was doing in the little crossroads Texas settlement on a Christmas Eve afternoon. The country folks were at home: trimming trees they'd likely cut off their own land or a neighbor's, making popcorn balls, wrapping such few presents as they could afford, cooking the Christmas feasts that were so much a part of the holiday tradition.
One old couple was in Gaddis Brothers General Mercantile, which sold everything from axle grease to large sacks of flour to horsecollars to patent medicines. In season, the Gaddis boys stocked a few toys and special items for Christmas.
"Me and Will Gaddis had been boys together, but I hated to ask him for credit worse than sin. So I sure didn't want them other people hearing me. So I warmed by backside by the stove there in the store. When Will asked me what he could do for me, I said, 'Let me thaw out first, Will.' Well, consarn that old couple, they asseled around in there, must of been a good hour, buying their little dab.
"Soon's they left I said, 'Will, my woman sent a money order to a mailorder house up in Chicago to buy my boy his Christmas, but it never come. I need to buy him a few things, but I flat don't have no money. It's all in Chicago.' I went on to tell Will I'd pay cash when I could. Or, if he'd druther, I'd work it out around his store or on a farm him and his brothers owned. Will said, 'Aw, Clyde, don't worry none about that. I know you good for it. You go on ahead and take whatever you want.' I appreciated that. Still and all, I couldn't help but feel little."
My father selected a half-dozen oranges, an equal number of apples, nuts, hard candy, a small pocketknife and a child's little red rocking chair. "I don't know if you recollect that chair," he said in later years, "but you was plumb foolish about it. You used to set down in it and play like you was some big boss" -- he laughed an old man's cackle -- "and the rest of us would have to come ask you for our wages. And you'd make us tell what we'd did to deserve our play before you'd give it to us -- or play like you did. The Road Not Taken
"Anyhow, I'd carred a gunnysack to town with me. I put that red rocker and other Christmas things in it, told Will I was much obliged, and started to leave the store."
"Lord God, Clyde," the storekeeper said, "you don't want to go out in that danged blizzard! Somebody's bound to come along in a car directly."
The snow was getting thicker, the wind was howling fiercely; my father decided his old friend was right. Probably he secretly delighted in the rare opportunity to escape his daily labors: He loved to talk, to tell stories, to crack dry jokes. The two men sat by the pot-bellied stove, Dad smoking roll-your-own cigarettes and Gaddis chewing tobacco, through much of the afternoon. I am sure they talked of crops and hard times and the Bible and men a long time dead. "Wellsir, it got later and later and still nobody come to town. And the way that snow was swirlin' and bankin' up, I figured wadn't nobody likely to. The old roads was all dirt in them days, wadn't paved, and I guess folks figured they'd be mean to travel. So along about dusk I told Will Gaddis I'd just as well move on."
"Clyde, you better let me drive you over to your place," Gaddis said. "You can't walk six or seven miles in this mess."
But my father refused. Will Gaddis lived but a few hundred yards from his store, and such a wayward trip might be an imposition. "No, Will," he said, "you've done enough for me as it is."
My old man hoisted his gunnysack full of Santa Claus goodies on a broad shoulder and started the long trudge home through the storm. For a mile or so he stayed on the road, still hoping for the luck to hitch a ride.
"Then I thought, 'Thunder, ain't nobody in his right mind gonna come out in this blizzard.' So I cut through a plowed field, which crossed into some woods over about the old Biggerstaff place.
"Wellsir, outside of voting for Herbert Hoover that was about the biggest damnfool thing I ever done. Ten minutes after I got in them woods it was pitch dark. I hadn't thought to bring a lantern, it being the middle of the day when I'd left home. Snow had covered up any markers I might of recognized, you see, and there I was bumping around in them blame woods getting myself or that gunnysack tangled up.
"Didn't bother me much at first. I figured I knowed which way I was heading and I'd come out on the road again, up by Ernest Weed's old place, if I walked true. And from there it wadn't but a mile, a mile and quarter maybe, on home.
"But I walked and walked in that storm, until I finally knowed within reason I'd overshot Ernest Weed's place. So I started backtracking. But in the dark and that blowin' snow, all that done was get me turned around and twisted. I didn't have no notion of where I was at. You couldn't read the stars -- it was overcast and the moon was blotted out. And that snow was falling so thick it was hard to breathe.
