Christmas with the sheriff
Editor’s note: This is one of the stories to be included in the personal memoir now being assembled by Ozark County native Sid Pierce, a Navy veteran, retired teacher and Branson sound technician who for many years traveled the world with country music recording artist Roy Clark. His dad, the late Herman Pierce (1922-1994), served as Ozark County Sheriff for 20 years.
“Son, you want to go with me?” Dad unceremoniously asked.
It was a dark winter night, and I had just gotten out of school for an extended Christmas break. At first I didn’t understand what Dad was asking. He usually came home for supper and read the Springfield News-Leader, watched Gunsmoke, took a short nap in his chair and then left his family of my Mom, Lessie, and my sister, Beth, and me as he continued his duties.
“Go where?” I found myself asking.
“You know better than that . . . the next phone call will interrupt any plans I make, but I do have some papers to serve,” he answered.
I grabbed my coat while he stood up and put on his brown sheriff’s coat with its fake fur collar and brass buttons and the brown-and-yellow Ozark County Sheriff insignia on its shoulder. That coat was the only thing that identified Herman Pierce as the sheriff of Ozark County.
We drove around the small town of Gainesville. The Christmas lights on the businesses and homes were especially comforting that evening for some uncanny reason. Perhaps the knowledge of not having school for the next two weeks made this young teenager embrace the Christmas spirit even more than usual.
Dad continued to make his rounds about the town. As we exited the east side of the square, I noticed a large crowd in one of the older buildings. Dad seemed to read my questioning mind and said, “The older kids are having a dance.”
I strained to see inside the building as Dad slowed his patrol car so we could have a look. There were silhouettes of dancing bodies in the dimly lit open room. Music from a live band blasted out into the winter night. Dad hit the electric window on my side, and the winter cold shocked me as we listened to the chorus of a song being repeated, “Hang on Sloopy . . . Sloopy hang on!”
We continued driving around, first heading east toward the high school. Then we drove west of town cruising along the road Dad referred to as Pension Ridge. When I asked him why he called it Pension Ridge, he explained that a number of people drawing “old age” pensions lived along that ridge.
We turned around at Earl Holmes’ station. Earl was one of Dad’s good friends and could be counted on for an extra set of eyes or backup, whatever the case might be. His gas station was the last business before the city limits, and Earl and Martha kept a watchful eye as to the comings and goings on that side of town.
Our next stop was at Ozzie’s Cafe and Pool Hall. Ozzie had a Hillbilly Sandwich that was my favorite, but we were just there for coffee and to visit with anyone who was out on that dark night. The pool room had four pool tables and two snooker tables along with a juke box that was blasting “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” by The Hollies.
Ozzie had a bum leg that caused him to walk with a noticeable limp, but it didn’t slow him down in the kitchen or in getting around a snooker table. However, with the dance going on in town, Ozzie was having a rare slow Friday night.
We finished our coffee and walked through the dark night to the car.
We didn’t drive far until we stopped again at another local hot spot, a place the locals called the Dairy Princess. Still full from Mom’s fried chicken, home-canned green beans and mashed potatoes and gravy, I wasn’t hungry for my customary Frito Pie. Dad pulled up a chair at a table with a couple of other men as I made my way over to the pinball machine in the corner. With a quarter or two, I could rack up enough free games to play for hours. It was obvious I’d spent too much time and quarters there!
The Dairy Princess was also slow that night, but the owner kept playing the juke box, which had outside speakers as well. That night “Bad Moon Rising,” “These Eyes” and “In the Ghetto” along with “In the Year 2525” was the soundtrack of the evening.
Something sort of bothered me about hanging out at the Dairy Princess that evening. Dad was out because he was keeping a watch over the town, but these other men had families. Why weren’t they home watching Christmas shows on television and enjoying their kids who were also on Christmas break? It just didn’t make sense why they wouldn’t want to be around their families at that time of night.
The phone rang behind the counter, and the owner said, “Herman, it’s for you.”
Dad just said, “I’ll be there as quick as I can.”
I had my coat on before he put his quarter on the table for the coffee; out the door we went.
“There’s a fight at the state line, ” he said.
Dad’s demeanor changed as he navigated the dark and curvy Highway 5 South to the Arkansas line. The Arkansas county that bordered Ozark County was “dry.” The Missouri side of the state line had a number of beer joints that were busy six nights a week. Seldom did a night pass that the sheriff wasn’t called to restore order in the loud, crowded, smoky, state line bars. Dad regularly had cuts on his nose from wearing his glasses to a fight. Mom always hated it when she found her bathroom towels soaked in dried blood the morning after nights of fighting.
Dad pulled into the full parking lot at Bob’s Place and told me to stay in the car and, no matter what, to not let anyone in the car. “Keep these doors locked until I come back…and if I don’t come back in 30 minutes, get on the radio and tell Mom I need help.”
Then, in a split second, he was out of the car and running into the bar, leaving the car running.
Time seemed to stand still. It didn’t dawn on me to check the time so I’d know when 30 minutes had passed. My imagination got the best of me as I played a thousand scenarios over in my head, most with horrible outcomes . . .
I knew where Dad kept his pistol, which he left in the car. After a while I considered taking the pistol and going into the bar to investigate, but about that time Dad, along with a small crowd, spilled out into the parking lot illuminated by the glow of the neon beer signs.
Dad had someone in custody and was walking him to the car in handcuffs. Another man was following behind yelling obscenities. Dad let go of his prisoner and in a flash took his “slapper” out of his back pocket and hit the man behind him up beside the head.
The man went down and rolled a couple of times into the ditch, groaning and moaning. Dad turned his attention to putting his prisoner in the back seat of the car.
After a couple of minutes, the prisoner started to get mouthy. When he said, “I’ll have your job Monday,” I thought that was funny, and I giggled.
“You little son of a b___. Quit laughing at me!” he shouted.
Dad hit the brakes and turned toward the back seat. “You can call me any name in the book . . . but don’t you cuss my boy!” he said.
The rest of the 8 miles to town was spent in silence.
We pulled onto the town square and parked the sheriff’s car at the back door of the courthouse. The prisoner saw an opportunity to resist going to jail. There were two long flights of stairs leading to the second floor of the courthouse where the jail was located. If a prisoner had any thoughts of resisting, it was when he saw those stairs.
“Sheriff, you ain’t man enough to put me in jail,” this prisoner announced.
Dad reached into his jacket pocket and took out a can of mace and sprayed it into his prisoner’s face. The prisoner was instantly subdued and couldn’t open his eyes.
“Son, put this tough guy in jail.”
Dad followed behind as I led the blinded prisoner up the stairs. At the top, Dad told him, “You don’t seem to be so tough now.”
A few days later, Mom had packed up Christmas dinner for the guys in jail. Turkey and ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, yams, dressing, cranberry sauce, deviled eggs, pickles and homemade rolls. She included a couple of homemade pies and some candy and fudge she’d made. The prisoners ate exactly what we ate. Dad would carry a box of food under each arm as I followed behind him carry another one.
It might be unusual for most folks to associate the smell of an old county jail with Christmas. However, there was a redeeming spirit in the act of serving those guys a Christmas meal prepared by Mom and served by Dad. And doesn’t that entail the true spirit of Christmas?
I had mixed emotions when Dad and I would say, “Merry Christmas!” to the inmates and they would echo “Merry Christmas” back to Dad and me before the heavy black steel door would be shut and locked again.
Fifty years have passed, and a lot has changed since that Christmas. Sometimes I wonder if there are any more small-town unarmed sheriffs out there with a freckled-faced boy as his sidekick . . .