Christmas Bells in Midway

Stephens Street, one of the longest avenues in Midway, Kentucky, was originally spelled Stephen’s Street—belonging to Stephen. It was named for Stephen A. Douglas, the Illinois politician who famously tangled with Abraham Lincoln in a series of debates when the two men vied for a U.S. Senate seat in 1858.

That’s what Grampa Floyd told me. And he had more details about Mr. Douglas.

“Stephen A. was in cahoots with Henry Clay. Those fellers worked up the Compromise of 1850,” Grampa Floyd told me. “Henry Clay lived in Lexington, but the two of ’em took the train to Midway so as to avoid being seen together. Tempers were running high in those days—slavery was a hot topic.”

But that wasn’t the only time Douglas was in Midway, according to Grampa Floyd. He told me that Lincoln himself also came to Midway. Abe’s wife was from Lexington—her father and Henry Clay were friends—and there was one time, when Lincoln and Douglas were both in Kentucky, they agreed to hold another debate … in Midway.

 Grampa Floyd wasn’t clear on the date, but he was certain the two famous statesmen arrived in Midway by rail and met at the home of L.L. Pinkerton, a house on the corner of current-day Stephens and Winter streets.

“Little known fact,” Grampa Floyd said to me, “What we call Winter Street today was named Lincoln Street, so that Midway’s two main streets were named after the two debaters, see, and the two streets crossed where the two men met.”

In telling the story, an energized Grampa Floyd had raised up in his bed—almost to a sitting position when he got to the part I just told you—and then he collapsed back onto his pillow, exhausted by the memory.

“Not everybody in Midway liked Lincoln, you understand. Some of ’em thought the government shouldn’t be saying who could or couldn’t own slaves,” Grampa said, whispering with exhaustion. “Enough of ’em were on the city council, and they made the city change the name of Lincoln Street. “

“How’d they come up with Winter Street, then?” I asked.

“It was January,” Grampa Floyd said. Then he fell asleep.

I stood there in Grampa’s bedroom, looking at a man I barely knew. I had been in Midway only a few hours and already had serious doubts about coming, especially so close to Christmas. I had heard from a cousin that Grampa was doing poorly and living alone, so I drove up from my home in Cleveland, Tennessee, to see if I could help.

Why now—after all these years? And why leave my family three days before Christmas? I wasn’t sure.

I hadn’t seen my grandfather since I was a kid—maybe forty years ago. My family—Mom, Dad, Eloise, and me—had stopped by Midway on our way to vacation in Michigan, coming up from Chattanooga. It was early June in Kentucky, and already it felt like hot August.

Grampa Floyd was glad to see us that day, I think. Surprised, for sure. I don’t think my mother had kept in touch very well through the years … I guess not at all, really. And she hadn’t told him we were going to visit. Maybe she even was hoping he’d be away from home when we drove into town.

I honestly don’t know what Mom’s deal was with her dad and stepmom. Sometimes family secrets involve mistresses or shady dealings, and sometimes they’re darker things. I always had a feeling a dark truth laid at the bottom of Mom’s growing up days in Midway, and she hardly ever talked about it—like never.

Grampa Floyd’s wife, my mom’s stepmother, had died a few years before that June day we were in Midway. Maybe her passing cleared the air enough for Mom to visit, but it sure wasn’t a warm and huggy reunion. We stood at the door for a full two minutes—with Mom explaining to Grampa Floyd why we dropped in on him—before he finally thought to invite us in.

The day was sunshiny, but Grampa’s house was mighty dark inside. The TV was on, and there was a lot of stuff in that front room. Grampa Floyd had to clear off the couch and two chairs for us to sit down, removing piles of books, mail, laundry, and dishes.

It was a really awkward hour or so we spent there in Grampa’s house. He was polite and asked Mom and dad about work, and me and Eloise about school. He told us about his life in Midway: He was still a few years away from retiring from Midway College, he went to church at least twice a year, and he ate at The Depot restaurant at least once a week.

That was in 1980, and I didn’t see him again until this week. I was thirteen then, now I’m fifty-five, just a year or two younger than Grampa Floyd was when we stopped by all that time ago. I know that sounds awful, me not seeing him for so long.

Families can take weird turns, but time can bend an even odder path.

In the years after that trip to Michigan, Mom would call Grampa Floyd on his birthday—July seventh, if I remember right—and usually on Christmas Eve. She sent him announcements and pictures when Eloise and I graduated, and newspaper clippings about my minor sports accomplishments and Eloise’s big scholarship to Georgia Tech. And she sent him a copy of Dad’s obituary. But he never visited us in Chattanooga, and we never passed through Midway again.

Cousin Myrna did, though—a couple of weeks ago—and she called me when she got home to say that Grampa Floyd was in his final days, and it sure would be nice if somebody from the family could be there to help him out.

I wasn’t eager to go. As I have told you, the man was a virtual stranger, and the prospect of sleeping on Grampa’s couch and taking care of him and his who-knows-what bodily functions led me to give Myrna a firm “maybe.”

But hell, I was taking time off during the holidays, anyway, and Beverly gave me the green light. Our two daughters were home from college, and Bev said the three of them would do some Christmas shopping and decorating while I was away. So I drove to Midway.

And let me tell you: It wasn’t like Grampa Floyd welcomed me with open arms. 

At first, he complained about nobody in our family coming to visit him. He told me he’d had two heart transplants, brain stem surgery, and an exorcism, and “not one dang time” did any of us have the courtesy to visit or call—or even send a card.

I couldn’t argue with him about my family’s lack of attention, and even if he was as much at fault as we were, I didn’t want to get snippy with a dying man. Besides, I was momentarily stunned by the number and severity of physical ailments he had overcome. It sounds silly to say I believed him about all that, but I had basically just met the man. I didn’t know he was prone to exaggeration.

Like, super-prone.

After Grampa Floyd woke back up and I convinced him that it made sense for me to stay with him for a few days, I offered to get us some lunch. He told me about a place called Wallace Station that had good sandwiches. I used my phone to find the menu, and Grandpa told me he wanted a catfish sandwich.