"Well, I admit to it, I commenced feeling scared. It was cold enough that night a man could get frostbite or worse. I hadn't never seen a blizzard like that, and never seen another 'un. I knowed if I lost my head I'd be worse off than I was. Tried to follow my old tracks back to the road, but in the dark and with new snow falling I couldn't track myself. I tell you, I was between a rock and a hard place." The Wait
My mother usually picked up the story at that point.
"When it got good dark and after, I was worried sick. It just wasn't like Clyde to lay out that way. He didn't drink; he was always particular to be on time and not worry me."
Mother and my sister, Estelle, walked the floor of that old unpainted farmhouse, "wringing our hands and wondering." I was darting about underfoot, too excited by the prospect of Christmas and the proximity of Santa Claus to think of sleep. Not wanting to alarm me, my mother cautioned Estelle against emotional outbursts or tears.
"I thought it would be better if we had something to occupy our minds," my mother recalled. "We all went in the kitchen and popped popcorn and roasted a big pan of peanuts. You had a good time eating, rattling on about Santa Claus and asking a hundred questions about when he'd be there and what he fed his reindeer and such. I tried to act natural, but I just knew something was terrible wrong. I felt like I had to do something. So I told Estelle to stay with you, sing you songs or play little games to keep you occupied."
Telling me she was going to the barn to gather eggs for our Christmas breakfast, my mother bundled warmly and collected three lanterns we kept for pre-dawn farm chores.
"It was the only thing I knew to do," she said. "The nearest neighbors was a mile away. I was afraid to try to go there in the storm -- and they had a yard full of big dogs I was afraid of. I set out walking to the main road, about a quarter of a mile from our old house, to set out lanterns. If your daddy was lost in the storm, I thought he might see their lights. All I could imagine, if somebody hadn't knocked him in the head or he hadn't been run over by a car, was that he'd got lost in that storm.
"It was all I could do to get up our lane to that main road and back -- I later heard it snowed way over a foot. And there was drifts that was waist-deep. I know, because I fell in two or three. But I kept on until I got those lanterns lit and set out. I placed 'em in a row right in front of our gate.
"When I got back to the house you'd gone to sleep in Estelle's arms. When we tucked you in bed, you woke up mumbling about Santa Claus. But I sung you back to sleep. Then I said, 'Estelle, I can't think of but one other thing we can do.' So we dropped down on our knees and prayed."
Back to my father's tale. "I don't have no notion how long I stumbled around in them woods. Had to be hours and hours. I was wore out, hungry, cold to the bone -- but I knowed if I stopped to rest I might go to sleep despite all I could do, and then I'd freeze to death, I'd heard of it happenin'.
"After a while I got mad. I'd been raised on that same farm we lived on then. I'd hunted in that country all my life, walked them woods with dogs, worked the fields all over that part of the country. And it made me want to bump myself that I was lost and couldn't find no landmarks. I might as well a-been in China. But gettin' mad and gettin' to where I wanted to go was two different things."
He found himself thinking that if he could stumble onto a cow he could grab the animal, throw it to the ground, and trace its brand with his fingers in the dark -- and learn whose farm he was on. Surely, then, he would be able to chart a homeward course. The Walk
"I knowed cattle clumped up in deep woods and turned their backsides to the wind during a storm," he said. "Ever little bit I'd stop walking and listen for cattle milling around, mooing and such. But all I could hear was the wind. 'Course, now, if I had found cattle I'd probably of spooked 'em and they'd of scattered in the dark. But I couldn't afford to let myself think about that."
He knew he should have crossed one, possibly two small creeks, that meandered through the countryside and was puzzled as to why he had not. He didn't think they would have frozen so solid that he might have walked across them without knowing it. No, likely he would have been plunged into a sudden icy bath. Somehow it had not happened. "I studied on it and decided I'd never come to them creeks because I'd probably been wanderin' around in one big circle all night. I reckon that was when my spirits dropped just about as low as they could go."
