|COLD CAROLING - A Calhoun Christmas Story
Republished from 2002|
By Teresa Stutler Starcher
At some point during the Christmas season, whether in a movie or TV special, there will be presented a scene of happy carolers, going house to house, extolling the spirit of Christmas in song, and the joyful image of a horse and sleigh tooling down the lane or streets, with its merry passengers hailing their neighbors with hearty season greetings.
During my early teenage years, these visions inspired in me a desire to experience them for myself and spread the cheer they seemed to invoke so vividly. Of course I would have to improvise, for we didn't have a horse nor sleigh, but my brother, Billy, did have a wagon and a team of "work ponies", and in lieu of a polished choir, I simply drafted all my nieces and nephews.
Thinking years back on it now, the whole thing began with the wrong spirit, for as I had broached the idea to Billy, he smirked and my hackles rose in offense. In short order I informed him that I could handle the situation by myself and indignantly assured him that if I could drive the team while with him, then I could surely do so myself for I wasn't the complete dolt he may imagine me to be.
Then my Pap chimed in about the weather conditions, but the pictures of those riding in the beautiful sleigh; looking so warm, cozy and snug, in their furs and fleecy lap rugs determined me to persevere. But my mother shot that improvisation right down with her declaration that indeed her quilts were not going out of this house to be dampened and soiled as children's play things.
Although she begrudgingly supplied us with one old wool army blanket. Yet even under siege the pride in my plan called forth my bull-headed streak and I began to issue orders befitting a commander to his troops. This had always been Billy's job and I was becoming a bit heady in seeing my orders being carried out; although I was soon to learn that came also with a very heavy responsibility for everyone's safety.
Billy's wagon could be converted from shafts to a tongue so it could be pulled by one or both ponies as a team. I sent Ricky out to ready the wagon while I purloined his extra pair of long johns. Although it irked my pride being a mere slip of a girl with weak muscles to boot, I had decided that it was best to put Dogwood, the best trained pony in the shafts. So I sent Randy out to fetch and tote for Rick while he got everything ready to my specifications.
After a while, they came back in to report all is ready, their noses and cheeks between their toboggans and scarves were beet red and I began to worry about pooh-poohing pap about the icy cold weather. To admit that I was actually very ill prepared for this venture would ruin the picture that I had painted in my mind.
I made my way down to the road where the ponies were tied. Steam rose with their every breath. I took in the scene. It was a far cry from the one presented on the screen. I was immediately ticked off! I had told Ricky to take out the board seat and put three bails of hay on the wagon but I didn't't especially instruct him to tear the bails apart and fluff them all over the wagon bed, so we could snuggle down in it for warmth, but here were three tightly bailed benches in a row.
I was about to make him rectify the situation when the concept of hidden dangers crossed my mind. The wagon was made from sheet metal in the shape of a triangle, with its apex open. If hay covered these openings one of the kid's could easily step through and break or injure their leg and the axles would be hidden so the turning tires could trap an arm or leg.
So I said never mind, hoping some warmth could be had from at least sitting atop the bails. Rick had opted to ride Bell, the other pony, and she was saddled all ready to go. I gave the blanket to the younger girls and I wrapped my legs with a saddle blanket.
We, of course, had learned several Christmas carols at school but I had one copy each of a few songs to pass around to refresh our memory. I assigned Randy break detail as I took the reins, or check lines, as they are called. I nodded to Randy to unchain the breaks clapped Dagwood on the hip with the line as I told him to getup. We hadn't gone twenty yards and I regretted this big bright idea already. There was too much ice under the snow.
Dagwood slipped with almost every step I hollered up to ask Ricky how Bell was doing, he yelled back that she was slipping some also. I noticed little ice balls hanging like ornaments from the hair on Dagwood's heels, so I figured his hooves were also packed with snow and ice and I knew we didn't have a hoof pick but we had to do something before we came to a hill. I hailed Ricky to hold up and I sent one of the kids, I think it was Lisa, to hold Bell while Rick found a stick to clean their hooves with.
Three sticks later, for they kept breaking and me saying over and over to not punch around the frog, that's the soft part of the hoof, Bells' feet were finally clean. Dogwoods presented other problems being between shafts and hooked to a singletree. We had to unhitch him so Ricky could safely get to his hind feet. All this took time and my nerves were shot and I was near freezing and we hadn't even made it to the first house yet, but I could just see that smug smile of Billy's so I kept everything going the best I could.
Ricky muttered that it was "colder than a witches teat" which brought some life back into the younger ones as they gasped in shock and swore they were gonna tell about him saying cussing words and he was sure to get the old soap treatment when he got home. After restoring some semblance of order we headed for the first house.
Parking in front of the house we went into our rendition of Silent Night and what a sorry rendition it was, It's so difficult to hold a tune when your teeth are chattering, then we forgot the words and by the time we had passed around the paper the song was only a lost whim Mack and Ellie had opened their front door for just a moment during our first bar probably just to see what all the caterwauling was about.
We passed around the papers and promised ourselves we'd sing louder and better at the next house but on the way noticed that I was having trouble gripping the lines, the cold was making my hands draw and I wasn't't safe to be driving. I panicked for a moment and yelled out to Rick, he was simply going to have to drive us. Then I saw that we were coming up into a blind U-turn so instead I told him to ride further ahead and stop any traffic that may be coming, tell them a wagon was smack in the middle of the road.
I wound the lines around my wrists for more pulling power because Dagwood preferred walking in the tire tracks rather than breaking through the center snow pack. So by the time I had pulled him over in front Floyd and Dolly's house I was exhausted, but we broke in with the hearty tune of Joy To the World we forgot the second verse but unperturbed we just sang the first one over again. Dolly had opened the front door and I heard her exclaim to Floyd giggling, "It's Treesee and Midge's grand kids, they're gonna serenade us Floyd."
We hit a lick or two of "Jingle Bells" as the front door closed, the biting cold was too much for them and us. For as I looked on down that long winding road to John and Gay's house, I admitted defeat and this was a wider place to turn the wagon around, and we had to make it home before dark anyway. Ricky grumbled about having to drive. Randy was assigned to lead Bell for the others weren't experienced enough at riding. I deemed it unsafe to ride now.
I sent Lisa ahead to watch for cars in the u-turn and off we struck for home and a warm fire. With just one minor mishap when Randy let Bell bump her leg on the back tire I had Lisa lead her then from off the back of the wagon, but I worried all the time about keeping one and all in one piece until we got home.
Even at my young age, I was sure I had developed an ulcer and incurred a gray hair or two before we arrived. When we did, Rick practically had to carry me, I was so cold. Thank goodness that Rick was well versed on taking care of the ponies by himself and he was about frozen stiff when he came in. Mom had to put my hands and feet into warm water and we all snuggled in front of the fire the rest of the evening.
I also learned a lot about Billy's job and I didn't't want it anymore! So now when I see a horse and sleigh or a group of carolers singing so sweetly I don't feel nostalgic nor wishful, it's more like a sarcastic, "Yeah Right!"