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.
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).
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.