By then he was scratched, bruised and bleeding. Tree limbs, heavily weighted by snow, had lashed his face; he had stumbled face or head first into a number of trees; he had fallen when surprised by snowdrifts or by tangling his feet in small bushes, none of which could be seen in the country dark. City slickers have no idea how dar is country dark on a blind and moonless night. There are no lights reflecting from traffic or highways or towns; one literally cannot see one's hand before one's face. In those conditions, my father most feared breaking a leg or an ankle. "I knowed if that happened I was a gone goose. I'd flat freeze layin' out there in the woods." Occasionally he stopped, cupped his hands and shouted "Ha-low! Ha-low! . . ." But there was only the answering wind.
My old man's feet became so cold and wet they were but two dully aching lumps. He decided he must warm them. "My notion was to build a fire if I could scrabble dead woods in all that snow that wadn't too wet to burn. Wellsir, I dug around and found a few pieces wadn't much more than twigs. Figured if I could get 'em lit, I might find more dead wood by the light of the fire. Wadn't no use in thinking of stripping limbs off a tree unless it was a dead one. Green wood won't hardly burn even if it ain't wet." u
When he searched himself for matches he found only three -- kitchen matches, long and slender. One his numb hands dropped in the snow and was lost, despite his searches and curses. A second he foolishly attempted to light on his wet shoe sole; the sulfurous matter crumbled. The third he managed to strike by popping the match head with his thumb. But when he tried to light the skimpy pile of wet twigs the flame fizzled and went out. "If I had been a woman," he said, "I would of cried right then."
He propped against a tree trunk, took off his heavy denim jumper, and after removing his shoes and wet socks he wrapped his feet in the garment. "After a little bit my feet commenced to sting, so I knowed I wasn't dead yet. I cussed myself for not rolling a cigarette before I struck my last match. I swear it, I'd of give a $10 bill for a smoke."
He opened the gunnysack, ate one of the apples he had bought for me --
"It was hard and cold, but juicy" -- and popped open a few walnuts. These made him thirsty again, so he ate snow.
"I knowed I had to move on, because I was gettin' drowsy." He briefly considered trying to burrow into the snow, building something of a rough igloo, but decided that "Not bein' no Eskimo I didn't know enough about it. It might cave in on me." Shivering without his jumper, he squeezed out his wet socks -- which had stiffened from direct exposure to the cold air -- and painfully got back into his high-topped work shoes. Then he wrapped himself in the jumper again, and resumed his aimless walk. The Fence
"Maybe it was a hour later I blundered into a barbed-wire fence. Hadn't seen it until I hit it. Well sir, I knowed a fence had to lead some place and was likely close to a house or a road. I naturally decided to follow it. Only thing, I didn't know which direction to go. By then I was just hoping to stay on my feet till daylight. I knew blamed good and well I'd be all right when mornin' come.
"When I tried to start off again -- I'd kinda sagged against that fence to rest a spell -- my durned jumper had got caught on them barbs and I couldn't pull loose. Had to fish for my pocketknife and cut myself a-loose with my hands half-froze. Seemed like it took a week and a day.
"I followed that fence by feel: carried the gunnysack in my left hand and slid my right one along the wire. Them barbs cut that hand up somethin' awful. Maybe it was 20 to 30 minutes later, I dunno, I broke out into a open field. It was still pitch dark and the wind was blowing worse than in them woods, but it felt good to be out in the open even if I didn't know where I was at."
He stood perfectly still, listening. He heard creaking sounds, metal blowing against something in the wind. Carefully he made his way toward the sound, stopping periodically to make certain he wouldn't lose it. "It was a old cabin, hadn't nobody lived in it for years and years. What I'd heard was a piece of the old tin roof blowin' against what was left of the chimney.
"When I got up to it, I recognized it as a cabin Joe Lee Brown had lived in when he first married maybe 30 years before. Wellsir, it looked better to me than a palace. I knowed exactly where I was. I meant to say 'Thank you Lord, for answering my prayers,' but the words that come out of my mouth was 'It's about goddamn time!'"
Though still two miles from home, so great was his relief at knowing the spot of ground he occupied in God's dark and boundless universe that he celebrated by eating another apple and yelling Yahoo! several times. "I et that second apple in the shelter of that old cabin, stompin' my feet to get circulation goin'. Didn't stay long, though, knowin' your Momma would be standin' on her head worryin' about me.
