There comes a terrible moment in a young boy’s life -- within the first 24 hours after one becomes proficient with a BB gun, he realizes it will never get the job done. So I guess I was either 5 or 6 one hot summer day when the most wonderful Christmas I can ever remember began to form. We were in rural Mississippi, spending some weeks at my father’s home place, and it was evermore a mecca for young boys.
The big house lacked modern plumbing, as it had for over 100 years, and there were four bedrooms across the wide wrap-around porch at each corner of the main structure. In the back was a separate cookhouse, with the biggest wood-fed stove and ovens you ever saw. Centuries ago the biggest fear on a plantation was a house fire and, with help miles away, the well bucket and the cistern would be about as effective as my BB gun if the whole thing went up in flames.
The main house was built about four feet off the ground, sitting on massive brick pillars so air could circulate underneath and help keep the house cool in the hot months. The dogs slept under the house – two huge Newfoundlands that weren’t afraid of anything and had a particular aversion for any kind of snakes. It seemed like snakes died every day when we’d walk in the woods.
The sprawling place was a paradise for my brothers and me. There was an acre-sized pond, all sorts of farm animals and curious gadgets and fun places to explore. The woods went for miles; my goodness, the driveway alone was a mile. So every day the dogs and I would be gone, into one adventure after another.
This particular day Mr. Mott Harris had just come in from spraying cotton and needed to use another tractor for a different chore. He asked if I’d like to ride with him to Mr. Tot Dixon’s store to pick up some things and I jumped onto that old John Deere and down the road to Vaughan, Miss., we went.
The machine was huge, with the wheels set wide in back and close in front for row crops, but the engine had just two cylinders back in the day, and you could hear its distinctive pop-pop-popping from long away. Vaughan, also spelled “Vaughn” by some, is between Canton and Yazoo City – about 40 miles from Jackson -- and is tiny by any standard but Mr. Tot Dixon had just about anything anybody needed.
My routine was always the same. I’d select a connoisseur’s soda – usually Grapette, Bubble Up or Orange Crush – grab a candy bar and worm my way behind the counter where Mr. Tot would grin as I studied the cartridges, a much more civil name for a bullet or shotgun shell. I was so good I could spy the different between a .20 gauge shell and a .28 gauge. And I already knew a 30-30 cartridge wouldn’t fit in a 30-06 rifle.
Mr. Tot stopped what he was doing, said he had something to show me and called me to his office. I’d never seen back there and the door was always shut. Well, it seemed like bottles of whiskey were everywhere. I knew Yazoo County was “dry,” like most of Mississippi back then, but like I said, Mr. Tot Dixon had just about anything a man might need.
He fetched a long box that had “Winchester” printed in bright red across the length of it, and pulled out an object swaddled in a long flannel stocking. It was the prettiest rifle I had ever seen, a single-shot .22 with a hammer you had to cock before it would fire. “Want to hold it?” he said and, while it was heavier than my BB gun, it was more solid, had balance and a feel, and was quite simply the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
He told me it would take a short, a long, and a long-rifle cartridge (he sold all three kinds) and when I asked him what he would take for it, I can’t remember his answer but when I’d been paying a dime for a bottle of Grapette, it seemed a king’s ransom. From that day on, every time I’d go to Mr. Tot’s I asked to see the rifle and he even let me take it outside to see if I could lift it long enough to get a bead on a squirrel. I could.
A couple of days before we headed back to Chattanooga I wanted to see the rifle and he told me some man had bought it. “I have some other guns you might like … and a new shotgun, I think” but I was crushed. I was barely six but I knew there would never be a rifle like that one. As summer leaked into autumn I was too busy having new adventures to dwell on the Winchester, and after fall came and went, it was Christmas morning.
We hit the stairs before sun up, racing down into the living room to see what Santa had brought and, as usual, everybody got a pile. Then we checked our stockings and among the peppermint twists and the navel oranges in mine was a tin bottle of Hoppe’s No. 9. I asked Dad what it was for and he smiled as he just nodded towards the hearth. Propped up just so and wearing a red bow beside the fireplace was the Winchester.
Today, almost 60 years later, that rifle is propped up in the corner beside my desk at home. I carried it to the woods all the time growing up and I know it has fired many thousands of cartridges. My children learned to shoot with it and, for a bunch of their friends, it was also the first rifle they ever held.
I’ve had some pretty special Christmases with the greatest collection of family and friends but, as I search back as far as I can remember, the only gift that has endured is that Winchester rifle. I’m sure there is a Bible or something else, there has to be, but I’ll declare I can’t name it.
It’s said a man goes through three life stages; believing in Santa Claus, not believing in Santa Claus, and being Santa Claus. Isn’t it peculiar that the last one is the most fun?