By Don Kenton Henry
King had a soft mouth. That’s what my dad always said. King was dad’s prize, field-bred and accomplished, orange and white Brittany Spaniel. A “soft mouth” is a bird hunter’s parlance for a dog that will retrieve without ruffling a feather or bruising an already damaged quarry. This, and his ability to find quail or pheasants where other dogs found none, made King a stud dog in high demand throughout Central Indiana and Ohio. In addition to a beautiful hand engraved over and under Remington shotgun, he was my dad’s pride and joy and one of his few valuable possessions. And it was King that was with him when he showed up at our door that Christmas day, 1965. Except that King stayed in the car. After all, he was a working dog and not to be coddled.
We hadn’t seen either of them since Mom filed divorce papers back in October, two days past her thirty-seventh birthday. That happened after Dad lost his job as a used car salesman when he punched Mr. Richter, of Richter & Kern Buick. He knocked him through the plate glass window of the sales office onto the car lot after “one too many” over lunch at the pub across the street from the new car showroom. It just so happened the police station was two doors down from the pub. Mom had to bail Dad out of jail, and the incident made the second page in the Finn’s Landing Republican. She was certain it could cost her her job as a Killarney County Extension Agent, and that’s when she went to see Al Cole. Al was a respected and established attorney with whom she was acquainted from his comings and goings in the county courthouse where Mom’s office was located.
It was not yet mid-morning when the doorbell rang. I answered, and there, against a backdrop of newly fallen snow, stood my dad. Normally, he would have walked right in the back door wearing the attire of a field guide. That was his job at that time, at the Flying Feathers hunting preserve near Warren, Indiana. And it’s where he had lived since the divorce papers forced him out of our house. And from where he had driven that morning. Usually, by now, on a day off―and especially on a holiday―he’d be drunk. But today was different.
He stood there in pressed, cuffed wool slacks and a starched white shirt. He was minus a coat despite the cold. I surveyed him from his black dress shoes, spit-shined the way he always polished them after eight years in the Navy, to his jet black hair with nary a speck of gray. It was perfectly combed with a little dab of Brylcreem and set off his deep blue eyes. It was seldom I had seen them clear in recent years, and they stood out in brilliant contrast to my own, which he always said got washed out in the rinse cycle. His arms were full of brightly wrapped Christmas presents. He was thirty-eight years old. I was eleven.
“Merry Christmas, Junior!” he exclaimed. “You going to open the door and let your old man in, or are you going to make me freeze out here?”
“C’mon in, Dad,” I said, standing aside. My siblings had heard his voice and came running as he stepped from the foyer into the living room. I was the oldest of four and named after him. Hence ― the reference to “Junior”. Preston was seventeen months younger than I and age nine. Mari Jessica, his little Princess, was seven. And little Mark, five. They all gleefully rushed to hug him, and he hastily set the gifts down to wrap the three of them in his arms. I stood off to the side, watching. I had been on the front line with my mom too long but still wanted to believe this holiday would remain different. However, experience made me apprehensive, and I couldn’t help wondering if the other shoe would drop. My mother entered the room. She was wearing a red checkered cotton dress she had sewn herself. All of her spare money went to things for the four of her children. Store-bought clothes and books. She never denied us a book. She looked beautiful in her simple, modest way, with the red, green, and blue Christmas tree lights reflecting off her thick dark brown hair. “Good morning, Marietta. Merry Christmas!” he said. His voice was cheerful but belied the wistful look in his eyes.
She forced a weak smile in return, which I knew was for the sake of my siblings, and said, “Merry Christmas, Don. You can put the gifts under the tree with the others we waited to open until you got here. I’ll get you some coffee.” This she did but immediately returned to the kitchen, separated by a swinging green door from the rest of the house. There, she would smoke her cigarettes, drink her own coffee and try to get lost in a book that would take her far away to some romantic island or mansion on a hilltop for a while.
Dad walked to the sofa, the littlest two clinging to him. He took a seat at the end of the sofa across from the fireplace. My sister promptly climbed into his lap. Preston and Mark crowded in next to them. I took a seat in a stuffed chair along the wall between the Christmas tree and the fireplace. A real fire blazed in it, and the scent of burning oak mixed with that of sandalwood, cinnamon, and myrrh from the lit candles on the mantle adjacent to the cardboard figures of Mary and Joseph kneeling next to the cradle of baby Jesus. My dad took this in then turned his attention to the tree. “That’s a real pretty tree. Did all of you help decorate it?”
