|December--Santa Was A Mink
“I don’t like it any more than you do,” my mother said in a conversation
with my father in the kitchen. “The kids will just have to want this year
. . . we’ll have a good Christmas dinner and some candy and fruit . . .
and use the money we would have spent on Christmas to pay some bills.”
I was barely old enough to know the truth about Santa--at least I would
not have admitted it. Still, the words of my mother, the late Laura Bell
Scifres, rang like a giant hammer clanging on an anvil. The “genuine pig
skin football” I wanted for Christmas seemed very distant.
For weeks I had looked at pictures of footballs in the mail-order catalog,
and dreamed of having one. Now I knew it wouldn’t happen.
Suddenly this was something I wanted to tell someone, but I knew that
couldn't happen either; not my older brother or sister, not my grandmother,
not anyone. I wasn’t eavesdropping--simply taking a nap on a December
Saturday morning on the old black leather davenport in the living room
--when my mother delivered her declaration.
My mother wasn’t angry as she spoke with my father, the late Jacob
W. “Jake” Scifres. She wasn’t angry at anyone. She was merely stating the
facts of our family’s economic life as we--and those about us--struggled
to recover from the Great Depression.
The economics of the country didn’t mean much in those days to children
in small towns of Southern Indiana. I did know times were hard because
my mother had to work at the shoe factory when work was available.
Through those economically troubled years my father had managed to find
some work, too. We had been luckier than many families.
But now, my mother told my father, the grocer, while being very patient
with all of the townspeople, was beginning to press for some payment--however
small-- on old bills. And the coal man and other merchants were becoming
reluctant to extend more credit.
When my mother stopped talking, the house grew so quiet I could hear
the old alarm clock ticking across the room.
“We’ll see!” my dad said emphatically, breaking the silence. It was
a thing he said often when he didn’t agree wholeheartedly with something
although he had no immediate solution to the problem.
My dad said he had some things to do in the woodshed.
I feigned my nap for several minutes after the back door opened and
closed. Then I remembered seeing the stub of a rope that had been tied
to a rafter in the woodshed of an abandoned house on the other side of
town. That brought frightful memories of the stories about how a man had
hanged himself there two years before because he could not provide food
for his family.
I got up from the couch quietly, pulled on the old hand-me-down sheepskin-lined
coat I had been using as a blanket, and slipped quietly out the front door.
There were no sounds as I neared the woodshed, and the worst possible
fears raced through my mind. For a time I hesitated, not knowing whether
to open the woodshed door. But on opening the door slowly, I was much relieved
to find my dad bending over the large wooden chest that contained his carpentry
Spread out on top of the chest were some rusty steel traps and the parts
of many others. He was inspecting the traps carefully, placing the whole
traps off to one side and picking out the best parts of the others.
Several years earlier--before I was old enough to remember--the old
woodshed had burned to the ground. My dad’s traps had been destroyed along
with his fishing tackle. About the only outdoor pleasure he had left was
hunting, and he did that to get food for our family when he couldn’t find
work, but could find money for a few shotgun shells. In those days a small-town
merchant would sell rifle and shotgun shells one at a time, if that was
required to put money in the cash box.
Once, though, there had been more than a hundred of the steel traps.
During the trapping season, they had stretched up and down the two forks
of the Muscatatuck River, which surrounded our little town, and their tributaries.
But the traps had not been touched since my dad sifted through the ruins
of the woodshed and placed them in a nail keg, which had been stored under
the house until the new woodshed was completed.
I didn’t say anything, but watched as my dad banged the good traps against
a nearby chopping block to remove the rust, then tested them by springing
the jaws, setting the pedal mechanisms, and tripping them with his thumb
from below to be sure they would function. It looked dangerous, but it
was a thing he had done many times.
He placed the good traps together at one end of the tool chest, muttering--as
much to himself as to me--that they still would hold a mink. There were
three good traps.
By repairing the chains of some with bailing wire and combining the
parts of others, he fashioned five more traps.
“Eight traps,” my dad said, now clearly addressing me. ”That ought to
be enough to catch a mink.”
Explaining that I was old enough to learn something about mink trapping,
my dad said we would go out to set the traps the next day after church.
Then, with his hands, he swept the rusty trap parts back into the nail
keg and returned it to the spot behind the woodshed door.
Had I known then the stories of my dad’s mink-trapping skills that circulated
among the townspeople, my hopes for the genuine pigskin football would
have risen. But I would not hear of these legendary feats until much later
Stories like the one in which my dad strolled through the business part
of the town on a Saturday morning as he came in for lunch after running
his trap line on the west fork of the river. He would run his traps on
the east fork in the afternoon.
