Being in the Navy was
and an adventure for Michael, the year was 1962. He was only 18 and alone for
the first time.
was from the tough mean
streets of Chicago. We was a tall, blond, and lanky German-Irish boy, always
with a half smile on his face. He knew how to make friends and money easily and
being a good poker player helped.
Navy one of his closest
friends was a young man 19 from West Virginia, Scott Douglas. Scott was a black
haired, blue-eyed boy, short and thin. He always looked like a hurt puppy,
willing to please, and when he smiled it was as though he had been caught doing
something naughty. Scott was not well liked by the other sailors but was
tolerated because he was Michael’s friend. Scott was a quiet sort, rarely
talking about his family. He would get a sheepish smile on his face when he was
the butt of many “hillbilly” jokes. Each payday Scott would send most of his
money back home to his “Mama.”
his friend Michael who
bought the beers, food, and motel room when they’d get a 3-day pass.
his father when he was
17. Scott’s father got the flu in 1959 and died in bed; there were no near
hospitals and there was no money for one anyway; no money for medicine. There
were six brothers and without a father to bring in money, things were tight,
Scott had to go to work, he chose to go into the Navy.
In the Navy Scott would do odd
chores for the other sailors to make additional money and was always figuring
out how to make an extra dollar to send back to the family.
was not making extra
money he was found at Michael’s elbow. Michael was a year younger than Scott
but Scott thought of him as his hip, cool, Big City, big brother.
after an all night
drunken poker party, Michael gave his winnings, $200, a lot of money in 1962,
to Scott to send to his mother. Scott sat on his cot holding the money and
cried. Michael reached over and pulled Scott towards him, gave him a hug, and
said, “I understand,” and stumbled off drunk to bed. It was not unlike Michael
to be generous to those in need. He had grown up poor with a single mother.
There were those, who at times helped his mom and him when in need. Michael called
the people that helped
as, “The Cookie People.” Michael was a Cookie Person too.
Christmas of 1963;
everyone was planning their leave time. Scott was going home to West Virginia.
Michael was not planning on going home to Chicago that Christmas, a difficult
choice but he needed to be away; he had started a new life. His mother was
doing well and had just married a jazz musician. He planned on a Christmas alone or maybe with a Mexican
prostitute who became his friend in the dangerous “Boys Town” of Nuevo
beers Scott said to
Michael, “I got a letter from Mama, she said to bring you for Christmas, so I
think you better come along or she’ll be mighty disappointed.” Michael grinned
and said, “Well I don’t want to disappoint Mama!” It was settled Scott and Michael
would spend Christmas in West Virginia.
It is said
when the poor leave
West Virginia for work in the big city that they leave their souls behind. And
indeed there have been, over the years, many people that left the hollers of
West Virginia. These are mainly Scot-Irish people that have struggled and
toiled over many decades in the mines, mills, and on an unforgiving, and
unyielding land. But it is also said every person who leaves the mountains
wants to return home. There is almost a mystical connection to the mountains
for these people. There is also a clan identity, who you are, and where you
came from is well known. It is a mountain Celtic matriarchy. It is into these
mountains, up a
holler, to an old patchwork house set above a slow running creek, Scott brought
Michael home for Christmas, a Christmas in Gully’s Ridge.
Michael walked with
large duffel bags in hand from the paved county road up a muddy pathway along a
shallow creek bed. There was a cold wind flying up the holler at their backs so
they pulled up the collars of their Navy P-coats. Looking up from the pathway they could see blue smoke coming
from the chimneys of homes doting the hillside. Children who were playing began
running towards Scott and Michael yelling, “Scott’s home! Scott’s home!” Their
voices echoed up the holler. Now older people were coming down the hillside.
“Boy, you’re back, thank God,” said a man looking much older than his years. An
old lady waved at Scott and Michael as they passed close to her porch. “Blessing
to you Scott Boy, welcome home, how long ya here ‘fer?” Scott waved and yelled
out, “only here for Christmas.” Scott was smiling broadly, with a distinctly
different smile than Michael had seen before. Children started following, laughing, and hanging on Scott.
A son of the mountains was returning home once again to take possession of his
Michael finally came to
a small rickety footbridge over a small creek and crossed it. Looking up the
hill they could see a woman standing on the porch waving at them. Then a number
of boys came running towards them, they were Scott’s brothers. The five boys
came up to Scott laughing and hugging him, each trying to be the one to carry
his large green bag. The youngest boy just held on to Scott saying, “love you
Scott boy, love you.” By now Scott and Michael were surrounded by a number of
adults and children escorting them up to the house. Mama stayed on the porch, she was a
small thin woman with gray hair pulled back tightly on her head. Scott ran the
next few feet, up the stairs onto the porch into Mama’s arms. They were both
crying. Mama then grabbed Michael by the arm and pulled him into her arms as
well saying, “Welcome home son.” Years later Michael was to recount how never
in his life did he feel so welcome anyplace.
Michael was a stranger and yet he oddly felt he had come home.
the brother’s almost
pushed Scott and Michael through door of the house. Inside the house there was
not much more than old paint peeling on the walls, third hand furniture and
four rooms. There were three beds in one room for the boys, a very small
bedroom for Mama, a living room which tilted a bit, and a kitchen with a hand
pump to the well. The toilet was out back. Baths were weekly in a real bathtub
without running water. There was a small kerosene hot water heater that was
used, but there was never enough hot water for all the boys to have a really
hot bath. It was two at a time in the bathtub, then wash, rinse, and get out.
