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Archive for December, 2011

“I swim in a pool of my own neurosis. I carry love, grief deeply, like an Irishman.” (Me too!)
—Richard Harris

 “For her protection, every blushing bride, before she gives herself in marriage to her husband-to-be, should, by law, be provided a medical report of just how much Irish blood is in him.” (Irish blood, even if it’s only half like mine, will always come out—just ask Mari.)
—Jimmy Peacock

As you can see by the title of this post composed on the occasion of our forty-ninth wedding anniversary, it is about our courtship and marriage, especially our honeymoon, which because of me and my neurosis was no honeymoon for Mari in the usual sense of that word.

In fact, it was more of a sign of the “worse” part of the “for better or for worse” portion of our wedding vows—at least for poor Mari who had no idea of what she was letting herself in for when she promised to love and cherish “till death do us part.”

To begin with, she had to put up with me and my ineptness and immaturity as well as my lack of sense and preparation throughout our rather unsettled courtship. To one degree or another, everything that went wrong during that courtship and on our honeymoon was my fault. 

The Engagement Ring Story 

For example, one October Saturday in 1962 when Mari and I had started shopping for an engagement ring we almost came to a tragic end to both courtship and life. It happened during a torrential downpour as we were traveling back to our hometown of McGehee, Arkansas, from nearby Greenville, Mississippi, accompanied by my brother Joe and his fiancée. After our fruitless search for the long-sought item, the old worn-out Chevy Corvair I owned ran out of gas right in the middle of a highway bridge over Ditch Bayou just outside of Lake Village, the scene of a Civil War skirmish a hundred years earlier.

Chevrolet Corvair

A Chevy Corvair like the one I had in 1962, the first car I ever owned, later named one of the "50 worst cars ever made"

The four of us had to hurriedly crawl out of that pile of junk and rush back across the bridge in the midst of that monsoon to a “fillin’ station” to buy some gas in a can and then rush back to try to pour it into the car before being struck by the oncoming traffic, a task we achieved only by the skin of our teeth. And even then the old pile of junk almost didn’t start because I had run the tank so empty.

Once safely back in McGehee, unknown to Mari, Joe and I managed to get a “bargain” on a lovely engagement ring at one of the local jewelry stores. Since I planned to present it to Mari that night as a surprise, I cooked up a story that I would be late coming over to her house that evening because I had to go out to the country to pick up my mother who had had car trouble, though obviously I was the one who usually suffered such mechanical mishaps.

When I arrived at the home of Mari’s parents well after dark I learned that Mari had become worried about me and had gone out in the driving rain with her sister looking for me and my mother—to no avail, of course. So I sat down with her mother and placed the jewelry box with the engagement ring in it on the arm of the couch.

When Mari and Janice came in, soaked to the skin, instead of the warm gracious reception I had expected, Mari was so upset that she lit into me about why I hadn’t called her to tell her where I was. Since I was unable to get a word in sideways, I simply pointed down to the ring box, which Mari picked up and opened in front of her mother and sister.

Obviously, it was something less than the romantic engagement event each of us had envisioned, which should have been another sign to Mari of just what her life was going to be like married to me. As I now say, “It seems that even God has no cure for terminal stupidity!” I’m sure Mari would agree—then and now.

The Trousseau Trip to Little Rock

Later on our way to Little Rock with just the two of us for Mari to meet with my mother and shop for Mari’s trousseau, I began to get sick somewhere between Pine Bluff and the capital city. I kept telling Mari how sick I was, but being the epitome of strong half-German stubbornness and determination (traits that would later serve her well in marriage to a sentimental melancholy half-Irish neurotic) Mari was not about to turn around and go back home despite my wimpy whines and tortured tears.

Sure enough, by the time we had finished the shopping spree and started back to McGehee, I became so sick that I had to stop and let Mari drive. If you can guess who has been the “driving force” in our marriage since then, you are as astute as Mari was and is. If you can’t, you are as stupid as I was and am.

When we got back home I was so sick that Mari called the family doctor, who still made house calls in those days. Before he arrived it had become obvious from my symptoms that I was suffering from the chronic strep throat that I developed two or three times each fall and winter.

One of my devout Southern Baptist mother’s home remedies for almost everything related to sinus and allergy problems was a hot toddy made with honey, lemon juice, and a measure of whiskey from the fifth of medicinal Jim Beam that she kept stashed away in the kitchen cabinet for just such occasions. 