As the story goes, my dad walked nonchalantly past the barber shop
which was brimming with men of the town who were there for shaves, haircuts,
or just to talk or listen.
“There’s Jake Scifres . . . in from running his traps . . . wonder if
he caught a mink today?” one man said and poked his head out the door to
ask that question.
“Yes,” my dad answered, patting the side pocked of his tattered, old
hunting coat “I caught a mink today.”
Someone yelled: “Come in here, Hickory (as he was known to most men
of the town) . . . we want to see your mink.”
I never knew why my father was better known as “Hickory” than as “Jake.”
It could have been that he was tall, slender and wiry--like a tall shagbark
hickory that towers above most of the other trees in Midwest hardwood forests.
But it could also have been that he was thusly dubbed because he was an
avid squirrel hunter and a collector of hickory nuts in the fall.
Some said he knew the location of every hickory tree in our part of
Whatever the reason, I liked the name for someone as important as he
was to me. To me he was Dad.
Most of the chairs around three walls of the barber shop were occupied
that morning, but he found a vacant chair and pulled a small brown sow
mink from a side pocket of his coat.
That set the shop abuzz as my dad handed the flimsy, soft body of the
mink to the man in the next chair. After examining it, the man passed it
on. So it went around the room.
When the mink was almost back to my dad, he pulled a larger black boar
mink from the other side pocked. That brought a frenzy of activity to the
patrons of the shop, and “Ol’ Doc Scifres” (not related), the barber.
It was unbelievable . . . two mink in one morning.
But the best was still to come.
When the excitement of the second mink had subsided, my dad reached
into the back game bag of his hunting coat and pulled out a huge, black
I was a thing that legends are made of: Three mink in one morning.
Although I would not hear that story--from Ol’ Doc, himself, for several
years, I was not totally unaware of the value of raw fur, especially mink
On Saturdays through the winter months--starting early in December--
the fat, red-bearded, shaggy-haired old man would set up his open-air fur-buying
business on a downtown corner, or in the pool room, if it was very cold.
My dad had sold his fur to this bespectacled, near-sighted man for many
years. They knew each other well, and though my dad no longer could trap
(there was no money for new traps), the arrival of the fur-buying season
was a clarion call to talk with both the fur buyer and the men who trapped.
Some days I would get to tag along, and though I could not understand
the intricate dealings, I learned how raw furs were turned into money.
That alone helped ease the pain of knowing that Christmas could be bleak,
but that there was hope.
I went straight home after Sunday school the next day. On most Sundays
I would play with friends in the streets as we went home from church (there
weren’t more than half a dozen automobiles in the town). On that Sunday
I went straight home.
After dinner (the noon meal, which was the big meal of the day on Saturdays,
Sundays and holidays; the lighter evening meal was supper) my dad pulled
on his black-rubber hip boots, and went to the woodshed. There he placed
the eight traps and his short-handled hatchet in the game pouch of his
dilapidated old hunting coat and we soon were walking north from the town
on the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks.
As we crossed the trestle of a small creek half a mile north of town,
my dad pointed out a tile drain at the edge of the small stream known to
most of the town’s inhabitants as Buck Creek.
“I’ve caught mink there,” my dad told me, adding that we would not set
traps there because it was too close to town . . . his traps, more
than likely, would be stolen, he said.
We walked the tracks for more than a mile beyond Buck Creek. As we
approached another trestle--this one over Grassy Creek-- we crossed the
old Indiana Railway (called the interurban) right-of-way, which paralled
that of the railroad, and climbed a fence into a thicket.
“We’ll cut some trap stakes here,” my dad told me, explaining that it
was not wise to cut trap stakes close to the place where you would set
“That tells trap thieves where your traps are,” he said.
With that he bent an ash sapling over, and cut its top out with a single
stroke of the bone-handled pocketknife he carried.
He trimmed all of the branches but one from the main stem of the sapling's
top. Then trimming the main stem to make a stake roughly 18 inches long,
he cut off the remaining limb to about three inches. The stub of the remaining
limb pointed downward to create a perfect trap stake. Then he squared off
the big end of the stake by placing it against a larger tree and whacking
it squarely with the hatchet.
After cutting another stake and placing the two stakes and the hatchet
back in the game pouch of his coat, we headed for Grassy Creek.
