“Christmas in Winterset” was written during our African sojourn. I met a church group from Winterset, Iowa. It was too good of a town name not to use in a story. The actual story was related to me by a Beauregard Parish man who told of his uncle making this journey during the height of the Depression in the 1930’s.
Enjoy this story.
Christmas in Winterset
Monday, December 17, 2012
Westwood Nursing Center
Interviewer: “Mr. Creel, I’ve heard about your Christmas story and want to record it for posterity.”
B.D. Creel: “I don’t know what posterity is, but I figure you want to get this story down ‘fore I die.”
Interviewer: Speaking of that, am I correct in writing that you are now ninety-six years old?
Creel: I’ll be ninety-seven next year if I make it. Now, where was I?
Interviewer: You were telling about arriving at the house in Winterset.
Creel: Oh yeah. Well as I walked to the porch, I checked the back of the photo one more time. The address was 1305 West Jefferson Avenue in Winterset, Iowa. Lookeehere, you can still see it on the back of the photo.
Shaking the snow off my jacket, I hesitated at the door. The next few minutes would probably determine a lot about the next stage of my life, if not the rest.
It was a long time ago but I remember the exact day and date. It was cold as a well-digger’s . . . . Wait, I better not say that on your recording. It was December 23. What we always called Christmas-Eve-Eve.
And it was snowing hard. Something we never saw much around back home in DeQuincy, Louisiana.
It was in the midst of what would later be called the Great Depression.
I still shake my head at the term. There weren’t nothing great about it. It was a bad time for all of us.
The year was 1934 and I was seventeen. It was nearly eighty years ago, but I’ll remember every detail of that night until I die. Shoot, that probably won’t be too long.
I can’t remember when they serve supper at this danged nursing home, but I can easily remember that time.
Back to 1934, standing on that porch in Winterset, Iowa, I looked at the photo one last time. The young couple in the photo would have aged about twenty years since it was teken.
My heart was racing. I even thought about abandoning this crazy idea and heading out into the cold Midwest night.
Nope, I had to do this. I’d never know if I didn’t try.
I raised my hand to knock. . . .
Now, I need to stop and drive a peg down, and go back to tell you how I got to Winterset, Iowa on a cold night before Christmas. My life started off hard. Shortly after my birth, my Daddy was drafted and sent off to France to fight in what was originally called “The Great War.” Y’all know it today as World War I.
When I was barely one, the Spanish flu raged through America. My mother died. That’s a photo of her on the shelf over there. I can’t remember anything ‘bout her but always heard she was a beauty and very kind.
That couldn’t be said about my daddy. Being off in that war, then coming home and having a young wife die just dried up the sap in his soul. He married again (in fact he married again two more times before giving up on the institution).
Daddy and two of his brothers ran a sawmill over on Bearhead. It was the height of the logging days in Southwest Louisiana. I remember that time as one of the best of my childhood. There seemed to be plenty of money and everyone seemed pretty happy.
Then in 1928, it started coming apart. One of Daddy’s brothers, Ernest, was kilt in a logging accident.
The other brother, Pete, fell out with Daddy and moved to Odessa, Texas. He said he wanted to get as far away from tall pines as he could. The one time I visited there I’m convinced he met his goal. There weren’t nothing but a few barbed wire fences between west Texas and Canada. Man, that cold wind blew hard on the plains.
By the way, there were originally four brothers. My Daddy’s oldest brother, Herman, hadn’t lived in Louisiana since he left for the war.
1929. That’s the year when Daddy began drinking real bad. You can’t run a sawmill, much less anything, when prone to drink. The stock market crashed and we felt it all the way down to Calcasieu Parish.
I better stop here: you’re looking at me and thinking I’m chasing a rabbit, or maybe rabbits.
INTERVIEWER: No sir, you’re fine. But I’m most interested in how you got up to Iowa for Christmas 1934.
B.D.C: I arrived there in a boxcar, but I’ll take you back. I quit school as things got bad in the piney woods. Tried a little bit of everything but nothing seemed to stick.
My daddy was fighting with wife number three and when drunk, taking his anger out on me.
I just left. I think he was relieved. I know I sure was.
I joined up with the CC Camps. You do know about them?
Interviewer: You’re speaking of the Civilian Conservation Corps?
B.D.C: That’s it. I was part of a reforestation camp up in what is now Kisatchie National Forest. You know those big pines around Red Dirt district? I helped put many a one in the ground as saplings.
The C.C. was set up for young men like me to have a job and send money home. It was part of F.D.R.’s New Deal.
The officer of my camp was an old Great War man who thought he was still fighting the Hun. Real abusive and rough on all of us boys. He was just a sorry bully. One day he was beating on one of the new boys and I’d had enough. I stepped between them and cold-cocked the officer. If you turn that tape-recorder off, I’ll tell you his name. His folks still live up around Flatwoods.
Anyway, I left the C.C. Camp before they could put me in the slammer. That’s when my roaming days started.
You’ve heard tell of the hoboes of the Great Depression. I was one of them. Just a poor lost boy wandering the roads and rails looking for a job or handout.
That’s how in early December of 1934, I ended up in a hobo jungle outside Omaha, Nebraska. I’d been there about three days when the police showed up and busted up our camp. They didn’t care where we went just as long as it wasn’t here.
I was at the end of my rope. That’s when I pulled the photo out. I’d kept several keepsakes in my boot and among them were several photos. That photo of my mother over there is one of them. Traveling in my boot is how it got so wrinkled.
