This is the story about a small portion of a small boy’s life that occurred over sixty years ago. Life then was much simpler and less cluttered but never more precious. This story is being penned by this same little boy, as an adult in his Golden Years. Time has eroded some of the small details, but time will never erase the precious memories of those dear people in the story. Memories of Mom and Dad and my sister are etched in stone. Memories of Marcy, Mr. Blue, and Ft. Leonard Wood remain a part of me as well. It is my hope and desire that the readers will take from this story the realization that GOD is present in people’s lives and how GOD can lead a small boy to bring happiness into the lives of those that GOD has a concern for. Please, enjoy the story.
This story takes place in a small town in southern Missouri. The year is 1949 and the town population is around one thousand residents. The town has two grocery stores, one drugstore, one hardware store, a tavern, and a diner. There were several churches, including the Baptist Church where I attended Sunday School. It has a donut shop, which sat directly in front of our house and emitted the alluring aroma of donuts cooking all hours of the day. There was a small creek that ran through the town, and I spent many hours there knee-deep in water, involved in the Eternal Quest of capturing Crawdads. This small creek emptied into the Little Piney River which ran along the south side of town. The Little Piney flowed into the Big Piney, and they provided the locals with summer fishing and fall hunting habitat. This little town was named Newburg and is still alive today and hasn’t grown much in size. In 1949, four years after World War II ended, Newburg was made up by mostly poor folks who were trying to stay alive and just eke out a living. The economy was dependent on rural farm operations and local business stores. A railroad came through Newburg and there was a small railroad depot that was used mostly for commercial purposes. No one came into town by rail that stayed, and no one who was leaving town went by rail. The railroad offered some of the locals a few jobs, but there weren’t many. One aspect of Newburg is that it was located only about fifty miles from Fort Leonard Wood. Fort Leonard Wood was a large basic training camp for the United States Army. It housed and trained thousands of soldiers the years encompassed by World War II. Even in 1949, and into the modern era, Fort Leonard Wood was constantly filled to the max with recruits who went out to serve around the world. Many would be involved in the Korean War of 1950. It was common for the new recruits to be taken to Fort Leonard Wood by rail, and a regular stop on the way was a stop in Newburg, at the train depot. The train would stop at the station but the recruits were not allowed to disembark from the train as it was just a “Whistle Stop” and lingered only a few minutes before it was on its way again. A common sight at the train while the train was stopped was the new recruits hanging out of the windows and hollering at kids on the platform to help them. The recruits would ask the kids to go inside the depot and buy them a pack of cigarettes or a candy bar or a bottle of pop. They would hand the money to the kids, and when they got their requests they would normally give a kid a nickel or a few pennies. This was a great way for poor kids to make a few cents they would never get otherwise. I have to admit that I was one of the kids looking to make a nickel.
My name is Fred Little, and our family lived in this small community when I was eight years old. My dad was a horse trainer, and he trained horses for a doctor who owned a large stable outside of town. The small house we lived in was next to his office in town, right behind the donut shop. When I was eight, I had lost a couple of front teeth, and I had a hard time pronouncing words correctly. Most notably, when I was asked what my name was, I replied FRWEEDIE WIDDLE. This amused a lot of people, but I didn’t think it was funny. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t improve on it much.
I had a sister who was a couple of years older than I was, so she grew up trying to BOSS ME a lot, which, generally, ended in a melee, which ended in getting told on, which ended in Mom and Dad putting a stop to it. The consequences of these melees weren’t always nice and more than once I ended up with a warm bottom. Such is life when you’re eight years old. This was also a time in my life when another significant event occurred. My sister and I would go to the Saturday matinee movie at the one movie house in town. In 1949, the old Westerns and matinee idols played every Saturday. My sister’s favorite was Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. She liked his palomino horse, Trigger, and his police dog, Bullet. There was a host to choose from, most notably Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Lash La Rue, Tim Holt, and Buster Crabb. Throw in a couple of cartoons and next week’s previews and a kid had a fun day at the movies. Admission price for a ticket was a nickel and there was one- and two-cent candy to be had. My favorite cowboy was Red Ryder and his sidekick, Little Beaver. Red Ryder’s favorite cliche was “I’M A PEACEABLE MAN.” He was noted for carrying a Winchester carbine in his hand as he rode after the bad guys.