We skirted the area close to the railroad trestle because that was a
popular place with those who went to the creek. It was easily accessible
because of the railroad tracks that spanned the creek. But when we were
200 yards or more west along the brush-infested creek banks, he told me
to stand outside the brush line while he checked along the water’s edge
for tracks or other mink sign.
My dad forced his way through the brush and looked down on a little
pool of water no more than eight feet wide and 15 or 20 feet long. Fast
water spilled into the pool on the upstream end and left the pool at its
lower end. A small tree grew on the far bank, and high water had washed
much of the earth away from its roots, creating what my dad called a root
There was a narrow earth ledge covered by an inch or so of water on
the far side of the pool, then the smooth earth bank went nearly straight
up for three or four feet and disappeared in the mass of tree roots.
“This is a good place to trap a mink,” he said, calling me to his side.
“You stay right here while I look it over.”
My dad disappeared into the brush of the creek banks 30 feet or so upstream.
In a few minutes he came wading into the pool from the upstream end.
He moved cautiously through clear water that was no more than 18 inches
deep as he looked closely at the narrow earth ledge along the far side
of the pool.
Sweeping his hand the length of the inundated ledge, he told me he could
see tracks in the mud under the shallow water.
“He goes right along the ledge,” my dad told me, adding that the mink
jumped over a black root before swimming down the swift water into the
next pool. There were mink tracks in the mud on the far side of the root
and my dad said that was the place to set traps.
My dad took two of the traps from his coat, set them and tested them
just as he had in the woodshed. He placed the traps in the soft bottom
of the stream and staked both with one of the stakes he had cut.
When he was satisfied with the “set,” he covered the traps lightly with
decaying leaves from the bottom of the pool. Just before he left the set,
he punched a strong stick in the bottom of the pool on the deep-water side
of the trap stake. Then he retraced his steps and rejoined me on the banks
of the creek.
Continuing my mink-trapping education as we walked westward in search
of other places to set traps, my dad told me we had a good chance of catching
that mink because mink are creatures of habit.
“If you find a place where a mink has been, he will always come back,”
he said “. . . if he don’t get caught somewhere else.”
As the afternoon and our search wore on, we found several other places
where mink had been. One was a beautiful series of holes in the banks of
the stream. There were holes both above and below the water line near a
willow tree, my dad told me, as we looked at the place from a distance.
And there was mink dung on a partially inundated chunk of driftwood.
My dad made no attempt to set traps there. He wouldn’t go near the place.
He said it was a den.
“You don’t fool around a mink’s den if you want to trap him,” he told
me. “If you do, he may hightail it right out of the country.”
We made two other sets on the creek that afternoon. The last thing my
dad did at each set was to push a strong stick in the bottom of the
creek in deep water.
In each case it was a sturdy stick. At each set the stick was pushed
firmly into the bottom of the creek and extended upward to a point just
below the surface of the water.
“The mink is a wily water devil,” my dad said in explaining the stick
after the third set. He further explained that when a mink is trapped,
or otherwise threatened, it will go to deep water if it can.
For that reason, he pushed the trap stakes into the creek bottom toward
deeper water. He pushed the strong sticks behind the trap stakes, toward
even deeper water.
If the mink should swim to deep water after being trapped, the stick
would foul the trap chain and the animal would drown before getting back
to shallow water, he said.
Late in the afternoon he placed the last two traps in a little pool
of water that was no larger than a dishpan and only three or four inches
The little pool was at the base of the high creek bank where water collected
from a tile that was draining an adjacent field. Water from the little
pool drained through a shallow depression (more just a low spot than a
ditch) to the creek, eight or 10 feet away.
My dad pointed to mink tracks in the silt at the bottom of the little
pool and told me the mink that made those tracks was a big male. The mink
obviously followed the trickle of water from the creek to the tile, which
was nearly a foot above the water level in the little pool. The tile was
a great place to find frogs, crayfish and other foods, even in winter,
He placed both traps in the bottom of the pool, but avoided positioning
either at a point where water from the tile would trip them.
My dad raked silt from the bottom of the little basin around the steel
jaws and springs of the traps, and covered the chains with decaying leaves
and wet grass.
As we left the place my dad pointed out the tracks of the mink again.
“We’ll catch that big fellow,” my dad said, almost in a whisper. “This
is the best set we’ve made.”
With the last of the eight traps set, we headed for home, stopping occasionally
as my dad pointed out a squirrel scurrying out of a corn field to its den
in a nearby woods; an owl coming out of its den in a hollow sycamore tree,
and a number of other birds preparing to roost for the night.
