When I was just a little snot-nosed, know-nothing elementary school kid, the world as I knew it was my house, our yard, and the school up the hill. Sometimes when I would ride in the car with Mama, about half way to Shelby we would pass by a squat white-painted brick building. It was some kind of store. In good weather usually the front door was standing open. As we drove by, I would try hard to look inside to see what was in there. I thought this had to be an interesting place full of unique things. Maybe someone had traveled to far away lands and returned home to Shelby to open this store and share real treasures.
I thought this because one of the signs out front said: Tropical Fish.
I have been thinking lately about how the Christmas season would begin for me as a young boy. It is one year I am thinking about, although many years were much the same.
When I was in the first years of elementary school, Christmas was hardly mentioned in November. It was all talk of pilgrims and turkeys until we would stand in the cold watching the Thanksgiving Parade in Forest City. With parents pointing and kids jumping around, the last float would be Santa in his sleigh, ho-ho-ho, waving, and throwing wads of Double Bubble gum into the crowd.
Despite the parade, or the decorations going-up in the drugstore downtown, in my heart, Christmas would begin on what I now realize must have been somewhere around December 5th or maybe the 10th. Late one afternoon I would get in the car with Daddy to go get a Christmas tree.
We would drive out in the country and go down the long narrow dirt road to my Uncle Clarence’s farm. Daddy parked the Plymouth near my Uncle Clarence and Aunt Mattie’s house. He got out. He didn’t step up onto their porch. He stood in the yard and knocked on the floor of their porch with his pocketknife. (I rarely ever saw my father step up on anyone’s porch. He would knock on their house while standing in the yard.)
My uncle came out in his tan work cap and zippered jacket, talking and joking with us a minute while he pulled out a match to light his Chesterfield. After he went back inside, Daddy and I walked on down to the barn, through the hall of the barn and through the cattle pen. We squeezed through the wood rail fence to leave the cattle pen and stepped on rocks to cross a creek. Then we were in the woods, looking for our Christmas tree. I marched along behind Daddy and whined about the cold, briars, my itchy clothes, my tired feet. All the little boy complaints. Close to dark, we found a cedar tree that was tall enough. Daddy cut it down, wrapped the stub of the trunk with his handkerchief, and he carried the big end while I tagged along behind trying to help holding the small top of the tree.
After we had crossed the creek and squeezed back through the fence, we were stepping carefully through the cattle pen. Daddy looked around and shouted like bullets firing, “HEY, holditup holditup holditup holditup!” I lifted my small end of the prickly cedar a little then we went on through the hall of the barn and back to car.
It was full dark and awfully cold. Daddy wrapped the tree in an old sheet and shoved it in so it only stuck out a little from the Plymouth’s trunk. We drove back home and pulled around to our backyard.
Daddy yanked the tree out of the trunk and was bent over dragging and rolling the cedar tree in the grass. Across the yard my mother had stepped out on the back steps. She called to him, “Byron, what are you doing?” He looked around and said, “Aw, Benny dragged the tree through the cow flop again.” Again! I had done this before? In the dark across the yard, I knew my mother was smiling. The smile that was her smile. Daddy was laughing. Me too.
A plain crude family story, but it stays with me as one of my best memories. Mama. Daddy. Christmas.
Editor’s note: Knowing Byron Bailey—he was our dad too—he probably didn’t use the word “flop.”
One summer during my high school years when working on the mill’s maintenance crew, we went into a long-abandoned storage room in the Memorial Building. All kinds of old junk was scattered around. Barber shop chairs. Cash registers. There were two short steel tripods which Mr. Biggerstaff identified as the turrets for two machine guns that were in place at the Mill gate house and the office building for a short period during the the ’20s or ’30s when there was an attempt to unionize the mill. Don’t know any details, but there was some type of demonstration in the streets of Cliffside and an attempt by union organizers to physically enter the mill property.
Years ago, in the classic book The Mind of the South by W.J. Cash I read a short paragraph which mentions Cliffside by name as being among the many locations in North Carolina where these militant union-organizing attempts took place. Other than that book, I’ve never heard or seen any other reference to this.