Lump of Coal – A Christmas Story

I Remember Christmas past this night. There were particular traditions in my youth with my family. On the 22nd of December there would be a small subdued celebration with my grandparents Armstrong, or Gampa and Gramma A as we use to say. Grampa and Gramma were snow birds and on their way south for the winter. To that Mecca of seasoned citzenhood called Florida and they would stop on there way to see my many Cousins down around Columbus and Cincinnati. We would wait up, it was in my years before becoming a fullblown teen, on Christmas eve for Mom to come home. She worked in a hospital as a pedatritics nurse in those years back when my brothers and I were part of the church’s boy’s choir. We needed to be at the church early to carol before the beginning of midnight mass. It was always a short night and the day following, Christmas, we would all find our way to grandpa and grandma Zeirolf’s, or Grandpa asnd Gramma Z’s for a christmas day feed.
Grandpa and Gramma were practical people so the gift was always a big box full of clothes for good. That’s how mom would say it, those clothes are “For Good.” Translation, for Church, School, Weddings and Funerals.
Grandpa would have spend some days before christmas making Peanut Brittle from an old receipe that had followed him from the farm so many decades ago. I don’t remember much about the process except for the part that involved a hammer. The old man literatally glowed when he said the words “Hard Tack” or “Peanut Brittle”. I can almost hear his voice in my ear now. He also spend some time with Gramma’s quiet ever patient assistance making Bourbon Balls. It is my belief to this day that Gramma, who did practically all of the cooking and baking was more than capable of this task but there always seemed to be some quiet dispute about the amount of liqour required. I am under the impression grandfather won as I can see Gramma right this instant with her fists planted on her hips, head tipped ever so slightly, lips bordering on a pucker as grandfather zestily poured more and more booze into the batch. At some point he would accuse her of useing too many eggs or milk or in some other way sabotagin’ the batch at which point gramma were softly buzz her lips, very close to a soft razzberry and join every one else in the living room. This series of events played out every year until my first year in college and to this day, in both grandpa and gramma defense I must add that outside of the two items mentioned and grinding horseradish, which is an experience in its self, grandfather only went in to the kitchen to ckeck his pyramid or to eat.
Gramma had undertook the herculean task of baking the weeks before creating cookies of everykind. Chocolate chip, peanut butter, sugar cookies shaped like stars and wreathes and a few sparse Santa’s, date bars, date nut wheels which to this day I have yet to reproduce successfully, Buckeyes, Gingersnaps, coconut cookies, snow balls, candy canes in red and white, anise and hazel nut and at this moment I can feel my stomach’s yearning. In my limited experience to date I have yet to encounter anything like those now ancient christmas cookies past. It seemes to be something more of legend than reality.
The house would settle by afternoon the heavy aroma of Kraut filling the air. It was Sourkraut and porkribs with thick knockwursts and hot dogs for those with weak hearts, pepperred with caraway and chunks of sour apples.  As far as Grandpa was concerned it was kraut for every major holiday except thanksgiving. Early yet on a very short day Gandpa would always gave his inspirational message for the new year. Ussually he would ask if myself and my brothers had been Good, always with a very thoughtful eyeing each of us like a skilled card player gauging his mark, to see if any tell might manifest, after which he concluded that we had been good, thou there was always room for improvement, he would announce “You’d better stay off the ball and on the stick and keep it that way.” With a “Little additional effort we could improve,” but, he would always pause and in his deepest and most menacing grandfather type voice he would continue, “Because if your bad you’ll get a lump of Coal!” This ussually brought sounds of disbelief and laughter followed by soft accusations of his veracity to which he would reliably reply, “You better believe it…It happened to me once!”

Grandpa held the tin, full of sticky Bourbon balls securly in his right hand, shaking it like a great rattle.  The heavily liqoured confections bounced within the tin as the old man looked over to my father, the other old man.  It was a long speculative look with a subtle air of question.  Dad would nod sticking his big hand into the tin to seize some of the alcoholic goodies.  The liquid booze wouldn’t enter the world until after dinner.  We all had some curiousity about those sugary confections.  Where they delightful to taste or exotic in their effect I would often wonder.  Judging from the hand full my father would pull from the can they must have been something truly magnificant.  Grandpa’s warning of the lump of coal would always simply end without elboration, that is, until my thirteenth Christmas.

I had started my freshman year in highschool the fall before and had been offered the oppurtunity to join the men’s choir at that time.  Choir was not the kind of thing I wanted to make a lifetime practice of, I thought ,and I declined.  Dad was siting, eyes bright and mood all around good, munching on his handful of alcoholic christmas tradition as Grandpa worked through his assessment of how good we had been that year ending with the haunted hollow warning of “The lump of Coal,” much like the ghost from christmases long past.  But this year there was a change, mundane as it may be on this holiday today, that night long ago it seemed dramatic.  First he thrust the tin of liqoured candies at each of the three of us one at a time.  Both of my brother’s wrinkled their noses, pursed their lips at the strong odor and shook their heads “NO!”  I took a few minutes longer eyeing the contents, the scent was strong enough to stand up on its own.  I wanted to try one of these things but I was having some indecision carefully looking for the smallest one I could find.  Grandpa shook the tin noisily.  To this day I believe that this action, the shaking of the tin, served the purpose of keeping life interesting.  Out of fear of appearing wimpy I grabbed one.  It was so sticky as to edge up on syrupy.  For at the moment I had found myself doubting my choice thrust apon the ridge of uncertainity.

My mother would clear her throat nervously hissing at her fasther.  “It won’t hurt them any,” Grandfather would assert in his own defense.