It was well after dark when we got home. Other members of the family
had eaten a supper of leftovers from the noon meal. My mother had kept
our food warm in the oven of the old wood-burning cook stove in the kitchen
As we ate, my dad explained that we would not run the traps before the
middle of the week. This would give the weather a chance to eliminate scent
we had left at the four sets we had made.
Each night after supper we would sit around the old Parlour Furnace
in the big room that served as living quarters for the family during the
cold winter months. Invariably, the talk would turn to the fact that a
big mink could be stepping in one of our traps at that very moment. Other
members of the family were not so optimistic, but I believed it and I thought
my dad did, too.
Each day I would run home from school, thinking that my dad might be
there, and that we would run the traps. But a few days of work had come
my dad’s way and he could not turn down a chance to earn some money.
My dad did not get home until late in the afternoon on Tuesday. As we
had supper, he said we would run the traps the next afternoon. He said
we could run the traps and be home soon after dark, and that would give
me plenty time for schoolwork and sleep.
When we had finished eating, my dad brought the rusty old lantern in
from the woodshed and washed the glass globe in the dishpan with warm water.
He shined the globe with a piece of newspaper, and filled the fuel tank
with kerosene. He explained that even though we would leave home before
dark the next day, it would be dark before we finished running the traps.
We would need a lantern coming home.
When we arrived at the first set the next day, some of the leaves and
grass had drifted away from the traps. My dad repaired the set. While doing
so he pointed out that once traps are set, the trapper should not get any
closer than necessary to check them. But he added that they should be checked
as often as possible.
At the last set--the two traps at the entrance to the tile drain--my
dad left me standing at the edge of the creek's brushy banks while he waded
the creek to check the traps alone.
Sensing my disappointment at not getting to participate, my dad told
me he would come back to get me if we had a mink in our traps.
“I don’t want to disturb this place any more than necessary, ” he said.
By this time it was dark. He had lighted the lantern after we had checked
he traps at the third set.
The dim light of the lantern disappeared below the high bank of the
creek, and I stood quietly in the dark. The sounds of my dad pushing through
the brush and wading the creek were reassuring, but I imagined all kinds
of things could happen to me alone there.
Later, when I told my mother the story about being left alone, my dad
assured us both that I was safer there than any place in the town.
Far to the north, hounds bawled mournfully, and once I heard the beat
of massive wings very close. Soon, though, a faint shaft of light showed
momentarily from below the high banks of the creek. Then the lantern popped
up as my dad scrambled up the steep bank and through the brush to my side.
He was a welcome sight.
“Nothing there,” my dad said, cocking his head to the north and adding,
“Somebody’s having a good ‘coon chase.”
We headed for home across a weed field to find a rough trail that skirted
a wooded hillside. My dad said we had better hurry if we didn’t want to
get wet as he motioned to dark clouds scudding in from the southwest
Before we reached the first dim streetlight at the edge of town a misty
rain was falling. It seemed to make my dad happy.
“This could be the night we get him,” he told me, referring to the big
mink. ”Everything will run tonight . . . if it just don’t freeze.”
My mother had kept our supper warm. I went straight to bed after eating
because I had to go to school the next day. But I lay awake for some time
thinking about events of the night. Before drifting off to sleep, the patter
on the tin roof told me the rain was coming down harder.
Everyone else had gone to bed. My grandmother said we “went to bed with
the chickens,” meaning very early. But, as he often did, my dad sat in
the dark by the living room window for an hour or more with a cup of warmed-up
coffee to watch the rain turn to a wet snow as the big flakes fell through
a swath of light from a street light across the street.
The snow--more dry and sticking to the earth by morning--continued through
the day. Then it got much colder outside. The snow continued throughout
that morning, but late in the afternoon the skies cleared and my dad later
said “the bottom had dropped out of the front-porch thermometer.”
At bedtime that night, when my dad brought in large chunks of coal from
the front porch to bank the Parlour Furnace for the night, he said the
temperature was near zero.
“That will ruin our chances,” my dad told me. “Our traps probably already
are frozen, except the two at the tile drain..”
He explained that the little pool of water at the tile drain would remain
free of ice longer than the quiet pools of the creek because the water
from the tile drain was much warmer. But he said that would freeze, too,
if the cold weather continued because the frozen fields would no longer
The cold wave had not broken when I got up to go to school the next
morning--the last day of school before Christmas vacation. As I had breakfast
at the kitchen table, my dad was preparing to go to work.
“If we don’t have a mink now, we won’t catch one,” he told me.
