by Larry Fields
(based on true events, mostly)
“Hey Heck! What do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?”
“Don’t reckon Santa will be a-comin’ to our house this year Tommy Joe”, Heck answered. “But iffen he does, I’m just a wantin’ me a bullwhip . . . and that’s all I want! What about you, Tommy Joe?”
My name is Tommy Joe Hall, and that’s part of a conversation I remember having with my best buddy the last day of school before the Christmas holidays in 1955.
My answer to Heck Hadley that day was a lie. I told him I only wanted a bicycle, when in actuality I wanted the exact same thing he did . . . a genuine Lash LaRue bullwhip….
This is the story of why I answered the way I did, and why I still say today, fifty years later, the Christmas of ’55 was my favorite Christmas.
Heck Hadley and I lived in a coal mining camp in rural Southwest Virginia. We were both ten, and our daddies were employed as coal miners by Bull Creek Mining Company. Several hundred people lived in the camp, in side-by-side, spittin’ image houses.
Heck had a knack for discovering fun things to do. Just walking to Bull Creek Elementary School each day was a wonderful adventure. Things like smoking out a hornet’s nest and catching a crawdad, or even swinging across Bull Creek on a grapevine, made the two-mile trip fly by. And we had fun with each other’s names….
I was always saying—”Aw Heck! Heck”. One day at school Heck yelled:
“Get out of the hall, Tommy Joe Hall!” 😂
I will say that school was hard for Heck. He was always getting in trouble for not paying attention or dropping a marble on the floor. In his defense, he was such a good marble shooter he couldn’t help but drop marbles. He could go outside for recess with two marbles in his pocket, and twenty minutes later when the bell rang, he’d come in with two hundred marbles bulging his pockets out.
But with class work, it was kinda like Heck got things backwards, and the teacher just thought he wasn’t trying (since he couldn’t even read or write).
Heck didn’t’ know what to think when the teacher, Mr. Wilkens, told him he would never get out of the Fifth Grade. I thought that was a mean thing to say.
One fine Saturday in late September, Heck and I caught the passenger bus to Grundy, a booming mining town about ten miles away.
Arriving in Grundy, the first place we visited was the Ben Franklin 5 & 10 cents store. Heck wanted candy and some caps for his cap shooter, and after purchasing those items, we went over and looked in the western comic books section. We looked at several before settling on one we knew we didn’t’ have . . . a Buck Jones.
Back on the crowded streets, we hurried to get a closer look at the posters describing the movies at Grundy’s’ three theaters (Lynwood, Morgan, and Alamo). Two of the theaters had Double-Feature westerns starting at noon . . . but the other theater, the Morgan, was the one that caught our eye. The Morgan was having a live show at noon featuring a western star named Lash LaRue. The marquee announced him as “KING OF THE BULLWHIPS”.
Heck and I agreed that we had heard of him, but we were pretty sure we hadn’t’ seen any of his movies. Right away, that was where we wanted to go. Just one thing was holding us back . . . the one- dollar admission price. Quickly checking, we determined that we had 50 cents between us. Ordinarily, that would be enough for the 10¢ admission to any of the theaters, plus enough to buy popcorn and soda, and the 10¢ bus fare back home to Bull Creek.
Don’t’ get me wrong. Money was never a problem when Heck was around, and we had a whole hour to earn the money . . . as announced by eleven loud bongs on the courthouse clock.
As it turned out, Heck didn’t’ need an hour. Heck was a masterful shoe-shine boy. Not only did he give the best shine in town, but also his whistling entertained bystanders royally.
Four shines at a 25¢ a customer, with one man giving a dollar tip, and Heck had earned the money we needed for the show, and we didn’t’ even move from our spot in front of the Grundy Drug Store. My contribution was holding on to the funds.
“Give me a quick one son”” said a man in black wearing a black cowboy hat, I’ve got a show at twelve over at the Morgan Theater.””
“Say, you must be Lash LaRue mister” Heck said, as both of us looked on, kind of starstruck. “That’s me” said the man in black. (Years later Johnny Cash would introduce Lash LaRue as the original man in black.)
“How would you boys like to make a quick buck?” he asked, as Heck popped his rag and whistled the “Chattanooga Shoe -Shine Boy” song.