“They named that restaurant after me, you know,” Grampa said as I was heading out the front door, which he could see from his bedroom. His house was pretty small.

I paused, thinking about his name: Floyd McCarthy. Was his middle name Wallace? I didn’t even know.

“Is your middle name Wallace?” I asked.

“No, it’s Gash,” he said. “I’m related to the Gashes over in Anderson County.” He picked up a magazine from a stack on the table by his bed and flipped the pages slowly.

You know, when somebody you know pretty well says something odd, you can call bullshit on ’em. But when it’s somebody you don’t really know—and you’re still in the extra-polite phase—it’s more of a challenge.

“I’m not sure I follow you, Grampa Floyd,” I said, with one hand still on the doorknob.

“They was gonna call it Gash Station, but they figured it would confuse people passing through town and looking for a fill-up,” he said, not looking up from the magazine. “I heard they just picked ‘Wallace’ out of the phone book.”

“Oh,” I said. “That’s pretty neat. I’ll be back soon.”

If this conversation had taken place a few hours later—after I knew more about Grampa Floyd’s adventures with truth—I would have been more circumspect during my visit to Wallace Station. As it was, though, after I ordered sandwiches from a teenager at the cash register, I introduced myself as the grandson of Floyd McCarthy, the man who was almost the namesake of the place.

The kid looked at a girl beside him who was boxing up another to-go order; she had stopped boxing when I shared why Grampa’s middle name was rejected.

The boy spoke slowly. “It’s called Wallace Station because this area was called Wallace and this building was the train station.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well, maybe my grandfather got mixed up. He’s pretty old, you know.”

The boy just nodded. The girl went back to boxing.

I heard a chair scoot behind me, and an old man ambled over to me. Not as old as Grampa Floyd, but older than me.

“I’m Avery Jackson,” he said, grabbing my hand to shake it. “Did I hear you say you’re Whopper’s grandson?”

Here I was again, fielding a screwy comment from a stranger. “I’m Jay Bellows. My grandfather is Floyd McCarthy,” I said.

“Yeah, I know Floyd,” Mr. Jackson said. “Known him all my life. We call him Whopper. It’s not because he’s a fan of Burger King, either. It’s because of the tall tales he tells. Some of ’em sure are whoppers. Most of ’em, really.”

I told Mr. Jackson it was good to meet him, and I grabbed the bag of food and headed out the door. I sat in my truck for a minute, embarrassed for repeating Grampa’s version of Wallace Station history and thinking about what Avery Jackson said. When I got back to my grandfather’s modest house on Stephens Street, I chose not to bring up my conversation with the restaurant staff or with Avery.

Grampa nibbled at his catfish and asked me to save the rest for later. I re-wrapped most of his sandwich and half of mine—country ham and pimiento cheese—and asked him if he needed anything else. He told me he wouldn’t mind having a chocolate milkshake from the drugstore.

“Is it on that street beside the railroad track?” I asked. When I had first driven into town off the interstate, I had seen a string of shops and restaurants lining the two one-way streets on both sides of the track.

“It’s in the middle of the street that runs on the high side of the tracks,” Grampa said. “It’s funny about that street. Some people were calling it Main Street and others called it Railroad Street, so years ago the city council decided it would be Main Street on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and Railroad Street on Tuesday, Thursday, and over the weekend. What day is today?”

“It’s Thursday, Grampa Floyd.”

“All right then, the drug store is in the middle of Railroad Street.”

I laughed a little. “I don’t take the time to shop much at home, but I’ll do some shopping while I’m downtown. Christmas is in three days, Grampa. What can I get you?”

I was mostly joking, but Grampa looked out the window and got a little teary eyed. I guess he knew he wasn’t in great shape, health-wise.

“I’d sure like to hear the Christmas bells in Midway one more time before I’m gone,” he said softly. “Lordy, how I love those bells.”

His wistful wish made my breath catch a little. I was about to ask Grampa about the bells—who sold them or played them or what were they—but he rolled over and turned his back to me.

I quietly left the little house on Stephens Street and headed toward Railroad Street on foot. I called home and talked to Beverly while I walked. I told her it was a good thing I had driven up to Kentucky; Grampa Floyd was pretty frail and all alone. We talked about whether I should drive home for Christmas and maybe come back, but when I told Bev how weak Grampa seemed, she said maybe I should just stay in Midway as long as it took.

The one name on a building I had spotted on Railroad/Main Street as I drove into town was the Midway Museum, and now I figured that would be a good place to learn a little more about the naming of Stephens Street.

I remembered enough U.S. history to know that a Lincoln–Douglas debate in Midway was unlikely. But because Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky and married a Kentucky woman, I figured part of Grampa’s story might be true. Surely the appearance of Abraham Lincoln alone—much less in a renewal of the most famous debates in American history—would be the centerpiece of the Midway Museum.

The museum’s big room offered a number of interesting exhibits, memorabilia, and photos, but there was no mention of the sixteenth president nor of a debate. I wanted to make sure, though.

“Did Abraham Lincoln ever visit Midway?” I asked the museum docent, whose name tag identified her as Velma Adams.

She thought for a moment. “Well, we know that Mr. Lincoln passed through Midway on a train more than once, and it’s thought he and his wife, Mary, spent some time just west of here at the summer estate of Mary’s father.”

So maybe Lincoln was in Midway. And maybe Grampa’s story was true! I prodded Velma for more.

“Are you aware of a debate that took place here in Midway? Between Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas?”

A look of doubtful concern flickered across Velma’s face. “No, I’ve never heard anything about a Lincoln–Douglas debate in Midway,” she said carefully. “I believe they were up in Illinois.”

“And Stephens Street isn’t named after Stephen Douglas?” I asked, trying to show I didn’t believe it myself.

“No, the first streets were named after officers of the railroad company that founded Midway,” Velma said. After the silence that followed, she added, “You might see if you can get on the Midway History page on Facebook. I get a lot of my information there.”

I thanked Velma and spent a little more time in the museum. They pack a lot of information into a little space, but the main reason I stayed is because I was trying to be nonchalant after asking what must have been the dumbest question Velma had ever fielded.