“Yes!” the four of us chimed.
“And will you look at that angel at the top! I always loved that angel. She’s such a beauty!” He was right about that. Her face was befitting . . well―an angel! But it was her wings that made her so special. They were made from real feathers, probably from a dove, and remained pristine white because my mom sealed the angel carefully in plastic wrap after taking her down each year. Those great arching wings rose from her back, high above her shoulders, and tapered to fine tips below her delicate sandaled feet. When I was very little, I imagined she could really fly and dreamed of flying off to heaven with her.
“Your mother and I were given that by your grandmother Jessie on our first Christmas together. Don’t ever let anything happen to it. It’s special.”
“Why would we let anything happen to it?” I asked.
“Well, I know you wouldn’t,” he answered with a wink.
Now my dad could be a real charmer when he was sober. That’s how he won my mom. He had come home on leave from the Korean War and his sister, who was a student at Purdue University, set him up on a date with my mom, who was also a student there. With that smile and those eyes, quick wit, and intelligent enough to say all the right things, he won her over. The problem, however, was that he was sober less and less as the years went by. My grandfather, her father, had warned her not to marry him. To my knowledge, it was the first and last time she ever went against her father’s wishes. After a while, Dad rose from the sofa and said he would have a cigarette in the kitchen, and then he disappeared behind the green door.
I knew what was coming down. He didn’t want the divorce. When sober, he knew my mother was the best thing he had going for him, and he didn’t want to lose his family. He loved hunting, fishing, hanging out with the boys, drinking whiskey, and getting in fights. But when he sobered up, he liked having a stable place to come home to and a wife who could keep a steady job. Besides that, I think he really loved my mother and each of us. He’d shown up impeccably groomed, wearing aftershave. He probably thought once he got mom to the side, he could humbly apologize for being such a boorish fellow, win her back, and all would be well. The way, I am certain, he had done a thousand times before. He’d promise to turn over a new leaf and treat us all better. I also knew what her answer would be. She’d had enough of the physical and verbal abuse, coupled with the humiliation of her husband’s drunken behavior making our small-town paper. But it was only the concern for the safety of her children which had brought her to this place. She could no longer guarantee that if he remained in our home.
The four of us watched Miracle on 34th Street, or one or another Christmas movie classic. After what seemed an interminable period of time, Dad emerged from the kitchen by himself. His look said it all and confirmed my prediction. I let out a sigh of relief as, I must admit, some small part of me had asked, “What if he changes her mind?”
He suggested it was time to open our gifts and went to his car to get a few more. He made two trips, returning the first time with a large box, then, after staying outside a little longer, returned with a second identical box. He asked that my sister and little brother, Mark, go first and open the smaller packages with their names on them. I can’t remember what he got them. It was probably, among other things, a piece of jewelry for my sister. What I do remember, is he lavished us with gifts far beyond what was appropriate for a man with his income. Preston and I received the contents of the two big boxes. In them were huge, very heavy sleeping bags. In a day before space-age materials, they were sleeping bags made from heavy canvas, stuffed with goose down. As the accompanying literature said, “Guaranteed to Keep You Warm at 40 Degrees Below Zero”! Obviously, he was taking us on a hunting exhibition to the North Pole to begin the New Year. And he made a point of letting us know how much the sleeping bags cost but emphasized we were worth it. Years later, long after his death, I had a conversation with Preston in which he said he had tried to purchase Dad’s shotgun back from a guy in Rensselaer Dad had sold it to. The man wouldn’t part with it even when Preston offered him twice its value. Looking back, Dad must have sold it to him about the time of that Christmas of 1965. He then moved to Texas, never to return, except for two brief visits, shortly after the divorce was final in the spring of ’66.