We nodded, knowing we didn’t need the money right then, but from the looks of things we were going to see his show for free anyway.
As it turned out, we not only saw it, but we were also co-starring. Lash LaRue marched us right into the Morgan Theatre and right up on stage where he told us what he wanted us to do.
What a show! We both agreed later that we had discovered a new number one cowboy hero that day. With bullwhips, guns, strength, and magic, Lash Larue kept the packed audience in the Morgan Theater on the edge of their seats for nearly two hours.
The show opened with a movie clip that showed Lash LaRue getting shot. A split-second later, the house lights came on and Lash LaRue jumped out from behind the screen, his guns blazing! It scared me and Heck and everybody else half to death.
My hands trembled as Lash had me stand on one side of the stage with a piece of paper held between my hands. Lash stood on the other side with a bullwhip at least 15 feet long.
“R-R-R-R-ip!” . . . and the paper I was holding pulled apart like it was cut with a pair of scissors. The audience cheered and Lash asked me to hold just one half of the remaining paper. I closed my eyes when he brought the whip down. When I heard the sound, I opened them . . . and he’d done it again.
Since I’d felt the wind the last time, I refused to hold the smaller piece. Then Heck volunteered and held it ’til the paper got so small you could hardly see it. Finally, even Heck wouldn’t hold it.
“He could shore whup a young’un!” yelled a snaggle-toothed woman, suddenly standing up in the first row.
About that time, a man came running up out of the audience, grabbed Lash’s gun belt from the stage and started running up the aisle.
Lash’s whip sounded like a thunderbolt as the tip popped in the air above the head of the running man!
And then the cracker end of the whip descended around the man’s neck like he’d lassoed him….
When Lash pulled tight, the man’s tongue shot out, causing the audience to roar with laughter.
Lash continued pulling and soon the man was right up on stage, looking embarrassed and whipped. It may have been part of the show, but the sheriff came up and escorted the man out the door.
Lash LaRue was quite a showman with the whip, even catching coins out of the air and jerking the fire out of a man’s cigarette, leaving the cigarette still dangling in the man’s mouth.
Then Lash asked Heck to whistle . . . and did he ever . . . bowing to a standing ovation.
After the show, Lash gave us our dollar and an autographed picture of himself sitting on his horse, Black Diamond. A big bullwhip was curled around Lash’s shoulder. A picture to treasure forever!
Everyone wanted to shake our hand on the way out. I was surprised to see that Mom and Dad had been in the audience. Mom invited Heck to stop by our house for her Saturday night special; hamburgers, and home-made fries. Sooo Good!
Heck and I made a good number of whips in the days following the big show . . . but none of them were worth a plug nickel. We had fun, but to be honest, sticks and old shoestrings don’t make much of a whip.
Shortly after the big show, tragedy struck the Hadley household. Late one October night, Heck’s dad was working the hoot-owl(midnight) shift at the coal mine when he was pinned in a roof-fall. Luckily, his life was spared, but my dad said it was doubtful if he’d ever walk again.
Heck became the breadwinner at the Hadley place, doing all sorts of jobs, including shining shoes on Saturdays. Unfortunately, since Heck had to miss a lot of school, we rarely saw each other during November and December of that year (1955).
On the rare occasion I saw Heck, he wasn’t his old jolly self . . . and neither was I . . . without Heck to keep me company.
As Christmas approached, I thought a lot about Heck, and my lie to him about only wanting a bicycle for Christmas. The lie to Heck was a Hallmark event in my life. There, in that moment when Heck asked me what I wanted for Christmas.
For the first time in my life, I valued another person’s wishes above my own. IF THERE WAS JUST ONE BULLWHIP IN SANTA’S BAG, I WANTED HECK TO HAVE IT.
On Christmas morning I couldn’t believe my eyes when I hurried to the tree and saw a beautiful black bicycle. But what really caught my eye was the genuine Lash LaRue bullwhip coiled around the handlebars and seat. Lash’s name was carved right in the handle. I was jumping up and down happy when I saw it.
Being so excited I couldn’t eat, or even watch for a minute what dad said was the first television in the Bull Creek mining camp. I hopped on my bicycle, quickly christened it Black Diamond, after Lash LaRue’s horse, and letting out the reins on Black Diamond, and leaning out over her neck, I arrived at Heck’s house in record time.
