A man with a ball of string and a money pouch stuffed with strips of newspaper came to a stop on an empty sidewalk. He fastened the string to the leather pouch, laid the bait down, then unraveled the string behind him and hid behind a large bush on the sidewalk’s edge. After a while pedestrians began to trickle by as they walked from work in the shops of 19th century London.
The first potential victim was involved in a deep conversation, the next reading his copy of the Times. But the third one saw the bait, and walked right over to study it. From behind the bush, Stringer jiggled the bait. The victim bent down, to graze the pouch with his finger tips just as it was propelled away by the invisible string. When the pouch stopped, Vic came over and tried again.
Other pedestrians tuned to watch as Vic grabbed, the pouch lurched, then stopped, paused then lurched again, always nimbly enough to escape his grasp.
“Ah, pshaw on you,” Vic finally said as he waved “I’m done” at the bait.
“Wait,” Stringer called out, holding up the string. “You want to see what’s in the pouch?”
“You won’t jerk it?” Vic asked.
“Of course,” Stringer lied.
But when Vic reached for the pouch, Stringer pulled the string so hard it lept three feet in one jump. The onlookers laughed. Vic shouted his take on Stringer’s parentage, and stomped away.
“I guess I stringed him,” Stringer said. “I sure stringed him along,” making what may have been the first recorded use of he phrase.
Another string-along happened a couple of hundred years later in North Carolina, when an American stringer entered a restaurant and placed his order. He was most polite to the waitress, who thought she might be on the way to a generous tip.
After his last cup of coffee, Brownie reached into his pants pocket. He found three quarters, but put the collectible one back. He removed a small tube of super glue from his other pocket, held the coin out of sight below the table top to squirt on a dab of glue, then placed half his tip near his empty plate. He repeated the process with the second coin.
Convinced that the bond was sure, Brownie got up, paid his bill, then lingered near the door to see what the waitress would do.
When she saw the two-bit tip, she said something under her breath, and tried to scoop the coins into her apron.
The coins held fast. So she tried to pry them with a knife.
Brownie began to laugh out loud. “Gotcha,” he laughed. “I flat strung you.”
The waitress looked as if she wanted to cry, then pulled herself up to full height, commented on the legality of Brownie’s entire genealogy, then called the cook who wedged the coins off with a claw hammer. Neither the cashier, nor the waiting patrons seemed as amused as Brownie.
Herb, another stringer, preferred to work nearer home. Shortly after his daughter got married, he came over and put his arm around the shoulder of his new son-in-law.
“My daughter shouldn’t have to live in this apartment, Frank,” he said.
“I know it, sir,” Frank answered, “and just as soon as I can save enough for a down payment, we’re going to buy a house.”
“How long do you think that will take, Bo?” Herb asked.
“At the rate I’m going … maybe 10 years?”
“Then I have got a deal for you, Frankie boy,” he smiled. “Lucile and I been talking, and we’ve decided we would like to build June and you a house, right on the other side of the air strip from us.
“You all pick out the plans, and we will get it built,” he continued. “Money is no object.”
“What’s the catch?” Frank wondered.
“Catch? There’s no catch. It’s a gift. No strings attached.” He paused. “You two just move in and enjoy the lifestyle Lucile and I think you deserve.”
“And if you give us the go-ahead in 60 days,” he continued, “we can still have it ready for you to move in before Christmas.”
When Frank told June about the conversation, she showed him her house plans for the land by the air strip. “I’m so happy,” she smiled.
Frank was not yet comfortable about accepting Herb’s offer. To live right beside his in-laws was not his idea of marital bliss.
“You’re never going to get me a house of my own,” June sobbed four days later, producing tears which came in intermittent torrents for the next two weeks. At the beginning of the third week, Frank gave in.
They took the plans to Herb, who had the house built, then hired a van to bring in the new furniture Lucile had picked out for them. On Christmas Eve, they catered the house-warming party.
“I have my house, my furniture, my parents and you,” June cooed after the guests had all gone. “This is the happiest day of my life.”
“I’m glad you’re happy,” Frank said. “It has been a really nice day.”
But at six o’clock in the morning on Dec. 26, Frank was awakened by his phone.
“Hey Bo,” the voice said.
“Who is this?” Frank answered sleepily.
“It’s Herb, Bo. Who else? Your old pa-in-law.” He took a breath. “I’m pulling the engine on the biplane. How about slipping over here and giving me a hand.”
“It’s six o’clock in the morning,” Frank pleaded.
“You’re not joking?”
“You’re really serious?”
“As serious as I am about making the payments on your house,” he answered. “The one deeded in my daughter’s name.”
Even before he reached for his boots, Frank sensed the magnitude of what Herb had done, and the power of the string which bound him to that property. He was not at all sure he wanted to live the lifestyle Herb and Lucile thought he deserved and wondered if he would ever be able to break the strands which bound him to it.
“I got you a present, Mr. Thomas, another stringer smiled as she brought her Christmas gift to the front of the classroom. Wrapped in green, bound with red ribbon, Bobbie’s gift was topped with an elaborate bow.
“This is very thoughtful,” her teacher answered as he placed the gift on his desk. “Thank you.”
“Aren’t you going to open it?” she smiled.
“The period is almost over,” he explained.
“It won’t take but a minute. Please, Mr. Thomas, please,” she begged. “ You’ve just got to open it.” She turned to her classmates. “Don’t you want to see Mr. Thomas open his Christmas present?”
“Come on, Teacher,” the class said, “Let us see what you got.”
“All right,” he relented. Pulling off the ribbons and tearing away the foil, he set a tan box on his desk. Inside he found a similar but slightly smaller box, and after that, an even smaller box inside each larger one, until the progression ended with a cylinder. Green like the others, this package measured about 2 by 5 inches, tied on either end with red ribbons.
“What could this be?” he smiled, as he tore away the paper to reveal a metal can bearing the picture of a Sweet Peach.
“Snuff?” someone wondered. “Why’d Bobbie give him snuff?”
“He’s not finished yet,” Bobbie pantomimed in the classes’ direction. She smiled, “This’ll be good. Just wait.”
When Mr. Thomas finally broke the lid loose, his Christmas gift sloshed out onto his hand and the top of his desk: brown snuff darkened with saliva.
Bobbie bent over laughing as Mr. Thomas wiped his hand with his handkerchief.
“I can’t believe this,” one student said. “She ought to be ashamed.”
As soon as Bobbie realized she was the only one laughing, she heard Mr. Thomas say, “Thank you, Bobbie,” then stood dumfounded as her teacher wished her a “Merry Christmas.”
Bobbie’s gift left me appalled, embarrassed and disgusted. I don’t know what happened afterward, except that Bobbie did not get into trouble for her gift, because Mr. Thomas never said a word about it to anyone.
There is a good ending to one of these Christmas string-alongs. Not Brownie’s, for as far as I know he still strings waitresses along wherever he travels. Not Herb’s, for he still delights in holding his son-in-law bound to the house he lives in. Perhaps these continue stringing because they never had a Mr. Thomas to teach them how to give good and stringless gifts.
Mr. Thomas avoided becoming a string-along victim because he overcame Bobbie’s hate with love. I say that because Bobbie never played such a hate-filled string-along again. And after a time she learned to give good gifts: ones offered in love, whose only goal was to do something good for the receiver, gifts with no strings attached, not even the obligation to give back love in return. The kinds of gift that make for a truly Merry Christmas.
Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.