Jim Beam whiskey

A fifth of Jim Beam whiskey like the one Mama kept to make hot toddies

Always the authority on such matters, Brother Joe, who had arrived with his fiancée to help attend to his ailing younger sibling, advised me to forego the hot toddy and “be a man and just take a big swig” right out of the bottle. You can imagine what happened when I, a tee-totaling Baptist with a raw throat, gulped down a huge mouthful of that liquid lava! It was while I was still hacking and coughing and gasping for breath with tears streaming down my reddened cheeks that the doctor arrived.

When the red-haired, ruddy-complexioned, good-natured, slow-moving, slow-talking veteran physician took one look at me and heard what had provoked my horrific reaction, he began to wheeze worse than I was doing, while tears of mirth rolled down his own rosy-red cheeks. I, of course, was not nearly as appreciative of the humor of the situation or his laughter at it as he and my family seemed to be.

Maybe that’s one reason I never developed the habit of drinking alcohol, even though on rare occasions in the past I was known to concoct and consume one of my mother’s hot toddies to offset my chronic sinus and throat problems. But when I did thus imbibe for medicinal reasons, I preferred the taste of eight-year-old, 86-proof, Evan Williams Black Label—greatly diluted with generous amounts of Classic Coke. In fact, for years I kept a half-pint bottle of Evan Williams Black Label in my kitchen cabinet for such use. Then just this Christmas season Mari asked if she could use it to make some Bourbon Balls from a Southern Living recipe. (For the recipe, click here.)

Evan Williams Black Label

A fifth of Evan Williams Black Label whiskey

 
The Blood Test Fiasco and My Ongoing Illness

Later when Mari went to get the blood test required for a marriage license in Arkansas in those days, I received a call from the doctor’s office informing me that my bride-to-be had “fallen out” and that I should “come and get her.”

When I arrived on the scene, Mari was as white as a sheet and still unsteady on her feet. It so happened that, like her father who had somehow served several years in the U.S. Army in the South Pacific during WWII, she had a tendency to faint at the sight of blood—especially her own. As with Mari’s determined trip to Little Rock, we should have realized then that married life for the Peacocks was not always going to be “smooth sailing,” which it never has been.

Just before the wedding, which took place at Christmas time in 1962, I was again sick with my chronic sinus and throat problems for which I was being treated with various powerful medications. One evening as Mari and I were watching TV with my mother, I got up to switch channels (this was long before the days of TV remotes).

Unsteady on my feet, as I leaned down to turn the knob, I fell forward and struck my face on the sharp corner of the four-square, solid-wood TV console (another relic from the past). That incident left a scar above my eyebrow that is evident in the close-ups of our wedding photos.

Console TV set from the late 1950s

A console TV set from the late 1950s like the one Mama owned

That sickness continued so that on the very day of the wedding I had to go in to that same doctor and get two more shots to help me get through the ceremony. It persisted throughout our four-day honeymoon trip down through Cajun Country in Southwest Louisiana, over to New Orleans, and then back up the Mississippi River to McGehee. 

Since I was teaching French and social studies, including American history, both of special interest to me, naturally I had planned to spend our honeymoon in the one place in our region that combined those two subjects: South Louisiana. However, I don’t recall consulting Mari about whether that was her prime interest or preferred destination.

The Pitiful Wedding Night Dinner

The first night in Monroe, Louisiana, about two hours southwest of McGehee, when I went to check in at the motel (then billed as “the largest Holiday Inn in the world”), the young man ahead of me was also wearing a dark suit and a shiny new wedding ring. The young female clerk looked at him and asked, “Are you a newlywed?” Obviously embarrassed, he mumbled yes with his head down, quickly concluded his registration, and left. 

A Holiday Inn in 1962

A Holiday Inn in 1962 like the one Mari and I stayed in on our wedding night in Monroe, Louisiana

Since I had made prior reservations I was sure that I would not be recognized as a newlywed, a distinction I too found embarrassing. So I confidently approached the clerk standing behind the desk and told her my name and that I had reservations. I was both surprised and appalled when she instantly replied with a smirk, “I know you’re a newlywed ‘cause you’ve still got rice in your hair.”

I too quickly concluded my business, keep my head down, and got out as soon as I could. The reason was that I was terribly embarrassed and sensitive about what people would think and say about me and Mari being newly married, knowing that the marriage was not yet “consummated.”

As a result, once we were checked in and had located our room and unpacked our suitcases, I suggested that instead of having dinner in the motel dining room we should go out to eat. But the prospect of eating in a fancy restaurant with all eyes upon us, and running the risk of (horror of horrors!) being identified, singled out, and regaled by well-wishing strangers, made me nervous. As a result, I chose to take Mari someplace I thought nothing like that would happen. So for our wedding night dinner I took her to . . . (wait for it) . . . the Picadilly Cafeteria! 