If any boy had been a good boy, it was Heck. I knew in my heart that Santa had delivered Heck a whip just like mine and a whole lot more.
But no, that didn’t happen. I was just readying myself to ‘hello’ to everyone in the house when Heck stepped out on his porch . . . looking like a little whipped pup. 😞
“Santa d-didn’t come to o-our h-house”, Heck said, choking back tears.
I didn’t hesitate for a second. “What the Heck, Heck, Santa left your present at my house” I said, sailing the coiled whip through the air into his outstretched hands.
Heck didn’t return to school in January 1956, and when mom told me his family had moved to Montana, I cried for two days.
I looked up Montana on the map and vowed I would visit there some day.
That day came this past October. My wife Mary Jane, and I, were touring the West . . . when the big sky country of Montana beckoned.
It was surprisingly easy. I asked a guy at a truck stop, near Helena, Montana, if he knew Heck Hadley.
“Everybody knows Heck Hadley, he has a 5,000-acre ranch for troubled kids just south of here” the man said. “Several thousand kids have graduated from his ‘Hope and Help’ ranch. Just follow the signs, mister.”
Twenty minutes later, we were parked in front of the gate at the “H&H” ranch. “Look at the bullwhip!” Mary Jane said excitedly, as she pointed to the sign above the gate.
I looked . . . It was the same genuine leather Lash LaRue bullwhip that Santa had left for Heck Hadley at the Bull Creek mining camp.
Just then, a black horse cantered up to the gate. Mary Jane touched the power window, and I was pretty sure I recognized the rider because he was whistling.
Merry Christmas from the H&H Ranch and Ol’ Corn.
It is indeed more blessed to give than receive…… Larry
Some words should never be misspelled, and Christmas is one of them. I have few pet peeves, but the one on the top of my list has to be the big “X” used to replace Christ in Christmas.
As a Christian, to see someone replace Christ’s name with a big ole X, is offensive. I say the “o” word cautiously, as I know that in this day and time, people can be offended at the drop of a hat. But to replace the name of the one whose entire existence is reason for the season, really makes me sad, and a little angry.
I understand Christmas is a lengthy word to place on a decorated window, or to write in a quick text. But if you remove Christ, what exactly does XMAS mean? If you are a believer like me, I can’t fathom it not hurting your heart to replace your Lord and Saviors name with a big X. And if you are not a believer, then why are you wishing someone a merry anything?
Over my life, I have happened upon many an unbeliever. It always surprised me when the same people who preached God to not exist, did indeed celebrate at Christmas time. They would put up a tree, decorate their homes, send out holiday cards (careful to not include anything resembling Christ), and would exchange gifts on Christmas morning. I never understood why. I spent time in their homes, enjoying their holiday cheer. But at the end of the day, no mention of Christ’s birthday was ever made. I walked away wondering what exactly were they celebrating? Their own Winter holiday? I guess so.
I imagine this debate has been going on for a very long time, and probably one of the reasons the sayings “Happy Holidays” and “Seasons Greetings” came about. I really don’t mind those two greetings, I find them cheery and respectful. Just don’t X out my Lord. After all, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. If you feel this to be a myth or fairy tale, please don’t disrespect His name by using an X. Simply choose another expression of holiday cheer. There is no need to offend people like myself, who hold the Lord’s name with such love in their hearts.
I’ll climb down from my soap box now. Merry Christmas!
💚Most everyone has a favorite toy they remember receiving as a kid for Christmas. The memory of that beloved toy stays with them throughout their life. Bringing back loving thoughts of Christmas, Santa Claus, and family.
🧡My sister and I received a lot of beautiful toys growing up. Our wonderful mother made sure of it. She would save money all year long just for our Christmas gifts. Toys and clothes, we thought Santa brought. Now an adult, I realize it wasn’t Santa Claus, but a very loving mother!
We only received toys at Christmas in my house. Only exception being if my sister or I ended up in the hospital sick or having surgery. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t have toys throughout the year. But now, I think my mama was onto something. We ended up truly appreciating every toy we ever received and took excellent care of them. And the suspense and excitement for Santa’s arrival was off the charts!
