A Christmas Story from Anterus Smith, as told to Chad Rayson, Part II

My father used to say, always with a note of sadness in his voice, that the curse of politics had even come between the two Sons of Zebedee.  Their father—who would be my great-grandfather—had been strongly influenced by his mother, a Scottish woman from Canada, who had communicated some of her reverence for the British Empire to her older son.  She had died when James was only eight, and all the boy could recall of his mother was a sickly old woman who complained of the noise he made.  When his wife died, her husband lost his loyalty to the Empire, and like many Irishmen, he had no good word for England.  From Milwaukee, where he had gone to live with his daughter, he would periodically send the family letters cheering on Kaiser Bill in his conquest of perfidious Albion.  

My grandfather thought differently.  He was proud of the fact that his cousins in Canada were already in France, fighting for Britain against the Huns, who wanted to destroy civilization and abolish all the fine things that England had given America, like habeas corpus and trial by jury.  “Go ahead and laugh,” my father would say, “but that is what people believed back then.”  His younger brother James, however, who had never really known his mother, was a more radical edition of his father, and his attachment to the Church only enflamed his hatred of the rich in general and the British in particular.   

My grandfather John was the most happy-go-lucky of men, perhaps too quick to resort to his fists for his own good, but not a man to brood over anything.  One day in late April of 1917, he announced that he had to go to Milwaukee, to borrow money from his father and sister for a new boat he wanted to buy.  When he came back, a week later, he informed the family that he had enlisted in the army and had only a week to spend with us, before going back to Milwaukee to be mustered in.

His brother Jim was furious and would not hold his tongue, telling my father he had sold out the Irish people and sold out the working men to the bankers and merchants of death.  All their unspoken disagreements bubbled up to the surface.  John called his brother a virtual traitor, a slacker who hid behind the Church to avoid responsibility, and James retorted in kind, defending the Church, insisting that Jesus would condemn the warmongers who wore a mask of patriotism—the last refuge of a scoundrel, he called it—to justify their betrayal of Christ, and when he reached the word, “Judas,”  My grandfather clenched his big fists and said nothing.  

If he had spoken, one word would have led to another, and John, older and in much better shape, would have thrashed his brother.  Both of them knew that a fight was the last thing the family needed at this point.  My grandmother was only 23 years old, with three children.  Her own brothers were hard-drinking lumberjacks, often away on a job for months at a time, and never very reliable even when they were home.  Even if he thought of his brother as a traitor to the Church, which he was  selling out to British capital, James would be needed at home.

My grandmother heard from her husband several times before he sailed for France in February of the next year, and she received two letters after his arrival.  Then nothing for many months.  Finally in November, about the time we were learning of the Armistice, she received word from her sister Marie Thérèse in Cadotte, who had a telephone (the line had been put in 1915).  A telegram had come to Chequamegon from the War Department.  My grandfather had been wounded and spent several months in a hospital in France.  His ship had already docked in New York, and he would be home in a week or so.  Later on, grandfather John would tell the family that he had sent several messages, and they never did find out why they had not gone through.  By then, I suppose, no one cared.

They took the ferry over to Chequamegon and met my grandfather at the station.  He walked with a limp, though he had the same big smile and jaunty step that he had left with, but as the days went by, we could all see that the smile was only on the surface.  My grandmother asked if the leg hurt him, and he said it hurt some, especially just before a storm brewed up on the lake, but she knew that there was a deeper ache somewhere inside.  They were closer than most couples, but she never dared to press him.  He never talked about the war, except to tell some joke about one of his buddies on the boat going over to France.  When years later I asked him, and I asked many times as little boys have a habit of doing, what the war was like, he either said nothing or told me, “Some other time, Andy.”

I can remember how my father would tell the story.  

As the winter hardened, the house grew more quieter.  My sisters and I, despite the cold, spent as much time as we could out of doors, building snow palaces or checking out the ice caves that ran along the shore of the island.  We named one of them “Aladdin’s Castle” and enacted stories out of the Arabian Nights we had heard from Uncle   

John said little to his brother, other than to ask about the boat or how the deer hunting was--not a small thing for a family that depended on venison all winter long.  We all felt that the quarrel that had been left unfinished back in April 1917 was lying between them like a loaded gun on a poker table.  Dad was back, wounded in the service of his country, while his brother was still supporting the IWW, even after Bill Haywood had gone to jail for handing out seditious materials.  We all ignored James’s protest that the IWW’s anti-war pamphlets had been printed before America’s declaration of war and never distributed.  

James was as stubborn as my father, and the mixture of pride, love and guilt, he was feeling made him stranger than ever.  James took to spending more and more time out of the house, either hanging out in Cadotte or going over to the mainland.  He was often gone for several days at a time, and coming home rather the worse for wear, dirty and unshaven, my grandmother would sigh and scold.  My grandfather simply turned away and went out to look after our one cow, which rarely needed any attention more than feeding and milking, or to do chores that would not need doing until spring.

So it went on, my father said, like one of those futile chess games in which the players repeat the same sequence of moves so often it is declared a stalemate.  Evangeline quit trying to talk to both the men and, silent as an Indian, cooked their meals and darned their socks.  The weather was unusually cold, so they had few visitors, and the children became bored and fretful. Christmas was coming, but, apart from a tree Jim had cut down and dragged into the house, you could hardly tell that the feast was only days away.  It was more like the way a house feels after a death in the family.

