A Chapel Hill Christmas, 1956


“There’s nothing I can do about it, Lula.  I’ve got the least seniority on the force, everyone wants off on Christmas Eve, and there have to be at least a minimum of 5 guys in cars and out on the streets.  I’m lucky actually, some of the others got their duty tomorrow, on Christmas.”

“Just great…just absolutely great.  You know Dean has the play tonight.  He’s all revved-up,  I got to get him over to church by myself, make sure he gets into that costume, and you know darn well it’s you he really wants to see in the audience.  I know you can’t help it, but this just stinks.  You just couldn’t be happy at the hardware, you wanted what did you say…some respect?  Well I haven’t seen any respect yet, and this is just more of the crapola they’ve been giving you ever since…ah forget it.  Get out a here.”

Dean, 2012

That’s a reasonable facsimile of the argument as I remember it, but I was just 6 years old at the time, so it’s a little foggy.  I watched as mom followed dad out to the front door.  There were some muffled words spoken, and then the door closed quietly.

Stan, 1956

 I did really want to see that play, I hated missing Dean’s big night, but things wouldn’t always be like this, I thought.  Next year I won’t be the rookie anymore.  I checked in at the station at 6:00 pm, got my orders and headed out to the lot.  Damn it was cold.  I hadn’t felt bone-chilling cold like this in Chapel Hill since I was a kid back in grade school.  I climbed into the ’53 black and white, worst car in the pool, praying that the heater worked.

I’d been assigned to the downtown grid, just patrolling.  “Eyes and ears fellas, eyes and ears,” the Captain had said.  The heater did work, hallelujah!  Streets empty, the stores all closed, it was a tough night to try to stay focused.  I needed coffee.  The truck stop out on 54 would be open.

Back in town I decided to park along Rosemary Street for a while, have a cigarette and enjoy the coffee.  It was around 8:30, and traffic was picking up as families headed home from church.  Dean would be on his way home too.  Wish I could have gotten him something special this year.  What the…a car  passed right in front of me on Kinston and hadn’t stopped at the light.  I could see the driver, smiling happily, even making arm motions, his head turned toward his wife.  I could just see the head of a child in the back seat, a small boy.

I pulled away from the curb, turned north onto Kinston and was accelerating when the car suddenly slowed and turned into a driveway.  I pulled up in front of the house just as the three passed into the house and closed the door.  I don’t know why, but I didn’t get out right away.  I looked toward the modest house and could see the family through the front window, removing coats.  The Christmas tree lights went on as they settled in.

After a few minutes I got out of the car and headed up the walk.  The doorbell first, the door opening and I still didn’t know exactly what I was going to say.  Standing in the door then was a face I knew, it was Horace Sutter.  He did odd jobs for folks around town and on weekends sold carved animals at the farmers market.  Horace had been a star running back for East End and I’d actually played a game or two against him.  The boy came up quietly behind his dad, put his arm around his dad’s leg and looked up at me.
“Oh, it’s you Horace, ah…could you step outside for just a minute.”

After the door had closed, I could see the youngster had slid over to the window to watch us.  I made up my mind.
“Don’t know if you recognize me, Horace, but I’m Stan Poythrus.”
A bit nonplussed yet, he stammered, “Used to work in the hardware, din’t ya?

“That’s right… ah you don’t have the foggiest why I’m here do you?  Well I was down on Rosemary and couldn’t believe my eyes when your vehicle just cruised right through that red light as if it wasn’t even there.  You weren’t paying one lick of attention to what you were doing.  So we got us a situation.  I asked you to come out here cuz, well, I got a kid too, about the same age as yours.  I hope he looks up to me, as I can see your kid looks up to you.  I got a suggestion as to how we can handle this.”

Horace looked a question.

“Horace, you coulda killed someone back there, but it’s Christmas Eve for cryin’ out loud.  I don’t want to embarrass you in front of your wife and son, and I don’t wanna give you a ticket, but you gotta be more careful.  What I’m suggestin’ is you give me your  word  that you won’t let somethin’ like that happen again.”

As Horace looked at me the tension went out of his face. 
“You got my word, Stan.  I won’t forget this.  Is there anything else I can do?”
“There’s nothin’, Horace, wouldn’t be right anyway.  Merry Christmas.”

He offered his hand, and I took it, and I walked back to the car.

Dean, 2012

Dad hadn’t gotten in until sometime during the night, and I remember that he and mom were still in bed when the doorbell rang.  I’d been up early shaking the presents under the tree.  I went to the door, but saw no one out there.  But there was a card board box sitting there on the stoop.  Mom had heard the bell, and slid up behind me.
“Who was it, Dean?”
“I don’t know, mom, but there’s a box out there.”

The carved and painted horse that came out of that box has been a prized possession all my life.  I assume my dad had something to do with its showing-up like that, on our stoop, on Christmas morning, but he never explained it.  As I look back now, in the 62nd year of my life, I think of my dad, that Christmas and how wonderful a little mystery can be.

The story above has some element of truth in it, but is largely fiction.

Happy Holidays loyal readers.  May you and yours enjoy the special joy and mystery of this time of year.  Thanks for reading.


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