It is eleven days before Christmas as I write this and for the first time in several years, snow is forecast for Sawyerton Springs. The children, as one might expect, are thrilled about the possibility of an early Christmas vacation, but to the adults. . .snow is just a cold, messy version of a mild hurricane.
Miss Luna Myers has been organizing the emergency relief effort for the Grace Fellowship Baptist Church. She compiled a list of all the men who have four-wheel drive trucks and has asked that CB channel 72 remain open for stranded townsfolk.
Rick and Sue Carper have stocked the Rolling Store with all kinds of non-perishables—in addition to the batteries, blankets, and candles the bus already carries. It is obvious that no one has forgotten the Christmas Storm of 1967.
That particular year, by the day before Christmas, most of the annual events had already taken place. The wreath competition at the garden club was won for the ninth year in a row by Martha Luker. The parade had expanded its route to seven blocks which created confusion with those who did not get the message. And, of course, that was the last year that Beauman’s Pond United Methodist Church presented their Singing Tree.
The Singing Tree was a huge structure—almost fifty feet tall— which allowed the Methodist choir to stand in a tree-like shape, one on top of the other. The choir perched on platforms, sticking their heads through pine limbs that had been placed there for authenticity as they sang like live decorations.
During that year’s performance, with the entire town in attendance, Haywood Perkins fell from the third tier and almost broke his neck. The Singing Tree was history.
To this day, no one agrees on exactly why the tradition was dumped. The obvious answer is the danger factor, but there are a few people who still blame Miss Edna Thigpen and her editorial in the Sawyerton Springs Sentinel. “Is it a good idea,” she asked, “to commercialize this season even in our churches? When a man with no record of clumsiness falls from a fake tree while singing ‘Here Come Santa Claus’ as the minister of the congregation dances down the aisle dressed as the fat man himself. . .is someone trying to tell us something?” And so after a brief discussion of church leaders, the Singing Tree was dismantled for good.
For as long as anyone can remember, the people of Sawyerton Springs have attended a Christmas Eve service at the Baptist and Methodist churches. That particular year, however, on December 23, the Baptists had somehow flooded the sanctuary at Grace Fellowship. It had been blamed on faulty plumbing in the baptistery, but most Methodists smugly assumed it to be just one more piece of evidence that the Lord leaned heavily toward “sprinkling.”
Pastor Wade Ward, being a friend of my dad—the Baptist minister—invited our congregation to join his Methodist flock for a combined service. “Really, Larry,” Pastor Ward told my father, “it might be good for your people, you know, kind of give them a chance at a second opinion!” In any case, that is how we all came to be packed into the Methodist church that night.
The service itself was different from anything I had ever experienced. Not only was the building unfamiliar and “Holy, Holy, Holy” not the first song in the hymnal—it was the first time in my life that I had been to a church in which my father was not preaching.
Pastor Ward was a great guy. Always quick with a joke, he was one of the most popular men in town. He was then in his mid-thirties, good looking, with a touch of gray already in his hair. “Howbowcha!” he would say when he passed you on the street. “Fine, Pastor,” we would answer, and he’d be on his way.
I asked my mom once why everyone called Pastor Ward “Pastor” and they called my dad “Brother.” “Isn’t Dad a pastor too?” I asked.
“Yes,” Mom replied with a smile.
“And what about Pastor Ward,” I continued, “I bet he has a brother.”
“Right again,” she said.
“Then why. . .” I went on like that for about ten more minutes. My mother was a very patient woman.
Altogether the service was wonderful. We sang “O, Little Town of Bethlehem” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” Pastor Ward even asked my father to pray.
The evening was also a success for me personally. Though I was only eight years old at the time, I had already become addicted to making my friends laugh. That night, not only were my usual Baptist targets in attendance—Kevin Perkins, Lee Peyton, and the Luker boys—I had a new audience as well.
The Methodist kids, Dickie Rollins, Steve Krotzer, and the others, were helpless in my grasp. Weird noises during the sermon. . .cow sounds during “Away in a Manger”. . .everything I did worked that night. They literally laughed out loud. From the choir, their parents gave them the “wait ‘til I get you home” look as I managed my usual straight face.
The big hit of the night, in my opinion, was my version of “We Three Kings.” As the congregation sang the traditional words, I spiced it up a bit. In a voice just loud enough for my friends to hear, I sang:
We three kings of orient are
Tried to smoke a loaded cigar
It went boom and we went zoom
All through the ladies bathroom.
Dickie, Steve, and the rest of them doubled over the pews as I kept singing—looking for all the world as if I were appalled at their behavior.