A Picadilly Cafeteria from 1962

A Picadilly Cafeteria from 1962 like the one Mari and I ate in on our wedding night

Of course, even there, especially there, the two of us in our wedding-day travel clothes, standing in line as we moved through the cafeteria buffet, were the center of attention of everyone in the place. It was unbearable as we sat down and consumed our fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and iced tea with every eye on us, every head nodding knowingly, and every face grinning from ear to ear in recognition of the naive young newlyweds on their wedding night.

To this day I cringe every time I recall that humiliating event, for which I was totally responsible. I am especially reminded of it every time we travel to Tulsa to our doctor’s office which is right across the street from a Picadilly Cafeteria. Though I always joke about it, the truth is that it is a painful memory and a mute testimony to my neuroticism and lack of consideration for my blushing bride.

Although we ate in nicer places after that first embarrassing evening, none of them were the type of dining establishments to which I should have taken Mari to celebrate the beginning of our married life. For that, and many other such failures on my part, I am deeply and eternally sorry. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment that can never be recaptured, no matter how many times I might try to do so, as I did later in the Crescent City.

That attempt to recapture the lost opportunity was also a failure, when I took Mari to the fashionable Court of Two Sisters restaurant in the French Quarter. Being painfully provincial, as we still are, we knew nothing about haute cuisine or beverages. So the waiter suggested a combination seafood platter and a particular vintage wine.

When the meal arrived, the seafood platter was covered with a milky white sauce that neither of us could even eat, much less appreciate, not being connoisseurs of fine dining. Also, as lifelong non-drinkers, neither of us could stomach the vintage wine, which tasted to us like vinegar. So we left the meal virtually untouched. (We would have been much happier with the fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and iced tea we had consumed at the Picadilly Cafeteria, especially if the meal included the two huge pieces of coconut cream pie that we recalled hungrily.)

At a price of sixteen dollars, plus a hefty tip, on an Arkansas teacher’s salary of less than four thousand dollars a year, that gourmet experiment at the Court of Two Sisters turned out to be a financial disaster as well as a gastronomical disaster, much like our entire honeymoon and indeed most of our married life. It was my fault that Mari didn’t get her wedding night dinner. She still hasn’t, and I’m still to blame.

Court of Two Sisters

The Court of Two Sisters restaurant in New Orleans where I failed miserably to create a belated wedding night dinner

 Just What Every Bride Wants on Her Honeymoon!

The rest of our honeymoon trip followed this same pattern. For example, one of the places I wanted to visit near Lafayette in Cajun Country was Avery Island where the popular Louisiana Tabasco sauce is madejust what every bride wants to do on her honeymoon! So I drug Mari all the way out there only to discover that the place was closed for the Christmas holidays. Again, it was my fault for not checking with her and with the place before we left home, or at least before we left the motel.

Avery Island and its famous Tobasco sauce

Avery Island and its famous Tabasco sauce

Back in New Iberia, I wanted to take Mari to visit Shadows-on-the-Teche, an antebellum mansion. But as we were driving down the street in front of it suddenly the old worn-out Corvair lurched, bumped, and made a terrible sound as though the entire transmission was falling out. Not trusting it to hold together, I drove us back to the motel instead, another of many failures on my part to plan our honeymoon with Mari’s participation or at least with her knowledge and approval.

Shadows-on-the-Teche

Shadows-on-the-Teche in New Iberia, Louisiana, as it looked in 1938, the year I was born

Later I led Mari on a long, tiring drive all around the coast of Louisiana to New Orleans where we visited Jackson Square in the French Quarter. There we had Mari’s portrait done by a sidewalk artist. That was another disappointment because the portrait was expensive, time-consuming, and in our opinion not a very good likeness of Mari. As a result, although we paid for it and kept it, we never framed it or displayed it and could not even find it forty-nine years later to show on this post.

Just as the portrait artist finished up his work we heard voices calling our names. We looked across the street in front of the Cabildo and saw a chartered bus unloading. The voices belonged to a huge group of young people from McGehee who were arriving to attend the Sugar Bowl game between Arkansas and Alabama.

Had I included that event in our honeymoon plans and bought tickets for me and Mari? Of course not, just as I had not thought to make hotel reservations in that overcrowded city. As a result we had to drive miles and miles out toward Baton Rouge to find a halfway decent place to spend the night.