You did not want to be the last in the tub.
of voices, everyone
was talking at once.
presents that were
filled the duffel bags, to be handed out to all. The house had not been filled
with so much cheer in a long time. The boys, 17, 15, 13, 11, and 9 years of age
stayed as close to their brother as possible, asking one question after the
other. The talking continued into the night even in the tightly cramped beds.
Michael listened as the boys asked their endless questions of Scott. Michael
looked at the frosted window of the bedroom and watched the silver moonlight
shinning through into the small bedroom.
was cold and damp. Mama
was at the coal stove early and started breakfast. The boys were looking
forward to the day. The plan was for all the boys to hunt for a Christmas tree.
After breakfast Scott, Michael, and the boys headed out into the cold to find
their Christmas tree. After about an hour’s walk through the trees they came
upon a small grove of oak trees. But in the middle of all these trees there
were a few evergreens and one in particular stood out. It was about 7 feet tall
and had a beautiful shape. Scott proceeded to take his hatchet and deftly cut
the tree down. Everyone wanted to help carry home the tree. As they walked home
tree in hand, everyone started singing Christmas songs. A light snow started to
fall, it whirled around them and the flakes danced in the magical frosty blue
boys returned home Mama
had already popped the corn to make tree braids and there was an assortment of colored
construction paper and odds and ends to make decorations. Mama was lighting the
lamps as darkness came. All the boys were on the living room floor making
decorations with cups of hot soup and biscuits Mama had made for supper. There
was laughter and play. Michael was trying to remember any such joyful Christmas
in his life, and he could not. This was Christmas with family.
was slowly decorated as
the night wore on. About 9pm there was a knock at the door. Mama went to the
door and opened it. There standing on the porch was a thin, blond boy, 14.
“Billy what you doing here boy?” Mama said loudly. “Come on in out of that cold
or you’ll catch a death of…” she said pulling the boy through the door, holding
his arm. Once in the door the boy
began to cry, “Daddy run us all off again, he’s drunk, Mama left with the two
girls to go to Aunt Kate’s home in Selbyville but I was to stay with daddy and
make sure he be alright, he don’t be none good. Daddy kicked me out and I can’t
get to Aunt Kate’s house.” It was Christmas Eve. “That no good son of a bitch
Franklin, he never was any good,” Mama said out loud for all to hear, “And boy
you looks like you have not had a bite to eat.” Michael watched all this carefully, thinking back to hard
days with his Mom, with little food and with her drunk, he would be scared with
no place to turn for help, rarely was there a safe place for him to escape to.
boy, Jamie, took Billy
by the hand and sat him down, “You start making some decorations with us,” he
said to the boy smiling. Mama went to the stove and got the boy a large metal
cup of soup and a number of biscuits in a napkin and brought it to him. Billy
ate it all and Mama refilled the
cup two more times for him. “You
be staying with us for a spell boy, “ Mama said smiling, “We always have room
for one more, you’d be like family.” And there was always room for one more,
there always is with mountain people.
morning everyone was up
early to open the Christmas presents Scott and Michael had brought. Mama was
smiling; she opened her present first. It was a store bought blue dress with
tiny yellow flowers on it. The dress was finer than she had ever owned. Mama
began to cry, “You should not have put so much money into something for me boy,
bless you.” She then opened Michael’s gift; it was a picture of Scott in a fine
silver frame. The boys all opened their presents next. Each boy got a pair of
pants and a shirt along with a small toy airplane. Mama had made her special
nut candy for everyone, wrapping it in wax paper and little ribbons around each
package. Billy sat watching with a sad face holding his candy. Michael saw the
look on Billy’s face, he knew it all too well, the look of the lost and
confused. Michael went into the bedroom for a few minutes. When Michael came
out from the bedroom he said, “Billy come here I have a present for you.”
Michael was holding a grocery store paper sack with a small yellow ribbon on
the top. He put the bag into Billy’s hands. A smile came to the boy’s face, “For
me?” Billy said softly. “For you.” Michael said. The boy stood up and hugged
Michael whispering in his ear, “I’m a stranger to you, I’m not your kin,” Billy
said to Michael, “No you’re one of God’s
special Angels, Merry Christmas.” All in the room were smiling and talking,
curious as to what was in the package Michael had put together for Billy. Billy
opened the package. He pulled out a Navy knife, and a Navy cap. “These for me,
really?” Billy said loudly and with a big smile. “For you, but there is one
thing more,” Michael said smiling broadly. Michael took from his pocket his
golden air crewman’s wings that had been on his uniform. He pinned them on
Billy’s torn shirt, “now you’re a Naval Airman,” Michael said.
Billy put the cap on, put the knife in
his pocket and stood up and saluted Michael with one hand and with his other
hand touching the wings. Michael returned the salute.
Christmas in Gully’s
Ridge came and went as so many did. Michael and Scott’s lives moved on after
the Navy. Scott returned to the mountains of West Virginia. Michael went home
to Chicago and then moved to California. It was a few years later that Scott
sent a short note to Michael at his old Chicago address where his Mother was
still living. She in turn sent it to him in California. The note was short. All
was “well.” Scott was a foreman in a battery factory. Mama was still healthy;
the boys were doing well. The two oldest boys joined the Navy. But it was the
last line that caught Michael’s attention. “Remember Billy, the boy you gave
your wings to? He stayed on with us. He’s turned into a good person. He joined
the Navy two days before Christmas, he wants to be in Naval Air.” Michael
half remembered a Bible
verse, and looked it up in his Bible. “Be
not forgetful to entertain strangers for thereby some have entertained Angels
is a true story from the life of my life-partner of 32 years that passed away May 25