I left the museum and figured I’d explore more of Midway. Railroad Street had a lot of shops, and because I had not done any Christmas shopping, I stopped in at one named Cozies. It was indeed a cozy place. Shelves in the store were loaded with candles, picture frames, funny phrases spelled out in wooden letters, pillows, wine glasses, bookends, and clocks. There were separate displays for pet items (collars and clothes), bar ware, and lots of stuff made from wool. Further back was room with a sign above the door that said Jessie’s Jewelry.

A woman of about forty put down a book she’d been reading, told me her name was Jessie, and asked if she could help me find anything. I told her I’d like to buy some Christmas presents.

“I have two daughters, nineteen and twenty-one, and a wife who’s fifty-something,” I said. “I’m sure they’d like your jewelry. If you could pick out three pieces and wrap them up, I’d be a happy man.”

Jessie took me into the jewelry room and asked me questions I wasn’t sure how to answer, like whether the women in my life wear silver or gold, and do they like dangly earrings and chunky necklaces or not. I said “silver, yes, and not sure,” but I wasn’t sure about any of it.

After she had selected three pieces that I was OK with—and they were the first three pieces she showed me—Jessie wrapped them in gold paper and tied them with red string. While she wrapped, she made small talk.

“Are you visiting Midway for the first time?”

“Well, I was here many years ago, and I came back to check in on my grandfather, Floyd McCarthy.”

“Oh,” Jessie said with a sympathetic look. “I heard he was feeling poorly. How is Whopper?”

I had to chuckle inside about the pervasive use of Grampa’s nickname, and I told Jessie that he was doing as well as could be expected. I remembered then about the bells.

“Say, do you know anything about Christmas bells in Midway?”

“I have these cute bells here,” Jessie said, walking across to a table holding several white service bells with “Beach, please!” painted on them. She dinged the top of one.

“No, I think he means bells that are played at Christmas—maybe in a church tower or a performance,” I said, smiling about the beach bell.

“Who’s ‘he’? Whopper?”

“Yeah, my grandfather.”

“Oh Lord, if Whopper told a story about Christmas bells, it’d be that the Drifters recorded ‘The Bells of St. Mary’s’ in the Midway United Methodist Church or something,” Jessie said, laughing.

“No offense,” she added.

“I think I know what you mean,” I said. “But you don’t know any local traditions that involve bells at Christmas?”

Jessie thought for a minute.

“Well, one of the churches had a hand bell choir there for a while. Maybe they played at Christmastime,” She said. “And the Christian Church plays Christmas carols from its bell tower, but they play hymns all year round.”

“Yeah, maybe it’s the hand bells,” I said. “Grampa seemed pretty serious about it. I’ll keep asking around.”

After gathering up my newly wrapped gifts, I got directions to the drug store from Jessie and left, thanking her on my way out.

Her simple directions were accurate—four doors down—and when I settled onto a stool at an old fashioned soda fountain, a fella came from the back of the store and took my order. We talked while he made the milkshake, and I was surprised to learn that my soda jerk, Stan, is also the town’s only pharmacist.

“How long have you lived here, Stan?”

“Oh, I guess it’s fifteen years now,” he said as he looked for the whipped cream.

“Do you know anything about Christmas bells in Midway?”

Stan paused and thought. “I heard about a group of college girls that sang—must’ve been years ago. They called themselves the Midway Belles,” he said. “I imagine they went home every year for Christmas break, though. Why do you ask?”

As soon as I told him who I was—or, to be exact—who my grandfather was, I got the Whopper reaction that had come to be familiar. Stan told me a story.

“One time, a couple from Indiana was in here and asked about the train schedule. And Whopper—sitting right there on that stool you’re on—told them that a train bearing John F. Kennedy’s body had passed through Midway in 1963. ‘Real slow,’ Whopper told them.”

I thought for a second. “President Kennedy didn’t have a funeral train.”

“That’s what the guy from Indiana said!” Stan replied, animated at the memory. “And you know what your grandfather said? Whopper said, ‘Well, maybe it was Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train I’m thinking of.’ Like he was here for it!”

Stan was laughing so hard he almost dropped the milkshake. As I rescued it from his hand I said, “Yeah, Grampa has lots to say about President Lincoln.”

Grampa Floyd was awake when I got back to his house, but he took only a few sips of the milkshake and said he’d had enough. I asked if he had been seen by a doctor recently. Grampa said that Dr. Rorschach had been by to see him only yesterday, adding with his pride that it was his personal physician who had invented the inkblot test. Then he drifted asleep again.

While Grampa slept, I poked around his phone in the kitchen, looking to see if he kept a list of frequently called people. Sure enough, I found a short list that included the drug store, the Corner Grocery … and a Dr. Rorchester. That had to be him—or her—I thought.

I went outside and called the doctor’s office from my truck and was surprised when the receptionist put Dr. Rorchester on the phone right away. We talked for only a few minutes, and he confirmed—very sympathetically—that Grampa Floyd was indeed in his last days, and how wonderful it was that I had come to town to help Grampa in his final journey. As we were wrapping up, I had to ask the doctor if he knew about any Christmas bells.

“It’s funny you should ask,” he said. “The last time I dropped in on Floyd, he mentioned how much he’d like to hear the Christmas bells one more time. I asked him what bells he was talking about, but he only shook his head and smiled.”

For lunch the next day, I returned to Wallace Station. Grampa wasn’t eating much of anything—which Dr. Rorchester had predicted—but I was sure hungry. I had eaten the other half of my first sandwich for supper, and for breakfast I had drunk most of Grampa Floyd’s milkshake.

The same boy was taking orders at the cash register, and he eyed me warily as I approached. I thought he might be bracing himself for another ridiculous pronouncement, but instead, he had a statement of his own.

“It’s a good thing you came when you did. We’re closing at noon today because of the blizzard.”

“Blizzard?” As soon as I said it, I realized I hadn’t watched any local news or checked the weather since I had arrived. The boy said a heavy snowfall was predicted, and after I ordered my sandwich, I stood lost in thought, wondering if I would be able to drive home for Christmas, now two days away.