The Cabildo and Jackson Square

The Cabildo and St. Louis Cathedral as seen across Jackson Square in the French Quarter in New Orleans

I did take Mari on another long and dreary drive out to Chalmette. Again it was just what every new bride wants to do on her honeymoon—visit a War of 1812 battlefield! To top that off, when I went into the Chalmette visitor center to register, I forgot I was now married and signed only my name. Thinking it was amusing, I made the mistake of telling Mari, who did not find it amusing at all—resulting in the first of countless times in our marriage that Mari was made unhappy by some thoughtless act on my part.

Chalmette

The Chalmette Battlefield Park and Plantation where the 1815 Battle of New Orleans was fought and won by General Andrew Jackson--an interesting historic site, but not high on Mari's list of places to visit on her honeymoon trip to New Orleans!

 The next evening when we made it to Baton Rouge, it was pouring down rain again, and once again I was as sick as a dog. Although the kindly desk clerk instantly recognized us as newlyweds and let us have a honeymoon special of an entire suite for the price of a room, it was a waste since I was in such sickly condition that it was all I could do to lie in bed and moan and groan and try to take my mind off my misery by watching television. Of course, I had no ingredients handy to make one of Mama’s hot toddies.

Our First Married Argument 

The first actual argument in our marriage occurred as we were traveling back up the Mississippi River toward home and barely made it into Antebellum Natchez “on fumes” because the gas gauge on the old pile of junk didn’t work. When I pulled into a gas station right at dark on that cold, dismal evening, I saw the price of regular gas in Mississippi: forty-two cents a gallon!

Since I had never paid more than thirty-two cents a gallon in Arkansas, I vowed I would never pay that much and was prepared to set out for the Arkansas line some 120 miles upriver from Natchez! That’s when Mari became angry with me and vowed that she was not leaving Natchez without a full tank of gas!

Antebellum Natchez
Natchez, Mississippi, home of the largest collection of pre-Civil War antebellum homes in the South

Since neither of us would budge from our resolve, I drove over to the bluff on the bank of the Mississippi River where I parked right in front of Rosalie, one of the many pre-Civil War antebellum mansions in that city, which boasts the largest collection of such historic edifices in the South. There we left the pile of junk and trudged over to the river and stood silently apart from one another watching the muddy waters slowly flowing by below. 

Rosalie mansion

Rosalie antebellum mansion near the Mississippi River in Natchez, Mississippi

 
Rosalie view of the Mississippi River

A view of the Delta Queen on the Mississippi River near Rosalie, an antebellum mansion in Natchez, Mississippi

As we did so, I heard the voice of a young boy behind me. Not understanding him at first, I turned around and asked him what he had said, and he repeated it: “Daince fuh a qwaw-duh!”

“Naw, boy,” I said brusquely. “You go on!”

Of course, shortly afterward I regretted my gruffness and wished that I had paid that boy a quarter to dance. But as with every other foolish and thoughtless act on my part before, during, and after the honeymoon—and indeed throughout our entire married life— it was too late to correct my mistake, which I still regret to this day.

If you paid attention to the story of the Little Rock pre-marriage trousseau trip, you can guess who won that first argument and figure out whether I paid forty-two cents a gallon for gas in Natchez or whether we set out for Arkansas with an empty gas tank! 

Homecoming, New Year’s Celebration, and First Family Purchase

Once back home in McGehee we spent New Year’s Eve popping firecrackers in the parking lot of the local bowling alley with our friends Cullen and Mary Gannaway who were married a week after we were. (For more about Cullen as my best friend and the best man in our wedding who “introduced” Mari and me, see my earlier post titled “The Peacock Love Story/The Passing of a Friend.”) 

Mari and me, Cullen and Mary getting our marriage licenses together in 1962

Mari and me, Cullen and Mary getting our marriage licenses together in 1962 in Arkansas City, an old riverport on the banks of the Mississippi

Then a few days later when the Christmas holiday vacation was over, I went back to the little East Arkansas cotton town of Holly Grove (population either 672 or 762—we never knew which because the signs on each end of town disagreed) where I had begun teaching in September of that year.

Mari went back to Ouachita Baptist College in Arkadelphia, about 160 miles from Holly Grove, to finish out her fall semester.

Ouachita Baptist College (now University) as it looked in 2011

Ouachita Baptist College (now University) as it looked in 2011

Afterward she joined me in my small bachelor apartment in Holly Grove in the home of a retired widow.

Mari in Holly Grove

Mari in Holly Grove wearing the same negligee and robe she had worn on our honeymoon in Louisiana

Since Mari had nothing to do all day while I was teaching, as soon as possible we went back home to McGehee where we made the first purchase of our marriage: a nineteen-inch, black-and-white table-model Zenith television set that we kept and used for seventeen years—which is probably longer than most people who knew me ever imagined the marriage would last! In a later post I will share a letter I once wrote to the Zenith Corporation about that faithful, long-lasting TV.

