When she was 79, Lorraine Jensen Carlson sighed in remembrance, "There never was a time when I didn't know Smokey Joe." Lorraine grew up behind the counter in the country store that served Sorum, South Dakota. When she was very young, she peered around the end of the counter, the same way other children would hide their faces in their mother's skirt. Then, when her head cleared the top of the counter, Lorraine could help her parents, Beatrice and Otto Jensen. She was, after all, the storekeeper's daughter.
Now, from a perch atop all the years of her life, Lorraine looked back to the beginning, back more than 70 years. She told the story of how she came to know Smokey Joe. At the country store you got to know everyone who walked through the door more than once. And then there was that December so long ago. Was it 1939? You might as well stir chocolate into hot milk and settle in for a while with the comforting warmth of your mug, because Christmas stories are never short.
Remaining true to the operative facts Lorraine shared, perhaps it happened like this.
Trix Jensen stood wearily in front of her kitchen work table and impatiently brushed the uncooperative lock of hair off her forehead. The backward wave of her hand, lifted from the dough resting on the table, added another puff of flour to the air which eventually settled on her hair and on the floral patterned house dress mostly hidden behind the apron hanging from her neck and tied at her waist.
On the table sagged a bag of flour, more empty than full, and another bag of sugar, and boxes and tins of dried fruit. Folded in the box under the table were more bags, already emptied, ready to be made into towels after the holidays. December always was busier than other months, but this was a happy kind of busy. Not only did Beatrice and her husband, Otto, make sure all of their customers at the Sorum store had ample amounts of the same supplies for Christmas baking, Trix needed to steal away from the busy store to bake for her family and for customers who couldn't do for themselves. Trix had a special concern for the old bachelors living in shacks in the area surrounding Sorum.
For four days Trix had swirled flour and sugar and dried prunes, dates, apples and citrus into sweet breads and strudels. She baked dozens and dozens of shortbread cookies and oatmeal raisin cookies, removing one baking sheet from the oven and sliding the next one in. Then Trix wrapped her Christmas treats in waxed paper, arranging the packages in baskets, always with a jar of jam or jelly.
Offering Christmas cheer to the old bachelors was part of Beatrice's annual Christmas plan, but this year she had in mind that Lorraine would follow the route with her father to deliver the gifts. "Lorraine!" Trix raised her voice to get the attention of her youngest daughter. "Lorraine, go change your clothes. I want you to help your father deliver these Christmas baskets."
Lorraine did as she was told. She climbed out of last year's clothes she wore for work and play, now faded and too short. Then Lorraine slipped her school dress over her head, pulled clean white cotton anklets over her toes, and tied her school shoes. Lorraine was an obedient child, but she was also curious and sensed something special in the air. The season was, after all, magical.
Lorraine knew one of the baskets would go to Smokey Joe. He was one of the old bachelors her mother fretted over. When Joe came in the store, Lorraine peered out at him from behind the end of the counter. He was a man unlike any she had ever seen. He didn't look like her father or the fathers of any of her friends. Smokey Joe seemed bigger than life to Lorraine. He was a legend, as legends go in Perkins County.
Lorraine saw some women purse their lips disapprovingly and they moved to the side when Smokey Joe was in the store. Men exchanged a few accommodating words with Joe, but nothing more. To Lorraine, Smokey Joe seemed alone, even with other customers in the store. He seemed mad and sad at the same time. Maybe Smokey Joe didn't have a best friend, like she did. And Lorraine wondered whether this is what happened to men who didn't have a wife.
"Otto!" her mother called to her father. "Otto! It's time! The baskets are ready. Take Lorraine with you and deliver the baskets. Don't be back too late." But, of course Trix knew the sky would be its darkest and the air at its coldest when the two Wise Men she sent out returned home to the Jensen house in Sorum.
Lorraine had never been to Smokey Joe's shack. There were always rumors. No one got close to Smokey Joe to know the truth about him. Lorraine didn't know what he was, but she knew what he wasn't. Men who were married were like her father. They went to church. They went to the meetings at school. They knew the schoolteacher, the minister, and everyone else important in their small town. They had jobs. They took baths. When Smokey Joe came to town for supplies, Lorraine knew he wanted to be like the other people in the store. What was it ... was his face cleaner than his clothes? Maybe you had to be an old bachelor to be like Smokey Joe. "Maybe men would never take a bath unless a woman made them," considered Lorraine. And then Lorraine wondered at the power of being a woman.