“You mean Whopper didn’t tell you about the winter of ’63?” I recognized the voice and turned to once again see Avery Jackson. “We had some deep drifts on Christmas Day that year, and I’m surprised he didn’t tell you that he turned into Midway’s Santa Claus.”

“No he didn’t mention it, Mr. Jackson,” I said. “To be honest, Grampa Floyd isn’t doing too well. He hasn’t been up to watching TV, and we didn’t know anything about this blizzard that’s coming.”

Mr. Jackson’s smile vanished. “Well, I’m sorry to hear that, son. Whop—I mean Floyd … really stepped up that year. The roads were covered with deep snow, and the two of us delivered meals to a lot of people who couldn’t spend Christmas with their families. Floyd even gathered up some toys, we took them to homes where they weren’t expecting much Christmas even before the storm hit,” he said. “It was his finest hour.”

“I appreciate your telling me that,” I said. “Say, Mr. Jackson, do you know anything about Christmas bells in Midway? Grampa has been talking about them, and I’ve been trying to track them down. It’s been sort of like his last wish.”

Mt. Jackson paused, then shook his head. “There’s always bells at Christmastime. Maybe Floyd will hear his ring.”

I left Wallace Station with a big sandwich and a heavy heart. I didn’t mind going to the Corner Grocery and stocking up on a few things in anticipation of the blizzard. And I was fine to stay with Grampa Floyd, even if it meant I’d be late getting home for Christmas with my own family. But Grampa Floyd was family, too, and I was sad that it had taken me so long to connect with him. I knew he’d never see another Christmas.

You can bet I turned the news on when I got back to Grampa’s house. His heating system did a good job of keeping his small house warm, but I brought in several armloads of firewood from the shed in case the power went out and we needed to use the fireplace.

The curly haired weather lady on Channel 18 was calling for fourteen to eighteen inches of snow, starting at sunset and lasting until noon the next day, Christmas Eve. 

I told Grampa Floyd I’d met Avery Jackson and he had told me about a big snowstorm in 1963. Grampa pulled his covers up to his chin; it seemed like he was chilled at the memory. Then he spoke in a voice just above a whisper.

“That was some snow. Me and Avery were hauling people and presents and Christmas dinners all around town,” Grampa said. “Avery did the driving. It was his finest hour.”

I wanted to ask Grampa how they managed to drive in such deep snow. I didn’t know if four-wheel drive vehicles were around in 1963. But he had fallen asleep.   

I called Dr. Rorchester again, not bothering to get out of earshot from Grampa, and I told him Grampa Floyd was growing weaker. I asked if I should take him to the hospital, and the doctor said if Grampa wasn’t in pain, it was probably better for him to stay in his own bed. He thanked me for staying by Grampa’s side.

I made another call, to Bev and the girls. They knew about the snowstorm bearing down on Central Kentucky, and they told me they were likely to get a couple of inches in Tennessee. I apologized for missing Christmas, but Bev said we would celebrate whenever I got back.

I was sad to be away from home, but I knew I was doing the right thing.

Within a couple of hours, the wind started howling. There was a streetlight in front of Grampa’s house, and at first, I could see the snow in its glow, racing in a nearly horizontal line … until the snowfall was too thick to see exactly where the streetlight was. Bundled up on a couch with a well-worn comforter, I slept off and on through the night, waking whenever a cold gust of wind rattled the front door especially loud.

Around seven or so, I got up from the couch with the comforter wrapped around me like a half-swaddled baby. The storm was over and the house was quiet and still warm, as we had not lost power. I checked on Grampa; his breathing was slow, with alarming pauses at the end of each exhalation. I tiptoed around his house, making sure every window and wall had survived the blizzard.

The sun wasn’t up yet, but the snow had stopped; the streetlight once again shown brightly, illuminating Midway’s own new comforter: a puffy white blanket of snow. The curly haired weather lady had been right: There looked to be about a foot and a half of snow.

I put Grampa’s old Mr. Coffee to work, and I turned on the TV—with the sound down low— to catch the local news. The same crew was still working the Channel 18 newsroom. A young reporter said it was safer for them to stay at the station, and for the morning crew to stay home. He said one lane had been cleared on the interstate, and with temperatures expected to warm into the upper 30s and remain above freezing in the night ahead, Santa Claus would be able to make his rounds.

As I was thinking about my wife and daughters, I heard Grampa start to stir. I set my coffee down, went to his bed, and asked if I could get him anything.

“I might take a drink of water. I’ve got a straw on that table, I think,” he said quietly. “I slept all night but I feel so tired today.”

After I handed Grampa a cup of water with his straw, I described last night’s storm and today’s snow-covered scene.

“Is it Christmas?” he asked.

“No, it’s Christmas Eve,” I told him. “They said on the news that it’ll warm up a bit, and Santa should be able to land on all the rooftops tonight.”

“I think I’ll be hearing those Christmas bells, son,” Grampa whispered. I was coming to understand the bells meant death, and as sad as that made me, I felt my face flush with another emotion. He called me son.

Grampa raised up on one elbow and moved as though he intended to get out of bed, but he laid back onto his pillows, exhausted by the effort.

“Jay, do you reckon you could get me to the front room? I want to look out the window,” he said softly.

I told him I could try, and I gathered up a blanket off his bed and threw it over my shoulder. Then I eased the bed coverings back and slid one arm behind Grampa’s shoulders and the other under his knees. I lifted him with surprising ease. I had a dog back home that weighed about the same as Grampa Floyd.

I figured Grampa just wanted to see how deep the snow was, and when I got to his big window in the front room, I hooked my foot around the leg of an upholstered chair and swung it around to face the window. I set Grampa in the chair as gently as I could, covered him with the blanket, and gathered a few pillows from the couch I had slept on. I had Grampa propped up and covered up pretty well, and I asked if there was anything he needed.

“Naw, I don’t need anything. But if you could open the curtains, I could see out the window better.”

“It’s pretty, isn’t it?” I asked after I had given him a better look outside. “And quiet. I don’t see any car tracks or footprints, except where a rabbit went across your yard.”