💛No doubt my mother enjoyed this Christmas game as much as we did. Sometimes, I wonder if she enjoyed it even more. Mama grew up during the Great Depression. I remember her sharing a story of how she always wanted a doll for Christmas and never received one. Every year she would ask, and my grandma would sadly tell her that they could not afford one. She told us that one year she asked for a doll that only cost a nickel. Hoping that just maybe, a nickel could be spared. The answer for a Christmas doll was still no.
My mama’s sad story fueled her passion for Christmas with my sister and me. Mama still loved dolls. Now she had two little girls of her own that she could shower with the most beautiful baby dolls at Christmas time. And with that came the joys of playing the role of Santa. A role she took very seriously.
💙Every year, the Sear’s Christmas Wish Book would arrive. Mama would proudly hand it over to me and my sister Jeanie. We would spend hours upon hours dreaming over the toys that book held in its pages. Mama would often come around while we were studying the catalog and casually ask what we liked. If it had been a particularly good year financially, Mama would actually tell us to pick out the doll we wanted Santa to bring. That didn’t happen often, but when it did, the excitement was overwhelming. Especially on Christmas morning when we would find the exact doll under the tree. It made us feel a very personal connection to Santa Claus. I can only imagine the pure joy it gave to Mama.
💜I don’t mean to leave my daddy out of this story. He enjoyed very much seeing us receive toys. But Christmas was just Mama’s thing. I think he knew what she had gone through growing up and how much joy it brought her to play Santa and do all she did for us. So, daddy let mama take the reins of Santa’s sleigh so to speak.
Do you still remember the special toy you received on Christmas?
Here’s hoping all of you have a glorious holiday season. Merry Christmas!
As I sit here on my couch, three days after Thanksgiving, I decided to turn on the radio and listen to Christmas songs. Last week while trying to find a decent radio station in my car, I happened upon one that plays “old” country music. The “old timers” as they are referred to in 2019, like Willie Nelson, Travis Tritt, Alan Jackson, Randy Travis (my personal favorite!) and Miss. Loretta Lynn. All are played often, and I could not contain my joy when I found this wonderful radio station. It made my day!
The day after Thanksgiving, much to my appreciation, they began to play 24/7 Christmas music. Only the older country musicians of course. I have turned on the radio more than I have turned on my television this weekend. I know many people find it old-fashioned to listen to the radio, but it is a joy and a comfort to me. It has been that way since the time my Daddy gave me his little transistor radio when I was around age five. From that time on I have been a lover of radio
Today, when I sat down with my laptop, Alan Jackson came on singing my favorite Christmas song, Silver Bells. Oh, how I adore that song! If you are also a fan of Silver Bells, you know it is not played very often, and recorded even less. It’s not a big favorite of most people. It’s just a very simple little song but it has a very special meaning to me. It is the song that opens my Christmas memory bank!
When I was growing up in Johnson City, Tennessee, in the 60s, it was a big treat to go downtown with my Mama. As kids, my sister and I spent most of our time at home or school. To take a trip downtown was a much-welcomed outing. One we only made about twice a month. During the holiday season we usually got to visit downtown extra. There would be the first trip when Mama would take us to look at toys that had been recently added to the stores. I think she was making a note of things that caught our attention (doll, bike, book, etc.). I remember getting so excited for this was my favorite time of the year! It was the only time of the year my sister and I would receive toys!
We would usually, weather permitting, go to the annual Christmas parade. It was too crowded for Mama’s liking, so my memories are of being with Daddy on those trips. Maybe she would be doing some shopping while Daddy had us occupied? She was very good at sneaking this and that, so we never caught on. I remember times when she would take me alone downtown to shop when I was 4 and 5. My sister Jeanie was older, so she would be in school. Mama would put toys on layaway for my sister. Probably me too, but I didn’t notice because I’m sure I was occupied looking at all the novelties in the store. Oh, Mama was good!
My favorite memory of all was the time she took me downtown with her for a final shopping run. It must have been only a couple days before Christmas morning because it was more crowded than I ever remembered. There were so many people rushing in and out of stores. Mama held my hand so very tightly as she weaved in and out of the crowds, hurrying into the stores for last minute items.