His rifle spawned an obsession with me. I saw on the back of a comic book an ad from a seed company that was enlisting kids to order a hundred packets of seeds to sell, and in return for selling the seeds, they offered kids a Red Ryder BB gun. It was a replica of the Winchester rifle and it had Red Ryder’s signature embossed on the stock. When I saw this, I knew I had to have it. I asked Mom if I could send off for the seeds to sell, and I showed her what I wanted. She saw how excited I was and decided to let me go ahead and order them. A big box of seeds came in the mail. It contained all kinds of seeds for the garden and several varieties of flower seeds. The seeds sold for ten cents a pack. Most people were used to buying their seeds from their regular store and were a little skeptical of buying from a kid who couldn’t talk plain, but the fact of seeing an eight-year-old boy on their front door with a bag of seeds who was trying to earn a gift made them relent, and most bought at least two or three packs. I knew better than to go to the poor side of town, as I had heard Mom and Dad talk about how poor those people were. There weren’t any rich sides of town, but there were a lot of houses that were kept up better than others.
It took me a couple of months to sell all of the seeds, and I could hardly wait to send the money in to get my BB gun. When I got ready to send it in, Mom noticed that on the order form for a Red Ryder BB gun, you had to send in two extra dollars. I was in shock when she told me this. Where and how could I get Two Dollars! My dream of getting the Red Ryder was in shambles. For two months I had worked to sell the seeds, and now I needed two more dollars! My allowance was ten cents a week. Mom said she didn’t have any money. I said, what about Dad? Would you ask him for me? He’ll listen to you. She said, Okay, I’ll ask him, but don’t get your hopes up. After supper she asked Dad for the two dollars and told him what happened. Dad was very impressed that I had worked two months selling all those seeds and a big priority of his was to impart onto us kids that hard work was good for you and to get by in life you needed to work hard every day. He gave Mom the money to send in for me, and I was so happy. I vowed to work hard every day and do all my chores, and extras too. (But I still get my allowance, don’t I?)
After Mom sent the money in, I watched the mail every day, expecting it to come so I could have it for my own. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. The days went by and no Red Ryder. Then one week, then two weeks, and finally, after three weeks it came. After supper, Mom told me to go in Dad’s bedroom, he had something for me. I went in, and he said, Have you been looking for something in the mail? I said, Yes, my BB gun, is it here? He reached under the bed and pulled out a box just big enough to fit a BB gun in. On the box was a picture of Red Ryder on his horse riding across the prairie with his carbine held high over his head. It was a pretty box and I held it in awe. I opened it up and took out the BB gun. There it was, shiny and brand new with a dark blue shiny barrel and side plates. It had a lacquered finished redwood stock and forearm. Red Ryder’s name was deeply ingrained into the shiny stock. I was so excited, and I know my eyes must have been as big as saucers. Two packs of BBs came tumbling out of the box, too. Then I got the word from Dad. He told me he would keep the BBs, and he wanted to help me learn how to shoot and make sure I handled it safely. Dad was a WWII veteran and he knew how to shoot and handle firearms. I got to keep the Red Ryder in my bedroom and it never left my side when I was in my room. As the days and weeks went by, Dad spent time with me after he came home from work and I quickly became adept with the gun. After a while, Dad became satisfied that I knew what I was doing, and I knew how to handle it safely, so he turned me loose on my own with it. The one thing he impressed, Over and Over and Over, is that you never point a gun at anyone. This commandment stayed with me throughout life.
My next big concern, after I got the Red Ryder and I was allowed to go out and shoot it, was having BBs to shoot. I could go through a pack of BBs in no time, and they cost a nickel a pack. I bought them at Blue’s Hardware Store every week when I got my allowance. I got a dime a week, and I spent one nickel for the movie and one nickel for a pack of BBs. I was always short on BBs. and so I got to be very skimpy with them. I remember one week I ran out of BBs, and it was several days until I got my allowance. I remember being in the hardware store looking around when one of the customers brought an item to the counter where Mr. Blue was standing. I overheard him ask Mr. Blue if he could charge the money until payday. Mr. Blue said that would be fine, just sign for the item and pay for it later. After I heard this, it got me to thinking that maybe Mr. Blue would allow me to charge a pack of BBs and pay for them when I got my allowance. So I went up and asked Mr. Blue if he would allow me to get a pack of BBs and charge them and pay for them when I got my allowance. He looked surprised and said, Do your folks know about this? I said, No, I heard that other guy charge something, and he said he would pay you on payday, and I can do the same thing with my allowance if you’ll let me. I’m out of BBs, and I can’t get any until this weekend when Dad gives me my allowance. He said, Normally I wouldn’t allow kids to charge things because they might get in trouble with Mom and Dad, but you’re one of my best customers, and I know you’ll pay me back so I’m going to let you charge a pack of BBs. I took the BBs and said thanks and hurried home to load up my rifle.
