December 2000

Christmas at the Ranch

By Elmer Kelton

We Keltons lived on a ranch nine miles from town, which used to worry me at Christmas time. I wasn't sure Santa Claus would know how to find his way out there. But he always did, somehow, though in lean Depression times he sometimes did not lighten his load much at our house.

What we always did have was a sense of warmth, of family togetherness. Some of our Christmases were spent where we lived, on the McElroy Ranch east of Crane. My father was the ranch foreman. Other Christmases we spent at my paternal grandparents' Hackamore N Ranch north of Midland.

Dad did not seem to enjoy Christmas as much as the rest of us did. It got in the way of the ranch routine. The cowboys usually went off to visit their own families for the holidays, leaving Dad and us boys with the chores. The livestock did not know Christmas from the Fourth of July.

Mother and Dad had different conceptions of Christmas. Mother had grown up in a home where Christmas was observed in a traditional way, with a trip to church, family singing of hymns and carols, and a tree with all the trimmings. Dad, by contrast, grew up in a Spartan ranch atmosphere far from town and church, far from organized Christmas activity.

The Christmas tree was not part of his family tradition. One had as well have brought a horse into the living room as a tree. Eventually, though, he mellowed and began going out into what we called the South Pasture to cut down a cedar for decoration.

I was the oldest of four boys. Most of our growing-up years we were the only children on the place. We had to entertain ourselves the best---or worst---that we could.

One of the big attractions of Christmas was that it gave us a wider variety of playmates. At my grandparents' ranch, especially, Christmas provided a great family get-together, uncles, aunts and cousins, in what to me seemed a delightful pioneer setting. Granddad and Grandmother still used kerosene lamps and brought their water up from a cistern in the yard. A trip to the bathroom involved a walk outside, rain or shine, hot or cold. Winter heat came from the woodstove in the kitchen and a pot-bellied, wood-burning heater in the living room. The house itself was a small and simple turn-of-the-century box-and-strip structure.

By contrast, we considered ourselves highly modern at the McElroy. We had indoor plumbing and electric lights from a 32-volt generator.

The toys we received were modest by today's standards. Depression dollars were scarce and thoughtfully spent. But our expectations were not high. Always of a bookish nature, I was in tall cotton when I received a couple of Big Little Books, especially the movie story kind featuring stills of Ken Maynard, Buck Jones or Tim McCoy.

The greatest pleasure of Christmas was the chance to play with cousins we seldom saw the rest of the year. Sometimes Granddad let us go with him to feed his cattle. He never owned a pickup. He did his ranch work on horseback or with a wagon. At the McElroy that would have been considered a chore. At the Hackamore N it was a treat.

The only sad thing about Christmas was that after a sumptuous dinner we had to load up the car and start home, a trip of seventy-odd miles, part of it over two-rut roads with treacherous high centers and, when it rained, bottomless mudholes that threatened to submerge whatever Christmas spirit remained.

Christmases at home had a glow of their own, though we usually did not have as many people as at the Hackamore N. At either place, Christmas was simple and unstructured, gifts conservative in cost and number though rich in spirit. I was never prouder of any gift than a pair of cowboy chaps my mother made for me out of brown oilcloth.

Once in a while we got hold of a cardboard box large enough to hold one of us. One would get in while the others pushed him around the yard. The screech of cardboard against the gravel surface was unnerving to the general manager, Lester S. Grant. So one Christmas he surprised us with a gift of a red Jumbo wagon. He issued one proviso, that never again would we push each other around the yard in a cardboard box.

Not all Christmases were joyous. I remember attending the funeral of a young cousin the day before Christmas Eve.

On another Christmas my youngest brother, Eugene, nicknamed Boob, almost had a fatal accident. The weather was extremely cold, and ice had formed across a large surface tank. He walked out on the ice and fell through. My brother Myrle broke ice all the way out from the edge and rescued him. When they got back to the house, their wet clothes frozen, Myrle got a spanking for letting Boob go out on the ice in the first place.

Virtue is often rewarded, but not always as expected.

As happy as Christmas was for most of us, it was a lonely time for one member of the ranch's extended family. We had a bookkeeper named Tom Schreiner who had come from Norway as a young man to seek his fortune. It always eluded him, but he kept books for others who were managing to make theirs. Somehow he ended up on this isolated ranch in the desolate-looking sand country of West Texas, as different as could be from the magnificent Norwegian fjords he had known in his youth.

It was whispered that Tom once had been married, then divorced. Divorce was a word not lightly spoken in those days, so most people regarded him as an old bachelor. He had no family except the one left behind decades before in Norway. Christmas was a lonely time for him. He was one of us, yet always an outsider.

As the holidays approached, Tom usually sought to drown his loneliness in drink. We looked upon his drinking with a combination of amusement and sympathy. Once he came walking in from the town road after a Sunday afternoon spent in Crane. He was a little wobbly and looking for help. He explained that he had run his coupe into the ditch about a mile up the road. He further revealed that he had had a six-pack of beer with him. Ever an accountant, he had mentally calculated how far each beer had to last to get him home.

"And, Buck," he told my father proudly, "I only missed it by a hundred yards."

For years Tom talked of his big dream: to retire and go back to the "old country" and the life he had left as a young man. After World War II, aging and beginning to lose his health, he finally returned to Norway. But the dream betrayed him. Nothing was as he remembered it. Most of his family and friends were dead or aging. Even the look of his hometown had changed so that he could hardly recognize anything. He was bitterly disappointed.

Soon he began writing melancholy letters to friends in Texas, saying that as soon as his health improved he was coming back. But his health never improved. He died in Norway, alone, as he had so long been alone at the ranch.

I think the contrast between his situation and ours pointed up to us the importance of family, especially at Christmastime. We looked at Tom Schreiner and realized how blessed we really were.


Elmer Kelton, of San Angelo, is the award-winning author of numerous novels, including The Time It Never Rained and The Good Old Boys.

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