It was the middle of December, in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s, on Grindstone Island. The students of the Lower Schoolhouse had been practicing for the annual Christmas play, which was usually performed for the parents at the Lower Schoolhouse. But, for some reason this year, it was arranged that the students of both the Lower and the Upper Schoolhouse would perform their plays in front of a larger, combined audience, at the Grindstone Island Church.
The play that had been selected for us was Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, with Scrooge. Somehow, I ended up with the role of Bob Cratchit, the father of Tiny Tim, although I don’t remember how this happened. School lessons were put aside each day so that play rehearsals could continue. Being a young boy of about 8 or 9 years old, I was embarrassed, and I tried to avoid my role but to no avail. I don’t remember which girl played my wife, nor do I remember who played my son, Tiny Tim. I believed I was without hope to get out of this role, because my mother thought that I was the perfect boy to play the part!
The days dwindled down, and the play was coming soon. I was going to be destroyed. I needed a miracle. I thought I was saved when we got hit with a huge snowstorm, a big one, with two feet of snow or more, so deep that the fences on our farm disappeared. My first thoughts. that my prayers were answered, and God had saved me from the play with this massive snow storm. Next morning, the sun shone bright and dazzling, just like a true winter wonderland. The thought of no school brought all kinds of ideas, but no luck was not on my side that day. My father and I trudged up to the barn through at least two feet of snow. Our two dogs, who slept under the double bob sleigh, crawled out to meet us in the barn, where the warmth from the animals kept the temperature at a lovely 60 degrees. We piled the hay in front of the cows for food, and the one milking cow could wait to be milked. We harnessed the team of two big horses, led them out to the bob-sleigh, forced the tongue out of the snow, attached the horses to the bob sleigh and away we went to school.
We stayed on the road; the Island did not have a snow plow at this time – that would happen at some future time. The two large horses trudged on, towing us on the huge double sleigh. The sleigh plowed through the snow or packed it down, and on we went. We could not use the fields for this trip since the snow had covered the streams that were still flowing to the marsh; the horses would have broken through the snow and into the water, which would not have been good. Arriving at Uncle Rawdon’s (Dano), he was plowing snow, clearing a path from the house to the barn and outbuildings. Uncle Rawdon had built a kind of tractor, a cut off car with no top, a gear box from Sears and Roebuck, tire chains, and a homemade straight plow – and he was clearing the snow. His tractor spit a cloud in the air, and a plume of exhaust smoke followed it.
As we continued our journey to school, all was quiet now, except the heavy breathing of the horses and the crunch of the snow being compacted beneath the runners of the sleigh. The school was open, and waiting – my last chance of getting out of this play was gone. The play was that night, and after school ended at about 5 o’clock, we headed for the church in the sleigh. With the two big horses and the big sleigh, we easily moved along from our road to the Base Line Road; here the road was packed down with snow all the way to the church.
When we passed the Upper School there were other sleigh rigs in front and behind us. Arriving at the church, the yard was full of horse drawn rigs, both single and double. And the church was full, some adult men and some young men, but mostly women and children. The church was warm or nearly warm, the furnace beneath the floor produced a flow of warm air that went immediately to the ceiling.
The smell of warm moldy hay dominated the sanctuary and a Christmas tree stood next to the pews on the right side. The candles were lit and fastened to the tree, giving it a mystical glow. The noise of talking was very loud, with many children and babies crying. The floor of the church was covered with snow tracked in on boots or shoes. I had never seen so many people at one time. Some of the older men were in the church yard, sampling homemade and store-bought ‘adult’ beverages.
A kind of curtain was hung across in front of the altar in the church, and the alter railing was removed, the stage was ready, and a parade of small kids recited poems. My play soon followed, my first role as an actor, and as it turned out my last. I was on the stage and somehow, I remembered most of my lines, although there was another, older student who helped with those too frightened or too embarrassed to speak. I remember thinking at the time that Tiny Tim would never say his last lines. It was finally over and Santa came – he looked okay but smelled of bourbon – and yup, it was Uncle Leon (Dano)! There was popcorn, candy, peanut brittle, hot chocolate, and best of all – I was still alive!
Only my mom thought that I did well. The ride home was under the Northern Lights with a million stars, the Big Dipper, a low moon, now a crescent in the west, the jingle of the harnesses, and the breath of the horses, forming halos of frost on their faces. Once we arrived home, I helped care for the horses; unharnessed them, wiped them down, and fed them. The barn lantern was extinguished but before leaving, I checked to make sure it was out. I walked down to the house. The mantle lamp on the kitchen table lit up the room, Mom had opened the vents on the stove, the cold was shut out, and we were warm and snug. My mother’s compliment to me about the play was, “Well, you did good.” Reflecting back on myself, I was embarrassed, facing a chore I did not like or want to do, but I learned a lesson – no matter how bad the chore, do what you can, and Mom will still praise you!
By Manley L. Rusho
By Manley Rusho
Manley Rusho was born on Grindstone Island nine decades ago. This year, 2021, Manley started sharing his memories with TI Life. (Manley Rusho articles) This Editor and his many friends wish him continued good health and we thank him for sharing - as the life and times on Grindstone Island are special and should never be forgotten.
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