Lorraine heard her parents talking about Smokey Joe. Well, at least she heard her mother talk. Her father didn't say much about Joe. For a young girl, Lorraine was very observant and, instinctively, Lorraine knew her father's silence was the kind of respect that comes from the sympathy one man holds for another.
What did Beatrice say? Often when Lorraine was supposed to be in bed, she hid where she couldn't be seen and watched her parents sitting by the parlor table in the glow of the kerosene lamp. Beatrice rocked in a chair, pushing the floor rhythmically with her toe, intent on her handwork. Otto, Lorraine's father, sat in a straight chair, reading the Bison Courier. The Govert Advance rested on the table, waiting its turn. Otto liked to keep up with the happenings in other West River towns.
"Otto," Beatrice started. Otto acknowledged his wife with a quick movement of his head in her direction without fully breaking concentration on the local news. "Otto, I worry about those poor bachelors living out there in the country in those rickety, one-room shacks with only tar paper for insulation. It's not healthy. Living alone like that is just not normal." Otto suffered a sigh and turned the page of his newspaper without a word. "You take that Joe Ogden. He's a lost soul. I would bet my last dollar a woman is involved somewhere in this. That man was disappointed in love. All it would take is the love of a good woman ..."
Otto slapped the newspaper against the table. A solid "uff-dah" passed his lips and Beatrice fell silent. That was enough of that.
Without a doubt, whatever Lorraine learned about Smokey Joe, was a combination of what other people said and her own observations. In any case, Lorraine at 79 spoke of Joe Ogden with respect, edged with a sort of fondness, and humor at her own responses as a child.
Beatrice sent Otto and Lorraine to deliver Christmas baskets and out they went. Otto lifted Lorraine up into the passenger seat of the store's delivery truck, and tucked a blanket around her. He looked fondly at his sweetest of daughters, the last child he would raise. She was like him, observant and intent. His baby was wise beyond her years.
He felt the slight breeze, cold on his cheek, and knew this was one of those nights when the crystalline air carried a man's voice endlessly across the prairie, yet tonight he himself would be content to follow the dirt road in his truck. Otto breathed deeply of the night air as he walked around behind the truck he had driven so many miles down prairie roads. He opened the driver's door and climbed up behind the steering wheel.
The delivery truck slowly bounced away from the Jensen house, the dim headlights picking out the edge of the dirt road. Together Otto and Lorraine dropped off baskets with their cheery Christmas greeting, saving the basket for Smokey Joe for last.
When they had driven three miles north of town, Otto turned to Lorraine and said, "When we get to Smokey Joe's place, don't sit down and do not touch anything." Lorraine froze, the implication of her father's words being that she would carry away from Smokey Joe's shack some sort of vermin yet unknown to her. Lorraine's imagination couldn't take her beyond the tiny mice seeking warmth in the house after the summer passed. Mice were common to prairie life; what would happen if she touched the arm of the chair, Lorraine wondered.
As Otto and Lorraine approached the shack where Joe lived, a faint light skittered across the window pane from the inside of the shack. On the prairie you could hear a car approach from a long distance but Joe didn't investigate the noise of wheels churning the dirt road. He waited until Otto knocked before he came to the door, just as if he was expecting Otto and Lorraine, and he played along, a proper host. Joe opened the door and light filtered outward, making a path for Lorraine to follow inside. Joe didn't seem surprised to see them, and the slightly upturned lines around his eyes and his mouth said he was definitely pleased.
With a stiff movement of his hand toward the light inside, Joe invited Otto and Lorraine into this shack which held such mystery for Lorraine. Lorraine wasn't afraid of Smokey Joe. Curious, yes, but not afraid. When he made his weekly trip to the store, Joe could see Lorraine peeking out at him from around the end of the store counter. Joe knew her hiding place and he kept her secret. On her part, Lorraine knew that he knew that she knew that he knew she was there, and that gave them a sort of commonality. It doesn't have to make sense; it just was. Why, there was nothing to be afraid of, Lorraine was confident. She had been curious about how an old bachelor would live, and now she had a chance to see just that. Lorraine marched right past Joe standing there as he was beside the doorway, white anklets bobbing with her steps, and her eyes moved across the room.