Zenith table-model TV in 1962

A table-model black-and-white Zenith TV set in 1962 like the one Mari and I bought early in 1963 as our first family purchase

Talking Mari into marrying me before she graduated from college was another one of my many selfish actions. Since she later started teaching elementary school in Holly Grove without a degree, she had to go back to Ouachita to complete her student teaching and earn her diploma. That process required her to drive back and forth between Holly Grove and Arkadelphia each week for an entire semester, which meant that she graduated a year behind the rest of her class. And again it was all my fault.

The Moral of the Sad, Sorry Story

Based on these examples from our courtship, honeymoon, and early marriage is there any wonder that I take advantage of every opportunity possible—like this wedding anniversary message—to praise and honor Mari for her faithfulness, self-sacrifice, and long-suffering over the forty-nine years of our less than ideal married life?

Thanks Mari, and Happy Anniversary! If you will just bear with me and my “neurotic behavior” one more year, I will try to do a better job next time at our fiftieth anniversary—and, with God’s help, I vow to continue to do so “until death do us part.” 

Note: Over the course of our marriage I had always secretly hoped that on our fiftieth wedding anniversary I could take Mari back and retrace our honeymoon route—but this time “do it right.”

Unfortunately, given our current situation, especially my rapidly advancing age and stage and rapidly declining health and wealth, it looks as though that long-desired and much-anticipated “second honeymoon” is just another of my foolish dreams that will not be fulfilled.

However, as noted above, I do hope to offer a more fitting blog tribute to Mari next year at our fiftieth anniversary. So at least to some extent I have finally learned to plan ahead, since I already have it written–just in case!

Jimmy and Mari wedding
Mari and me on our wedding day, December 27, 1962, forty-nine years ago

Credits: The sources of the photos of historic places and homes, classic cars and TV sets, motels and businesses, cafeterias and restaurants, riverboats and the Mississippi River, towns and colleges, food and beverages, etc. were lifted from Web sites that may be viewed by clicking on the highlighted copy about each in the text. The personal photos were taken from our family files.

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Introduction

In June 1960 I graduated from Ouachita Baptist College (now University) with a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration, which was the farthest field from my real interest of anything other than medicine. Realizing that I really didn’t know (or care) anything about business, I was at a loss as to what to do after graduation.

Then “miraculously” my primary business instructor and counselor advised me that the School of Business at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville was looking for bright young students to apply for graduate assistantships. Since I was an honor graduate (magna cum laude), and had no other plan for my life, I applied for and was granted one of those graduate assistantships.

However, it soon became evident to everyone that neither my heart nor my talent was ever in business administration of any type. Not only was I totally liberal arts minded, I was also painfully out of my league among all the razor-sharp, all-out, aggressive, and competitive graduate students working toward their masters and doctorates in various branches of that field.

Besides being out of my league I was also out of my element since I was terribly homesick. Not only did I miss my home in South Arkansas—which was culturally different from the Ozarks, which I called “High Lonesome”—I also missed my friends back down in McGehee and at Ouachita. In fact, I had no real friends in either Fayetteville or the University of Arkansas, and never developed any.

Finally, to add to my misery, I was suffering from a broken heart because my steady girlfriend from McGehee had broken up with me after her graduation from high school and had enrolled in another Arkansas college. (See my earlier tribute to Mari in which I noted that the reason I could not find a steady girlfriend in Fayetteville or the University was because she was simply not there. She was, in fact, back “down home” in McGehee and Ouachita though I didn’t know it yet.)

My living quarters in Fayetteville were in the basement of an older couple’s modernistic hillside chalet-style home. The only piece of furniture in my sparse cinder-block room—besides my bed (with no headboard, footboard, or springs)—was a rude desk and chair with a study lamp, and an old worn-out stereo with one scratchy 78-RPM record. It was by Bing Crosby. On one side was “Faith of Our Fathers” and on the other side was “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”—which, as the holidays grew nearer, and my melancholy grew deeper, I played over and over. (To hear this classic Christmas song recorded in 1943, click here.) To this good day whenever I hear that traditional holiday song—especially the original Bing Crosby version—I experience a pang in my memory and a pain in my heart.

That miserable experience was the motivation for the following piece I wrote many years later to describe what happened when I finally made it back “down home” for Christmas vacation in that less than joyous year of my young life.

“You can close your eyes to reality but not to memories.”
—Stanislaw J. Lec

It was Christmas Eve 1960.