“The sun’s almost up,” he said. “I expect we’ll hear the bells soon.”

Oh Lord. I knew Grampa was ready to die, but I didn’t know if I was ready to watch him fade away. While he gazed outside, the daylight growing brighter, I covered my eyes and tried to calm my nerves.

And then I heard it.

At first, I thought it was Grampa’s wheezy lungs, maybe even a death rattle. But as I kept my eyes covered and concentrated, I could hear the sound more distinctly.

I heard Christmas bells.

I opened my eyes to bright light, the early sun splashing onto the brilliant white snow. I couldn’t tell where the bells were coming from, but Grampa seemed to know. He leaned forward and craned his neck to the right, looking up Stephens Street as it led away from town. I followed his gaze, and then it all became clear.

Coming into to Midway in the middle of the snow-covered street was a team of two horses pulling a sleigh. It wasn’t a Currier and Ives-looking sleigh, but more of a working sleigh that a farmer would use to haul stuff. Both horses had neck straps that were loaded with jingle-jangly bells. Christmas bells.

And as the team drew closer, I was able to recognize the driver, his face only half-covered by a woolen scarf. It was Avery Jackson.  

“Looky there. Avery’s come to get me,” Grampa said in whispered excitement. Then the certainty of his situation caught up with him. “But  I guess old Avery’s gonna have to make this run without me.”

I’m sure the heavy truth hit the old storyteller hard, as he recognized his best balderdash was behind him. He put on a good show for his pal, though, as Avery guided the team into Grampa’s yard and up close to the window. With each plod of the horses’ heavy hooves, the round bells rattled and rang, pealing through the clouds of warm breath the horses snorted out. Grampa smiled big for his visitors, and though he tried to wave, he could raise his arm only a couple of inches.

Avery took his scarf away from his face and shouted to us, “I’ll bring you a turkey dinner at noon!”

Then he guided his two-horse team away from the window and back to the road. He gave the reins a gentle snap, and the horses broke into a trot, setting off a new round of ringle-dingles. Avery looked over his shoulder and waved to Grampa in the window.

Grampa Floyd watched them drive away, the sight of them … and the sound of them … fading.

He heaved a big sigh. “I do like those bells, son,” he whispered. “Especially at Christmas.”

Then Grampa closed his eyes.


Santa got stuck

FIFTY YEARS ago, bell bottoms were cool. The Flip Wilson Show was cool. George Carlin … cool. What was not quite cool, though—what had not yet grown into the trendy town it is today—was Midway, Kentucky.

While not exactly cool, Midway was still a warm and wonderful village in 1971. And the town always came alive at Christmastime, especially on Santa Saturday, when the man in red showed up to take Christmas requests from the children.

On that particular Santa Saturday, December 11th, Midway’s weather was mild with above-normal temperatures. Somehow, though, the day turned out less than normal.  

Scores of children and their parents started gathering on Railroad Street, the town’s retail and restaurant district, two hours before Santa was scheduled to appear. Back in those days, Santa didn’t arrive on a gleaming red train like he does today. No, he would typically pull up in a station wagon and hop out of the passenger seat to assume his duties inside a downtown storefront that happened to be empty that year.

But in 1971, Emma May Taygo, chair of the Santa Celebration Committee for the Midway Woman’s Club, wanted to do something special for the children of Midway.

“Midway is smack in the middle of thoroughbred country,” Emma May said at an October committee meeting. “We should have Santa arrive by a sleigh … pulled by handsome race horses!”

The committee members loved the idea, although Jenella Johnson pointed out that thoroughbreds don’t typically pull sleighs.

“Fair enough,” said Emma May. “I expect we can still find eight handsome horses of some type, though.”

But that was easier said than done. From mid-October through the first week of December, Emma May called no fewer than twenty-three horse farm owners or managers in the Midway area, and despite her appeals “for the children,” not a one would consent to loaning out a horse to populate a team of sleigh draggers.

With a week to go, Emma May’s only offer came from Elliott Mercer, the owner of Fisher’s Mill Farm, a small operation that hadn’t yet found the formula for success. Elliott said the Woman’s Club could borrow Sammy, his teaser stallion who had recently lost interest in the farm’s mares. When Emma May said she needed at least one more horse to make a team, Elliott said he could also let her borrow Pill Box, a 21-year-old long-retired hunter/jumper. Fifty dollars for both.

“Fifty dollars? But it’s for the children,” Emma May whined.

“That’s right: my children,” the horseman answered. “My children’s Christmas.”

WHEN THE big day came, Elliott was behind the Midway Fire Station, with Sammy and Pill Box. That spot was only a block away from Railroad Street, plus there happened to be some dusty collars and harnesses there, left over from the fire department’s early days, and Elliott fastened his horses to what Emma May called their “sleigh for a day.”

The best sleigh that Emma May’s committee could come up with was not an old-timey, jingle-belly sleigh, but one that Jake Capshaw built as a Christmas decoration for his front porch some twenty years before. Jake said this year his wife was using a group of plastic Christmas carolers for the focal point of their decorations, so the sleigh was strictly surplus.

It was made of plywood and two-by-fours, with a seat from Jake’s old Ford F-1 pickup. For runners, Jake had used some old water skis. The whole thing was painted red and green, and though it was a bit faded, the sleigh was still festive enough on that Santa Saturday.

Of course, the water skis wouldn’t work in town even if Midway’s streets were covered with snow, which they weren’t. The committee, then, had followed Jenella’s suggestion and rounded up four kiddie wagons—three Radio Flyers and one Western Flyer. They lashed the sleigh’s water skis to the wagons, and Janella figured out how to connect the handles of the two front wagons with a metal bar so the driver could have at least some ability to steer the contraption. The ladies used white sheets to try to hide the wagons from view, and when stuffed with crumpled newspaper, the corners of the fitted sheets looked almost like snow drifts. 

Veronza Stephens volunteered to be the driver, but only if somebody could come up with a top hat for her to wear. A committee member found one in her attic.

Veronza had also volunteered to line up a Santa Claus, assuring the committee that her brother Wayne owned an “ultra-nice” Santa suit and would be happy to serve the city of Midway and play Santa. Unfortunately, on Santa Saturday Eve, Wayne discovered he was too fat to fit into his prized suit.