As the last carol was sung, the big double doors in the back of the sanctuary were swung open. I will never forget the sight they revealed: Snow. I had never seen it before. Snow—just like on television. White, soft, and covering everything, it was, at the time, the most incredible thing I had ever seen.
No one said a word as we all stood there looking. The trees around Beauman’s Pond appeared to be covered with frosting. The cars in the parking lot all looked alike, and the road was not even visible as the snow continued to fall in great swirling sheets.
Finally, from the middle of the group crowded around the door, someone broke the silence. It was Pastor Ward. “Lord,” he said, “we are amazed!”
Not to be outdone, I suppose, my father also spoke. “Lord,” he said, “we are in awe!”
Then we heard another voice. It was Dr. Peyton. “Lord,” he said, “we are stuck!”
It was true. We were snowed in! Now, one must realize that there were only two or three inches on the ground, but to us, it might as well have been two or three feet. Snow in south Alabama is like rain in Los Angeles or grits in New York—an extremely rare occurrence.
Once when I was in the first grade, a teacher thought she saw a flurry. All the kids were packed up and sent home. “A snow storm is dangerous!” I was told. And now, here we were, everyone in town snowbound together in one building. At least we were in church— God save us all!
“I think I can make it,” Tom Henley said. “I can get help.” For a moment we stared at him. Then a voice from the back of the room asked, “Who will you call, Tom? We’re all here.”
Tom thought about that for a bit then said, “I’m going anyway. I’m not spending Christmas here,” and with that he trudged into the parking lot. At first, he couldn’t find his car. As he brushed the snow from several others, Mr. Wooley yelled to him, “Be sure to clean mine, Tom!” We all laughed.
Finally, he found his Oldsmobile, got it to crank, and after bouncing off four other vehicles, Tom returned to the safety of the church. “We’ll never get out of here,” he said. “We’re doomed.”
“Well, I might have gotten through,” Miss Luna said, “if you hadn’t knocked my truck into the ditch!”
“Next time don’t park by the ditch,” he replied.
“I wouldn’t be here at all,” Miss Luna fumed, “if you Methodists hadn’t wanted to show off your big church. We should have ignored the invitation. God flooded our sanctuary to warn us! He tried to tell us to stay home!”
“Listen here, you old lady. . .” he said as he started toward her.
“Tom!” a voice rang out. It was Pastor Ward. “None of that now. . . . Everyone, please, come back in and settle down.”
For a while we all just sat there. What would people in Minnesota do in this situation, we wondered. Charles Raymond Floyd began to cry. Maybe because he was scared or maybe because Phillip Wilson told him that Santa Claus would be skipping us this year. I was scared too. Some of the adults began to pick up the argument that Tom and Miss Luna had begun. They bickered about what to do and who got us into this mess in the first place and whether or not anybody had food we could ration. People were nervous, and they were beginning to take it out on each other.
Suddenly, everyone grew silent. Someone was singing.
“Come, they called him, pa rum pa pum pum.”
Where was that coming from? We looked at each other.
“A new born King to see, pa rum pa pum pum.”
There it was again, a tiny voice, from the corner of the church.
“Our finest gifts to bring, pa rum pa pum pum.”
We crept closer to the voice. It was so soft, yet it cut through our tension and irritability like a knife.
“To lay before the King, pa rum pa pum pum, rum pa pum pum, rum pa pum pum.”
It was Jill Perkins, Kevin’s younger sister, daughter of Haywood and Louise. In the midst of the squabbling and worry, the five-year- old had crawled under a pew and was singing her favorite Christmas carol.
As we gathered around her, Pastor Ward urged, “Keep singing, honey.” And she did.
“Come, they called him, pa rum pa pum pum.”
Soon, we all joined in. Those who didn’t know the words kept the beat with a steady
“prrum, prrum, prrum, prrum.”
It was a magical moment. People who rarely spoke to each other were smiling and holding hands. I looked at my mother—she had tears in her eyes. Over and over, we sang the song until finally it was quiet. Pastor Ward took a deep breath. “And a little child shall lead them,” he said.
“Joy to the world, the Lord is come. . .” someone sang and everyone joined in. We sang for hours that Christmas Eve, and I remember noticing after a while that it no longer seemed cold. There was a warmth in that place that night that will last a lifetime. It was a flame rekindled by a little girl who reminded us of how much we really love each other, how much we really care.
As I lay my head in my mother’s lap and drifted off to sleep, the last thing I heard was my mom and dad singing. Their voices mingled with those of other parents who were also holding their sleeping children.
“Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but our fire is so delightful. And since we’ve no place to go—let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!”
This blog post is Chapter 20 from Andy’s classic collection of short stories Return to Sawyerton Springs.
Purchase a copy before Dec. 22 and get another free!