Through all the madness, I distinctly remember the sound of bells. The silver bells rung on every street corner by the Salvation Army with their red kettles. I don’t remember the sound of the people as they congested the streets and stores. Or the sound of traffic which must have been just as bad. But I remember the sound of those bells. And I loved that sound!
But best of all was when during all the rushing around that day, and the silver bells ringing, it began to snow! The snowflakes started out light, but quickly became heavy. Everyone, including us, hurried even faster so we could make it home. It must have been the most perfect Christmas of all that year! It surely was for me.
So, you understand now why the song Silver Bells is my all-time favorite? I hope there is a Christmas song that opens your memory bank as well and brings back times as sweet to you as mine are to me.
Here’s hoping this holiday season is a blessed one for you and yours.
👀 My wife and I have attended the Christmas party of a good friend for many years and it’s always an enjoyable evening. Her home and yard are always abundantly decorated and a warm feeling always surrounds you when you enter. This year many of her friends did not attend because of sickness, travel, etc., but we had a great time nevertheless. We left her home around 10 pm with our stomachs full of food/cookies and our minds filled with lots of good conversation. As we drove home, my wife and I were surrounded with the feeling of good cheer that only a Christmas Party at Joann’s can provide. Hopefully,all the people that missed it this year will be there next year. I miss our yearly visit with all of them. To this day, I still remember my best Christmas as a young boy and the sacrifice my mother and father made to ensure that I got what I wanted. As a father, I remember the Christmas that I was able to convince my two small children that there was a Santa Claus. I also remember the one when my 9-year-old daughter asked me if there was a Santa and I assured her there was. “Daddy, my friends at school are making fun of me for believing in Santa, so tell me the truth!” I looked at her perfectly formed face, long blonde hair, and gently said, “No, there isn’t a Santa”. A look of total shock covered her face, and it felt like I had totally destroyed the truth in her world. If there was not a Santa, was there a Fairy Godmother? As tears welled up in her eyes, I knew I had made a serious mistake. Her older brother had been telling her for several years that Santa didn’t exist, but because her mother and I kept reinforcing his existence, she believed us. I remember exactly where we were and what time it was when I uttered those dastardly words. I remember getting down on my knees and pulling her close to me as she cried, and trying desperately to comfort her. But there was no comfort for her on that day, and I suspect Christmas was never the same afterwards. There have been many special Christmas’ for me during my 77 spins around the sun and lately they have become special just because I’m still here to celebrate each one.
👀 A few days ago, I had my annual physical, and as I sat in the chair beside my doctor, he counseled me on fitness. “You need to lose some weight, stop smoking those awful cigars, and keep doing your daily exercises”, he said patiently. Then he asked, “How many alcoholic drinks do you have weekly?” I replied that, “Dr Mom (my wife) says I must drink 4 ounces of red wine each day, eat some peanuts,and I will live to be 100”, and so, that’s exactly what I do. “That’s an old wives’ tale, so stop doing it”, he responded. I sat silently and listened without responding, knowing Dr. Mom rules my universe. Then he gave me a bunch of papers to read that would insure I live a happy, healthy life. As I prepared to leave his office he said, “You are the healthiest patient I have, I think you are probably a health nut.” I smiled, wondering how that could be possible when I’m 15 lbs overweight. A few days later, as I was reading thru the handouts, he gave me, one of the articles informed me that 80% of all Americans do not live a life that provides optimum health. That statement left me a little confused, and I’m left wondering, ok, how many of us live a little less than optimum health but still live well enough to have a happy, healthy life? A little farther on in the article it says health authorities have determined that 5 ounces of red wine each day helps promote good health. Whaaat! Does he read the stuff he passes out to his patients? Don’t get me wrong, I like my family health care physician, I’m just a little disappointed in him. Dr. Mom keeps telling me to follow her advice. Maybe I should, but I’m still trying to figure out which medical school she attended 😊. Sam Coleridge said, “Advice is like snow; the softer it falls the longer it dwells upon, and the deeper it sinks into the mind.” I kinda like that idea.
