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Posted on February 1st, 2022

The Soft Core of the Earth – The Red Fern

I drove home for Christmas, crossing a whole bunch of flyover states from the Mid-Atlantic region of the country. It’s a little over 10 hours with no considerable traffic or construction, and most of the drive is barren and wide-open. Regardless of where I’ve lived, since graduating from college and moving away, I’ve done this drive (or one similar to it) 17 of 21 years. I skipped four Christmases at home, two for work reasons, one for a long-gone girlfriend (who was frankly on the way out at the time anyhow), and once because I’d just relocated from the Rockies to the Pacific Northwest a month earlier and I didn’t have it in me to make the trek. Now, I have no affinity for Christmas whatsoever, so my sole motivation to go home is to see my folks. I’m not a Christian, I’m against the hyper-commercialized and commodified twist that becomes more the essence of the “holiday,” and I hate all the congestion and tomfoolery that comes along with that time of year. A brief aside, I’m not a fan of any holiday, really. New Year’s Eve is perhaps the stupidest, not only because literally nothing changes but the calendar, but because it is always overhyped, overpriced and always anticlimactic. Memorial Day, the 4th of July and Labor Day, well, it’s nice to have a long weekend, but again, more congestion, more nonsense. The same goes for Thanksgiving, and obviously Valentine’s Day is a joke for all the reasons Christmas is, only worse because it was born purely of a marketing gimmick. St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo aren’t really holidays, but just excuses for people to get piss-wasted; do we really need an excuse to do that? Halloween is the only one I really like, and while you can honestly apply most of my criticisms listed thus far of other days, at least this one yields sexy cat, sexy nurse and sexy librarian outfits. In other words, something worth looking at. I digress, as usual. Back to Christmas.

There are numerous things I hate about going home at Christmas, and one of them are all my parents’ friends. You know, people that I’ve “known” for decades, but never really had any substantive engagement with ever in my life. We see some at restaurants, others stop by the house to spread cheer and be merry, and every time I get roped into a conversation where I’m asked the most banal questions, or I otherwise just stand there like an uninterested bystander, not really invited into the conversation. It should be noted that my dad still loves all things Christmas. He loves the music, still puts up and decorates the tree (though he stopped doing the outdoor lights 20 years ago), still goes to the neighborhoods with the festive spirit and out-of-control electric bills. My mom, I think, could take it or leave it, but sees it as an easy opportunity to get me home for a few days, and as I said, it usually works. I do wonder what that first Christmas will be like after one of my parents dies, and certainly the first one after both are gone. It’s a bit of a macabre thought to have, in no small part because I don’t like Christmas and, in some way, feel as if I’m making it seem that with their deaths will come the release from this strange form of servitude, but I don’t mean it to be so. As with most people, I enjoy seeing my parents and spending time with them, and again, as with most people, I also look forward to the end of the visit. What is it about fish and company smelling bad after three days? Yeah, that applies here, too. Digression number two…  

There was actually a time when I enjoyed going back for Christmas, though it had nothing to do with all the things I’ve outlined above as disliking. It was because I used to still have good friends who lived in my hometown, and numerous others who traveled back for the holiday. Oh, and I/we were still in our merry-making stage of life, going out and drinking a lot and closing down the bars. When you have the opportunity to do that for days on end and channel some of your inner kid, well, it’s fun. But sadly, over time, everyone that I kept in touch either moved away or came back less and less, and even when they do return, most of us (me included) were usually so worn down from the travel and time spent with family that we didn’t have the urge to go out late and drink a lot. Sad, really… 

Now, with the pandemic, the last two Christmases have been really drab. No socializing whatsoever. So, that means more time at home with the folks, and more opportunities to go crazy because of it. Mostly I just read a lot when I’m home, and I usually make sure to bring more than enough books and magazines with me so that I always have something to turn to in a moment of boredom, but this time I didn’t plan it out well. I had a lot of free time and I soared through everything I brought with me 2.5 days into a 4.5-day stay, so I was a little worried the idle time would lead to frustration. My folks have been eradicating all the things from the house that they no longer want/need – perhaps in some strange pre-death ritual – so a lot of old books in the house have been donated to the library. Most of the ones I thought I might want to keep I’ve already excavated, but as I scanned the bookcase in my bedroom from high school, I actually stumbled upon a book that had crossed my mind for some reason in the weeks before my trip home: “Where the Red Fern Grows,” by Wilson Rawls.

