Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Billy Bunker’s Christmas

by Reverend Jesse Halsey

Fish, fish, fish. It seemed that the season that year was interminable. Little Billy had rode out with his grandfather and younger brother day after day to see some of his more fortunate neighbors, who owned or had an interest in some merchant’s trap, come home each day with their traps loaded, but bait had been scarce and the hook and line men along shore had had very poor luck all the season through.

Billy and all his relatives and all the neighbors made their livelihood from fishing and when fish were plentiful everyone was happy. When fish do not “strike in “ at a certain section of the shore it means that as winter comes on these people face almost starvation—and Billy was going on 15. His father had died when he was but five. His mother had made a heroic effort to keep her little family of four together, but because of the lack of nutritious diet and because of the little hovel in which they lived, after a few years of struggle disease had come off master. Billy’s grandfather, a man past seventy, doubled up with rheumatism, had taken all the children to live with him. His wife, not much younger than himself, had mothered the little brood, and now that the old man at times was scarce able to do anything, Billy had become the main support of the family. Before fishing season came on in the Spring, he would work around the Mission premised helping Uncle Joe Pelley clean up. With the coming of the first fish, he and his younger brother, Harry, and the old man (if he were able) would start out “jigging” the first card. When bait became necessary for fishing, some of the neighbors who owned herring net very often provided Billy and Uncle Jim, as his grandfather was commonly known among the people, with bait.

Along in August when squib were used as bait, Billy and Harry each evening must row around two or three miles and try their hands towards capturing the curious little octopus that served as bait for the fishermen, sometimes successful, more often not during the summer of which we write, when they came home tired and discouraged.

Our days in the summer are long and when one works through from daylight to dark, he has put in at least eighteen hours. When fish were plentiful everyone was busy by sun-up and the men would be away to the fishing grounds until evening. The women and older men would then be busy all night cleaning and salting the fish, and there had been many a scene of great activity around the little hovel when the owners were so fortunate as to have an interest in a trap, but as I said, for the hook and line men it had been a hard summer. With the coming of the first ice in early November, the departure of the last trading schooner, for which Uncle Jim had held his fish, hoping for a late fall advance in price, the winter had set in. Aunt Phoebe, Billy’s step-grandmother, had been far from well all summer, and with the coming of the severe weather was confined to her bed. Along late in November she was taken to the Mission Hospital, and Billy with a team of poor old dogs began to make his trips into the country to get the winter supply of firewood. Uncle Jim, fairly well for him, had secured the paintorship of the little chapel at the munificent salary of one dollar a week.

Even on very “dirty days” Billy and Harry might be seen early each morning, (and of course at this time of the year the days were proportionately short, as they had been long in the summer), working their way up the harbor back of the Mission on their way to the woods. One day when there was a “glitter” over the trees, and every man as he went into the woods had warned his son of the danger of the axe glazing off, Billy and Harry with sound admonition as to the danger of chopping wood on a day like that by Uncle Joe, had gone into the country, and Billy, with a boy’s disregard for the instructions of his elders, had carelessly let his axe glaze off the tree and planted it solidly in his instep. The skin boots that our people use in winter, admirably adapted for the purpose of running over the snow, or use with snow-shoes, offered no protection against the sharply whetted steel. Very much frightened, Harry called to some of the men not so far distant and with their help brought Billy to the hospital. Under the skillful care of Dr. Johns, the wound had nearly healed by Christmastime, but Billy would not be allowed to go home for some time. Uncle Jim was doubled up with rheumatism. Billy had become a great favorite in the hospital with the nurses and other patients. The mail boat, you must understand, makes its last trip before Christmas, and a few of the patients who had secured their discharge, were eagerly awaiting the time to come when they should sail away to their homes in the South. But there were a number, possibly twenty, of the chronic cases that must remain all winter in the hospital, and with these bedridden sufferers, Billy had become a great favorite.