"I set out from that cabin towards the way I knowed the road was, walking as true a line as I could. When I found that road I wanted to kiss it. I turned left and started steppin' it off a mile a minute, feelin' like I wanted to sing."
A couple of hundred yards from the gate leading down to our farmhouse, he saw through the slackening snowfall, a grouping of light. At first he thought he was hallucinating, that the mental strain and physical drain of the long dark night of cold and fear caused his senses to betray themselves.
Then I thought, 'Thunderation, that's a blamed search party lookin' for me.' Wellsir, the notion of gettin' lost on my home grounds made me so ashamed of myself I went back in the woods again -- just the edge, now, you can bank on that -- and squatted down. Figured I'd let whoever it was go on by, then I'd sneak on home. I just couldn't stand to think of people guyin' and hoorawin' me about gettin' lost like some tenderfoot.
"But them lights, after a while hadn't come no closer. I got back on the road and walked down there, where I found them laterns Cora had set out. Well, goddurn, be damn if I didn't hull down and cry." And telling it, in later years, his eyes always puddled up when he reached that point in the tale. lThen he would chase the tears away with a laugh and say, "Them durn lanterns, they looked better to me than a fried-chicken dinner. I blowed two of 'em out and put 'em under the culvert there by our gate. Hung the other one on my arm and stumbled on toward the house." The Homecoming
It was a bit after 4 o'clock in the morning. My mother, sleepless and sitting in front of the fireplace with her patchwork quilt thrown over her legs, saw a tiny blob of light moving raggedly down the lane toward the house. At first she thought she, too, was seeing things. "Then I realized it was Clyde, that he'd found the lanterns." Now it was her turn to cry.
"I had already decided you daddy was dead or bad hurt. At first light, I planned to walk to Tal and Ola Horn's place and get help to start looking for Clyde. But in my heart I'd come to believe we'd find him in a bad way. I was sitting there wondering how to prepare you kids for it when I looked up and seen that lantern bobbing in the lane."
Dad was, she said, "an awful sight" -- covered with frozen snow from crown to toe. Her hand flew to her mouth when she saw his swollen, bloody face and the hand so ripped and snared by barbed wire.
My father grinned at her and said, "Breakfast ready yet?"
And somehow that made my mother mad. Perhaps she had anticipated something more dramatic. Or maybe it was a reaction against having him home, helpless and unknowing, while her man knew an adventure she could neither share, imagine nor describe. At any rate she gritted her teeth at him and said, "Clyde King, where in the world have you been?"
"I ain't got no idea," he said. "But I sure ain't going back without no breakfast."
She embraced him then, helped him out of his wet, stiff clothing and wrapped him in a blanket before attending his cuts, lumps and scrapes. He dozed by the fire while she hurried to brew coffee, and he later remembered that as he fitfully slept -- awakening with sudden jerks and starts before dozing again -- he was aware of her singing hymns of praise to Jesus.
While Dad drank the coffee and ate hot buttered biscuits, I rolled out of bed -- full of a tingling, 4-year-old awareness of a Christmas that had taken forever to arrive -- and romped into the living room to see what surprises Santa had left under the Christmas tree. Even in his weary state, my father had removed my rocking chair from the soaked, frozen gunnysack and placed it under the tree; he also had patiently stuffed my hanging stocking with the oranges, apples, nuts, hard candy and small pocketknife.
I fancy to recall that scene dimly, though probably I do not. Certainly I don't recall my contribution to what came to be known as The Christmas Daddy Got Lost In The Woods, though it was the part of the story my old man most enjoyed telling.
"There I set feelin' half dead," he chuckled, "and you runnin' around all hot about your Christmas presents and squealin.' But after a few minutes you looked over at me -- after all I'd been through to be sure ol' Santa Claus come to see you -- and you said, "Dingbust it! Old Santa never brought me no stickhorse and cowboy suit like I asked him for. I ain't ever writin' to that old fool again'"
And that old man would laugh and laugh and laugh until tears came into his eyes and, later, as he aged and as I matured, into my eyes as well.