Joe boomed, "Have a seat!" Lorraine stopped short and her eyes widened. She sputtered, "But I ...", and her voice trailed off remembering her father's admonition that she not sit and that she not touch anything. She didn't want to say words she sensed to be unkind, and looked pleadingly at her father.
Otto shook his head and smiled, "Now, now, girl, be polite and sit down." Lorraine sat at the edge of the chair Joe offered, feet together, one white anklet touching the other, hands in her lap, attempting to comply the best she could with her father's earlier admonition. "Don't touch anything," he had said. He needn't have cautioned her, because Lorraine didn't want to touch anything.
Mother was right. Joe's home was a tar paper shack, held together by little more than imagination. His life filled one room ... the only room ... a room crowded with a tumble of furniture and Joe's possessions. "Oh," Lorraine thought, "Mother would never stand for this mess and dirt." A layer of prairie soil seemed to cover Joe's few furnishings, but the dirt was disturbed as if Joe made a mostly futile attempt to prepare for visitors. Dirt was inevitable in these old shacks. Any prairie soil not held fast to the ground by the snarled roots of the prairie grass was bound to find its way through the spaces between the boards. The shacks were not built to withstand the wind, carrying with it as it does both soil and the cold.
Lorraine looked intently at Smokey Joe that night. She saw now that Joe's skin and his nails were streaked black and yellow. Years and years of smoking more tobacco than any wife would tolerate must have been part of it ... maybe that's why Joe was called Smokey Joe. Respectfully, Lorraine tried not to stare, but that didn't stop her from looking around.
Empty cans had begun to stack up in the corner waiting for disposal at winter's end. Lorraine knew that bachelors ate a lot of canned food. At the store they bought more cans than the women did. The bachelors also didn't buy as much flour as the women. In fact Lorraine remembered the times Joe arrived at the store late in the day, after the last loaf of ready-made bread had already been sold. He growled, "Dang those women, they should be making their own bread and leave the ready-made bread for those of us who can't." Lorraine thought that was a funny thing to say. Still, somehow she understood.
When the last Christmas greetings were exchanged and father and daughter returned to the delivery truck, Otto once again tucked the blanket around his little girl, and father and daughter headed back to town. Otto glanced down at his daughter, as she struggled to stay awake, and thought how proud he was of her. He reached over and pulled the blanket up where it had slipped from her shoulder. "My baby is growing up so fast. How many more times will I share a Christmas miracle with Lorraine before she is completely grown and off with her own family?" Otto knew, with certainty, Lorraine was his very own Christmas miracle.
At 79, Lorraine remembers that Joe Ogden sold his shack to an itinerant combiner from Oklahoma. This laborer was working up near Sorum, traveling with his wife and children in a sort of primitive motor home he built. Smokey Joe had let the family park on his land. After that Joe packed up what little he had worth taking and moved down to the Govert area.
I've also heard it said that, one day, a few years after the Christmas visit made by Otto and Lorraine, a rusty old bus limped into Sorum. In the bus lived a dirty woman, long past hoping, and a passel of dirty children. They were in desperate need of a place to live, and even more desperately in need of hope. Joe Ogden traded his decrepit one-room shack for their even more decrepit bus so the family could finally have a home, a proper roof, even if it was attached by little more than imagination. Then Joe nursed that old bus 28 miles until he reached the Govert townsite, and there he scuttled it, making this metal shell his new home.
Other stories have been told about Smokey Joe, one about a fire in Joe's tar shack, in which he was badly burned.
What happened after that Christmas visit? How did Joe Ogden become the last resident of the Govert townsite? Which story is true? Maybe they all are. Or maybe not. That's the way it is with people who have become legends, people who have been given a special name like "Smokey Joe".
Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate
[Written with gratitude to Lorraine Jensen Carlson for sharing her memories.]