Mr. Blue’s wife was my Sunday School teacher, and she helped me to understand the Bible and taught me that Jesus loved me and that I should love Jesus. I came to understand about Jesus and his love and how HE died to save my soul, and I came to love Jesus and give my heart to Jesus. I proclaimed my faith in church and was baptized by our preacher. I remember standing waist-deep in the baptismal pool next to the preacher. Before he lowered me into the water, he asked me if I knew what I was doing. I said, Yes. I’m giving my heart to Jesus. Then he lowered me under the water and I bounced up and down when he raised me up. Looking back at that experience and how I came to be born into God’s family, it makes sense in the Bible where Jesus said, “THAT UNLESS YOU BELIEVE WITH THE FAITH OF A CHILD YOU CANNOT ENTER THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.” That childlike faith has been with me ever since that moment and remains with me yet today. Unfortunately, I haven’t been as true and faithful as Jesus’s love for me has been, but I know God has forgiven my sins upon my confession and sorrow for them.
So now here it was only a week before Christmas, and everyone was in the Christmas Spirit. My sister and I had written our letters to Santa Claus and asked him for a present. Mom had told us not to ask for too much as there were a lot of kids on Santa’s list, and he only had so much to go around. My sister and I learned early in life what it was like to be poor, and we accepted what we had and what we didn’t have and never gave it much thought. We never thought we went without, and we were happy with whatever we had. We developed a deep appreciation for what we had in life and never took for granted anything we had, nor did we envy other kids who had more. We were happy, and we had a purpose behind everything we did. We were taught that hard work was essential in life, you never lie, and you never hurt people. Up to the time my parents passed away, I never knew either of them to lie to anyone about anything. They were honest to a fault and expected the same thing from us kids.
But now it was Christmastime, and I asked Santa in my letter to give me a pair of Army boots, the same kind the soldiers wore when they got off the train on their way to a new assignment after leaving Fort Leonard Wood. I was mesmerized by those shiny boots, and they made the soldiers stand tall and proud. I looked up to them and all of them treated us kids nice at the train station. I wanted a pair of those boots to wear while I was out with my Red Ryder BB gun, and I supposed it made me feel I was on patrol helping the soldiers in some way. Who knows how an eight-year-old kid thinks about such matters? Mom had told us that after we write our letter to Santa and she reads it (to make sure we spelled everything correctly), we were to then throw them into the stove and burn them up. That way the smoke from the letters went up the chimney and out into the sky, and Santa could read each letter as it was sent out this way. It sounded strange to write a letter and then burn it up, but if it worked that was the main thing.
We hadn’t gotten our Christmas tree yet, and I was so ready for Christmas that I got to thinking maybe I could do something to help Mom and Dad this year. The idea hit me that this year I would go out and find a Christmas tree and cut it down and bring it home and surprise Mom and Dad. We had a hatchet that Dad used to cut kindling with, and so I got that. I got some rope to tie the tree down with, and started off to the edge of town, pulling my wagon behind me. I had seen some trees up on a hillside out in the middle of nowhere. I had passed this way several times when I was out selling seeds. I remember one tree, particularly, that stuck in my mind as being a good one. I set out in search of it and after about an hour of looking around, I saw it all by itself. I looked it over and it looked great to me. I walked around it and I saw it had a bare spot on one side of it, but I figured we could cover that up and turn it to the wall where it wouldn’t be noticed. It also had a few branches missing but that would be OK when you got it decorated. I saw a perfect tree, and I knew Mom and Dad would be pleased when they saw it. I got busy with my hatchet and cut it off at ground level. I pulled it on my wagon and took the rope and cinched it on the wagon so it wouldn’t fall off. Then I started home, pulling the tree behind me. It got to be a lot of work as the ground was rocky and had holes in it. I twisted and pulled until I got it out on the road and then things went a lot faster. People who passed me in their cars honked at me and waved and I could see them smiling. I knew they wished they had a tree like this one. When I finally got it home, I pulled the wagon around the side of the house so no one could see it without me. Mom and Dad had gone to the store, so I waited for them in the house.
