(HOST) One of our all-time favorite seasonal stories is told by commentator Willem Lange about an old Vermont farmer with the unlikely name of "Favor Johnson," a hound named Hercules, a flatlander doctor, homemade fruitcake and the real spirit of Christmas.
(LANGE) Snow was falling softly past the street lamps in the village, muffling the sounds of the occasional car and the rattle of the brook down behind the post office and the general store. From almost every chimney, smoke drifted up through the falling snow. A few houses were hung with wreaths and colored lights around the front doors. Through the front windows gleamed lights on Christmas trees.
Just after seven o’clock, a pair of shaky headlights came slowly down the Three Mile Road, and an old blue pickup truck puttered into the light of the street lamps. The truck stopped at the first house. A man in overalls and rubber boots got out, reached back into the front seat for a small package, and trudged up through the snow to the kitchen door of the house. He knocked, the door opened, and he went inside. A few minutes later he came back out again, with the sound of voices following him. "Merry Christmas!" someone called, and he waved.
He got back into his truck, drove to the next house, and repeated the routine. Then to the next, and the next, all the way down through the village. Shortly after ten, he turned the old truck around, drove back up through the village, and disappeared into the night, his single red taillight glowing through the snow. Favor Johnson had delivered his Christmas presents again.
In every house where he’d stopped, there was now a small cylindrical package wrapped in aluminum foil and decorated with the Christmas seals that come in the mail. When these packages were unwrapped, they revealed tin cans with one end removed and a fruitcake baked inside. For single folks and couples, it was a soup can; for families of up to five, a vegetable can; and for larger establishments, a tomato can — all of them full to the brim with the most succulent fruitcake you could imagine. Mixed up with homemade butter and studded with hickory nuts, candied cherries and pineapple, citron, raisins, and currants, it was flavored with Favor’s own hard cider.
Where old Favor had paused only momentarily or gone only as far as the doorstep, there remained the scuff marks of his boots in the snow, where he’d shuffled his feet nervously. But where he’d gone inside and chatted, or perhaps shared a bit of cheer, the distinctive odor of cow barn lingered faintly in the air, a further reminder of who had brought the foil-wrapped package for which each family was already making its special plans. And always some child would ask, "Why did Mr. Johnson bring us a fruitcake?"
"Well," a mother or father would answer, "it’s just his way of saying ‘Merry Christmas.’"
"Does he do it every year?"
"Does he take one to everybody in the village?"
"Has he always done it?"
Well, no he hadn’t. And so the story of Favor Johnson and the flatlander doctor and the fruitcake would be told again.
Favor and his sister Grace had been twins, the only children of a hardscrabble farmer and his wife a couple of miles above the village. They’d gotten their names from an old Baptist hymnbook. Leafing through it for inspiration, their mother had come across the hymn, Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven, "Praise Him for His Grace and Favor to our fathers in distress." So Grace and Favor it had been.
When the old folks gave up farming, during the Thirties, they stayed on in the house and split the farm between the kids. Grace and her husband built a small house on their half, and Favor lived with the old folks.
When the Second World War began, the Army said Favor was too old to fight, but they made him a cook. He’d never cooked before in his life, but he turned out to have a talent for it. He became mildly famous in his outfit, even when they were in combat in France. Staff officers often commandeered him for their special dinners.
When Favor came home from the war in 1945, he took up farming again, and surprised everybody by marrying and starting a family. But his wife’s health wasn’t robust, so the one child, a daughter, was all they ever had. About the time the daughter graduated from high school, Favor’s wife died. The daughter married, moved away, and didn’t keep in touch. Grace and her husband sold their half of the farm and moved south. The old folks had died during the war. So Favor was left alone.
The yard and the house slowly grew shabby, the barn ramshackle. Favor sold most of the stock, keeping only two or three milkers. He ran a few chickens and a couple of pigs, kept a horse to haul firewood, and did a little sugaring in the spring. He must have had forty cats around the place, and one dog, his constant companion, a spotted hound named Hercules. Favor kept pretty much to himself and rarely had occasion to speak — except, perhaps, to Hercules.
Then one year the selectmen decreed a reappraisal of all town property, and suddenly Favor’s farm was worth a lot more money. His taxes went up far beyond his meager means. So he decided to sell his view.
Above his house was a ten-acre field, and the view from the top to the south and west was magnificent. Real estate agents had pestered him for years to let them sell it. Now he had to.
The field was bought by a surgeon from Massachusetts, a Doctor Jennings. The doctor and his wife hired an architect, and the next summer Favor’s field was capped by a magnificent, glass-fronted house where the Jenningses said they hoped to retire someday.