“Usually,” said my father, “when the family was snowbound, my mother devised all kinds of things for the children to do, making Christmas decorations, playing games she made up, telling us stories of the old times on the island, when the Catholic Indians still buried their dead in little houses, with food to eat and weapons to hunt with and, if they were children, toys to play with.  This time she just sat, when she was not cooking meals or washing dishes, endlessly mindlessly sewing, rising only to put more wood into the stove.”

One very cold evening—it was Christmas Eve, in fact—Evangeline, complaining about the noise they were making—it made the headache she had even worse—sent my father and his two sisters, Bridget and Jeanne, to bed right after their supper of smoked fish and biscuits.  By that time of the year, vegetables were scare, but there were still apples for desert and cups of weak coffee into which the children liked to stick a tiny lump of maple sugar.  

It was barely 5:00, but the night was already black dark, without moon or stars visible.  The children, who had done nothing all day, were not at all tired, and they lay awake listening--it was very early yet--to a little froth of a storm blowing up across the lake.   They whispered among themselves, wondering what Christmas would be like, if their mother had made them any presents, if Uncle Jim would be back.  Even they did not dare talk about the one thing that had been on their minds since the return of their father.

Thank God, there was no fisherman mad enough to be out in a night like this, their mother sighed to the stove more than once that night.  She was making the children a Christmas treat—a kind of maple candy with nuts she had saved, and that was the real reason why she had sent the children to bed early.   Their father had gone hunting with one of Evangeline’s “French” cousins, a trapper who lived on the other side of the island, to get meat for Christmas,  If they had any luck, he would spend the night with his in-laws, stringing up the deer and drinking their medicinal wine brewed from berries and herbs that few people knew the names of, and even fewer were malicious enough to tell.  “How stuff so innocent as blackberries and dandelions could produce such venom,” my grandfather used to say, was beyond him, though he was never known to turn down a glass.

James had taken the ferry over to Chequamegon the day before, when the water was still open, to meet with some visiting miners who had been active in the IWW.  Although he was not expected for another day or two, they had waited for dark, in case he might return, bringing some news of what President Wilson was going to do to bring permanent peace to Europe and the world.  Even thinking about a future untroubled by wars and chaos was enough to cheer the family.  

Suddenly the door of the cottage burst open.  In staggered uncle James, wearing nothing but a red-and-black checked lumberjack shirt and a navy blue wool cap left over from his days working on the docks.  His trousers were stiff with ice, and though his eyes were wild, he did not look anywhere near as frozen as he should have been. 

“For the love of God, Jim,” my grandmother exclaimed, “Where have you come from?  I thought you were in Chequamegon.”

“The lake froze over, Evvie, so I walked. Oh ye of little faith, do you not remember how Peter walked out to meet our lord on the Sea of Tiberias, which was not even frozen as it is now.”

The lake hardly ever froze solid before Christmas, and it did seem like a miracle that James had arrived safe and sound, if not entirely sober.  Evangeline was determined to make her point.

“The lake’s not so frozen that you didn’t fall through the ice.  It’s a miracle you’re not drowned—or frozen stiff, though stiff you surely are.”

But Uncle Jim was not to be chastised.

“Stiff?  Anything but, why I drank just enough to get limbered up.  I would have frozen to death, if not for the miracle of drink.  If only our Lord had turned the water to apple jack, instead of wine, the Wedding at Cana would have been a party to remember.” 

Drink had made him loquacious, as it usually did, and he explained that the miners had betrayed Bill Haywood and sold out to Sam Gompers, who was nothing but a tool of the capitalists and a warmonger.  

James had left Chequamegon early in the afternoon though he had not, strictly speaking, walked the whole way.  An equally drunken friend had taken him part way in a boat, through a passage that was still open, and set him down on what they thought was solid ice.  Despite falling partway through the ice more than once, he had made it to Cadotte, where he met another drinking buddy, who, after they had finished a bottle toasting to James’s good fortune, took him by dog sled to his home.  

The children, looking down from their bed in the loft, watched James as he took a pint bottle out of his pocket, threw back his head, and emptied the last drops of apple jack.  As he gulped it down, staring pop-eyed up at the ceiling, he caught sight of the kids.

“How about a Bible story, kiddies?”

To be continued... 

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

3 Responses

  1. Vince Cornell says:

    This has been wonderful to read. So where is part 3!?

  2. James D. says:

    This reminds me of a friend-of-a-friend in northern Minnesota. I’ve met him a few times and never seen him sober, no matter the time of day. He is a cottage minder, handyman, wood cutter, jack-of-all-trades type. The man is now in his 60’s. He stays out almost every night until the bars close, but is the first guy up in the morning stoking the fire and getting the coffee ready. He told me about how he walked home from the bar one time, across a frozen lake. He fell into the water where a chasm had opened up between ice sheets. Drunk and alone, he struggled for a period of time before giving up. He folded his arms in front of him on the ice and rested his head on his arms. After a while, he lifted his head up to see if he could see anything. Much to his amazement, his jacket was now frozen to the ice and he was able to pull himself out of the water.

  3. Jacob Johnson says:

    Very interesting stories from around one of my favorite vacation spots, though I’ve never been all the way up there during winter.