When they got home, I told them I had something to show them. I took them outside and around the house and said, look, I GOT OUR CHRISTMAS TREE THIS YEAR! The tree was still tied on the wagon, and it looked a little wilted after being cut down and hauled around. Mom and Dad looked at the tree and were at a loss for words. Mom said that I had done a lot of work, and Dad said that I had done a good job, but he wasn’t sure if this was the kind of tree we could use for a Christmas tree. Mom said she wanted a long-needled pine, and she wasn’t sure what kind this was. All the air was lost from my enthusiasm, and all I could do was say, Well, if it won’t work, what am I going to do with it? Dad said, Just leave it on your wagon and pull it over to the west side dump, where people throw their garbage. You know where that is, don’t you? I said, yes, I had been with Dad but I never went there when I was selling seeds. I couldn’t believe I had to take it to the dump! It was the poorest part of town, and there were a lot of shacks and poor people who lived there. I said, OK I’ll get rid of it, but I think it’s a good tree.
So I took off again, pulling the wagon and tree, and it took a while to get to the west side, and when I got there the shacks were all in a row and there were a lot of odds and ends lying around. My way of looking at Christmas trees was different from Mom and Dad’s. I was about a block away from the dump when I heard a voice call out to me. It was a girl’s voice and she said, “Hi, Freddie, where are you going with that tree?” I looked around, and saw it was a girl in my class by the name of Marcy. She was one of the really poor kids in school, and she lived over in this area somewhere. She wore dresses that were always faded and sewn in patches. Her shoes were hand-me-downs that looked too big for her and were mostly worn-out. Her coat was missing a pocket and the collar was just hanging on. We were poor but Marcy was real poor, and I felt sorry for her. She was smart in school and always knew the answers when the teacher would ask a question. She was always nice to me, but I hung out with a couple of other boys that I did things with, like hunt for crawdads and look for special-colored rocks. Real important things like playing cowboys and Indians and Mumblepeg. Marcy didn’t appear to have many friends. She stayed mostly by herself and walked home from school every day by herself.
She wanted to know where I was going with my tree, and I told her the story about cutting it down, but that Mom and Dad wanted a different kind, so I had to take it to the dump. She said, if you’re going to throw it away, can I have it? We’ve never had a Christmas tree before, and if I had one, I’d sure put it up. I think it looks like a very nice tree. I said Sure, you can have it. Do you think your folks will mind? She said, No, they won’t care. I said, Show me the way to your house and where you want it and it’s yours. I could see she was so happy. She started singing, A Christmas Tree, a Christmas Tree, I’m going to get a Christmas Tree. She showed me her house, and it was like the other shacks on the street. It was rundown and faded. There were loose boards on the side of the house. Some of the shingles were missing from the roof. She said, Can you help me get it inside the house and set it up? She said, Mom and Dad aren’t home, and I can’t wait to see it inside the house. She said, this will be my first Christmas tree. I asked her if she had an old bucket of some kind to set it in, and we’d fill it with dirt and set the tree down in the bucket and dirt and it would stand up. She disappeared around the back of the house and came back carrying an old bucket. We pulled the tree inside the house and set it down in the bucket and then carried dirt in and filled the bucket while one of us held the tree straight. After we got it set up, Marcy was so happy. She kept saying, thank you, thank you. I can’t believe I got a Christmas tree. I asked her if she had anything to put on it for ornaments, and she said no. She said, I can cut out some paper ornaments and color them with my crayons and hang them on the tree. I said, Mom told us about what she did when she was a kid. She said that they took popcorn and threaded it on a piece of long thread with a needle and then they would hang it around the tree. Marcy said, we don’t have any popcorn, but I can cut out some paper ornaments. I told her to go ahead, it would work. I said, I’ll go home and check with Mom and see if she has any old ornaments she doesn’t use anymore. Marcy was so happy she kept saying, Thank you for your tree, it’s the best tree in the world.