I had just turned twenty-two and was still suffering through the throes of a shattered two-year romance with the hometown girl I had been convinced was “the one and only.” When I learned that (like my Ouachita Baptist College buddies and I), she would be home in McGehee over the yuletide holidays—accompanied by her new “significant other”—the pressure was too much for my aching heart and fevered mind to bear.

Jimmy at graduation from Ouachita in 1960

Me at graduation from Ouachita in 1960

Thus it was that, much against my better judgment, I finally agreed to the insistent offer of a “holiday excursion” to Hot Springs from my friend and former roommate Charlie (now Dr. Charles Wright, retired Chairman of the School of Music at Ouachita).

Charles Wright in 1960

Charles Wright in 1960

Once committed to this hastily contrived and ill-considered “escape-aid,” in my misery-loves-company mentality I even went so far as to persuade our dour friend Cullen Gannaway to leave all the creature comforts and festive goodies of Arkansas City (our county seat and old Mississippi River port) to travel with us to “the valley of the vapors” where Charlie was to sing in the outdoor Metropolitan Hot Springs Christmas cantata.

Cullen Gannaway in 1960

Cullen Gannaway in 1960

By the time we got to Arkadelphia, I had long since come to my senses and was restrained from catching a bus back home only by bitter derision from Charlie and threatened fisticuffs from Cullen, who forcefully reminded me who was responsible for his being far from hearth and home on this increasingly pessimistic pilgrimage.

When we got to Hot Springs, while Charlie was practicing for his evening performance, Cullen and I morosely stalked the dark, cold streets “Christmas shopping.” I picked out a steam iron for my widowed mother (the first and only one she ever owned) and a paperback copy of my favorite piece of English literature, A Christmas Carol. Cullen’s sole purchase was a bit more mundane, and practical—a fifth of Canadian Club.

So, later that evening in the park across from the Arlington Hotel, while the chorus of “Charlie’s angels” enthusiastically and harmoniously heralded the birth of Messiah, I attempted to drown my sorrows by straining my eyes in the dim street light to follow the misadventures of Ebenezer Scrooge, while Cullen drowned his sorrows in a much more literal manner with surreptitious sips of imported inebriant from a brown bag.

The Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs

The Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs

Needless to say, the return trip to McGehee in the wee hours of that long-ago Christmas morning was not the most joyous of yuletide occasions. On the outskirts of Arkansas City, Charlie and I did manage to wrest what was left of the “devil’s brew” from Cullen and fling it into the front yard of a tumbledown sharecropper’s shack as Cullen loudly yelled out “Chris’mus gif’” in slurred imitation of the old plantation holiday greeting.

It was several days later that Charlie and I learned that Cullen’s entire teetotaling Southern Baptist family—including his preacher brother and preacher brother-in-law—had stayed up late to have Christmas with the young collegian, whose spicy mince-pie breath doubtless contributed to the delicious holiday aromas.

Now, more than fifty years later, the only relics of that trip, and of the lost love that prompted it, are the frayed, dog-eared, coffee-stained copy of “Dickens’ immortal classic” that now rests on my gaily decorated table—and a lingering, bittersweet haunting by “the Ghost of Christmas Past.”

A Christmas Carol

The copy of A Christmas Carol I bought in Hot Springs on Christmas Eve in 1960, now more than fifty years ago

Note: The “lost love” was one of Mari’s close friends. As told in a previous post titled “The Peacock Love Story,” it was at Cullen’s insistence that I began dating Mari in the summer of 1961. At Christmas time, December 27, 1962, Mari and I were married in the First Baptist Church of McGehee with Cullen as best man and Charlie as soloist.

Although Cullen died several years ago, and Charlie and I seldom communicate, through the years Mari and her friend have remained close and often travel together to reunions. A few years ago I saw the two of them off and was there to meet them upon their return. Seeing me, they rushed upon me and grabbed me in delight. We walked away laughing, one on each of my arms—exactly forty years after I first started dating Mari’s friend.

 “As time goes by . . .”
A 2010 Update to the Hot Springs Christmas Story

“My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.”
—Pat Conroy, quoted by syndicated columnist
Kathleen Parker, Tulsa World, May 13, 2010

“No man can walk out on his own story.”
—Clint Eastwood-like character in kids’ movie Rango

In May 2010 Mari and I attended a McGehee reunion held in the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs. As noted, the Arlington is the Grande Dame of the prestigious spas in that old resort city. It is located right across the street from a portion of the Hot Springs National Park, the first ever so designated.

The Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs

The Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs

After the Friday night reunion dinner some of us went out onto the “front porch” of the Arlington and sat down around a large table and began to visit and reminisce. As we did so I looked out across the street toward the park and suddenly realized what I was seeing. It was the very street light that I had stood under fifty years earlier while Charlie was singing with the choir. And the next street light was the one Cullen had stood under fifty years earlier sipping his whiskey.

The park across from the Arlington Hotel

The park and the lights across from the Arlington Hotel (to magnify the photo and view the lights across from the Arlington, click on the photo)

Then I noticed the two people who were sitting to my left and whose profiles I was seeing as I looked past them toward the park and the memorable street lights: Mari and her friend from our courting days.

It was quite a significant moment, one that meant nothing to anyone except me, and one that I told no one else about except Mari—until now.

 So now you know . . . THE END OF THE STORY.

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The Missing Baby Jesus

I wrote the following piece during the Christmas season in 1998. I shared it with several people then, but it has never been published. I present it now just as I wrote it thirteen years ago.

I did add the photos to this version, but they are only approximations of the actual objects described in the story. These objects may be viewed or purchased at the links provided at the end of the story. The painting, of course, is a masterpiece that can also be viewed at the link provided.  

 “I have no hands but your hands…”
—Inscription added to war-damaged
statue of Christ in France

At our house, arranging the finely crafted, Italian-made manger scene has been a family Christmas tradition for many years. Each delicate piece—the shepherds and their sheep, the Wise Men with their gifts, Joseph and Mary and the angel, even the lowly cow and donkey, and of course Baby Jesus in the manger—had to be placed in just the right position, turned to just the right angle.

When the boys were very small, the younger one had added to the loft of the stable a plastic chicken from his barnyard play set. It too was placed there just as carefully and just as lovingly year after year, even after—especially after—the boys had become men and left home.

Nothing in the tradition ever changed.

Until some years ago when inexplicably the figure of the Baby Jesus came up missing. When a thorough search proved fruitless, an attempt was made that Christmas season and every subsequent one to find a new Baby Jesus, one specially chosen and properly suited to “match the set.” Those searches proved as fruitless as the first.

Then this year, by chance, as I was browsing through the Christmas ornament section of the local discount center looking for a St. Nicholas gift for a friend, I discovered, dangling all by itself on a wire hanger, a solitary Baby Jesus. Thinking it was high time to “put Christ back into Christmas,” even if he was only an inexpensive Made in China model, I happily purchased the plastic-wrapped figurine and proudly brought it home to “complete the scene” there.

 Josephs Studio 27.5-Inch...

My elation was soon tempered, however, when upon opening the paper bag I took a closer look at the tiny, smiling figure. For the first time I noticed his outstretched arms with the white chalky ends. Suddenly I understood the reason for my good fortune in finding this Christmas “treasure.”

Both his hands were broken off.

“Nobody wants a broken Baby Jesus,” I thought sadly, realizing that this search had proven as fruitless as all the others. But suddenly there came to my mind another Bible scene—the Last Supper—and I heard again in my ears the words spoken by our Lord on that occasion, as recorded in 1 Corinthians 11:24 NKJV: “This is My body, which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”

File:DaVinci LastSupper high res 2 nowatmrk.jpg

So now our finely crafted, Italian-made manger scene is once again complete—with the addition of a $1.97 piece of broken earthenware—the Last Baby Jesus at Wal-Mart.

Jimmy Peacock
Christmas 1998

Note: The photo of the Italian nativity scene was taken from a Web site. To view or purchase it, click here. The photo of the Baby Jesus figurine was taken from a Web site. To view or purchase it, click here. The painting of the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci was taken from a Wikipedia entry. To view it, click here.

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“It is a great thing to start life with a small number of really good books which are your very own.”
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

“You must excuse me, I’m not young enough anymore to know it all.”
–Anonymous

 In this post I would like to share a couple of letters I wrote to the Tulsa World in response to separate requests from the World that readers tell about their favorite childhood books and how they learned the truth about Santa Claus.

Since both of the letters I wrote and submitted are based on experiences that took place during my childhood in my birthplace of Selma, Arkansas, they reveal something about both my nature and my nurture–the interior and exterior influences that formed and shaped my life then and forever after.

My Favorite Childhood Books   

September 26, 2009

Letters to the Editor
TulsaWorld
P.O. Box 1770
Tulsa, OK 74102

Re: Favorite Childhood Books

Dear Editor:

As a child growing up in rural Southeast Arkansas during the 1940s, I was influenced by three books—all of them gifts.

The first was a colorful illustrated version of The Night Before Christmas, which was brought to me by Santa Claus and which created within me a sense of awe and mystery.