Then, as if trying to let my hopes down easier, he said we could try
again after Christmas--or even before--if a thaw came.
“We’ll run our traps and take them up tomorrow,” my dad said
When we left town late the next morning, my dad cradled his old 16-gauge
Winchester Model 97 shotgun in the crook of his left arm. He did many things
with his left hand, but he shot from the right shoulder. And he shot well.
He told me we would do some rabbit hunting while we were taking up the
Both traps at the first set had been thrown before the shallow water
of the quiet pool had frozen. This made me optimistic, although my dad
said the traps probably had been thrown by current as the creek raised
the night it rained.
The traps at the next two sets also were frozen solid in the ice of
the creek. My dad chopped them out of the ice with his hatchet and placed
them in the back of his hunting coat with the others.
From the third set it was more than a mile to our last hope--the tile
drain set. To get there we left the creek and cut across a big hill woods
and a thicket. As we approached a pin oak thicket, no more than half a
mile from tile drain set, my dad said we would try to get some rabbits.
By this time we were far away from any houses and it was well past mid-afternoon.
We had jumped several rabbits while taking up the other traps, but my
dad did not shoot them. He said the sound of shots might tell others we
We would have plenty of chances to bag rabbits, he said, and he didn’t
want anyone to know we were there to run traps. If someone at the nearby
community of Retreat heard shots, our tracks in the snow would lead curious
people--including trap thieves-- to our sets. Even though we were taking
up the traps, it still would pinpoint the places we were trapping, he said.
There would be plenty of chances to bag some rabbits when we were farther
away from any houses, he said.
After making sure we were not being followed, my dad said we would try
to get some rabbits in the pin oak thicket. He said he would teach me how
to track game in the snow.
Twice we found rabbit tracks in the snow and followed them into the
thicket, but there the tracks crossed and crisscrossed other tracks and
we finally gave up.
All of the tracks led to a jumble of blackberry canes and other heavy
cover--including some brush piles. My dad said that was the place to find
rabbits under the winter conditions.
He had me stand beside a big tree so he would know where I was, saying
that he would go into the thick cover to scare the rabbits out of brush
Soon after he disappeared into the brush I heard a shot, then two more
shots a few minutes apart. Soon my dad came back to the place where I stood
with three rabbits. Then we headed on to the last set at the tile drain.
It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at the tile drain set My
dad told me to stand in the field where I had stood the night he checked
the traps, and that he would cross the creek on the ice and take up the
I did not protest, but my dad must have noticed my disappointment. He
told me to come along . . . that we would take up the last two traps together.
When my dad had slid down the high bank and was standing on the ice
of the creek, he motioned me to do likewise. Then, crossing the creek on
the snow-covered ice and walking to the tile drain, we were at the end
of our miniature trap line.
“The end of Christmas, too,” I thought, because even though the little
pothole was covered by snow, there obviously was not a mink there.
I could see the disappointment in my dad’s face, but that turned to
disbelief, puzzlement, when he brushed the snow away from the little pothole
to find only one of his traps.
He wasn’t puzzled long. With his gloves off, he brushed the snow away
from the side of the little depression to find scratch marks frozen in
“We had him,” he said with trembling voice while crouching dejectedly
in the snow, the end of the broken trap chain in his hand. “Somebody beat
His eyes flashed hatred for trap thieves as he spat out the most vile
and contemptible words I would ever hear him utter. I was a little embarrassed
. . . even a little scared.
When my dad calmed and regained his composure, he noted aloud that
the only tracks in the snow were the ones we put there. He said that meant
the mink had been trapped the night we ran the traps . . . the night it
rained . . . and the trap thief had taken our mink the next day . . . undoubtedly
before the snow stopped, because he had left no tracks in the snow.
For some time my dad squatted there with the broken trap chain in his
hand, but said nothing. Then he stood up and tried to pull up the remaining
trap by tugging against the chain.
The earth in the pothole was frozen solid, however, and the trap stake
would not budge. This prompted him to pull harder and the rusty trap chain
parted. He lost his balance, nearly falling in the snow.
That aggravated my dad even more, but as he spouted more uncomplimentary
things about his fellow man, he suddenly stopped and turned to look at
Then, dropping the trap with the broken chain in the trampled snow,
he walked to the creek and stooped to scrape the snow away from the ice
of an area more than a yard square.
He dropped to his hands and knees and tried to look down through the
With hands blue from exposure to snow water and cold air, he took his
hatchet from the game bag of his hunting coat and chopped a hole in the
ice a foot or more in diameter. Then he removed his hunting coat and his
old gray sweater before rolling his left shirtsleeve as high as he could
get it. He plunged his left hand and arm into the icy water.