“I blame the Corner Grocery for this,” he told Veronza when he called with the bad news. “They’ve been putting out whole pies right by the cash register, where you almost have to buy one.”

Veronza picked up Wayne’s suit but had no idea who else could fill it. So starting at 9:30 Friday evening, Emma May started calling friends in Versailles, Georgetown, and Lexington, looking for an experienced Santa Claus. It wasn’t until after midnight that a Felix B. Satterly called Emma May, offering to step in the next morning … for two hundred dollars.

“Two hundred dollars? But it’s for the children,” Emma May whined.

“And it’s also for three hours,” Felix B. Satterly replied. “For an actor of my repute, you’re getting a grand bargain.”

Emma May hesitated. “What have you appeared in—oh, never mind. It’s a deal. Be at the Midway Fire Station no later than 10 a.m.”

When Felix B. Satterly arrived on Saturday morning, the Woman’s Club women who were preparing the sleigh were less than impressed. Mr. Satterly looked to be the right age—60 or so—but nothing else looked right with the stand-in Santa. Rather than rotund and jolly, Mr. Satterly was skinny and sallow. He did have a bit of a pooch in the midsection—what Emma May called a bacon belly—but bony knees protruded from his polyester pants legs. 

“Here I am to ho, ho ho,” he announced in a booming stage voice.

The Woman’s Club women stared, wordless. Elliott looked up from the harnesses and gawked. TeeTee Martinez finally broke the silence.

“Welcome to Midway, Mr. Satterly. Let’s get you on the far side of the fire trucks, and you can change into this fantastic Santa suit.” As she led the unlikely Santa into the firehouse, she spoke over her shoulder to Emma May. “Gather up any leftover newspaper balls, honey. We’re gonna have to stuff this guy.”

Felix took only a few minutes to hop into Wayne’s Santa suit. As a veteran of many low-budget theater productions, he was used to handling quick costume changes on his own. TeeTee tossed newspaper balls over the fire truck to where Felix was changing, and she heard them crackle as he crammed them into the front of his pants and coat. When he emerged in the red suit made of heavy velour and trimmed with rich, white fur, Felix actually looked the part.

“It’s show time,” he said, joining Veronza at the side of the sleigh. Using a wooden box as a step, they both climbed aboard.

“Are you sure this is gonna work?” Veronza said when she perched on the stool Jake had attached to the front of the sleigh. “Why can’t I ride on the truck seat with Santa?”

“For goodness sakes, Veronza, Santa’s a celebrity, and he has to be chauffeured, don’t you know?” Emma May said with a trace of dread, knowing where the conversation was heading.

Veronza, wearing her prom dress from 1955 for the occasion, puffed herself and her ruffly front up. “Well, I’m somewhat of a celebrity, too, you know,” she said.

Almost in unison, the women tending to the sleigh—and Elliott, too—rolled their eyes. They knew what was coming. Janella even turned aside and mouthed along with Veronza as she spoke.

“After all, I’m a descendant of the famed Mister Stephens, the most important director on the board of the L&O Railroad Company, which founded the town of Midway and named the most prominent street after him.”

“Is that Railroad Street?” Elliott asked with a perfectly straight face.

No!” Veronza answered icily. “Stephens Street.”

No one in Midway could verify Veronza’s lineage. Nor could anybody say why she didn’t know the first name of her often-heralded forefather. Then again, nobody could guess why she was wearing a daffodil prom dress with a top hat for her role in Santa Saturday.

Finally, Santa himself spoke.

“I think, for the entire time that Santa is being transported, the driver is the most important part of the operation,” Felix B. Satterly said. “Santa Claus is a mere passenger, and a seat at the front of the sleigh pays well-deserved tribute to the skilled reinsman … or in this case, reinswoman.”

The blush of Veronza’s cheek was made more vivid by the bright yellow in the high neck of her prom dress. “Why, Mr. Satterly, you do have a way with words,” she purred, all traces of ice melted from her voice. “But you are the man of the hour.”

AT THREE minutes before 11 a.m., the appointed hour for Santa’s arrival, Railroad Street was loud. Christmas tunes were pumping through a big speaker placed in front of Midway Drug, and most of the children in attendance were shouting above Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” to ask their parents the same question: “When’s Santa coming?”

Parents were shouting back in near unison, “Any minute now.”

And they weren’t lying. At one minute till 11, Veronza Stephens and Felix B. Satterly took their seats in Jake Capshaw’s ramshackle sleigh. Elliott led his two sleepy steeds, Sammy and Pill Box, in a right turn onto Winter Street at the post office. From there, he was confident the horses could lead the sleigh one block to Railroad Street, where stumbly little kids along with doubtful ten-year-olds would all be craning their necks to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus.

“Ho, ho, ho!” Felix practiced with a most theatrical flair.

The old horses really wouldn’t have to do much pulling, as it was all downhill to the railroad. Elliott figured that even Veronza could negotiate one simple turn at Railroad Street, so he let loose of his hold on Pill Box’s halter and gave the old mare a soft pat on the rump to send her on her way.

As Elliott, Emma May, and the other women walked on the sidewalk toward Railroad Street, staying even with the sleigh, Veronza jiggled the reins a bit. She glanced nervously at her friends on the sidewalk, and just as the horses reached the point where Winter Street starts its decline, Veronza felt a surge of confidence.

“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer!” she yelled, looking over again at the girls with a grin and giving the reins a quick snap.

Something also snapped in the brains of Pill Box and Sammy. The old horses came alive under the slap of leather, and they quickened their step.

“On, Comet! On, Cupid!” Veronza hollered with a laugh, and she snapped the reins again. This time, Sammy and Pill Box really responded. They call it horsepower for a reason, and the two nags broke into a trot just when all the wagon wheels under the sleigh were heading downhill.

Felix, though his face was partly covered by an abundance of fake white hair and beard, didn’t want to break character, but he did want to slow down. He mumbled a muffled, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.”

