Little Joey McCauley was a typical young boy in a small Scottish town just north of the English border. He was in his early years of primary school in that late fall of 1917, occasionally getting in minimal trouble at school for playing pranks while learning his school lessons easily and enjoying the games that little boys play. He loved his mother dearly but missed his father terribly since his departure to France for service in the Great War.
Joey and his mom were surprised on the last day of November to learn that his dad would be home in three days for a five day furlough. It would be the first time in sixteen months that they had seen him and both were overjoyed. And since that meant he would not be home for Christmas, but in the opening days of the season, they would have an early Christmas when he arrived. There was much to do and it must be done quickly.
Mom finished her special sweater designed to help Joe, Sr. fend off the damp cold in the trenches. And Joey was making a clay pony on a stand, something that Sergeant McCauley could keep with his possessions as a remembrance. The year 1917 was a tough one in the British Isles and presents were home made and simple, but they came from the heart. And Mom did go over her budget for a special dinner, a large roast of beef which a farmer friend bartered with her for sewing. It would be a grand occasion.
And grand it was with friends visiting and the Sergeant spinning yarns about his trench mates, but always staying clear of the cold, hard truth. Joey and his father walked and talked a lot, each proud of the other for being a man in what they were tasked to do. Senior for doing his duty and Junior for being the head of family in the interim. Mother Katherine just smiled and hugged her man as often as she could, hating the fact that after five days of family bliss the old fears of an uncertain future would beckon again.
At the end of those glorious days they saw Sergeant McCauley off on the troop train, knowing that, hope and pray as they might, it could be the last time they would ever see him. There had been many deaths of area men since British units wee manned from specific geographic areas, not by random selection, not at random at all and their hometown had received more than its share. While it was great for camaraderie and morale, it was horrific if the unit found itself on the short end of a major battle.
The time leading up to the real Christmas ticked on, but Joey and his mom weren't very interested since they felt their Christmas was already over. Joey was growing lethargic and while he maintained his schoolwork, his only real enjoyment now was visiting farmer John Campbell who raised sheep and Shetland ponies. Mr. Campbell walked with a significant limp; he had been seriously injured in France in 1915, nearly died, but fully recovered except for the limp. He really wanted to let Joey help him on the farm but was afraid he would be asked about his frailty. He would do nothing to concern the young boy about something which could very well happen to his father as well. But he really could use help with the ponies who were a handful.
And then one day, about a week before Christmas, the bad news came. The Minister from the village Church of Scotland congregation appeared at the door with an unopened telegram. It had been given to him by the head of the local telegraph office, a distant cousin of Katherine McCauley, who thought having a man of the cloth deliver the notice would be best. He knew that Katherine and Joey were congregants of the local church.
Joey had just returned from school and he and his mother were getting ready for an early supper when they saw the Reverend McIntyre coming to the door. They knew what it was and, upon receiving the news, asked to just be left alone for a time. Mother and son cried together, talked about their now departed husband and dad and then prayed. A church memorial service would be held later since the body was unrecoverable. And both knew they would have to go on with their life even though it would be tough.
When Mr. Campbell heard the news, he waited a few days and then made plans to visit the McCauleys, mother and son. He knew how much Joey wanted a Shetland pony and he thought that maybe now was the time to offer assistance. After all, the McCauleys would be financially strapped and any money Joey could bring home would help. Mr. Campbell wasn't a wealthy man, but he lived quite comfortably raising sheep for wool and food while also raising and training Shetland ponies to pull carts. He had sufficient acreage to do both and he had excellent contacts with former British Army contracting officers who now were in the private sector.
Mr. Campbell's planned visit took place one afternoon before Joey came home from school. He timed it so that he and Katherine McCauley could discuss what he wanted to do, with Joey's arrival to come right after their discussion was concluded. Over afternoon tea, he told Mrs. McCauley what he would like to offer Joey. Thinking it might be too gracious, she almost turned him down, but realizing what it could do for Joey's outlook and spirits, she said yes. That settled, they continued chatting over tea until Joey walked in.
"Joey, Mr. Campbell has something he wants to talk with you about," his mother said upon his arrival. "It's your decision but if it is something you want to do, I am in full agreement."
And with that quick introduction, John Campbell explained in detail to Joey what he had in in mind. He wanted the boy to come to his small horse farm after school each day and on Saturdays and carry out a routine of chores and tasks to help him. He explained that with his bad leg he was having difficulty handling the energetic ponies by himself and some chores and assorted tasks as well. Joey would receive a generous stipend for his work and Mr. Campbell would give him a Shetland pony that could stay on the farm. Joey could pay for feed and other upkeep from his wages.
What's more, he explained that if Joey liked it, he would teach him all he knew about the pony side of his business. He just didn't have the time or the physical wherewithal to keep it going the way he'd like. If Joey showed promise as he got older, the opportunity for him to take over that operation was certainly possible since Mr. Campbell, a lifelong bachelor, had no family to take over.
"That's my proposal, Joey," Mr. Campbell closed. "Does it sound like something you'd be interested in?"
Joey sat silent for a moment, trying to let it all soak in and then, suddenly, he broke into a broad grin and said, "Boy, do I ever, Sir. When can I start?"
They agreed that Joey would start on the upcoming Saturday and it was the beginning of what turned into a business partnership between Mr. Campbell and Joey that would last for many years. Joey quickly grasped his duties, learned all their was to know about Shetland ponies and became a carting trainer of area fame in later life.
And three years after it all began, Katherine McCauley and John Campbell became husband and wife. It made for a great family for all three of them and it lasted until death of Mr. Campbell some thirty years later.
Joey never forgot his natural father. And on the gateway to the pony barn he placed a memorial plaque for Sergeant Joseph McCauley, Sr. honoring his service in the Great War. Joey would go on to serve in uniform like his dad in the Second Great War, but came home without serious injuries and continued working in his dream job, raising and training Shetlands.
Yes, it is a sad Christmas story but with a great ending. And it goes to show that bad things also open windows to better things when good people are kind to one another. Look what happened to Joey and his mother, while the love for the departed father stayed with them all of their lives, they realized that life was meant for the living. And all because a kind and generous man stepped into their lives and offered a helping hand. How fitting that God shone his light on this family and brought them great joy out of sadness. We might even call it a Christmas miracle.
©James Dick,2017: Story rights reserved