👀 I read the following in a magazine: “It began three and a half billion years ago in a pool of muck, when a molecule made a copy of itself and so became the ultimate ancestor of all earthly life. It began four million years ago when brain volumes climbed rapidly in the hominid line. Fifty thousand years ago with the rise of homo sapiens. Ten thousand years ago with the invention of civilization. Five hundred years ago with the invention of the printing press. Fifty years ago, with the invention of the computer. In less than thirty years, it will end”. The author of that proclamation is suggesting that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will end human existence within the next 30 years. I will not be here to find out if that statement is true, but I strongly disagree with it. Let’s see, if I train my dog to attack other people, then it stands to reason that somewhere in the process he will turn on me? I don’t think so! I believe the people developing AI will never allow that to happen. Why would they? The people writing the code for AI are very smart, don’t ya think they know in the back of their minds that if their gadget ever becomes smarter than they are it could spell T-R-O-U-B-L-E? I think it’s a little far-fetched to believe something like that could happen. It’s far likelier that the world, as we know it, will cease to exist because we ignored climate change. Nicholas Berdyaev said, “Fear is never a good counselor and victory over fear is the first spiritual duty of man.”
👀 Recently I decided the windshield wipers on our truck needed to be replaced. They were a year old and made annoying noises as they moved back and forth. Also, they weren’t cleaning all the rain off as they should in order for me to see clearly where I was headed. I walked into the auto parts store, told them what I wanted, paid $50, and headed home in the rain. The one thing I know is that replacing windshield wipers is a difficult task. I have witnessed the auto parts employees having a difficult time doing that task for their customers. As I was driving home and thinking about the task ahead of me, I wondered why someone hasn’t devised a simpler way? I pulled into the driveway, got a small ladder (our truck is very high off the ground), and stared at the blades on the truck, trying to figure out how the darn things come off. I looked at the new package of wipers and there was a note that said, “Scan this bar code to get a video on how to install these wipers”. Hot diggity dog! I immediately got my cellphone, scanned the bar code and a video popped up showing me how to remove the old blades and install the new ones. I struggled to get the old ones off, but after a lot of effort I finally got them removed. I then popped open the new ones and voila! There in my crusty old hands are two new blades with a new way to install them! Just unsnap the enclosure flap on the new wiper, slide it on the control wiper control arm, snap the enclosure closed,and everything is operational and ready to wipe away. When those wipers need replacing, the job is just a snap away (pun intended). In case you’re wondering about the brand name of the new wipers, it’s Rain-X. Thomas Merton said, “Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.” I’m not so sure I agree with him.
👀 The dreaded day finally arrived, I needed to replace my computer chair and I had become very attached to it. I say that literally because I spend a lot of time in it each day. It’s sorta like dreading to get a new pair of shoes, they take a while to break in, and you have aching feet for a period of time. Well, the same thing applies to anew chair, but it was time for a replacement. A lot of the bonded leather was flaking off and falling to the floor and the chair looked miserable. I went to my workshop, brought back some clear packing tape and stopped the flaking, but the chair looked like it was a homeless guy’s prized possession. So, my wife told me one morning that it was time to go to OfficeMax and select a new chair. Boy, do they have a lot of office chairs to choose from. Nothing to do but sit in each chair and ponder if it’s the one I want? I was more inclined to be affected by price ($450+ for some) and leaned more towards the $135 range. My wife kept encouraging me to ignore the price and select the one that was most comfortable. Finally, I pointed a crooked finger at my selection and told her,with firmness in my voice, “that’s the one I want”. I looked at the price tag ($338) and flinched. I immediately reached for my cellphone, scanned the bar code and observed that I could get it for $238 at the same store if I ordered it online and could pick it up in an hour. A lot of things can bring a smile to my face,but saving $100 can slide one on there just about as quick as sliding a spoonful of pecan pie into my pie hole. I had the chair home (in a box) within a few hours and started assembling it. An hour later it was sitting behind my desk, inviting me to give it a spin. I am slowly coming around to liking the chair, but it will take time. I took the old one to the city dump a few days ago, and as I tossed it into the garbage heap,I waved a sad goodbye. Lots of my DNA on that old chair. Ellen Glasgow said, “The hardest thing for me is the sense of impermanence. All passes; nothing returns.” I kinda think that is true.
I hope that wherever you are on this wonderful planet, you are enjoying the ride. May those that love you show up at your door for a long visit during this wonderful month of celebration. I am eager to greet the New Year and continue my journey. If you have access to the internet, please visit my website: www.tommyhale.net