It was hell getting back. So many people, and all I wanted was a little peace and quiet. Image retrieved from and comes courtesy of Pixabay. 

I’m not sure why it had been on my mind, but a few old books from my childhood will cross through from time to time. Another one that does frequently is “The Velveteen Rabbit,” by Margery Williams. In that book, it maps out a child’s love for a toy and his heartbreak when that toy has to be thrown away. In case you haven’t read it, you should, and I won’t spoil it. It’s a real tearjerker. Other books from my youth are a little more indulgent, like the “Choose Your Own Adventure” or “Bunnicula” series, as well as a book I remember checking out from the library probably 10 times, “The View from the Cherry Tree,” a murder mystery involving a kid who doesn’t get much attention from his family. 

Anyhow, back to the book at hand, “Where the Red Fern Grows.” It was still on my bookcase so I figured I would give it a read. At 250 pages, and intended for adolescents, I figured it wouldn’t take long (I finished with time to spare on Christmas day, unfortunately). And while I didn’t remember exactly what happened since it had been so long since I’d read it, I knew it had a sad ending, so those first couple hundred pages had me straining to remember when the somber part came on – of course, I eventually found out. Right before I read it, I looked it up online to get a brief preview/reminder, and the first few lines of the plot summary said the book focused on man’s relationship to dogs and the beauty and power of nature. I was sold. It didn’t disappoint on that matter, either.  

If you were to search it as well, you’d find that it’s compared to Old Yeller, so you can probably guess how it ends. So, I don’t think I’m giving away anything when I say the dogs die (I mean, the book came out in 1961, so the statute of limitations on spoiler alerts has long since run its course), and despite the religious theme that weaves into the story from time-to-time, I found the book to be enjoyable and worthwhile. It’s funny, I think as a society we’ve gotten away from showcasing the reality of life in some of our media and entertainment – meaning death and heartache – and perhaps we need to make that more central. Everything is so glammed up these days, and everyone has become so fragile, that all that seems to pass for “good” anymore is stuff that is either so fantastical it’s unbelievable or stories where everything gets resolved and comes out in the end okay. Happily ever after, my ass. That’s not life, my friends. In this book I was reminded of the finitude of life, hardship and consequences for decisions made. I was also reminded of how rough and tumble the world is, for everyone, man or beast. What do they teach kids in school these days? Do they still read stuff like this? There are a few books I remember being assigned to read in high school, books I likely didn’t read (only bought the Cliff’s Notes instead), stuff like “Fahrenheit 451” and “Slaughterhouse Five.” I’ve since read them as an adult and wished I’d done so as a kid – and paid attention while doing so. Unfortunately, I wasn’t much of a deep thinker back then. That took decades to come to being. “Where the Red Fern Grows” did make me think, though. And before I knew it, my time was over, and I hit the road… 

Leaving the day after Christmas was a bad idea. It was a Sunday, so the forces aligned for people to get back to work on time, and this created chaos on the roads about halfway home, adding a good 60-75 minutes to my drive, stop-and-go traffic peppered throughout the last few hours. It reminded me how much I hate people, even though, admittedly, it was none of their faults (this time). They were all just trying to do the same thing I was: get away from their family and get back home. I didn’t see any red ferns on that drive back, didn’t have any profound realizations, either. But I did reflect on all those Christmases past, and found the moral of the story to be closely tied to my personal history, and that which is left to be written… 

Marco Esquandoles

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