The Jenningses were good people, solid and predictable. Favor would hear their Mercedes diesel coming up the road almost every Friday evening, then roar as Doc downshifted for the driveway up to the house in the field. They’d stay till Sunday afternoon, then go back home for the week. Saturday mornings, Doc Jennings would wander down to Favor’s yard to chat, buy eggs or milk, or talk about mowing the field.
One early winter afternoon — on a Christmas Eve — Hercules failed for the first time in his life to show up at the barn door during the evening milking. Favor went to the door and called and whistled. No Hercules. Then Favor remembered he’d heard rabbit hunters in his swamp that afternoon. So after milking he took a flashlight and started for the swamp. It was dark and beginning to snow. As he headed down the hill, he heard Doc Jennings downshift for the driveway, and remembered that it was Friday.
Hours later, after wandering all through the swamp calling for his dog, he heard a whine coming from a tangle of alders, and found Hercules. He’d been shot. Favor scooped him up and headed back toward the house, stumbling in the thick brush. His flashlight finally faded and died.
Just as he scrambled up onto the shoulder of the road with the dying dog in his arms, he heard the sound of the big diesel coming, and the lights of Doc’s car swept across him. The car skidded to a stop in the gravel and Doc jumped out. "My god!" he cried. "What’s happened?"
Favor told him.
"Come on!" said Doc. "I’ve got a blanket in the back. Let’s wrap him up and get him to a vet!"
"Nope," said Favor. "I don’t want to do that. He don’t look like he’s gonna live, and this is the only home he’s ever known. He’s gonna die, oughtta be right here." Tears mingled with the sweat on Favor’s red face.
"All right," answered Doc. He shouted toward the car. "Honey, run back up to the house and get that first aid kit in the kitchen. Come on, Favor, let’s get that dog in the house!"
Doc was all dressed up in a three-piece suit. He and his wife had been headed for the midnight church service. But as he and Favor entered the kitchen, he threw his suitcoat over a chair. He rolled up his sleeves, told Favor to put Hercules onto the porcelain-topped table, and began to examine the weakly-panting dog. "Heat some water, will you?" he asked. "And I’ll need a candle and a sharp knife, some tweezers if you’ve got ’em, and a pair of sharp-nosed pliers."
In a few minutes Mrs. Jennings came back with the first aid kit. Doc told her to go on to church, but on the way back to stop at the hospital emergency room and pick up some things he’d order by phone. She left, and he and Favor went back to work on old Hercules.
His jaw was broken. Some teeth were missing. One shoulder had been torn open by the blast. The flesh was full of shot. He was too weak to struggle. He only moaned as Doc, whose sensitive fingers had probed the tissues of the rich and famous, worked on him under the flickering fluorescent kitchen fixture.
"I don’t know if it’s proper to pray for a dog, Favor," he said, "but it can’t hurt. This old guy’s not in very good shape."
About one in the morning Mrs. Jennings brought the supplies Doc had ordered over the phone. She brewed coffee and heated some sweet rolls she’d bought at an all-night convenience store. About three o’clock Doc finally took his last stitch, swabbed the wounds with antiseptic one last time, and gave the exhausted dog a shot for the pain. He and Favor lifted him gently and laid him on his mat beside the kitchen stove.
"That’s all I can do," he said, washing his hands at the kitchen sink. "Now we’ll have to wait and see."
"Thanks, Doc," said Favor. "He sure looks a lot better’n he did. What d’ I owe you?"
Doc Jennings put both hands on Favor’s shoulders. His own shoulders sagged with weariness, and his eyes were moist.
"Owe me? Why, nothing, Favor. There’s little enough you and I can do for each other, and this was the most, I guess, that I can do for you. I know you’d do whatever you could for me if I ever needed it.
"I’ll be down around ten to take a look at Hercules. You’d better get some sleep. Oh! I almost forgot. Merry Christmas!"
When Doc came down later, Hercules was too weak to raise his head in greeting. His long tail thumped softly on the mat beside the stove. He was going to be all right.
Doc had brought a gift with him, a fancy, boxed fruitcake from an expensive mail-order place somewhere. Favor thanked him again for saving Hercules, and for the fruitcake. But later, tasting it for the first time, he gagged. "Pfah!" he said. "I can do better’n that!"
And that’s how it started. He made just one that first year, for Doc and Mrs. Jennings, and then a few the next year for some old friends. The response was so tremendous that within just a few years his list had expanded to include the whole village.
And the whole village responds in kind. During the two weeks of the holiday season his bedraggled dooryard is hardly ever without a visiting car or two, and his kitchen is piled high with gifts that he savors and enjoys all through the long winter. Some of the village kids even think he’s Santa Claus in disguise, and that seems to give him the greatest pleasure of all.
This is Willem Lange, wishing you all a very Merry Christmas.