by Newt Harlan
It was December in the year 1920. Billy was six years old and an orphan. His mother had died at his birth and his daddy had passed away from complications from appendicitis the previous summer. His mother’s sister and her husband, Aunt Emma and Uncle Dode, who were childless, had taken in Billy and his two older sisters. Uncle Dode was a cattleman and Aunt Emma a housewife, and while they weren’t affluent, they were fairly well off, thanks to Uncle Dode’s family land being located in the Humble oil field.
The arrangement worked out rather well for everyone. The kids attended school, and the girls helped Aunt Emma with household chores. Billy was Uncle Dode’s “podnuh” and constant shadow as he went about the business of taking care of his cattle and other livestock and doing the other various things involved in his daily routine.
It was a few days before Christmas and the tree had been selected, cut and decorated. Aunt Emma and the girls were in the middle of cooking up all kinds of goodies for Christmas treats. The kids’ presents had all been purchased and were wrapped and safely hidden, awaiting Santa‘s Christmas Eve visit. The kids were on their best behavior lest Santa see them misbehave and place them on his “naughty list.” Actually, the girls were on their best behavior; Billy was still being a normal six year old boy, getting into enough trouble to merit a switching from Aunt Emma about every other day.
Billy’s antics amused Uncle Dode and, while Billy was out of earshot, he enjoyed relating Billy’s latest misadventures to his friends at the feed store or when he stopped by the tavern for a cold beer -- like the time Billy tied Aunt Emma’s two favorite cats’ tails together or the night he brought two puppies and a week old pig in to spend the night in his room because they were cold. Of course, to Billy he had to be the stern adult and told him that if he didn’t straighten up and act right Santa Claus would be filling his stocking with horseshit and switches rather than presents and goodies. (This was Texas, and kids had no idea what coal was, so lumps of coal didn’t make much sense.)
Billy’s reply was always, “No, sir, Uncle Dode, I’ve been a good boy, and Santy’s gonna bring me a pony for Christmas.” In those days, getting a pony was as important to a boy as getting a bicycle is to boys today.
Uncle Dode fully intended to get Billy a pony; he and Billy had even picked out the one for him. Dewey Cadwalder had two that were just right, that his boys had outgrown. The trouble was that ol’ Dewey was asking $20 a piece for them. Dode knew that Dewey was taking advantage of the Christmas season to jack up his prices, so he planned to wait until a few weeks after Christmas and buy Billy’s pony for half the price. He figured on Christmas day he’d tell Billy some kind of story about Santa not having room on his sleigh for the pony and they were going to have to pick it up later.
As was customary, Aunt Emma and Uncle Dode entertained friends with eggnog and Christmas cheer. Along about 9:30 or so, the friends all sang one last carol, drank a final toast, then departed for their homes. The kids hung their stockings on the fireplace mantel and went to bed, and before long, when Aunt Emma checked, they were in dreamland, anticipating the thrills of Christmas morning.
Aunt Emma and Uncle Dode went to work retrieving Christmas gifts from their various hiding places and putting them under the Christmas tree. Then they filled each child’s stocking with the stocking stuffers. There were combs, brushes, hand mirrors and handkerchiefs for the girls and marbles, tops and a pocketknife for Billy, plus fruit, nuts and hard candies for all.
After the stockings were filled, Emma and Dode were enjoying one last cup of eggnog before retiring when Uncle Dode decided to play a little joke on Billy. He removed Billy’s stocking from the mantel and hid it in the kitchen pantry. Then he got another and went out to the barn and proceeded to fill it with fresh horseshit. On his way back to the house, he cut four or five switches from the willow tree growing by the water trough, which he also placed in the stocking. Over Aunt Emma’s objections, he hung this stocking in place of Billy’s, spilling some of its contents onto the hearth below and vowing to clean it up in the morning. Then they toasted each other one last time, finished the eggnog, turned out the lights and retired for the night.
The coffee had only been made a few minutes, and as Uncle Dode was “saucerin’ and blowin’ it," he heard the noise as Billy awakened and dressed. Then Uncle Dode listened to the clomp of Billy's boots as he ran down the stairs to check out his bounty from Santa’s visit. Billy ran from the foot of the stairs into the room where awaited the Christmas gifts under the tree and gift-filled stockings hung on the mantel. Dode listened as the steps stopped in front of the tree as Billy checked there and then walked over to the fireplace to examine his stocking on the mantel. He heard the boy say, “Uh oh!”
Uncle Dode looked at the door and thoughtfully sipped his coffee, a little worried by Billy’s behavior and wondering if his joke may have been a bit much and was about to backfire. He'd decided to get up to go find Billy and confess his trick, when Billy burst back in the door, shouting, “Uncle Dode! Uncle Dode! You’ve got to come help me right now! Hurry up, we got to hurry!"
Dode saw the tears streaming down the boy’s cheeks and had pangs of guilt about the stocking trick. He was about to confess when Billy tugged at his sleeve and said, “C’mon, Uncle Dode, let me show you.”
(This story is true. Billy was my daddy, Bill Harlan.)
Newt tells us about himself:
I was born, raised and educated in Texas. With the exception of a few brief sojourns and the 4 years during the Vietnam Era that I spent riding around on airplanes courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, I've spent the more than 65 years of my life within spittin’ distance of the place where I grew up. I managed to cram a four-year college degree into nine years and by virtue of that remarkable feat, I am a former student of six different schools, which sure helps the odds of rooting for a winner in sporting events. The academic standards committee had a moment of weakness and I was the fortunate recipient of a degree from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.
I'm Southern to the bone. The sound of “Dixie” being played gives me goose bumps and I stand and remove my hat. My yard dog, B.J., controls the squirrels, cats, meter readers and peddlers around my place. I’ve picked cotton by hand, plowed behind a mule, churned butter, shelled back-eyed peas, and for the first 12 years of my life, went without shoes from April until October. Several of my friends regularly hold conversations with mules, but as of yet I can’t get the danged mules to answer me. I think grits are as much a part of breakfast as bacon, eggs and cathead biscuits. I think ain’t is a perfectly good word and don’t plan to quit using it just because some damnyankee dictionary writer arbitrarily thinks it ain’t.
I've been married for 30-some odd years and have beaucoup kids and grandkids. I'm now retired after having spent the better part of the past 37 years traveling around Texas, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast areas of Mississippi and Alabama, trying to sell steel products. My hobbies, in no particular order, include writing, grandkids, hunting, fishing and visiting the local watering hole to swap honest lies and research material for stories.
Want to read more of Newt’s stories at USADEEPSOUTH? Click these links:
Ol’ Red and the Armadillo
Telephones and memories
Tastes like chicken
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