Sporting Life

The Champion Holiday

Memories that stretch across the seasons

By Tom Bryant

The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree is the
presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.
— Burton Hills

As a youngster, holidays played a huge part in my life. It seemed, in those early pre-teen years, I was always in a dither, wanting to move time forward to celebrate one special occasion or another. The biggy, of course, was summer, when we were paroled from the forced halls of learning to days of fun: swimming and fishing at the beach; camping with the Scouts on Mr. Troutman’s farm; bicycling across the wilds of Pinebluff with my loyal companion, a curly coated retriever I named Smut. The lazy days seemed to stretch on forever. It was a wonderful time, until on the horizon I saw approaching interminably, like a major storm, autumn and back to school.

But with fall and the days of regimentation in classrooms where new subjects expanded our knowledge came dove season and another good reason to be in the woods. It was a wonderful time; and as a result of my being a year older, my parents extended my borders of responsibility to let me venture into the wilds and hunt from Aberdeen to Pinebluff. It worked something like this: I would catch the bus to school, and Dad, who was the superintendent at the ice plant in Aberdeen, would carry my shotgun and Smut to work with him. After school, I would hike the couple of miles to the plant located on the railroad tracks just south of Aberdeen, do my homework in his office, grab my shotgun, whistle up Smut, who was napping under the car, and hunt the tracks back to Pinebluff. I would get home just about dark and clean what game I had harvested, which could be anything from squirrels to doves to rabbits. Mother would put the day’s catch in the freezer, and later we would have a wild game feast to rival Davy Crockett’s, or so I thought at the time.

Thanksgiving opened another whole avenue of excitement. This holiday brought with it quail season, and to add to that special event, the opening of deer season. Now, to be truthful, I didn’t hunt deer in my confined areas around Moore County. I never saw a deer or any sign that a whitetail was about. But down on my granddad’s farm in South Carolina, they were plentiful and hunted, and I was part of that great adventure.

The family would always celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter at the home place. On Thanksgiving, as soon as I was out of school for the holiday, Dad would take me down to the farm, and for a couple of days I would follow my grandfather around like a yearling puppy, asking interminable questions with the main one being, “Can I hunt this year on my own deer stand?”

Typically, my grandfather’s hunt club of about 10 or 15 members would hunt a different farm every week; and in the past, I could only accompany Granddad as a spectator. Finally, one special Thanksgiving, I was allowed to have my own deer stand, and on that day, I considered myself almost grown. I didn’t shoot a deer that season but I saw one, and it is still etched in my memory like a spectacular painting and has just grown more beautiful over the years.

Thanksgiving was a wonderful holiday, but the champion of all holidays and the one I started thinking about when the first frost whitened the broom straw fields of Pinebluff and the “bible” of toys, the Sears Roebuck catalog, arrived in the mail, was Christmas.

It was a magical occasion. What I remember most about that amazing time was the smell of newly cut cedar, wood fires, freshly baked cakes and turkeys in the oven. The excitement and anticipation of the wonderful days ahead were almost more than I could stand.

I was champion of the roost during that time and roamed far and wide in my quest for just the right Christmas greenery, which included holly with bunches of red berries and mistletoe that had to be shot down with my shotgun from the highest trees. This was quite a feat for me in those days when I would buy shotgun shells from Burney Hardware for a nickel apiece. I didn’t waste ammunition very often.

There was no one who loved Christmas more than Mom and Dad. I found out later that they would begin early in the fall to locate just the right presents for Santa to bring my sisters, brother and me. There would always be something thrilling under the tree, a shiny bicycle, a shotgun, new hunting boots or a duck hunting mackinaw. One year, the year I was working on my Boy Scout photography merit badge, Santa brought me a Kodak box camera and all the fixings to develop my own film. I made, developed and printed photos that year and still have one in our collection.

On Christmas Day, after seeing all the loot that Santa had brought, we loaded the car and headed south to the farm to celebrate with my grandparents and all the numerous uncles, aunts and cousins. A magnificent feast was prepared with roasted venison, turkey, ducks, hams and barbecue. There were all kinds of vegetables and casseroles and sweet and baked potatoes. The sideboard seemed to creak under its heavy load of pies and cakes and puddings and the most important, Grandmother’s fruitcake.

After dinner, the entire family moved to the living room, where a giant Christmas tree filled the corner, its top nearly touching the 16-foot ceiling. Presents were piled high, and particular cousins were assigned the task of passing them around. It seemed to take forever for all the presents to be opened and all the oohs and aahs to be shared before we could get back on the road to home. I mean, after all, I had a brand new bike I had to check out, and time was wasting. We needed to hurry.

Those pre-TV days were simpler, and we made the most of them. It seemed I lived outdoors more than in, and when I wasn’t creating my own adventures, I was reading about others in books such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and another one of his classics, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And truth be known, those fellows really didn’t have a leg up, as far as I was concerned. Their only advantage was they had the Mississippi River in their neighborhood. And me?  I had Manly Wade Wellman’s book, Haunts of Drowning Creek, and Drowning Creek was my big river.

Yessir, I had a grand time as a youngster, especially at Christmas.  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.

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