Ol’ Tennessee and a Colorado Christmas

My grandfather, Luther David Ralph, was quite a storyteller. Between chewing his tobacco and spitting it into the spittoon when Grandmama was watching and into the fireplace when she was not, this is a story he’d tell.

In the year I became old enough to vote, I took off for points west. I ended up in the mining town of Pueblo, Colorado.

One of the first people I met was a jovial old gentleman who headed a big operation in there in Pueblo. He asked me where I was from, and when I told him Tennessee, he said, “No one out here will ever bother you if you tell them where you’re from, because people from your state have a reputation of shooting anyone who crosses their path.” I thought he was kidding, but found out later he wasn’t.

I went to work in probably the biggest store in the state, with a force of 200 clerks and a concern selling practically any item you could imagine. The owners not only owned a whole town up in the mountains, but also the railroad that ran through it. Soon after I started working, the president of the company told me he wanted to send me to his store up in that little town.

“Luther, I want you to help the manager up there,” he said. “I’ve watched you work and I know you’ll be a valuable asset to him.”

Two friends from Shackle Island who were department managers in the big store told me not to go. “It is impossible to get along with the manager there. He’s a Yankee from Maine!” they said.

I paid them no attention because I had always gotten along with everyone I had ever worked with. I knew I could do so with this man as long as I minded my own business.

I took the job. In about a month the manager, my new boss, said to me, “Ralph, you wait on the Mexicans when they come in. I’ve been here six months and can’t understand a word they say. I’ve noticed that you can understand them and speak their language fluently, so they’re all yours.”

I didn’t speak the language that well, of course, but he didn’t know the difference. He had probably watched me weigh five pounds of beans and hand it to them, saying, “Dora alice.” And then he had seen them hand me a quarter, and I’d said, “Mucha gracias,” instead of “Thank you.”

I did have a sort of advantage, however. The day I arrived at the store Ralph Gonzales, a red-headed Mexican, twice my age and a U. S. citizen, shook my hand and became my best friend. As he put it, and correctly so, we had the same name—my last name and his first. He was a bachelor and stayed in the store nearly every night long after the manager had gone home and until I closed it. He taught me with great enthusiasm what everything in the store was called in Spanish. It was great fun to me, and the Mexicans, too, who would always laugh and say, “Si, si,” meaning I had spoken it correctly.

Then came Christmas Eve, 1912. The weather had been down to 20 degrees below zero and nobody could work in the open pit quarries and mines. They were all buying on credit at the store. Headquarters in Pueblo sent us word to let them have only the necessities to live on, which made it hard on the kids at Christmas time.

The store that evening was full of people, and I was over behind a side counter waiting on the Mexicans. Suddenly through the front door burst a little sawed-off fellow that I knew to be originally from Missouri, and right behind him came his tall, hawk-nosed wife. With her urging, he came in mad as a hornet and cursing my boss for not selling his wife a $15 toy wagon for his four-year-old son that morning. Of course she had wanted to buy it on credit. Everyone in the store froze when he declared he was going to beat the manager up. All the while the manager was trying to explain why he couldn’t let the woman have the wagon.

As for me, I was scared plumb out of my wits. I remembered that the president of the big store in Pueblo, when sending me out there, said that he was sending me to help the manager. But did he send me there to help him fight? I pondered it, but stood there unable to decide.

The angry man advanced closer, declaring he was coming over the counter to beat the daylights out of my boss. Then something—I don’t know what it was—prompted me to move. I didn’t really want to get into the fight, but I must have thought that moving closer to my boss would be a show of support.

I walked about 30 feet around behind the counters, stopped about a yard behind my boss, laid my right hand upon the shelf behind me, and leaned there. I knew I looked calm, but inside I was wildly wondering what I should do if the man came over the counter.

The fellow didn’t come over the counter. Instead, in a flash he whirled and bolted for the door, his wife right behind him.

Someone in the crowd asked, “What in the world made him stop so sudden and run out the door?”

The head superintendent of all work crews in the town happened to be there, and he said, “Why—didn’t you see ol’ Tennessee walk all the way around the counters and lay his hand beside that .44 on the shelf behind him?”

To my astonishment, I looked—and my hand was almost touching the gun! I had, unknown even to me, shown the man from the “Show Me” state that if you scare a Tennessean enough he might shoot you, just like the old gentleman had said about the reputations of Tennesseans.

A couple of years in Colorado was all Luther, my maternal grandfather, needed to get the wanderlust out of his system. He went back home to Tennessee, married his waiting sweetheart Hester, and built a home just down the road from the one where he was born. As I visit the old home place where he and Hester raised their nine children, fruits, vegetables, chickens, and cows, I recall with tenderness the many times I sat at his feet in front of the fireplace and heard him tell of his Colorado adventures. Of all his stories, this was always my favorite.