Grandpa hesistated making noises, a combination of thoughtful growls and grimaces indicating he was about to tell a story which was a rare thing indeed.  I was immersed in the challenge of the bourbon ball.  My Family always had one simple rule at the table, for any meal, if you weren’t going to eat it then don’t take it.  If you chose to fill your plate then finish it all.  The family was thick with farmers and wasting food was a big NO-NO.  What you don’t eat today will be made into something else tomorrow.

It was in the Summer, grandfather stated, when he was the same age as myself, thirteen.  There was a big reason why my brother’s and I had series doubt that grandpa had ever gotten a lump of coal because he had been distilling moonshine, his two eldest sisters, business partners as it were, had been running it all over west central ohio since he stood at the ripe old age of eleven.  If that didn’t get you a lump of coal what short of murder would?  It was the Prohibition after all.

It was the Summer, Granfather repeated, before the early havests started. That Summer he had been engaged in mortal combat with a young mustang stallion.  Great Grandfather had bought or traded for the horse and grandpa would get that far distant look like remembering a place so different than this very day that it could cause one to doubt that it was ever real.  It was a beautiful horse, prefect, fast, strong, smart with coal black fur.  Spirited Grandpa would say.  You couldn’t get it to take the saddle and it wouldn’t stay in the corral.  This horse roamed freely around the twelve hundred acre farm.  The old man, then a boy no older then myself saw this as a challenge.  After some thought and when there was available time from the massive chore work load as the farm was without mechanization of any sort, he put his plan into action.

There was a large orchard on the property, diverse in the fruit and nut trees that lived there, though most were apple, cherry and walnut. Remember Walnut, it is important later in the story.  So he found himself a tree that in his estimation, his word not mine, was high enough so that the horse could easily pass under and enough leaves to hide his presence from the ever alert mustang.  It would only be a matter of hours before the beautiful black horse would calmly wander under grandfather securely hidden in the tree.  The trap would then be sprung and he would drop out of the tree an onto the horse’s back.  The Mustang did what mustangs do, he took off like a shot not bucking like you would imagine but at a dead on run.  Grandfather hung on sans saddle and lacking bridal certain he had the horse right where he wanted him, Again grandfather’s words.  His face took a child like glow smiling to the point of laughter. The Mustang, it seemed was far smarter than grandfather had first thought.  Rather than running wildly around the 1200 acre farm the horse stayed in the orchard covering the ground at an unnatural speed until he found a low hanging branch on a cherry tree of just the right height.  Continuing the pace the black mustang took the farm boy under the tree, the branch sweeping the rider from its back and tossing him into a painful heap on the ground.

“I’ll be Damned if it didn’t happen,” Grandfather stated, a religious man, he rarily swore and such a statement was serious.  Yet he was laughing nearly to the point of tears.

“That Damn horse was standing not twenty feet away looking at me like I was some sort of a dummy, its head bouncing up and down snorting as though it were laughing at me,” he finnished now laughing so hard it would be minutes before the story would continue.  I, on the other hand still held the bourbon ball.  Feeling that this was as good of a time as any it took a half bite.  Compared to the men in the room it was a nibble.  I can’t describe the flavor.  It was terrible, much like I’d imagined the combination of brimstone and paint thinner.  My face must of had a most intense expression as Gramma offered to get rid of the rest for me.  Gramma was always there when life presented such seasonal difficulties.  We had completed the hidden hand off before grandfsather continued the story.

It would seem that the mustang and my thirteen year old grandfasther were as they say…”ON”.  Thus when ever Granpa had the time the battle would repeat.  He would drop from a tree, never the same tree.  The Mustang would dislodge him with a low hanging branch, rarily the same branch.  Of course this is only half the story.  The other half starts when a couple of boys form a nearby farm, (translate two miles down the road) actually witnesed an episode from this epic battle of wills.  One in particular by the name of Cleophis found the entire episode so entertaining as to edge to the brink of ridicule.  No one really knows how often Cleophis witnessed the spectacle but at one point he decided it would be even funnier it they set up an ambush.  As the story goes it was Cleophis and another boy who remains to this day unnamed, probably still in the witness protection program, who happened to be present on one occasion as the mustang again swept grandpa from its back.

This time though, they had equiped themselves with an arm load of green walnuts.  The branch took granfather of the horse’s back, he hit the ground hard probably resulting in a less then agreeable mood.  When he finally got back onto his feet and the ambush was sprung.  Cleophis and his companion started to unload the green walnuts like the german’s at Omaha beach.  Grandpa was surprized, at the very least, as a walnut impacted, I say impacted because these were farm boys that worked the field before tractors were available, they were extremely strong, so it was a hard blow to the side of his head.   Thank goodness Grandfather possessed a hard head.   Now grandfather was pretty quick on his mental feet and reacted instantly.

“I ran off towards the barn screaming bloody murder, like I might die at any minute,” I remember him smiling as he described this, “I was hoping they’d follow to finish me off.  So when I gets in the barn I find a two by four and hide just inside the door.”

I always imagine it as a chunk of wood a few feet long, he wasn’t specific.

“When Cleophis stuck his head inside the barn door to see where I was…Well…I hit him.” Grandfather spread his arms appart, “BANG…I put everything I had into it.”

Apparently they had to call a doctor.  You know how the story ends I guess.  That Chriustmas Grandpa didn’t get a new clean shirt or a freash orange like usual.  Instead it was a lonely lump of coal in the bottom of his stocking and now you know why.  I think Cleophis survived the ordeal only slightly worse for wear.  And The Black Mustang…Well I don’t believe they ever did get that animal to take a saddle.

Just keep that lump of coal in mind, before things really get crazy.

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