The others fell all over themselves, thanking him for being extravagantly generous. Even I felt a little guilty for the cold shoulder I had been giving him and crossed the floor to give him a hug. His eyes shone until he looked to the green door, and then you could see the sadness enter once again. While the two youngest played with toys, Preston and I climbed in our 40 below sleeping bags in front of the fire, and Dad disappeared out to his car once more. This time he remained outside much longer. When he returned, he bent down to show me how to unzip and remove the fine wool liner from the sleeping bag for warmer weather. I could smell whiskey on his breath. In my eleven years, I had come to know the smell of Jim Beam like he was a member of the family. And I knew this holiday was far from over. He became quieter and stared into the fire more as the rest of us watched that Christmas classic unfold on the television. I tried to pay no mind as he made another trip to the car. This time he returned and broke the silence with a question. “I hear you’ve been picking on your brother Preston, Junior. Is that right?”
I rolled over on the bag to look at him. “Well, when he bugs me on purpose and rats on me to Mom and Grandpa, yeah, I guess I pick on him.”
“You’re quite a bit bigger than he is. How would you like it if I hit and picked on you?” he said. I don’t recall if I had an answer but the next thing I knew, he rose from the sofa and challenged me to a wrestling match. I also don’t recall my weight. But as I weighed only one hundred thirty-five pounds when I got my driver’s license at age sixteen, I couldn’t have been over one hundred pounds five years earlier. I was scared as he came toward me, but hoping his inebriation would work to my advantage, I dove for his legs and tried to take him down. He wasn’t big himself but, well ― at twenty-seven years my senior, you might guess he was getting the better of me, despite being drunk. He executed what I later came to know as a “single underhook”. That’s a wrestling move, and he underhooked my left arm and drove his weight down and toward it, forcing me to fall backward. We hit the edge of the Christmas tree and knocked quite a few trinkets off. A hollow glass Frosty the Snowman crunched under his foot as I fell against the humidifier. It stood about two feet high and had a lid with four very sharp corners of folded sheet metal. In falling, I had twisted my body to reverse our positions. In doing so. I caught the inside of my right wrist on one of those corners. The cut wasn’t long, less than an inch. I know, for I am looking at the scar as I write this. It was, however, deep, stopping just shy of a blue vessel, clearly visible at the cut’s deepest point. It wasted no time in bleeding like crazy, but the fight, or wrestling fiasco, did not end there. He had me in a bear hug, and I had my little arms locked around his head. He was trying to make me cry or say “UNCLE”, I guess, but I wouldn’t, and my siblings were cheering for me. Even Preston. I remember him yelling, “C’mon, Donnie! C’mon, Donnie!” and I can see his chubby face and remember him cheering me on from where I lay under my dad. Of all the things, Preston cheering for me, after all, I had picked on him, is the last thing I will forget of many more memories yet to be made that day. Finally, my mother heard the commotion and came out to find the blood of her oldest boy covering the vinyl floor of the living room at the base of the tree. Looking back, her decision to go with vinyl flooring instead of carpet, considering she had four young children yet to raise, was a wise one in times like this. Screaming, she got my dad off me. I stood and stared at my bleeding wrist. “How’s it feel, Junior?” he said before stepping out to the car again.
Mom got the first aid kit, wrapped gauze around a sterile pad she placed over the cut, and taped it down. It should have been evident at the time that the wound could have used a few stitches, but no one, least of all me, wanted to go to Dukes Hospital on Christmas Day. I remained silent on the issue, but after the three younger kids insisted she not make our dad leave, Mom returned to the kitchen, and I said I was going outside to check on King. Preston got up to follow me, and dad, once more, resumed his position on the sofa while the two littlest played with their new gifts. I imagine they tried to pretend the recent “SMACK DOWN OF DONNIE” had merely danced in their heads, no more real than visions of sugar plums.
