By Larry Dablemont
It was a day before Thanksgiving in 1939. There was a knock on the door and a boy stood outside, waiting for the old man to answer. When the door opened he tipped his hat politely and said, “Mr., I reckon you don’t recall me, but I’m Joe Roggins’ youngest boy Jimmy… and I come to ask if I could shoot me a couple of mallards off’n yore pond.” Before the old man could answer, the boy went on… “My Pa’s been feelin’ poorly and he allowed as how he’d like a big ol’ mallard duck or two for dinner tomorrer, an’ they’s a bunch of ‘em on yore pond. He’d be thankful to eat one of em on Thanksgiving.”
Charley Clamon and his wife were in their early sixties. Neither knew the young seventeen-year-old kid who stood there before them in ragged overalls and an old patched suit coat probably made ten years before the boy was born. His overalls were two or three inches too short. Charley couldn’t help but smile at the sight of him. But heck, it was Thanksgiving and he and his wife Eva had grandkids coming and Charley felt good that day.
“Oh hell boy, them mallards ain’t mine,” he said, “they belong to the good Lord, an’ I ‘spect He made ‘em to feed folks, so if’n you shoot a couple, I don’t care. But shoot some on the water and bring me one too. They’s a long cane pole on the backside of the barn and you can use it to fetch ‘em to the pond bank.”
“That was nice of you Charley,” his wife said as they watched the young man walk through down the gravel road with the cane pole and an old hammer double-barrel twelve gauge.
“Well I felt sorry for the kid,” he grumbled. “Joe is just an ol’ drunk, I ain’t seen him in a long time…figgered he was dead. Never knowed he had a boy that young.”
A little later in the day, they heard two distant shotgun blasts, but the young man who had promised to come back with a mallard was not seen again.
On Thanksgiving Day, his daughter brought a traditional turkey with her kids and her husband, and Charley bemoaned the fact that he didn’t have a baked wild mallard to go with it. “Never even thanked me, that boy, and he never brought back that cane pole… reckon that’s the new generation for you.” Then he added, “But what could you expect from the son of ol’ drunk Joe?
On Christmas Eve that year, the Ozarks was cloaked in an inch of snow, and it was cold. Migrating ducks were on every pond. Charley Claymon had his chores done and was shaving when his wife Eva said there was someone knocking at the door. Charley hadn’t even had breakfast yet! No wonder he was a little cranky! But he cheered up when he opened the door. Before him was Jimmy Roggins in that flimsy old coat and the ragged overalls.
“Good God in heaven kid,” Charlie said, “Get in here out of the cold before you let all the heat out… whatcha got in that bag?”
“Well, I owed ya some mallards Mr. Claymon, so I brung you some for Christmas and I brought back that pole I had a yourn,” the boy said as he handed over the bag. “I got ‘em plucked and gutted with the head and legs cut off. Ready for b’ilin.”
For the Claymon family it was a day to remember. Mrs. Claymon wasn’t about to let the boy go without coffee and biscuits and gravy. It was at the table that Jimmy teared up just a little and told why he hadn’t returned a month before.
“Pa et ever bit of them mallards,” he said as his eyes moistened, “But it was two days later he came down sickly while we was splittin’ some firewood. He just up and died on the front porch of what the Doctor from Licking said was a heart failin’. We buried him at the graveyard a behind the church at Plato on the seventh of this month, the day I turned 18.”
As it turned out, Jimmy Roggins had a cousin in the Navy, and the young man had sold what little his father had owned, some chickens and a milk cow and a rangy old hog, and then joined the Navy. A neighbor was to take him to catch a train on Christmas Day to California. But not before he got a Christmas present from Eva Claymon; some socks and an old coat that she insisted he take.
“Well I got that old shotgun of Pa’s out on the porch and I would like to give it to you for a Christmas present of sorts,” the boy said. “Maybe you could get somethin’ fer it somewhere and by yourself a new cookin’ pot or something like that.” And with that he was gone, up to the country store at Bucyrus to catch a ride to the train station in Cabool.”
The Claymon’s placed the old shotgun in a closet with that worn suit coat, thinking about the boy at Christmas time in 1940, hoping he was doing well. He would have turned 19 two weeks before Christmas, certainly no longer a boy. Then Christmas drew near in 1941. With it, there came awful, horrible news from Hawaii and a Naval installation at a place called Pearl Harbor. All across the Ozarks, every radio that worked was in use. There was word that the Japanese bombers had attacked and sunk several American battleships and that there were thousands of servicemen dead.
A somber Charlie Claymon went to his barn to work that night while his wife cried. He said nothing to her about the 7th of December being Jimmy’s birthday. He knew that the boy was likely among the dead.
The Battle of Midway came months later, and the United States Navy decimated Japanese destroyers and aircraft carriers, nearly wiping out the enemy Navy. The years passed and on a golden September day in 1945, Japan surrendered. What a wonderful fall that was as Ozark boys who had become part of the greatest fighting force the world had ever known, began to come home. What a Thanksgiving that was in the hill country of Missouri and Arkansas. But there was so much sadness too, because many Ozark families never saw again the young men they watched go off to war. Charley Claymon was slowing down, beset with arthritis. He needed help around his small farm, but he had never had a son. He thought of old drunk Joe Roggins who had had 3 or 4, and on December 7th, he particularly thought of Jimmy, who he would have been so proud have raised. He knew that Jimmy’s body might be in the sunken hull of one of those warships in Pearl Harbor.
And he was shaving again that Christmas morning when there was a knock on the door. He complained because Eva couldn’t leave the kitchen and he had to go off half shaved. He opened the door and a tall young man was standing there, a young man who looked so much like young Jimmy Roggins had looked standing there years ago. But his voice was deep as he said with a big smile on his face, “I’ve come for my shotgun… I’m wantin’ some mallards for Christmas dinner!”
If there was room here, I could tell you about that wonderful Christmas day in that little house back in the woods along the main gravel road a few miles west of the Big Piney River. But I don’t need to do that… you can envision it yourself. I WILL tell you that Jimmy Roggins went to work on his old home-place, a nice little cabin with a fireplace and six acres of hard-scrabble ridgetop with a four-acre clearing below. Oh yes, a half dozens chickens and a pair of calves and two or three hogs. And during the summer before the Christmas of 1946, Jimmy had met a local girl at the skating rink in Houston. They were married before Thanksgiving. And for years after that, Charley Claymon, as December came around, boasted that the coming Christmas day was gonna be the best ever. He often said that he and his boy Jimmy was gonna get some mallards for Christmas dinner. He said he never had favored turkey!