Going back home for Christmas
And a story of life after death
G. Sam Piatt
PDT Outdoors Writer
Two weeks ago I mentioned Corey Ford, who wrote a column about the gang from the “Lower Forty” for Field & Stream for many years, until his death in 1969 at age 67.
He dearly loved grouse hunting, as well as the dogs he had trained and hunted with and lived with.
The column for the outdoor magazine wasn’t all he wrote. There were more than 30 books in all, some of them best sellers.
Some of his writings were fiction. One such story was his “The Road to Tinkhamtown.”
The main character is Frank. It is a story of living, a story of dying, and a story of life after death.
Frank never married. He stayed at home and cared for his parents until they passed on.
After that, he closed off all of the rooms in the old house but the kitchen. There he slept on a cot by the stove. Shad (short for Shadow), his beloved setter, “curled on the floor near him at night, whinnying and scratching the linoleum with his claws as he chased a bird in a dream.”
Frank and Shad’s most cherished hunts had come at Tinkhamtown, an old abandoned and decaying farming community that had flourished a century ago. Now just the building foundations remained among the undergrowth, along with crumbling stone walls and tangled apple orchards.
A grown-up roadbed led down a slope to an ancient bridge. They parked the jeep and walked across to get to the best territory. It was excellent grouse habitat, and he and Shad kept it just to themselves.
Shad wore an old-fashioned sleighbell on his collar. It had a thin slivery note that echoed through the woods. When it stopped, Frank would go to where he heard it last, and Shad would be on point — rolling those brown eyes back to where the whites would show, making sure he was coming.
It was those soft eyes that made him realize that Shad “was the kindest person I had ever known.”
Tinkhamtown was the last place they hunted. The old dog had stumbled several times walking back to the jeep, and he had to carry him in his arms the last hundred yards.
After Shad’s death, he put the bell away. He’d never had another dog.
Now it came Frank’s time to make the crossing.
Sometimes at night, lying awake in the hospital room with pain in his legs, he would hear the scratch of claws on the linoleum. He would turn on the light and the room would be empty.
His sister, his only relative, had come all the way across the continent from California to be at his bedside.
Once Frank had asked Doc Towle point blank if he would ever get well. Doc, who was not only his physician but also his grouse-hunting friend, had said, “I’m afraid not, Frank.”
With a voice that was growing weaker, he asked Doc, “What happens when it’s over?”
Doc fumbled around with the latch on his black bag and finally told him that he “supposed you went on to someplace called the Hereafter.”
But Frank shook his head. “No, it isn’t someplace else,” he told Doc. “It’s someplace you’ve been where you want to be again.”
Doc didn’t understand, but he couldn’t explain it any better.
Then, with the pain medicine kicking in, he began looking for the road to Tinkhamtown.
But it was dark under the trees, there was no sound to guide him. He searched for the old roadbed that led down to the decaying bridge that crossed the stream.
But he was lost. He was afraid of the darkness, and being alone, and not knowing where he was going.
And then he heard it — the thin silvery tinkle of a sleighbell.
He began running toward it. His legs were strong again.
He hurdled blowdowns and leaped over logs. The bell grew louder.
His fear was gone. He went down the hill and came to the bridge.
He wanted to tell his sister and Doc how happy he was; if only they knew how happy. But when he opened his eyes he could no longer see them.
Everything in front of him was bright. The room was dark.
Then…the bell stopped. He looked across the stream. The other side was bathed in sunshine.
There, beneath an apple tree in the corner of an old stone fence, Shad was standing, motionless, “the white fan of his tail lifted, his neck craned forward and one foreleg cocked. The whites of his eyes showed as he looked back, waiting for him.
“Steady,” he called, “steady, boy.” He started across the bridge. “I’m coming.”
HOME FOR CHRISTMAS
For 60 years, from my youth up, I had always spent a portion of Christmas Eve at the home of my parents. Now they’re gone, as is my only brother and only sister.
After that, a part of Christmas Eve was always missing.
One Christmastime some years ago, I was approaching the lane that leads off Route 8 to the homeplace.
Suddenly I was overcome by nostalgia — as strong as I had ever felt it.
I wanted to see them all, and especially my parents.
I wanted to go home for Christmas.
I pulled into the lane and parked in the familiar parking space just outside their front yard. I thought I saw the curtains in the living room window move and Mom peering out.
In the background, it seemed Dad was leaning forward in his easy chair and craning his neck to see who had pulled in. I thought of the many times I had trailered my boat in there to pick him up for a fishing trip to the river or one of the lakes.
The front door was locked but I had a key. I opened it, then hesitated for a moment on the porch.
It seemed I could hear Dad say, “It’s George Samuel. Come in out of it!”
I stepped inside.
My goodness! It was as cold in there as it was outside.
I walked across the floor and could hear the sound of my footsteps echoing through the empty house.
The kitchen table and chairs were still there. I stood and looked at that table and my nostalgia was really playing games with reality. I could see the golden brown, steaming turkey in the middle of the table, surrounded by all the trimmings of those big Christmas Day dinners that Mom used to fix.
Dad was starting to carve the turkey. Brother and sister waited with forks and knives in hand. Mom brought a platter of hot biscuits from the oven to the table.
Oh, those biscuits. Mom rolled out the dough with a rolling pin and cut it into rounds with the top of an empty tin can. Those biscuits seemed to just float out of the oven.
I walked over and pulled down the oven door, half expecting to see the biscuits browning. One of the rusty hinges broke and the oven door fell askance, never to close again.
Where have all the years gone?
I stood, held my face in my hands, and wept like a baby.
Why was I doing this to myself? Christmas is supposed to be a happy time.
The Collier Cemetery is just a few hundred yards from the house. I stopped by to visit the graves of Mom and Dad and bother Bootie. Later, on the way to my house, I stopped by Mt. Zion and visited the grave of sister Linda.
It was late evening when I passed a church with a manger scene out front. His birthday! I’d been so caught up in my own situation that I’d forgotten that that’s what Christmas is all about.
Son of God, son of man. Cut down in the prime of life. Died on a cross, the Scriptures tell us, for our sins.
And it was He himself who said, “He that liveth and believeth on me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”
Wow! Talk about a family reunion!
It was growing dark by the time I arrived at my home, which was surrounded by cars. Christmas lights sparkled in the holly tree in the front yard and on the bushes beside the house. A lighted tree that went to the ceiling was visible through the bay window.
I heard laughter as I went up the walk and opened the front door.
Perhaps one day one of my children, suffering from nostalgia, will come to this house and find it cold and empty, and ask themselves, where have all the years gone?
Be that as it may, this Christmas 2013 — good Lord willing — we’re going to celebrate.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (606) 932-3619 or email@example.com.
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