But on the lonely Nebraska night, I pulled out the photo that led me to Winterset, Iowa. It’s the photo you’re holding of the young couple. And that’s how, several weeks later, I ended up on that doorstep on a cold Iowa night.
On about my fifth knock, the door opened. A middle-aged lady stood there. At first, she seemed surprised but that couldn’t hide a hint of a smile. It was nearly as if she was expecting me . . . or someone.
“Can I help you, son?”
“Yes Ma’am, I’m passing through here and would sure appreciate some food. I won’t come in but would sure be grateful for some grub.”
She looked past me at the swirling snow. “Son, you get in here where’s its warm. I always prepare a little extra. It’s the way I was brought up down South.”
She turned her back on me. “Honey, we got company for supper.”
Her husband limped into the room. He was a bear of a man. “Well, what have we here? You hungry son?”
They resembled the younger faces in the photo I clutched, but it was their accents that gave them away. There was no doubt they were pineywoods people. They talked just like me.
The man must’ve picked up on my accent. “Boy, where are you from?”
I lied. “South of Lufkin, Texas.”
“I thought you sounded like a piney woods rooter. Come over here by the fire and warm yourself. You’ve got good timing. Martha here’s cooked homemade soup and cornbread.”
His wife laid out a tableful of food. I stood there trying not to cry. She stared at me. “Son, are you all right?”
“Yes’um. Just haven’t seen food like that in a while. Were you expecting company?”
She laughed. “We’re always expecting company here. We’re kind of known as easy marks. We both grew up dirt poor and know what it’s like to be hungry.”
Her husband pulled out a chair. “Being along the tracks here at the edge of town means we get lots of fellows like you looking for a handout.” He smiled. “Word is that there’s an X for easy mark on the telegraph pole right behind our house.”
He nodded at my hand. “I see you’re holding something in your hand. Is it another one of those notes?”
I crammed the photo into my pocket. “Wha . . . what do you mean ‘one of those notes?’”
“I found a note on a cigarette paper hanging on a limb along the railway. It read, ‘Good eats. Next house on right.’ ”
They sat me at the table and I began wolfing it down. It was hot soup full of chunks of vegetables. I ate four bowlfuls and a wedge of hot cornbread along with a pint of cold buttermilk.
They didn’t eat much, being too interested in watching me. They peppered me with questions of which I told lies on about half of them.
I couldn’t bear it any longer.
I pulled out the photo and handed it to the man.
He silently studied it, and then looked at me over the top of his spectacles. “Where’d you get that?”
His wife couldn’t see it. “What is it, Honey.” The man never took his eyes off me as he handed the photo to her.
“My goodness. It’s us when we were newlyweds.” She stood. “Son, how’d you get this? Better yet, who are you?”
“Uncle Herman and Aunt Martha, I’m B.D., your nephew.”
They just sat there.
“I’m Bernard.” I turned to my uncle. “I’m your brother Cletus’ boy.”
He seemed dumbstruck. Finally, Aunt Martha nodded toward the front door. “Son, why didn’t you tell us who you were?”
“I wanted to check you out first.”
“Check us out?” Uncle Herman’s voice went up an octave and I detected a hint of the famous Creel temper.
Aunt Martha patted his shoulder, then quietly said, “Son, what would you’ve done if I’d turned you away at the door?”
“I’d kept on drifting.”
Uncle Herman put his arm around me. “But we didn’t turn you away, and now that we know who you are, we ain’t gonna let you go.”
And they didn’t.
They’d never been able to have children but that changed that Christmas. There was never a ceremony, but they adopted me. Aunt Martha called me “Son” to her dying day. I guess that’s what I was to her.
Uncle Herm, who always called me “Boy,” took me under his wing. He got me into a new Vo-Tech school in town. It’s where I learned to tear apart engines and weld. As you probably already know, that welding led me to work all over the world. It allowed me to give my wife and kids a whole different kind of family tree than what’d been expected from a seventeen-year-old loser like me.
Uncle Herman was the first one to show me about welding. That man could run a straight bead that couldn’t be broken. But most of all, he showed me what a father does. He became that father I’d never had.
And his faith in God as Father kind of just soaked in on me until it became personal. Before that time, I spat when someone talked of God “as our Father.”
I equated God’s fatherhood to what I’d seen back home.
But God used Uncle Herman and Aunt Martha to round off those burr edges I’d picked up.
Like everyone my age, I was drafted into the service. After serving in the War (that’s the second one) I fell in with R.G. LeTourneau over at Longview, Texas. I was in on lots of his projects and missions all over the world.
(Interviewer’s notes: At this point, Mr. Creel spoke very slowly and became very emotional. The transcript at this point is edited.)
And it all started with that pre-Christmas night in 1934. I shudder to think about what’d happened to me if they’d turned me away. But that displaced Pineywoods couple were angels to me.
I guess you could call them Christmas angels. Like those ones at Bethlehem.
In the book of Hebrews it talks about entertaining angels unawares. That passage has always mystified me. That long ago Iowa snowy night is when the angels entertained and took me in.
I’ve passed ninety-five Christmases. This one’ll make ninety-six I believe. Received lots of gifts over the years.
But the gift I received that Christmas in Iowa is the best. It was the priceless gift of family.
It was a gift that I both wanted and most needed.
Merry Christmas from Curt and DeDe and the Creekbank Family. We wish the very best to you and your family and hope your season is centered on Jesus the Son of God.
He was born.
He is risen.
He sits at the right hand of the Father.
He is worth it all.
If you enjoyed “Christmas in Winterset”, we’d love to hear from you.