Veronza stopped smiling and gripped the reins tighter, and Elliot stepped off the sidewalk to try to catch up with the horses. But it was too late. The horses were at a half gallop, and with the sleigh wagons picking up momentum, Sammy and Pill Box had to quicken their gait to stay ahead of the rolling lawn decoration as it hurtled down the hill.

Elliott and Emma May and were motoring as fast as they could, but they couldn’t keep up with the sleigh.

“Whoa, whoa, whoooooooa!” Santa/Felix shouted.

“Stop runninnnnng!” Veronza commanded.

But the team plowed on.

Two hundred yards ahead, Eugene Murphy was standing by the railroad track. A Midway fellow who worked at a local horse farm, he and some friends had come downtown to grab a beer and get some kettle corn from their favorite street vendor, 2 Ladies and a Kettle. His friends were Anderson County boys that nobody in Midway really knew. Most folks simply referred to them as a group: Gene ’n’ ’em.

A fake sleigh atop a collection of kiddie wagons isn’t exactly a recipe for speed, yet the downhill grade was steep enough to get the little wheels spinning. The contraption probably wasn’t traveling any faster than a kid on a bike would coast down the hill, but to the two passengers; it felt like the sleigh was about to break the sound barrier. And they sounded off.

Whoooooooa!” Santa/Felix howled.

“Turn riiiiiiiiiiiiight!” Veronza shrieked.

Gene ’n’ ’em heard the racket, saw the horses’ wide eyes, and did what horse people do: The fanned out and spread their arms, signaling the horses to stop. And it worked— except that as Sammy and Pill Box slowed, the sleigh kept coming, nipping at their heels. The horses needed to sidestep the oncoming sleigh, and fortunately, they both angled to the right. If either had ever run on a North American racetrack, they might have defaulted to a left turn. But neither nag had ever come close to a track.

Just when the horses were veering to the right, Veronza was, too. She remembered she could guide the front wheels of the front wagons, so she pushed the steering bar hard to the right.

It was a turn they couldn’t make.

Gene ’n’ ’em realized the sleigh was moving too fast, and they quickly stepped aside. Veronza was successful in turning the wheels, but the speed was too great, so like a muscle car in an action movie, the sleigh and the horses went into a mighty skid. The whole outfit turned completely sideways, pointing east toward the crowd on Railroad Street … while skittering north toward the railroad tracks. 

If you’ve ever been through downtown Midway, you understand that a bump will forever be part of crossing the railroad tracks. Winter Street has a downhill angle, but the two tracks are set to keep the trains flat level. So there’s a bump. And the sleigh hit it in a sideways spin.

The screeching wheels and the screaming passengers generated a lot of noise. So nearly everyone in the crowd at the middle of Railroad Street stopped talking and turned to see what was happening. If they were lucky, they got to see Santa Claus like nobody had ever seen him. Many said later that the scene seemed to play in slow motion.

When the wheels of the wagons crossed the rails of the track, they had skidded around enough so that they rolled over—rather than getting caught in—the grooves beside the rails. By that point, the sleigh had passed the horses, and the bump was like a ramp, sending the sleigh and, briefly, the horses, too, into the cool December air.

For years, everyone who was there debated just how much the horses and sleigh helicoptered in midair. Back then of course, there were no smartphones to record the event, so it was up to each person’s recollection.

Elliott Mercer said the contraption did a 180-degree turn.

Jenella Johnson said it was a full 360.

Felix B. Satterly swore it was at least a 720—two full spins— claiming he saw the Corner Grocery flash before his eyes twice.

Veronza said it felt like at least four revolutions, but she admits she had closed her eyes to brace for a crash.

But they didn’t crash. The two horses and the two occupants of the sleigh all landed hard on the other side of the tracks, but not hard enough to cause injury. Sammy and Pill Box both stood back up, and Veronza, who had been jostled off her stool, quickly located her top hat, perched it upon her head, and climbed back aboard. Santa, somehow, remained on the bench seat of the sleigh. He had slammed against the side of the seat, but the balls of newspaper had protected him.

The crowd went wild, applauding and cheering. Those who had witnessed the sleigh and animals whirling over the railroad tracks were impressed. The kids, many of whom were too short to see the spectacle over the towering adults, were just happy that Santa had arrived.

“ARE WE ALL intact?” Felix B. Satterly asked, sitting all the way to the left side of the F-1 truck seat. “The show must go on.”

By that time, Elliott had rushed to the landing site and once again had a firm grip on Pill Box’s halter. “I think we can make it over to the kids,” he said.

“Let’s do this thing,” said Veronza, with a steely glint in her eye. She now was ready for anything, including 152 children now at a fever pitch, excited to see Saint Nick.

Eugene Murphy grabbed Sammy’s halter, and the two men led the horses as they pulled Santa’s sleigh along Railroad Street. The entire team was glad to be on a perfectly flat street.

As the crowd parted, the sleigh arrived at “Santa’s Castle.” It was the building formerly known as Thoroughbred Tavern, which had been closed for two years.

The old bar looked snowy and jolly that day, though. Two fully decorated Christmas trees, frosted with fake snow, were at the entrance, and another five trees were inside. The Santa Celebration Committee had set up a spot in the rear of the building, where Santa was to perch on a huge chair and listen to the Christmas wishes of kids from all over Central Kentucky. The committee had decorated the barstools and connected them with garland, forming a back-and-forth path for families to line up, like at an amusement park. 

The perfect scene was set … if only Santa Claus could join it.

When the sleigh pulled up in front of the newly bedazzled tavern, Veronza was only too happy to climb off. Her nerves were jingle-jangly from the near disaster, and she also was excited by the throng of children. Somebody produced a Rubbermaid stool, and Veronza carefully stepped onto it, with one hand on the side of the sleigh and the other making sure her hat didn’t fall off.

Now embracing her role as reinswoman, she stood at attention, waiting to help Santa dismount. Only he didn’t.

He didn’t step down onto the Rubbermaid stool.

He didn’t even stand up from the pickup truck seat.

Instead, Santa was reaching around to his rear end, fiddling with his fine, velour Santa pants.

Felix spoke just loud enough for Veronza to hear him. “It appears that, against all probability, I am … stuck.