I went to the curb where dad’s Chevy station wagon was parked, and Preston traipsed behind, still in his red and white striped Christmas pajama pants and slippers. King was sitting on the front bench seat, rose, and began wagging his stubby tail when we opened the passenger car door and slid in next to him. The vinyl was cold under our butts, and King’s nose was as warm and wet as his tongue felt to us when he licked our face. You could see his breath as he panted and ours as we laughed. It was so cold, we wouldn’t stay long without our coats, and we were just about to return to the house when I spied it. It was on the floorboard with its neck resting on the brake peddle. The bottle of Jim Beam. I reached past King and raised it in my hand. I looked at the label and then at Preston. A huge grin appeared on his face, exposing his teeth’s blindingly shiny braces. He didn’t have to say a thing, and neither did I. We both knew the drill. We had done it a hundred times before when dad’s bottle sat on the floor at the top of the stairs outside the kitchen’s rear door. While I popped the cork on that bottle, Preston rose to his knees on that bench seat, popped his little pecker out of those pajama pants, grabbed the neck of that bottle, and peed at least have a pint in what started as a half-full quart bottle. Steam rose out its neck as the warm piss hit the cold Kentucky bourbon. By the time he finished, I had whipped out my little wanger and did the same. Looking in each other’s eyes, we both giggled, and King wagged his tail furiously with approval. After putting the cork back, I turned the bottle over a time or two and put it back on the driver’s side floorboard before we left the car, hurried up the steps and into the house. We had no sooner kneeled in front of the fireplace to warm up when Dad again went out the front door. Preston and I just looked at each other.
Anxious minutes later, he returned with King by his side. King had not given us away, and―to our great relief―dad was no more the wiser that his bottle of Jim Beam had somehow amazingly replenished itself. Perhaps he took it as a Christmas miracle of sorts. We jumped up and welcomed King, who was shaking a little from the cold. After letting us fawn over him for a while, he lay down at the end of the sofa next to Dad’s feet, let out a sigh, and soaked up the heat of the smoldering fire. This was a rare treat for a working dog usually confined to a straw-filled dog box in the back of a truck or a kennel run alongside Labs, Retrievers, English Pointers, and fellow working dogs. Twice more, Dad went out to the car. And twice more, after he returned, Preston and I made an excuse to go outside and top that bottle off. Along with the bottle of Hai Karate After Shave we had given him, this was our Christmas gift that kept on giving.
The last time he returned from his trip to the car Jim Beam walked in beside him and, invisible to everyone but me, tipped his hat to all. The Spirit of St. Nicholas slipped through the green door past my mom and out the back door of the house. I watched my dad’s eyes. I could see the shine had gone out of them and had been replaced with a dull, hardened look. A look of resignation. It was a look that only the family and friends of an alcoholic, or otherwise addicted person, know as “a switch that is flipping”. His shoulders were less squared. He slumped in his seat and looked much smaller now. His countenance reflected a realization that -for once in their twelve or thirteen-year history – he could not successfully work his charm or impose his will on my mother. I gripped the carved claw handles of the easy chair. The rest of the kids were oblivious.
In one swift, smooth move―even I could not have anticipated―and without the slightest change in expression―he reached behind his back into his waistband, drew his M1911 .45 caliber pistol, the standard-issue sidearm for the United States Armed Services from 1911 to 1985―and fired a shot into the burning logs of the fireplace. Red-hot coals of the crackling fire spewed like fireworks from behind the steel mesh of the spark arresting curtain. The concussion of a second shot sent an entire flaming log into the air, and a third caught it before it could drop and sent it flying out and onto the hearth. Fortunately, the sleeping bags―good to 40 below―were also good to the point of combustion. Obviously, they had been treated with some fire retardant substance for hot coals coated them, and they did not catch fire. The other kids’ dove for cover under various pieces of furniture, but I sat frozen in my chair, too shocked to move and not wanting to get in the line of fire. King did not flinch. He was used to gunfire. Apparently, even in family living rooms. Then I watched, and as if in slow motion, Dad turned the pistol toward the top of the tree. Without a moment’s hesitation―not to aim or otherwise―BLAM! He shot the angel dead ― center mass! She slammed against the wall and dropped behind the Christmas tree. King didn’t miss a beat but acted instinctively. I was still staring at the hole in the wall when he trotted out from behind the tree as though it were just another piece of brush at the edge of an Indiana field of fallen corn. He gently lay the fallen angel in dad’s open palm. “Good boy, King,” dad said, turning the angel over and running his finger down the smooth, perfectly intact, white feathers. “You’ve always had a soft mouth.”
In the years that passed since that Christmas of 1965, I have entrusted this story to a select few. Some accuse me of embellishing it. Others listen in amazement and then interpret it as some bizarre religious experience. I dismiss such with a shrug and reply, “I simply consider it an incredible shot given the level of his intoxication.”