Winter of 1899 was ‘specially tough on the Bixby Family. First, we lost several cows and all our turkeys to deadly Northers that blew down from the Boreal regions in December. Second, we all came down with the pip, but had to get our chores done, regardless. That was hard.
The other sad thing that winter was that Uncle Wickey got a strange notion in his head. One dark day in late January, he slumped in his place at the far end of the dinner table and out of the blue said, “I feel the wind of a mighty chariot a-comin’ to get me.”
At this, we all fell silent. Uncle Wickey (short for Wickham) was not a verbose sort, so a hush might have fallen on us if he’d said so much as, “Rover kilt a bird this mornin’,” Rover being our cat and no novice at the art of bird-assassination. None of us, not even Papa Bixby, quite knew what to say. The silence grew longer and longer, and finally Cousin Larry asked for the lima beans and dinner moved along, though with a pall cast over it.
Afterwards, I approached Toody Glossop, Larry’s elder sister, and asked what that “mighty chariot” meant.
“He means a heavenly chariot, Roy-Boy.
“What’s a chariot?”
“It’s…it’s like a buckboard what has had the rear half fall off and the driver stands on what’s left and steers the horses.”
That sounded terribly awkward. “But why’s a heavenly chariot coming for Uncle Wickey?”
“God is going to call Uncle Wickey home.”
I was six at this time, and though I had a general notion of death, I was fuzzy on the details. “What’s He going to do that for?”
“He just is, and that’s not ours to question, so shut your tater-trap, Roy-Boy.” Toody flounced away, leaving me none the wiser.
I consulted other family members, Martin, Robert, Alice, Hyacinth, Irwin, and our eldest brother, Bilfred. Gradually I learnt that our uncle had had a premonition that he was going to die, but I should not expect a chariot to pull up to our front door like a wagon-for-hire and drive off with Wickham Bixby, will-he-nill-he. It was a “figger of speech,” Bilfred told me, so I forgot about chariots and wondered on what a “figger of speech” might look like. I’d heard Papa an’ Bilfred allow that Wilhelmina Suggins, in town, had a nice “figger.” So I imagined a figger of speech wore a corset that made it look like a pissant while it addressed a crowd.
We were (and still are) simple farm people, but dinner always had a certain dignity to it. Grace was said by Papa or Mama Bixby before anyone dared raise a fork. We children were trained to be silent and let the adults chat as they chose. No coarse talk or profanity was permitted. The next night, dinner was even more subdued than usual.
Uncle Wickey sat there quietly, mouth downcast. We passed around the food and made sure that he ate. When all were finished, Uncle Wickey cleared his throat and said, “I dreamt last night that an angel came for me in a golden chariot.” That pretty much forestalled any postprandial repartee, had we been the sort of family that engaged in suchlike. Instead, we picked our teeth nervously and dispersed, leaving our uncle sitting there, morose and alone.
As the weeks went on, Uncle Wickey indulged in additional premonitory imagery every evening. On February 2nd, he said nothing for a long time. We had finished dinner without an oracular outburst, so I imagined, in my innocence, that Uncle Wickey was feeling better and had decided he wasn’t doomed, after all. I suspect the others felt the same. But no; before we could shove our chairs back from the table, he looked up and proclaimed: “I s’pose this will be my last Groundhog Day.”
Over the forthcoming weeks, interspersed with generic portents of impending avuncular doom, we were reminded that each holiday might well be Uncle Wickey’s very last Lincoln’s Birthday, Valentine’s Day, Washington’s Birthday, Ash Wednesday, or whatever milestone we’d reached. Holidays have never quite been the same for me, since.
Papa Bixby did what he could to talk Uncle Wickey out of this idea, but without success. My uncle’s depression grew and grew, and dinner became an occasion for gloom. I began to imagine ways to run away or, failing that, to ask for my own golden chariot take me away from the pervading mood.
Then one morning, Cousin Larry, Toody, and I heard noises from over the hill towards the Prendergast place. Shouting, screaming, and profanity. These were not aberrant behavior for Prendergasts, not at all. What was unusual was the duration and enthusiasm of these outbursts.
Now, we Bixby children thought of ourselves as superior to the Prendergasts. We didn’t raise pigs, as they did, nor make ‘shine in a copper contraption in the woods nearby. We also attended church every Sunday. We were forbidden to walk up the hill betwixt us and them or to talk to any Prendergasts we might encounter. They felt pretty much the same about us, so there wasn’t a lot of traffic along the road to their place.
On this occasion, however, the three of us ignored our orders and trudged up the hill along the forbidden path. At the top, we something so strange that our jaws dropped to the bibs on our overalls. Below us, we saw a troupe of strangely garbed men and women. One man was ensconced in a small tent, peering into a sort of box. Others milled around in front of the box, on one of the few flat areas of the pig farm. But the thing that caught my eye was a man in strange armor driving a pair of horses as he stood in a golden, two-wheeled conveyance that barely cleared the ground.
I nudged Toody. “Is that a chariot?”
“Yep, that thar is a fer-sure chariot.”
We descended the hill to get closer. We were quickly told to stand off to one side and not disturb “the actors.” Eventually, during a break, the charioteer came over and told us they were making a movie. We’d heard of these things, but had never seen one. Toody and Larry and I put our heads together and conspired, then called the charioteer aside during his next break. That night, we broke open our piggy banks.
The following noon, as Uncle Wickey trudged back from the barn to clean up for lunch, he heard something trundling over the hill. This got his immediate attention, being a rare occurrence. Imagine his surprise to see a golden chariot coming directly at him, driven not by an angel, but a man in Roman armor. Nor did this apparition exclaim “Halleluia,” but ”’Whoa, you sons of bitches, whoa!”
The charioteer stopped beside him. “Are you Uncle Wickey?”
“Uh, I reckon I am…” our uncle admitted.
“Get in. I’m taking you for your ride.”
Uncle Wickey looked him and the chariot over and noted the peeling gold paint and the pig shit on all the wheels. “You sure you’ve got the right Uncle Wickey?”
“Sure as shootin’, now get in.”
“Where you takin’ me?” Uncle Wickey quavered.
“Hurry up. We’ve only got five minutes between shoots.”
Uncle Wickey reluctantly complied, and they took off back over the hill. Toody and Larry and I ran behind and watched the chariot bounce and lurch uphill and down, then round and round Prendergast’s pig farm as the driver swore and our uncle held on and screamed and whooped. After five minutes, they came back. Uncle Wickey got out and staggered away. The charioteer collected the dollar we’d promised him and rejoined his fellows.
That night, at dinner, Uncle Wickey sat calmly, saying nothing further about being carried off to heaven. He mostly just looked slanchwise at Toody, Larry, and me. We avoided his stare and ate joyfully, the gloom of the past month dispersed.
Then Bilfred passed a huge quantity of gas, a lapse totally forbidden at the Bixby dinner table. We were horrified. Papa Bixby looked at Bilf in disgust. Into the dead silence, Cousin Larry piped, “I hear the wind of a mighty chariot a-comin’ to get me,” and never again did Uncle Wickey, nor anyone else, bring up golden chariots at the Bixby dinner table.