By John Thomas Tuft
It is tucked up against the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in north central North Carolina. It is a small all-American town built at the confluence of two rivers, the Mayo and the Dan. Hence it’s name, Mayodan, proudly occupying space in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, as the only town in the entire world holding that name. It is the proud purveyor of the annual hay bale (round and square) sculpture competition — my favorite is the hot rod tractor entrant — and the humble host of the Rockingham County Quilt Square Trail. Once you pass the shuttered textile mill on one side of town, the drive down Main Street is a welcoming array of azaleas and dogwoods, set around neatly kept homes.
Once you pass the park with its whitewashed gazebo, you enter a downtown that peters out about a block in any direction. The good folks of Mayodan have several churches to choose from if they are so inclined, ranging from Baptist to Methodist, Episcopalian to Moravian to independent and proud of it, from a newer looking brick building erected after a tornado knocked down the old structure, to a tiny box holding its own on a side street. You make the full circle past the Bridgestone airplane tire plant, post office and fire station on the edge of town, next to the two competing gas stations where one is always a penny a gallon cheaper depending upon whose turn it is, and you might think you’ve seen all there is to see, know all that there is to know about Mayodan.
And you would be wrong. Like far too many small towns in far too many places, the people of Mayodan sent their sons and daughters off to wars. Wars of far more justifications than you could shake a stick at, against enemies natural or unexplainable. So it was that Big Willie, the sexton of the church at the end of Main Street with the tallest steeple and the biggest bell, was called to serve. Big Willie was married to Daisy and they had a boy, whom everyone called Little Willie. Big liked to sneak Little up into the belfry to help him clean the big bell and survey the town, all the way to the gas stations. One day before he left, Big, after again reminding his son that he shouldn’t tell momma about their secret spot, took Little up and held him close. “Remember,” he said, “that while I’m gone to listen to your momma, say your prayers, and watch for daddy to come home. Can you remember that?” “Yes,” said Little, “I’ll do you proud, Daddy. I’ll listen to momma, say my prayers, and watch you home.”
And he did. All through that summer. All through that fall. All through Thanksgiving and Christmas and beyond, Little Willie did what he’d promised his daddy. He heard adults worrying on street corners about the battles and losses. He saw times grow grimmer as people lined up for food, some for shelter. Medicine was rationed and nobody smiled very much. He tried to remain brave as he minded his momma and said his prayers to the ceiling. And every Sunday after church, he slipped away while momma talked to the ladies and went up to the belfry to watch Daddy home.
Thus it was that Palm Sunday arrived, in the Year of Our Lord. Little Willie fidgeted and fussed, more than a little frightened as Momma sat silently, tears wetting her cheeks. She kept folding and unfolding the letter she received the day before. Mrs. Winters, who smelled funny, reached over and patted him on the head. Somehow that made it worse. He watched in worried wonder as Momma held the letter to her lips and kissed the ink on the page. He listened with the ears and heart of a child as the story of some guy riding on a donkey meant people cheered like they were watching him home. Then everyone got to leave with a long, green leaf in their hands.
While Momma got to talking to the ladies, Little wondered if he should even bother. Things were just so sad. Finally he made his choice, made his escape, and scampered up the ladder to the belfry. The big bell looked neglected, but he paid no nevermind. He stood on his tiptoes and stared hard out toward the gas stations. A breeze off the mountains stirred the palm frond in his hand as a truck pulled off the road out where NC Highway 704 meets Main. The far door opened, closed, and the truck pulled away. There. He saw someone. A weary figure, leaning on one crutch. Little Willie looked hard, scarcely daring to breathe. But it was no stranger.
Everyone down below heard his cry: “Joe Santa! Joe Santa! Joe Santa! Here he comes!” Daisy looked up in astonishment as Little flew down the ladder. “Momma! I watched him home. Joe Santa, Momma. Joe Santa! Here he comes.” Out the door he ran, palm waving. Daisy followed, alarmed. The others came out, too, all the greenery waving in the sun. They stood in wonder in the street as Little Willie ran toward the lone figure, shouting for all he had: “Joe Santa! Joe Santa! Here he comes! Daddy! Daddy, I’ve watched you home. Joe Santa!”
And it was good…
Words are magic, and writers are wizards.