All the mission employees would be given a dinner on Christmas Eve, there would be a tree for the orphanage children, and a tree on another night just after Christmas for all the children in the harbor, but the special concern of the nurses was to give these men and women and children in the hospital a Merry Christmas, coming many of them from homes where Christmas had never been observed. Some of these children had never owned a toy or a doll. Now the supply, while not limitless, always seemed to be sufficient, thanks to the kindness of our friends, and provision had been made for every boy and girl throughout the whole district. This was the year when the “Candy Lady” had so bountifully remembered us, and Billy at that time hobbling around on a crutch, had his part in filling the thousand candy boxes that were distributed all around among our children. When questioned as to the extend of his Christmas experiences, Billy had told the head nurse that on one occasion Skipper Jim Souley, his uncle, who has recently returned from a fishing cruise to the South, had brought him and Harry a box of candy. The boy’s imagination had magnified the size of that box so that some times it appeared to have been a packing case, but when I questioned Uncle Joe as to its actual size, I found that each boy had received just a pound of hard sugar candy. Beyond this Billy knew very little of Christmas, for Billy had been born well to the North of our station, and during the hard years that followed his father’s death, he saw very little of life. He had been picked up and brought to one of our hospitals in an almost starving condition. After treatment, and more especially after receiving proper nourishment, he had gone back, as I said, to live with his grandfather. Billy’s earlier experience in the hospital had been such a pleasant one that he told the nurse that at times he was almost glad he had cut his foot, and the prospect of spending Christmas in the hospital was something that overjoyed him. Bright and early Christmas morning Billy was astir. He had been taken into the confidence of the nurses and in fact was their confederate. The tree had been planted securely in a box and trimmed outside. At six o’clock, when the day’s work began in the hospital, Billy dressed up as Father Christmas, brought the tree in to the men’s yard, where most of the bedridden patients happened to be. All the children had been brought in from the other wards and when everything was arranged Billy lit the candles. During the night a stocking had been filled and placed at the head of every bed.

Men were there fifty years old who had never seen a Christmas stocking and only three in the room had ever seen a Christmas tree lighted with real candles. Then Billy’s work began. With marvelous forethought the Doctor had made a trip to civilization late in the fall and had brought back appropriate gifts for each patient. Some times it taxed one’s ingenuity to find a thing that a man absolutely helpless might use or appreciate, but the nurses had been successful and Billy hobbling around had the satisfaction of delivering one of Santa Claus’s presents to each patient in the hospital.

About that time the parson came in and read a Christmas story from the gospel, all joined in a brief word of prayer and several carols were sung, after which breakfast was announced. Think of living in a country where potatoes are as much of a luxury and seem about as often as an orange was with us thirty years ago. Think of having a whole white potato for your Christmas breakfast! Each tray, tastily decorated, was filled with good things according to the conditions of the respective patients. A little girl, recovering from a fever, on a milk diet, had the juice of an orange. Old Bill Johnson, who constantly was complaining that something was the matter with his stomach, did justice to a tray well provisioned with the most substantial edibles that our crude larder supplied. It was a day of great happiness from morning until night, and with the departure of the sun at two o’clock in the afternoon, and the preparation for a long evening, there were many who with the experience of their first real Christmas, were so exhausted that they had no further interest. But for the number who remained in the men’s ward, the parson came and read Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and again read the old story of the first Christmas and talked a while about the “Great Christmas Gift.”

Billy Bunker, now nearly twenty, is the support of old Uncle Jim and the boys, for the grandmother never came home from the hospital. He is not only bread winner, but is also bread preparer. He has learned his lesson and is more skillful with the axe when he goes into the woods. Always a good pile of firewood is to be seen beside their back door. At every Christmastime since his memorable one at the hospital, he has provided a little tree for his younger brothers and sister, and with tinsel and decorations that he hordes from year to year.

Courtesy Jesse Halsey Manuscript Collection | Princeton Theological Seminary Libraries | Special Collections

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