December 23, 2006
Christmas at Thunder Butte
John (Gene) Crowley as Toddler in the Snow (Click to Enlarge)
A week before Christmas, snow drifts banked up to the windows of the little ramshackle ranch house on Thunder Butte Creek. My brother Neal had cut a Black Hills spruce from a cut bank across the creek from the house, he hauled it home, dragging it through the snow, behind his horse. When Neal got the tree home, he nailed a couple of small boards together to form an “X” and nailed that to the bottom of the tree.
About the same time my Mother had gotten some Christmas decorations from Montgomery Ward company, in the mail, mostly fuzzy red and green paper ropes with red paper bells attached. She strung these decorations up across the ceiling . Mother then started popping corn (regular field corn) and we spent several days stringing this corn in the form of a large necklace, with needle and thread. Finally, with the tree set up in the front room where the wood heating stove was, she strung the pop corn necklace around the tree in circles. Somewhere she had gotten some small candles , and these were attached to the branches of the tree by dripping candle wax on to the branch, then sticking the bottom of the candle in an upright position on to the branch. These candles were probably all lit only once and that would have been for an hour or so on Christmas eve.
I remember Neal coming home, plunging through the snow-banks one day and going to the barn with a bag over his shoulders. I made note of the fact that when he came to the house he no longer had the bag.
Christmas was very quiet. You see, there was no radio, no television, nothing portable, no one with ear plugs or any noise of any kind. There was no electricity, no appliances--only a wood burning cook stove, a pot belly, a wood burning stove for heating the entire house, beds and tables. Inside the front door was a small bench on which was located a bucket, with dipper, for drinking water and a wash basin for washing hands. The towel hung from a nail on the wall .
The mail box was about eight miles away. So, before Christmas we always managed to get to the mail box on our saddle horse, at least every couple of days. There was almost always a large box sitting on the ground by the mail box from my mother's sister in North Dakota, my Aunt Cynthia. She almost always sent a box—usually dresses for my mother and my sister, Cece, and maybe shirts for the boys and a little toy and a woolen scarf for me. This package was always eagerly awaited, because it was basically the only 'presents' we got.
Christmas eve was pretty much like any other winter night. Everybody sat around the pot belly stove , with the stove door open for light, and everybody talked, except for me. Kids never talked unless they asked if they could say something. Cece loved our father and often sat on his lap in front of the fire. We boys sat on the floor. And mother usually tried to get things put away for the night. Soon the stories about the Christ child were all told and people took their turn going to the 'outhouse' which was about 200 yard down the hill, in back of the house. Since they took no chances of me wetting the bed at night, I would usually get chased out of the house a couple of times during the night to visit the outhouse. Twenty degrees below zero was not uncommon, with deep snow everywhere and I do not ever remember wearing my shoes on the nightly visits. In spite of the bitter cold and the freezing feet, I remember the brilliant star studded sky, the snow hanging thick, covering the boughs of the trees, icicles hanging from the roofs of the buildings, and always the howl of coyotes and wolves on the surrounding hills.
Christmas Eve differed very little from any other night except all the talk about Santa Claus stirred my imagination and when everyone was in bed and it was very dark I could hear when he was coming. There would be tiny jingling of bells off in the distance. I would push back the ice laden comforter so I could hear better. Sure enough I could hear him. Then there would be a thud on the roof. No one woke, but I froze, rigid in my bed, listening, listening, listening when I heard something out by the Christmas tree. Finally, totally stressed out and tired, I fell asleep again.
Christmas Day in the morning, I could hear my Dad breaking the ice in the water bucket for water to wash up, then stoking the heater and cook stove with firewood. I could smell the smoke as the match caught. The warm air wafted in from the front room and I was out of bed like a flash to see what Santa had left.
One Christmas morning I remember a couple little things in my stocking which hung by the tree, maybe warm socks and, once, a real honest-to-God orange. I am not sure if I had ever seen an orange before, so this was an unbelievable treat. Someone showed me how to peel the orange. That was pure heaven. It was twenty degrees below zero outside and I was sitting there proud as royalty, eating a sweet orange in front of the fire. That was a Christmas to remember.
Christmas dinner was always a fine affair, often in the company of my family and any wandering cowboys who happened to be out pulling cows out of the drifts. Mother fixed what she had—sometimes a turkey and sometimes a chicken. But, it was always delicious, with gravy thick with bacon grease and plenty of butter and lard to smear on thick pieces of home made bread.
After dinner, the men sat around and smoked. I played with my new knife from the dime store. And, my mother washed and put things away. So ended another beautiful Christmas day on Thunder Butte creek.
