The Christmas of Shantyboat Bill

G. Sam Piatt - PDT Columnist

On that Christmas Day, many years ago, clouds hung oppressively low over the little Ohio River village. There was a light mist in the air, a dampness that crept down the back of my collar and into the very depths of my spirit.

The Christmas gifts had been opened. I had come out into the yard on the pretense of trying out my new galoshes. Really I was trying to hide my disappointment. The new bike – the shiny red bike I had hoped and prayed for – wasn’t there.

Discouraged and downhearted, I moped across the muddy street to Dale Riley’s house. I found him in his backyard. He was shooting arrows into a cardboard box.

“New bow for Christmas, huh?” I asked as he retrieved the arrows.

He balanced it in his hand to give me a better look. “Yep, new bow and arrows,” he said. “Not much good though. The feathers are already falling out.”

He let me try it. “How’d you make out?” he asked as he retrieved my arrows.

“Aw, OK. I got new pants and shirt, these boots, a windup tractor. Chinese checker game.”

“No new bike, huh?”

I shook my head, screwed my mouth to one side.

Dale shook his head in sympathy.

“I know how you feel,” he said. “I didn’t get the electric train I had my heart set on. The one that puffed real smoke.”

He tossed the bow and arrows onto the ground.

“I got some socks and underwear,” he added. “Got a little windup train … this coat.”

We stood in silence for a moment. I made little impressions in the mud with my boots. Finally, I said, “Let’s walk down and see how Hobo made out.”

We found him on his front porch steps, peering through a little black telescope. We could tell, from the way his mouth turned down at the corners, that he’d been disappointed, too.

Said he got a hat and some gloves, a model airplane kit, the telescope. But the Red Ryder BB gun he’d had his heart set on was a no show.

“Still in the store with my bike and Dale’s electric, smoke-puffin’ train, huh?” I said.

We jawed around for a while, speaking of the things we hadn’t gotten more than the things we did. Hobo suggested we walk down under the river bank and see if we could spot any geese.

So off we went, three young comrades wallowing in the fellowship of self-pity.

We each had a peep out over the river with the telescope and condemned it. But we agreed it might be useful in playing pirates when summer returned.


Suddenly we saw someone running up the sandy shoreline toward us, shouting for glee with every breath.

It was Shantyboat Bill.

Shantyboat Bill, sometimes pitied but envied at times, too, by every boy in the village. Pitied because he was so poor and, as far as we knew, had no mother or father. He lived with his grandmother in a weather-beaten houseboat down at the lower landing.

He could catch catfish from his front porch. We used to fish and swim with him back in the summer. He had started third grade with us in September. He wore no shoes to school, and after the weather turned cold he didn’t come at all.

We’d forgotten all about him.

Now here he came, grinning like a jack-o-lantern.

He came up to us, all out of breath, and said, “I was just comin’ to look you guys up. Got stuff to show you. Take a look at me, will you?”

We eyed him up and down. His blue corduroy pants looked a couple of sizes too big but pretty nice looking pants. He had on a fleece-lined coat, a little worn. He unzipped it to show he was wearing what looked like a brand new flannel shirt.

“And look at these brogans,” he said, holding one foot as high as he could. “Got a lot of mileage left in ‘em.”

He asked us to follow him home. “Wanna show you what else we got for Christmas.”

We followed him across the plank leading from the shore to the houseboat deck.

Inside, an elderly lady was seated in a rocking chair by a potbellied stove, a worn book on her lap that we knew had to be the Bible.

She smiled up at us.

“Now take a look at that,” Bill said, pointing to a table where a kerosene lamp spread its yellow light. It was laden down with food — a huge ham in the center, surrounded by yams, green beans, corn, two or three pies. And over in one corner we saw a bushel basket holding potatoes, flour, sugar and several loaves of light bread.

“Church people brought all this,” Bill said.

We looked around for a tree with presents under it.

“What else did you get for Christmas, Bill?” one of us asked.

“What else! Good gosh!”

But he’d saved for last telling us about the greatest gift he was getting.

“I’m getting my daddy back,” he blurted out, his eyes all wet and shiny. “Show them the card, Grandma.”

She lifted a post card from the pages of the Bible.

“I sent Billy up to the post office yesterday and here it was, a card from his dad. He said he’s coming home and he’ll be here sometime today.”

She explained that he’d left Bill to live with her two years ago, “after Billie’s mother died of cancer.”

“We haven’t seen or heard from him since. But a man here in the village, who works on the river boats off and on, said he was working on a towboat on the lower part of the river.”

Shantyboat was beside himself with joy. I thought he was going to break into a little dance.

“It’s an answer to prayer, just like them folks from the church said. After I found out there wasn’t no Santa Claus, I began to have my doubts about this Jesus that Grandma was always telling me about. But not anymore! He brought us all this stuff, and he’s bringing my daddy home. What a wunerful Christmas!”

Billy face literally shone with happiness and thankfulness.

“You fellows do know this is Jesus’ birthday?” he asked.

After a little hesitation, Hobo said, “Well …uh, yal. Yal, we know that. We go to Sunday school, you know.”

After that exchange, we backed out of there as fast as we could.

As we started up the bank for home, we heard a steamboat whistle. We looked out on the river and saw a paddlewheeler with a string of barges. It was stopped not more than a hundred yards straight out from the houseboat. Her 30-foot paddlewheel was turning just fast enough to hold her steady in the current.

A skiff was put into the water. There were two men in it, one rowing and the other standing up in front. He was waving both arms as the rowboat headed straight in toward the houseboat.

And Shantyboat Bill was on the front porch of the houseboat, jumping up and down and waving back to the man standing in the front of the boat.

The events of that Christmas Day burned themselves into our memories as we headed home to take a second look at the gifts of Christmas.

G. Sam Piatt

PDT Columnist

This column was originally published Dec. 24, 1975. Reach G. SAM PIATT at [email protected] or (606) 932-3619.

This column was originally published Dec. 24, 1975. Reach G. SAM PIATT at [email protected] or (606) 932-3619.