For a moment I thought my dad had lost his mind as his arm swept circles
in the water of the creek. But before I had time to speculate more on his
sanity, my dad pulled his arm out of the hole in the ice with our missing
trap--which held the biggest, blackest mink I had ever seen.
I don’t remember much about what happened in the next few minutes. I
was much too excited. My dad let me hold the mink--the trap still firmly
holding the front foot--while he rolled down his shirtsleeve and pulled
on his sweater.
Then, with his hunting coat on again, he placed the mink and the trap
in the big right-side pocket of the coat.
He picked up the old Winchester shotgun, leaned earlier against a forked
bush, and headed across the ice and up the high bank on the far side of
From atop the high bank on the other side of the creek, my dad looked
back at the icebound tile drain, and explained that the mink undoubtedly
had been trapped the night we ran the traps. He said the mink had fought
the trap so hard that the rust-weakened chain had broken.
Then he said he was so sure the trap and mink had been stolen that he
had momentarily forgotten the thing he had tried to impress on me--that
a mink will go to water, if it can get there, any time it is in trouble.
His search of the creek bottom through the hole in the ice was a long
shot, he said, but it was all he had left.
He said he could not see the bottom of the creek because the water still
was a little murky from the rain, and that the light of day was failing.
But he added that he knew if the mink was tired from fighting the trap,
it could not swim far with the trap on its leg.
His guess had been right.
“Looks like we are going to get more snow,” my dad said, pointing to
clouds rolling in from the west. “We’d better get home.”
Neither of us said much as I followed my dad along trails and paths
on the way home. But I noticed that my dad walked with the old shotgun
cradled in the crook of his left arm and his right hand--still without
a glove--on the mink and trap in the pocket of his hunting coat.
When we topped the last hill, the lights of the town twinkled in the
distance and a gentle snow was falling. As we crossed the last wheat-stubble
field and ducked under the single strand of barbed wire that seemed to
mark the town’s limits, sounds of the community settling into another winter
night were audible. Here a door slammed, there a dog barked, and a mother
called her children in from playing outside in the snow. But the sound
I liked best was the tinkle of empty glass milk bottles (like the bells
of a horse-drawn sleigh) in their wire containers as Calvin Groves’ antiquated
milk truck struggled over the snow-filled street to complete the evening
As we approached the first street light of the town, a group of young
carolers huddled on the lawn of a dim-lit house. The words of their carol
seemed to mingle and merge with the other sounds
“Silent night . . . Holy night . . .“ I couldn’t hear some of the words
because of the wind. But I knew the song and recited the words silently
while watching the flickering candles held by the carolers.
I also knew the carolers were singing at this particular house several
days before Christmas because the elderly lady who lived there had been
in ill health for some time. There was talk about the town that she probably
would not live until Christmas.
Remembering the death of a little dog our family had owned, I knew death
was a sad occasion. I did not want to seem disrespectful, but as we walked
into the swath of light that streamed down from the first street light,
I could no longer hold the question that had been running through my mind
every step of the way into town.
“Do you think Santa will come now?” I asked, skipping backward in front
of my dad and looking up at him.
My dad turned his head, as if he were looking back at the carolers,
but not before I noticed moisture on his cheeks. He did not answer my question
immediately, but looked back at me when we had passed through the lighted
area of the street.
I will never lose the mental picture of my dad at that moment--the old
shotgun still cradled in the crook of his left arm, and his right hand
still resting on the mink in the pocket of his hunting coat, just as it
had been, almost constantly, from the time we started home.
Nor will I ever forget his answer to my question.
“He’s done been here, Bill! “ my dad said.
Santa did, indeed, come to our house that Christmas.
I received the “genuine pig skin football” even though there could not
have been time for my parents to order in from a mail-order catalog.
The rubber air bladder of the old football would be splotched with multi-colored
auto inner tube patches, and its seams would part at several places before
it would give up the ghost several years later.
Moreover, the thaw of which my dad spoke, did come just after Christmas.
And we did, indeed, put out the traps again. Before the trapping season
ended we would catch three more mink--but none so exciting as the first.
Their pelts would bring in enough money to get started paying off several
of the family debts.
It took some 30 years for me to realize that my parents had given me
much more than a “genuine pig skin football” that Christmas, that they
had, in fact, given me a way of life. . . a livelihood. Throughout my adult
life, my vocation--and my avocation--would be one and the same.