December 22, 2006
The Rest of Neal's Story
Neal Crowley Among His Antiques (Click to Enlarge)
After Neal and Dorothy adopted two children, Neal started to collect antiques. Collecting things is a serious obsession among some members of the family. Even today, my own wife complains about my collections of “junk.” Well, Neal developed quite an antiques obsession. Written up in a full page section of one Sunday's edition of the Rapid City Journal, Neal's collection of antiques was described as “[w]hat happens to be the biggest and best antique collection in the state” of South Dakota. Neal's collection was so big that the house was overflowing, as were the yard and outbuildings. Much of it was crated up and warehoused in Faith. At least one out of state museum expressed interest in it at one point, but Neal viewed his antiques as part of South Dakota's history and wanted to keep them in the state. Unfortunately, we don't know what happened to Neal's collection.
Sometime in the 1960's, Neal and Dorothy briefly moved to Alameda, California. Two of his brothers (including my father), a sister, and his mother were all nearby. He tried his hand working a late night shift for a private security guard company, the Alameda Patrol Service. But, it didn't really work out. The nights were long. The pay was low. He felt cut off from the mainstream of society, and felt isolated. Then, he tried bar tending with his brother Joe at the Buckhorn Club in Alameda. This also felt like a let down and was hard to endure for a man who had been “someone” in the small town of Faith. He and Dorothy didn't stay long. It couldn't have been long. I was just a child and perhaps I was a small child at the time, but he was my favorite uncle, and I have no memory of his stay in California. He and Dorothy returned to Faith.
At some point, perhaps the late 1960s or early 1970s, Neal and Dorothy packed up again and became the off-season caretakers for a big, old hotel someplace – I believe – in Colorado for a couple of years. The building had quite the reputation of being haunted. They used to hear strange noises coming from various rooms and, after going to investigate, would find nothing amiss. Sister Cece and her husband Al went to visit at one point and Cece returned with her own story about how frightening the house was. She had gotten up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and had “felt” something watching her as she traversed the hallway in the dark. On finishing her business, she heard some noise – perhaps the creak of a door opening nearby – and lit out a a dead run for her bedroom. She didn't know what it was, but came home convinced that there was something pretty frightening in that house. Although Dorothy expressed some unease about the place, Neal laughed off the “ghosts.” He was a great teller of ghost stories from my earliest memories of him, and no doubt he found the house great fodder for more tales.
Soon after this, Neal and Dorothy divorced. Neal worked for awhile as a security manager at a casino in Reno, Nevada. By 1973, Neal was remarried to a woman from Faith, Chubby Escott. We visited Neal and Chubby in the summer of 1973 in Faith, when my family drove across the country sightseeing from California. I recall that Neal still had some remnant antiques in his yard at that point, but his large collection was gone.
According to my dad, “Neal and Chubby then went to Rapid City where he worked in a retail/wholesale business for a time, until he and Chubby took over the management of a tavern in Presho. While in Presho, Neal began to lose weight and was found to be suffering from cancer of the spleen. He made several flights to Mexico where he was injected with an experimental drug. For a short time he gained weight and felt better. He then began to fail and was hospitalized in Pierre. Joe and I visited Neal at this hospital and found him to be failing rapidly.”
I remember one of Neal's California visits during his trips to Mexico to get laetrile treatments. Even though most people were by that time saying that these treatments were medical quackery, Neal exuded confidence and stated his every intention to beat his predicament. Still, he looked thin and unwell. That was the last time I ever saw him.
Says my dad, “True to Neal’s nature, he was surrounded by friends and well wishers up until the end. One of his favorites, who visited him daily, was an Indian lady, I believe her name was Running Horse, but Neal always called her "Fast Pony", which she accepted with good nature, even appearing to enjoy his kidding. In the meantime, "Fast Pony” was knitting a heavy woolen, white comforter, of huge proportions. This comforter covered Neal’s casket and was [he was] buried [with it] covering him.”
My dad continues, “Mr. Escott, Neal’s Father-in-law, had a red, granite stone, one foot thick and large enough to cover the grave, installed over Neal’s grave. On the granite grave cover, he had inscribed the COWBOY`S PRAYER.* Neal’s favorite.”
O Lord I’ve never lived where churches grow;
I’ve loved creation better as it stood
That day you finished it, so long ago,
And looked upon your work and called it good.
Just let me live my life as I’ve begun!
And give me work that’s open to the sky;
Make me a partner of the wind and sun,
And I won’t ask a life that’s soft and high.
Make me as big and open as the plains;
As honest as the horse between my knees;
Clean as the wind that blows behind the rains;
Free as the hawk that circles down the breeze.
Just keep an eye on all that’s done and said;
Just right me sometime when I turn aside;
And guide me on the long, dim trail ahead-----
That stretches upward toward the Great Divide.
*Authorship uncertain, but often attributed to Badger Clark, who was named the first Poet Laureate of South Dakota in 1937