A Christmas Story of Anterus Smith, as told to Chad Rayson, Part III
“How about a Bible story, kiddies?”
The children were overjoyed to escape from their monotonous captivity, and their mother was too beaten down to impose her will. Down from the loft they plummeted, stumbling on the steps of the ladder, like three half-grown squirrels on the first day of spring. Evelina started to send them back up but stopped:
“Well,” she conceded, “It is Holy Scripture.”
Uncle James took off his heavy shirt, put more wood into the stove, and, bracing his feet to thaw out his legs and stretching out his arms as props for the narrative, he began, in the clear emphatic way many story-tellers and preachers have.
(Once again, I’ll dispense with the quotation marks.)
You all know, kiddies, about Jess the Carpenter’s son who came from Nazareth--that’s a way down below the lake and west toward Biwabiko. He went up and down the length of Galilee here, from Bayport to Chequamegon and even over to the Indians around Mishkwanazibik, preaching repentance and humility, healing the sick and giving comfort to the poor farmers, lumber jacks, and working men who were being cheated by the rich bosses in far-off Chicago who own the saw mills, the steam ships, and the grain elevators. They think they own the whole world, but some day soon they’re going to learn they don’t.”
“Yes, Evvie. Won’t happen again.”
My father Albert piped up:
“I thought Galilee was far away across the ocean, you know, part of the Holy Land, where there are camels and palm trees.”
Uncle Jim dropped his Homeric tone, and his hands fell to his side.
“I can see you’ll be making a fine student, Albert, some day, and you’re right of course, if we’re talking out of a geography book, but didn’t you ever learn that God is everywhere around us? And if he is everywhere, then every land is holy, and what place could be holy for us than this island of ours and the land across the bay that is also ours. You know that far-off Holy Land is a flat and desert place, which is why they travel on camels, but Galilee, why that’s another story entirely. They have grassy hills rolling down to a big lake, and on the hills there are orchards and fruit trees, and dairy cows. Now, what does t hat make you think of, Albert?”
“Right you are. The Peninsula. It’s a place where people dream dreams of living as the Lord Jesus wants us to live. What place could be holier than this?”
Albert had too much on his mind to say anything, and Uncle Jim, lifting his upturned palms, resumed his story-telling manner.
Now, what you may not know is that down in Nazareth there was also a family of recent arrivals. The Newcomes, they called themselves, though they were Bohocks, who had translated their name into English. Maybe their name was Novak. They had been Catholics in the old country, but on the boat coming over they decided they were going to be real Americans, hundred-percenters, and they became the rankest Protestants you’d want to meet—not even honest dim-witted Lutherans but filthy Calvinists, you know—the people who wrecked the churches and destroyed the pictures of Our Lady. Even so, they were good people, all in all, and even the Catholics in town did not have a bad thing to say about them.
The Newcomes had a son named Mickey (his real name was Mihal, which they changed to Michael, but all the Irish in town just called him Mickey), a very lively kid, though too fond of playing with the girls, when other boys were out in the woods setting traps and plotting mischief. Mickey grew very envious, when he saw what a fuss was being made over the carpenter’s son. He had always done well in school, turning in his neatly written lessons on time, bringing apples to the teachers, and working weekends for free on the principal’s farm. Everybody said he would make something out of himself someday, maybe as a politician or a preacher, and Mickey didn’t see why, if Jesse could make a name for himself as a prophet, he couldn’t set himself up in the same line.
So he went up to Cadwallader—you’ve been there, it’s only a four or five hour walk from Chequamegon—and rented a hall and charged people 50 cents to hear him preach against the New York banks and denounce the poor Catholics as agents of the Pope.
Bridget, the older girl, asked why, if he was so bad, Mickey was attacking the bankers.
“That’s a good question, and it shows you’ve been paying attention to the lessons your Uncle Jim has been trying to teach you. In fact, what he really wanted was to scare the bankers into paying him off. He was like those fellows who write for the newspapers, always pretending to be the friends of the working man, when in fact the Hearsts and Pulitzers are nothing but pawns of the rich and powerful. Even if they write like the sainted Karl Marx, they thirst after the blood of Bill Haywood and Gene Debs”
Jim’s face went blank for a moment, as if the question had caused him to lose his train of thought. He stared into the fire for several minutes and roused himself.
I don’t know how much Mickey knew about his family's religious background, but he laid into the Catholics with everything he had. “The only reason the greasy Dagos aren’t as rich and happy as us Americans is that they never had a Protestant Reformation,” he thundered out every evening to a roar of applause from the Norskies and Finlanders. “And as soon as they kick out the lazy priests and read the Gospels for themselves, they’ll be on the train to riches in this world and glory in the next.”
When little Jean asked him what the Irish said when they heard all this, Jim explained that The Micks and Polacks naturally stayed away from his lectures. They had heard such talk in the old country, and they knew it meant trouble. Some of them started looking up their houses at night and keeping a shotgun at their bedside. Not that Mickey meant any harm of that kind. Even though he set himself up as the enemy of the Church, he was very partial to immigrants, because he knew they would work cheap and make the employers grateful to anyone who brought them cheap labor.
But getting bribed by the Rockefellers was the big plan. Mickey, with his Bohock roots, could not help being a small-timer, so in the short run, he wanted to to pile up as much money as he could and by any means, fair or foul. Even after paying for a good lunch--a lot more food, as Mickey was the first to point out, than the bread and fish that Jess dished out at his picnics--he still made a tidy profit. So for six months, Mickey went up and down the Galilee Peninsula, calling himself a populist, god-blessing Bryan, and denouncing the Republicans as the very devil. He made a lot of money, but he still was not satisfied because Jess was bringing in ten times the crowds just by standing on some hilltop overlooking the lake, the winds blowing his hair and tearing at his clothes like they were sails on a boat, as he told people to be good and treat their neighbors right, not to cheat or steal from their neighbors, even if they were Samaritans or Canadians. The miracle of it was that it worked. The people who followed after Jess started helping their neighbors, even if they had been quarreling over a property line or broken fences. You’ve never seen anything like it—nothing fancy, just good old meat-and-potatoes human behavior of the sort you almost never see, except maybe on this island here.
Mickey eventually got very discouraged by the way Jess succeeded without even trying, and he was thinking of taking up another line of work, when he got news that Jess had gone over to Zenith and got himself arrested as a radical agitator. In the riot, a cop was shot by an agent provocatoor, and the capitalists pinned the crime on Jess, saying he had been one of the men who organized the Haymarket riot down in Chicago. It took no more than a few hours to try, convict, and sentence him, and, though the governor knew the whole thing was a put-up job, he was a stalwart Republican--not like one of our La Follettes, who are the only good Republicans, but a dirty Minnesota Yankee from the Twins, who had moved to Milwaukee to fleece the dumb Germans. Just out of pure meanness, he refused to stop the execution.
It was about this time that little Albert noticed that his father, who had come in through the shed, was standing in the dark in the back of the room, listening intently to the story, but Uncle Jim was so wrapped up in his own performance that he went on with the tale without noticing his brother’s arrival:
When he first heard the news about Jess’s arrest and conviction, Mickey was scared, because the last thing in the world he was, was brave, but after he thought about it for several days, he realized that his biggest rival had just been eliminated, and all he needed to do was to change his message. So he went to live in the woods for several weeks, polishing up his new material.