By the time Hooter got to Lonnie's feed store for the gang's annual Christmas party and gift exchange, the festivities had already begun.
“Did you get it?” asked everyone in a single voice.
“Got it!” shouted Hooter in triumph, hoisting a pretty red package over his head. “After two trips, and I tell you what, next time I go up there I'm wearing my spurs with spikes for rowels. Those women could make the devil squeal.”
What Hooter had was a complete set of Merlyn's Magic Magnets, which had become the season's hottest, coolest toy. Bugsy and her pals all wanted a set, especially after they'd been introduced to the toy's delights when Hector got one for his birthday the first part of November. By the time Hooter had made it to Lubbock to shop, there weren't any left, and no more were expected for at least two months.
Hooter begged, pleaded, cajoled, cussed and promised, getting jarred and trampled by shoppers every step of the way. His last stop was a craft store on his way out of town. He didn't figure they'd have toys but he was out of ideas. They didn't carry them. The manager empathized with him and mentioned the toy was even hard to come by when she'd bought one months ago. She said she bought it on a lark for no one in particular, but so many people wanted them she might just hold an auction. “Or,” she said, looking dejectedly at her balloon counter, “I'd give it away to anyone who could find me some helium.”
“Haven't you heard? Helium has been running in short supply. It has more important uses than balloons, but when balloons are a big part of your business, it's a major problem. When you can find it, it's higher than a kite, and now you can't even find it.”
“That stuff doesn't go bad, does it?” wondered Hooter with a twinkle in his eye.
“I mean to say, stored properly, it would last a long, long time, wouldn't it? Which is to say, I may know where a fair supply is.”
The sales lady had looked at him skeptically, just like Hooter's friends did now.
“Helium? You don't have any helium,” said Izzy.
“No, but you remember ol' Pockets Geronimo? One time he'd gotten real interested in that cryogenic stuff.”
“You mean preserving yourself?” asked Peetie.
“Yeah, something like that, not for him, but he was just curious about it. He'd stockpiled a whole bunch of helium tanks over time. I've had it in my shop ever since he died…That and if Pockets experiment works, a couple of Hoot owls and an armadillo that can be thawed any time we want.”
All I want for Christmas
Back in the day, the group's Secret Santa gift exchange was nothing but gag gifts. It still was in a way, but more often than not the gifts held a special meaning to the recipient. In fact, some wives and girlfriends had been known to lament that the boys spent more time figuring out their Secret Santa gifts than what to give them.
For instance, Peetie Womack opened his package to find a brand new blower nozzle for his air compressor, which was of a make and model that made finding parts only slightly more difficult than matching a fitting on Noah's Ark. The attached card, just said, “Lice buster.”
“Wow,” said Peetie, gratefully, “Whoever you are, thanks. I'd tried everything to find one of these.”
Lonnie found a set of cups and balls for a magic trick; the wooden cups were hand-turned and finished by Hooter himself. Lonnie had become fascinated with magic ever since the great Squeakdini had played in Apache Flats.
As for Izzie, he received a gallon jar stuffed with Twinkies and a gift card for the nearest Quick Trip. A sign on the jar said, “In case of Emergency…”
So it went, until Charlie handed his cousin, Hooter, a package. “There wasn't much way of staying secret over this,” he said.
“Thanks,” cackled Hooter, expecting a first-class joke. What he found was exactly the opposite: a framed copy of a letter. The small brass plate tacked to the frame was inscribed: “Private Matthias McCormick 1846-1863.”
“That was a great uncle on his mama's side,” explained Charlie, as Hooter began reading the letter to himself. “In a roundabout way, it's who his granddaddy was named after, his daddy and Hooter too.”
“It's a long story, and it's only a copy. I'll tell you all the rest later.”
Hooter just nodded and went back to reading.
“Well go on,” said Peetie, “What's it say?”
After a long while, Hooter looked up with moist eyes, shook his head and handed it to Charlie.
“This was a letter written home during the Civil War,” said Charlie. “Hooter's family was from Mississippi.”
I hope this letter finds you well. Thank you so much for sending the sox. By the time your packit found us, somebody made off with them, but I got the letter and that made me warmer than any sox could.
I was glad to hear the corn and cotton made. I was sorry to hear about Uncle Henry. He'll be missed. But I still believe we're doing the right thing.
Have you heard anything from Zebulon or Daddy? I keep hoping to run acrost them. General Bragg says we're heading for somewhere in Tenasee and that we'll have a winter camp, so maybe we'll be in one spot for awhile.
It's been cold on us ever since we left Perryville in Kentuck. We lost too many there.
We did pick up a preacher along the way. He's an older feller, goes by
the name of Jubel Fillmore. It's nice having someone preach the Word again,
but I can't say as I agree with him on everything. For an instance, last
Sunday he started going on about how this war is a sign that the end is near.
I asked him if he didn't reckon that's how it has seemed to lots of other
folks before. Then he quoted that part in Matthew (2:1-18) that goes back
to Jeremiah that says, ‘In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and
weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not
be comforted, because they are not.'
The Chaplain said folks all over are crying over us, too, just like Rachel
did when Herrod had all of those babies killed, trying to kill baby Jesus.
I don't think he understands what that part means eggsactly. I tried to tell
him what you taught us, that in Jeremiah that it's talking about Israel and
the splitting of the nation. It might be he can't hear so good because he
went right back to talking about the end of the world, this sign and that
one, using what sounded like Scripture but I didn't think it was. So I asked
him where in his Bible it says that. He couldn't tell me. I've got a Bible
now. It belonged to my pal. He told me to take it and his gear if something
happened to him. Didn't sound like he had any kin back home. He was a good
boy. Anyway, I found that part in Matthew (24:36) where Jesus tells his disiples, ‘But
of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my
Mr. Fillmore still played def, so I asked him if this really was the end of the world and he believed in Jesus what was he so worried about. I know that sounds forward and all, but you should have heard him. He scolded me, but some of the other boys made him let me speak my peece. So I said that part of the Christmas story he was using told the whole story. God gave us Jesus and made it so he could live amongst us long enough to teach those folks so they could teach others and so on. And I told him how you always told us that according to God's perfec plan Jesus went home to be with God at just the right time. And because of that, whenever God figures it's the perfect time for us we get to go home to be with our Father to. And that's true whether Jesus comes back before then or not. And him predicting the end time ain't what Jesus says anyone can do, beside which it don't make much difference if you believe. He didn't have much to say after that.
Do you spose this nashion is kind of like Isreal and Judah back then? All I know is that part of me is scared to die, and I shore want to see you and daddy again on this earth. But if something happens to one of us before then, I know we will get to see each other again when we're back home.
That, and I know that I love you! Merry Christmas.
Your Faithful Son,
The group sat in silence for a while.
“He never made it,” said Hooter quietly. “He died at Murfreesboro that December.”
“But he did make it,” said Charlie. “He just made it home before the rest of us.”
Hooter stood up and held out his hands for the others to join him in a circle. “Boys, let's pray. Let's pray our thanks for folks like Uncle Matthias who give us freedom. Let's pray thanks for a God so loving that he gave his only Son in the place of our sin. Let's pray for all that we have, not what we don't, because we really do have it all.”
And they did.