For every one that arrived and began to settle on Marco in the 1970s, everything was new. The massive development of island roads, infrastructure, and canal construction was well underway, but anyone who happened to cross the bridge and fall in love with what they saw was a newcomer.
Because almost everyone on the island was a new arrival, and from somewhere else, making new friends was something like breathing: It had to be done. After all, who wanted to live and settle in a new place without any friends, and who wanted to become friends with someone without listening to their background stories and family traditions?
Making new friends was a precious commodity that was not to be wasted, and just like all the newcomers to the island, The Marco Beach Boys were more than ready to listen to each other’s stories; and to listen to each other’s regional accents. This was especially true during my first-time island-style Christmas. When it came to sharing my childhood Christmas story with my new friends and colleagues from around the world, everyone laughed at my Tennessee southern drawl almost as much as the culture clash Christmas story that follows.
My shared Christmas adventure began in my home state of Tennessee when I was only a boy. It is a story and a holiday narrative that I will never forget.
On a cold and windy, late December day in the Cumberland Mountains of East Tennessee, Daddy made a startling dinner table announcement.
“Son, some of the boys at work have invited us to go hunting tomorrow. We’ll get up early, go out with the boys, and get us some squirrels for Christmas Eve supper.”
“Squirrels?” I asked. “But what about turkey or ham like everybody else?”
After looking to mama and watching her raise a silent eyebrow, I listened as Daddy continued.
“Son,” he began again, with that certain tone of Tennessee fatherly wisdom. “Anybody these days can drive up to the grocery store and buy a turkey or a ham. What we’re going to do tomorrow is something that fathers and sons have done for generations. We’re going hunting to bring home food for the table. In the years that follow, when you grow into a man, you won’t remember trips to the grocery store, but I promise you will remember this hunting trip and our Christmas Eve supper tomorrow night.
Daddy was right!
After dinner, instead of gathering around the television and trying to decide which channel to watch—there were only two—I followed daddy into the den where he proceeded to unlock the gun rack and bring down the shotgun. For the remainder of the evening, I watched while daddy cleaned, oiled, and prepared the weapon of the day. Afterward, and just before mama called for bedtime, I was allowed to open the boxes of bright red shotgun shells.
To my surprise, disillusion, and disappointment, the next part of Hunting Christmas seemed to happen only seconds after I was fast asleep. Suddenly, daddy was shaking me awake with the announcement, “Son, wake up, it’s hunting time!”
After only a glance out the nearest darkened window I offered, “But, daddy, it’s still dark out!”
At this point, daddy offered a grin that lit up the room. “That’s right, son, we have to get up before the squirrels.”
After packing up the shotgun and enough of the bright red shells to make Daniel Boone proud, we dressed in appropriate Tennessee squirrel hunting gear, jumped in the car, and started out into the darkness. Of course, it wasn’t really dark, because there was a big bright moon settling into the bare branches at the tops of the trees—Daddy said it was Hunter’s Moon no less.
When we arrived at the hunting grounds, I knew for better or worse, this was going to be an adventure. There were three old battered pickup trucks parked near a torn-out section of barbwire fence, and in the predawn light, several surly characters were alternatively loading shotguns, spitting tobacco juice, or generally swearing using words the preacher had warned us about in church.
All of the gruff Tennessean hunters were wearing well-worn boots, scruffy jeans, jackets, and hats, and their manner and demeanors were skeptical at best. These men were prime examples of rough and tumble Tennessee mountain boys from the Cumberland Plateau. They were obviously proud but poor, and in very noticeable contrast to their muddy and banged-up pick-up trucks, our car was bright, shiny, and clean, just like my new coat and brand-new cowboy boots.
With daddy leading the way—the boys all worked with daddy at the local Ford dealership—our Hunting for Christmas adventure truly began.
“You boys seen any sign this morning?” Daddy inquired.
“Nary a one,” replied the nearest of the older men, followed by an incredible stream of tobacco juice that must have come from the bulge behind his unshaven cheek.
“Well, now that the moons down.” Daddy offered with optimism, “And with the sun coming up, I guess the squirrels will be on the move.”
“I reckon,” was the sullen response.
“Why don’t some of you boys head on down into the holler,” Daddy suggested and we’ll meet you on the other side. We just might—”
Before daddy could finish, an obnoxious and deafening shotgun explosion erupted just behind me, and I must have jumped completely out of my shiny new boots. One of the boys had purposely gotten behind me before he shot at an abandoned squirrel nest. My surprised 9-year-old reaction must have been severe, because the next sound I heard was daddy’s boys laughing at the way I had jumped.
“Why Seth (that was daddy’s name), that boy o’ yours is a scared as a rabbit—maybe we ought to go a rabbit hunting instead.”
All the boys laughed again and several long steady streams of tobacco juice followed.
“My boy will be fine.” Daddy’s reply was unruffled, despite the fact that he was clean-shaven. “Don’t worry about us.” Daddy nodded toward the woods. “Now let’s get some squirrels.”
After my embarrassment of jumping from the shotgun blast, and my immediate determination never to chew tobacco, and to later move to Florida, Daddy and I went on our way down through the snow-dusted trails that wound between the trees. From time to time, we heard the distant reports of shotgun blasts, but no squirrels ever dared cross our path. After a couple of hours, when we met up with “The Boys” on the other side of the mountain, I could tell daddy was perturbed when he saw “The Boys” were carrying a “mess” of squirrels.
“Here, Seth,” the ringleader of the tobacco juice boys offered. “We got us plenty, why don’t you take some home for you and your boy?”
When we arrived at home, daddy skinned and cleaned the squirrels, and with another raised eyebrow, mama breaded the squirrels and fried them up just like southern fried chicken.
No one, including daddy, ate much of the squirrel, because mother in her wisdom had also gone out during the Christmas Eve morning and returned with a nice Butter Ball Turkey straight from the grocery store.
When this Christmas story was over, all of the Marco Beach Boys were laughing. To this day, I don’t know if they were laughing because of my Tennessee drawl or because of the Cumberland Mountain good ole boys and the details of the great squirrel Christmas adventure.
One of the Marco Beach Boys at the time was JP from Germany. He might have laughed the hardest but the one common factor all of our newcomers shared was that we all heard, and acted upon, the call to leave home. We were all newcomers, and from somewhere else, and we were all searching for new friends that would last a lifetime.
Please look next week for JP’s German Christmas story.
Tom Williams is a Marco islander. He is the author of two books, “Lost and Found” and “Surrounded by Thunder –the Story of Darrell Loan and the Rocket Men.” Both books are available on Kindle and Nook.