The second, simply titled Battleships, was sent to me by an older cousin [Troy Gibson] who was serving in the U.S. Navy as a sailor during World War Two. It created in me a lifelong interest in military history.

Me and Troy Gibson

Me and my cousin Troy Gibson, a sailor in WWII who sent me a little book about battleships

The third book was a Rand McNally Junior Elf book written by Dorothea Johnston Snow titled No-Good, the Dancing Donkey. It was given to me in about 1944-45 by my second-grade teacher, “Miz Inez” Haisty. It told the story of a poor farmer’s donkey who preferred to dance rather than to do chores.

Repeatedly exasperated by the donkey’s antics, the farmer called him “no-good” and eventually decided to take him to the local fair to sell him. However, when the donkey heard the music from the fair he began to dance enthusiastically, so much so that people began to throw coins in front of him and his owner. Of course, the farmer quickly realized the value of a dancing donkey and instead of selling him traveled from fair to fair with him displaying his unique talent for profit.

Since I was not enthusiastic about learning my father’s trade as a livestock dealer, preferring to read, my mother often said of me, “I never had any trouble out of Jimmy. He was always off in a corner with his nose in a book.” I still am. Like No-good, the dancing donkey, instead of being an agricultural worker I used my talent and interest to become a professional, though not a dancer but a writer and editor. 

The Truth about Santa Claus

November 23, 2001

The Truth about Santa Claus
Tulsa World
c/o Leigh Woosley
P.O. Box 1770
Tulsa, OK 74102

Dear Ms. Woosley:

“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”
—St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:11 NIV

 “Toyland! Toyland! Dear little girl and boy land! While you dwell within it, you are ever happy then. Childhood’s joy land, mystic, merry Toyland! Once you pass its border, you can never return again.”
—Babes in Toyland

  “Education is man’s progress from cocksure arrogance to thoughtful uncertainty.”
—Anonymous

In response to your invitation to your readers to share their stories of learning the truth about the existence of Santa Claus, I am passing along my story on this subject. Feel free to edit it as you think necessary (I will understand; that’s how I make my living):

I was born sixty-three years ago today (November 23, 1938) in the front bedroom of a converted Southern-style dog-trot house (still without benefit of running water or electricity) in the little sawmill-farming community of Selma, Arkansas, down in the deep southeast corner of that state.

As the grandson of a country Southern Baptist preacher, to me his daughter, my saintly mother, represented “God with a face of flesh.” Since Mama had always allowed me to believe in Santa Claus, I was absolutely sure that he, like God, not only existed but also visited and blessed me regularly.

Mama and me at a family picnic

Mama (center) leading prayer at a family picnic (I am the dark-haired boy on the left of the photo standing in front of the man in an undershirt and shorts) (To magnify, click on the photo.)

Thus, at about age eight, when some of my childhood friends began to doubt and even protest the reality of Santa, naturally I became a champion of the Blessed Saint. In my capacity as self-appointed Defender of the Faith, I was quick to “take on all comers” and “do battle with the infidels.” Thoroughly convinced of the rightness (and righteousness) of my cause, on Christmas morning of that year, I decided to go to the Source and get the Authoritative Word to use to silence the blasphemous gainsayers once and for all.

Me as a boy playing with a hose at someone else's house

Me as a boy playing with a water hose at someone else's house

So leaving my Christmas goodies under the tree, I went into my mother’s bedroom, where she was lying in the same bed in which she had given me birth eight years earlier. There I asked the fateful question, to which I was sure I knew the faithful answer: “Mama, is there really a Santa Claus?”

Her response was also couched in the form of a question, a quite significant question that actually became the Voice of God to me ever after: Do you really want to know?”

My confident response was a simple “Yes’m.”

Her answer was just as simple, and just as brief: “No.”

My final response? “Aw.”

End of conversation. End of fantasy. Beginning of lifelong search for truth.*

Sincerely yours,

Jimmy Peacock

*That question and its answer was a sort of rite of passage, one of three that took place in that very spot in my mother’s bedroom: The first, my birth, was my passage from the security of the womb to the insecurity of the real world. The second, this event, marked the beginning of my passage from childish “arrogance” to more mature “thoughtful uncertainty.” The third rite of passage occurred some two years later when my parents announced to me on that same spot that we were leaving Selma to move to town.

Me about the time we moved to town

Me about the time we moved to town

Thus began an ongoing journey that ended my simple, idyllic Tom Sawyer-like fantasy world and forced me to enter a new and unknown, frightening and unsettling, ever-widening and bewildering world among strangers in a variety of places I never wanted to go because I just wanted to stay in my secure environment where everything was settled with absolute finality.

So now I know; but now I can’t go–back home again.

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