“Whaddya mean, stuck?” Veronza asked out of the side of her mouth between smiles at the waiting children.

Felix tried to slide over slightly to get a better look at his predicament, but he couldn’t budge an inch. “I am somehow affixed to the seat,” he said in a stage whisper. “I feel something metal grasping the pocket of my pants.”

Veronza now turned to face Santa. She stepped onto the Rubbermaid stool and reached behind him to try and help unhook his pants from whatever piece of the old truck seat had latched on to them.

“You must’ve got caught on something when we were bouncing around on the railroad tracks,” Veronza whispered. “You’re stuck tight.”

“Hey whaddya doin’ to Santa’s rear end?” a man in the crowd yelled at Veronza. “I brought my kid to see Santa. We don’t want no hanky-panky.”

“Ho, ho, ho!” Felix bellowed in his best Santa voice. “I assure you Santa wants to talk with your child. It’s just that … at the moment … Santa is a bit stuck.”

The news rippled through the crowd, and Emma May, who was inside Santa’s Castle, could tell something was up. She rushed outside to the sleigh.

“What’s going on?” she h. “Vee, get your hand out of Santa’s behind!”

“I’m trying to jiggle him loose. He’s caught on a piece of metal—it’s like a loop with no opening,” Veronza said with exasperation.

Emma May edged closer to them. “Look. We gotta get Santa inside before this crowd riots. Cut him out of there if necessary.”

Heavens, no! We can’t do that!” Veronza hissed. “Wayne would kill me if I messed up his Santa suit.”

Emma May thought for a second, then said, “Felix, if we found you a big red blanket, you could ease yourself out of the Santa pants and wrap up with the blanket to make your way inside Santa’s Castle.”

Felix narrowed his eyes at Emma May, then realized that all the kids were watching him. “Ho, ho, ho!” he laughed for their benefit. Then he leaned closer to Emma May and Veronza. “I will not disrobe in front of these children. My performance contracts always say ‘No nudity.’”

Now it was Emma May who was exasperated. “We don’t have a contract, Felix. And you’ll be covered up with a blanket. Besides, you’ve got your skivvies on.”

Felix B. Satterly drew a deep breath. “Madam, I removed my undergarments when I saw at the fire station that they clashed with the red suit,” he said with all the dignity he could muster. “I’m not wearing any ‘skivvies,’ as you say.”

Emma May blushed.

Pill Box gave a quick snort.

Veronza whispered in amazement, “Commando Santa.”

Emma May stepped back and gathered her thoughts. She walked to the front of the sleigh and conferred with Elliott. Then she stood on the Rubbermaid stool and addressed the crowd.

“Hello, all you Santa lovers!” A cheer arose from kids and adults. “We have a slight change of plan. Because it’s such a nice morning, we’re all going to stay outside in the fresh air.”

Emma May listened for any complaints. Hearing none, she continued. “Let’s form a line here at the step to the sleigh, and you can sit with Santa or sit on, um, Santa’s lap—and tell him what you want for Christmas!”

A cheer arose again from the crowd, and Emma May stepped down from the sleigh. Still smiling to families nearby, she grabbed Veronza by the front of her prom dress and pulled her close.

“I don’t care where you get it, but get a big pillow for Santa’s lap. Right. Now!

IT WAS a good thing Felix hadn’t loaded up on coffee before coming to Midway. And it was good that Emma May thought to restrict Santa from drinking any fluids while he chatted with children. A trip to the bathroom would have been impossible, and she sure didn’t want to consider any alternatives.

After three hours of Santa time, the line of children ended, and Elliott drove his pickup truck to the front of the sleigh. He had already taken Pill Box and Sammy back to Fisher’s Mill Farm after everyone agreed it would be better for the horses to get away from the crowd. Plus, the humans wanted to avoid any mishaps on the trip back to the firehouse.

Most of the crowd had gone home or were shopping in Railroad Street stores when Santa waved goodbye and was hauled away—slowly—in the sleigh behind Elliott’s truck. Veronza resumed her role of reinswoman, helping to steer the wagons around the two right turns, first onto Gratz Street and then onto Bruen Street and the firehouse.

It was there, with Emma May and Veronza averting their eyes, that Felix slipped out of the Santa pants under the cover of a clean horse blanket that Elliott provided. Then, holding the blanket at his waist like a towel, Felix retreated into the firehouse to get dressed.

Without Felix and the balls of newspaper inside the Santa pants, they were unhooked from the troublesome piece of metal fairly quickly by Emma May. And when Felix emerged minutes later in his street clothes, he handed Veronza the Santa jacket, hat, wig, beard, and gloves.

Emma May just had to ask, “Felix, what color skivvies did you wear today that clashed bad enough for you to go commando?”

The actor shrugged. “It was a stupid mistake, really. For some reason, I chose Halloween-themed underwear this morning,” he explained. “The bright orange was hideous next to the red Santa suit, and I simply could not have pulled off this performance knowing I was so horribly mismatched.”

“You are a true artist, Felix,” Emma May said as she handed him a check. “Thank you for stepping in at the last minute.”

Then she turned to the owner of Sammy and Pill Box. “And thank you, Elliott. You and your horses were truly our majestic heroes today.”

Elliott accepted the check from Emma May, looked at the amount—double what they had agreed to—and was about to protest, but Emma May cut him off.

“It’s well deserved, Elliott. For you and your children’s Christmas.”

It was a touching moment for the survivors of Santa Saturday … until Veronza broke the spell.

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” she said. “Next year, we should have Santa and the sleigh again, but we could expand it into a whole parade, see, with floats and bands and maybe even balloons. And you already know what street the parade should be held on.”

With a perfectly straight face, Elliott ventured a guess. “Stephens Street?”

“Exactly,” Veronza said, tugging at the sleeve of her prom dress.

Emma May touched Veronza’s arm. “I think Mr. Stephens would be so proud.”


Bob Rouse lives, writes, and waxes poetic at his home just outside of Midway, Kentucky.

Nolan McDonald (cover art), is a 14-year-old student and artist in Burleson, Texas.