Volume 28, Number 2

Jack Straw Says

Melvin Litton

Saturday morning in Pup’s Barber Shop, the flow of men slackens towards noon, called to Joe’s Cafe for ‘Another Pow’ful Good Meal’—Chicken Dinner, 25¢. Though many are back again by early afternoon, picking their teeth, reading a newspaper or magazine in lazy wait of the barber chair. The radio turned low plays a string of favorite carols—“First Noel,” “Silent Night,” “Away in the Manger,” “Joy to the World,” like ornaments themselves tapping deep sentiments of hope and innocence rising in the blood memory along with the scents of hot chocolate, sugared popcorn, and Momma’s apple crisp pie, all somehow centered in the ancient evergreen promise to make the old heart new.

Most men listening share the mix of enchantment through the next hour or so and most are soon shaved, trimmed and gone, leaving only three: old Elmer in solemn snore, Father Nolan soon to take the chair and Ross Fallon, a stern old Scots-Irish farmer more firm in his politics than his faith, sitting off alone towards the door, does not bandy or trifle, keeps to himself, his gaze fixed, silent, though his neck hardens as Pup turns up the radio to catch Jack Straw and “Old Trusty” speaking common sense to common people. Due to growing popularity the show has gained a slot each Saturday afternoon through Christmas. After giving brief note of the weather and highlights of area events, the voice shifts to a more frank and intimate tone …

“Folks, here we are again in the cusp of two great national holidays, Thanksgiving which predates our founding and was proclaimed in the moment of our gravest peril and disunion…and Christmas, which harkens back centuries to the birth of Jesus our Savior, who calls us forth, each of us, from our selfishness and greed to succor our brother out of love, shared sacrifice and need. To all listening think of them now, for we all know of a brother, a friend, a neighbor out wandering like a shadow along the rails and roadways, gaunt from want and hunger, hounded by a dark angry wind, in search of a job, a meal, a place to sleep. And those left behind, wives, sisters, mothers huddled in unheated flats, the coal box and cupboard bare, the babies wail, their bellies empty. Is it so much to ask in this Christmas season that there be a fire in every stove, a chicken in every pot…?”

“Then by God they can go out ‘n chop some wood,” Ross declares to the radio, “or shoot them a rabbit or pheasant if they’re so blame cold ‘n hungry!”

“Now, Ross,” Pup holds out a palm to ease him down, “what you say might be true for folks out here. But in those city slums and tenements there’s not a rabbit or pheasant one. Now there are pigeons, and I have seen them snared ‘n eaten. Did so myself as a boy out of hunger.”

Ross sits back hardly placated as the voice of irritation hums on:

“No, there’s much to fear in unholy Russia, and I would not trade the American soul for their slavish ways. Not the free soul of our merchants, tradesmen and farmers, all being stomped by the Giants of finance and industry, these new Caesars who would drain our lifeblood while they feast on plenty. Oh they scream at the prospect of a shared meal as if each tax exacts a pound of flesh. How is it that a man given a shovel and a job is boondoggle while a man given a rifle and sent to fight Sandina in Nicaragua to protect their rich investments is a righteous cause? This old bone of contention has been gnawed on through time, and it’s high time it was buried. It’s not greed and power-lust but our sense of brotherhood, the bread from the sweat of our brow that feeds and defines us, our willingness to lend a hand ‘n spare a dime that marks the essential American spirit. A spirit proclaimed long ago in Acts 11:29, ‘And the disciples, every man according to his ability, proposed to send relief to the brethren in Judea…and distribution was made to everyone, according as he had need.’ This latter part from Acts 4:35 −”

Ross stabs his finger at the radio, “That right there is from Communist Russia! He don’t fool me. I knew he was a Red.”

“Actually, Ross, I think it’s from the Bible.”

“Not from my Bible, it ain’t!”

“Well, I’m no expert, I admit. Perhaps Father Patti will clarify for us?”

Father Nolan shifts slightly, none too eager to enter the fray.

“Yes, yes,” he says, “from the Acts as cited. Though I believe he quotes the Douay translation, but you’ll find much the same in the King James Version or any you look to. It’s a broken quote, incomplete, but provides the gist. Among the early Christians there was as yet no Church, nor a Bible. We only know of them through scattered texts that formed the Gospels and the Acts. As is said in the Acts, ‘All that believed were together and had all things in common. And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need …’

Ross stares hard and listens but does not yield or blink, holds the Catholics and their priests nearly as suspect as this socialist on the radio…

“Take a stick of gum, any flavor, chew it to a tasteless wad then toss it to the dirt. Better yet stick it under a cafe counter or booth. This is the rich in charity to the poor. They share a few crumbs and a trifle of learning and claim it’s enough, these ABCs, their already-been-chewed and thrown-aways. It’s a wonder the poor don’t rise up and take. But given a fair shake they’ll gain their own as you would wish, by righteous effort.

“Hear the Scrooges shout, ‘Nay, Never! That the poor are poor is their lot!’

“What of faith, hope and charity? What are we become, a nation that celebrates parsimony and moneychangers? That shreds Paul’s great hymn to charity, that says nay to kindness and yea to suffering? Remember what Peter said to Simon, again from Acts 8:20, ‘Thy money perish with thee…’”

“By God I know this much,” Ross slaps his hands to his knees and stands, “you’ll perish a damn sight sooner from lack of money than by havin’ it. And you can have that Red fool and his sermon. I’ll take my preachin’ in church on a Sunday.…”

With that said Ross stomps out. The wreath bounces once at the bang of the door then hangs quaintly framed for the next exit or entry. The colored lights bubble on and old Elmer maintains his deep afternoon slumber, half snore and half dream. Jack Straw shortly signs off, yielding the airwaves to a bright jazzy rendition of “Jingle Bells” by the Riley-Farley Orchestra.

Pup finishes cleaning his clippers and with a sweep of the towel offers the chair to Father Nolan. “What say ye, Patti James, looks like brother Ross has bailed.”

“Sorry if I ran him off.”

“Aw no, he’ll be back in by ‘n by. Got his hackles up, he’ll need a trimmin’.…”