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A CHRISTMAS WITH KINDLY STRANGERS ALTERS A MAN'S IMAGE OF PROSPERITY
Michael Baughman
December 23, 1985
Things weren't going awfully well for me. I was a college dropout, and my worldly possessions consisted of $12 and change, an Army surplus sleeping bag and an old suitcase stuffed with dirty clothes and fishing tackle. I was somewhere in northern Florida on a cool, rainy Christmas Eve in 1959, hitchhiking south. The only car that had stopped in more than two hours was full of teenagers, and when I ran toward them they rolled down a window and tossed a firecracker at me. It exploded at my feet. Through the ringing in my ears, I heard them laughing as they sped away.
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December 23, 1985

A Christmas With Kindly Strangers Alters A Man's Image Of Prosperity

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"No thanks," I said. "Somebody'll pick me up for sure on Christmas."

After dinner Susan took the kids to the bedroom. "They sleep here on the couch after we go to bed," Mel explained.

Susan sat on the couch and sewed while Mel and I talked about fishing. We had a couple of drinks of straight moonshine that must have been 180 proof, and then I excused myself and took my sleeping bag out to the car. I curled up on the backseat and spent the night pleasantly, rain drumming steadily against the roof. The liquor had completely eliminated my headache.

Mel awakened me early Christmas morning. He was going squirrel hunting with a double-barreled 12-gauge, and he asked me along.

The rain had stopped. The sky was partly cloudy, and it was warmer than it had been the day before. The woods were wet and as green as Hawaii, with many of the trees—cypresses, I thought—draped thickly with Spanish moss.

"Gray squirrels," Mel whispered as we walked quietly along. "There's no better stew!"

Mel was like many people who are more alive while hunting or fishing than they are doing anything else. In an hour and a half he killed five squirrels, and I never saw one of them before he shot. Bent slightly at the waist, eyes searching the woods to either side, he moved silently ahead, with me a few feet behind. Every 10 or 15 minutes he stopped abruptly, his body tensing, and, with a motion too fast to really see, fired his gun. After each shot he ran 30 or 40 yards and picked up a squirrel. He kept them in a game pouch at the back of the old hunting coat he wore. They were fat, well-furred animals, and after the fifth one he asked me if I wanted to try it.

"No thanks," I said.

"Well, then, that'll do. They'll be one fine dinner!"

They did make an excellent stew, served along with homemade bread and vegetables Susan had canned. Presents were opened after the meal. Mel gave Susan a cotton blouse, and she gave him a box of shotgun shells. The little girl got a doll, the boy a set of wooden blocks.

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