The river was full and clear, carrying my old wooden johnboat along with each dip of the paddle. It was Christmas Eve of 1970, more than two weeks since my grandfather’s funeral. No one could understand why I wanted to float the river, but I told my folks I’d be home by mid-afternoon. I just wanted to be on the Big Piney again, where my grandpa had spend most of his life; where he had taught me as a small boy how to set trotlines and grab yeller suckers, how to catch a coon and sneak up on a flock of mallards.
An hour before noon I rounded a bend and floated through a stretch of shoal, and I saw an old man there on a gravel bar, sitting against a log with a small fire flaming before him. A big root wad beside him broke the wind and his old dog lay curled up beneath it. He had been watching me as I came through the shoal and I recognized Ben the minute I saw him. He was a riverman and a fur-trapper, and an old friend of my grandfather. He had been a not-so-frequent visitor in the pool hall my dad owned when I was just a kid. He’d come in sometimes while I was working there, after school or early on a Saturday morning, and tell me stories about fish he had caught and deer he had killed. But when there were many people there, he wouldn’t stay. He just wasn’t comfortable around crowds.
I pulled my johnboat up on the gravel bar beside his and hauled out an old metal cooler, which had lunch in it, plenty for us both. Ben was pleased with that, said he was hungry as a bear. I poured him some coffee and set out some lunchmeat and bread and a whole package of cinnamon rolls.
I gave him one of my cigars and then as a second thought, gave him the other.
“I don’t really smoke them,” I said, “They are left over from what I was handing out when my baby girl was born back in November. I puff on one every now and then ‘cause it makes me look so much like Clint Eastwood.” Ben didn’t even smile. Just after I said it I realized that he didn’t know a thing about those Eastwood westerns.
As he put away a sandwich, he looked at the ground and apologized for not being at the funeral. “I’m gonna miss old Fred,” he told me. “Never had many friends, but he was one. We came back from the war together on the same train. I never needed his help that I didn’t get it.”
“Don’t worry about it Ben,” I said, “Grandpa wasn’t there either. I think he’s gone on to a better river to float.”
We just sat there and ate for awhile, neither of us saying anything. Then I asked him where he would spend Christmas. “Right here on this ol’ river, I reckon. Got some farr-wood piled up in that cave up there in the bluff, and a bedroll. Got to run my trapline in the mornin’,” he said as he unwrapped a cigar. “Then I’ll float on down and come in…go up an’ have Christmas dinner at the rest home. My sister is there you know.”
“I can’t believe you are going to spend Christmas Eve here on the river!” I said.
“Best placed there is,” he answered. “I’m gonna’ look for that star in the east!” I didn’t say anything, while Ben puffed on the cigar. Then he spoke again. “I always been a God-fearin’ man, but I never went to church much—can’t stand those preachers a rantin’ and rarin’ and pointin’ their finger at me.”
I’m glad mom and dad always made me go to church,” I told him. “Course I wasn’t back then. I can’t say I ever liked it that much. Always enjoyed sittin’ on the back row with my cousins and causin’ trouble. But I am glad I learned all the Bible stories,” I told him.
Nowadays when I’m in church I spend lots of time looking at my watch and dozin’ off a little. I don’t like sitting in a church and acting like I’m part of it when I ain’t. But by golly, I want my daughter to be there in Sunday school, ‘cause I don’t expect her to be like me.”
I gave Ben’s old dog part of a sandwich, and we finished the coffee. “It isn’t a good thing for a man to be trying to make himself be what he ain’t just to satisfy someone else,” I said. Me and you and my grandpa were part of this river and these hills and God knows that. He doesn’t expect us to be what we aren’t Ben, He knows our heart.”
“Sounded like your grandpa a little bit just then,” Ben said. “He used to preach me some powerful sermons out here on this river, but he come on it late in life. When he was young he was as confused as me. I can’t make heads nor tails of most of that Bible, but the things Jesus said, the part of it that’s in red…I can understand that. And I never seen a man who could argue with it.”
We got around to some other things, and Ben went to his boat and brought me a sassafras paddle my grandpa had made. He said he wanted to give it to me for Christmas. He had others, he said, and thought he wouldn’t need it much longer. I told him to keep that box of food for a Christmas Eve dinner, and he thanked me.
It finally came time for me to float on, knowing my dad would be waiting downriver at the crossing. I told him how good it was to see him and how grateful I was for the paddle. He knew I meant it when I said it was about the greatest Christmas gift a man could get.
“I hope you see that star in the east tonight, Ben,” I said as I pulled my old boat from the gravel bar. “Shinin’ bright and strong.”
“I reckon I will,” he said. And then he asked me, “Who do you reckon that star was shinin’ over…that baby in the manger?”
I didn’t think long about my answer. “He was Christ the King, Ben…the Son of God. I don’t know much beyond that, don’t have any answers for anyone else. But I know that much.”
“I think you are right,” he said with a smile on his face and a brightness in his eyes. “and I don’t know that I need any more than that.”
I never saw old Ben again. I still think about him and my grandpa on Christmas Eve. And I think about my other three grandparents as well---wonderful church-going people who were the salt of the earth. I expect there are beautiful churches in heaven where they are found celebrating the birth of Christ. But not all the hymns are being sung there. Some will be sung by less-than-angelic voices on a gravel bar beside a river so beautiful, that the Big Piney will hold no comparison. Sung by my grandpa and old Ben and men like them who God made different, but loved just as much. The star above the manger, and the baby who was born there, was sent for men like them too.