When I grew up in Chapel Hill in the 1950s and 60s there was an array of raconteurs throughout town that kept me spellbound with fascinating tales of their lives. By 1980 most of these great storytellers had died and this endearing Chapel Hill tradition was only a memory. In 1992 I began compiling many of the greatest stories I heard into a journal so that I could pass them on to future generations. Fortunately one of anecdotists, Kemp Nye, was still alive and had recently written down several of his best stories and sent along copies of several to me. I first heard the following story from Kemp when I was about seven in the Oriental shop that adjoined his world-famous record store. This room was filled with Hindu and Buddhist icons, as well as a case of rare jade and ivory items from the region. It always had a strong aroma of incense and beautiful Chinese classical music was usually being played in the background. At that time "China" was not even recognized as existing by the United States and there was no travel by Americans to this exotic location. Kemp was one of the few Americans who had spent any time in China, having served in a small military attachment with our ambassador prior to the start of World War II. Kemp had many incredible tales about his stay in China and several he wrote fascinating books about, but largely because of his death in 1994 they have gone unpublished. The following is one of my favorite Kemp stories, and among the most enchanting true-life Christmas stories of all time.
TOUGHIE AND THE BUTTERBALL (A Christmas Eve in Old Peking in 1939)
by Kemp Battle Nye
Christmas Eve was as any other eve in the unheeding Chinese city of Peking.
Children by the hundreds became lost from their parents to wander helplessly about the hutungs. Hundreds more were purposely abandoned in desperation when meager means were exhausted. As frightened kittens set loose in a strange world to fend for themselves, children were frequently found wandering lost, frightened, hungry, without hope. Before some of them were fortunate enough to find their way into a mission haven, they became prime candidates for the death carts, which always came with the dawn to collect the frozen corpses of those who failed to survive the frigid night.
Huddled little bodies crouched against the walls as if in a deep sleep, half covered by the racing sands when morning came, were not an uncommon sight to those who would pause to look.
Chapel Hill raconteur Kemp Battle Nye beside the Moongate of his Chinese themed house in Chapel Hill in about 1982
Exhausted, they cried themselves to sleep, perishing peacefully into a world of numbness, never knowing the moment of their passing into the contentment of that "Never-Never Land" where all little children go, even little Chinese children.
With sudden fury, another dust storm blew in from the Gobi - the raging, howling sort. The north wind laden with its burden of fine yellow sand blasted the rooftops, dumping its load in whirling eddies sculpturing wrinkled dunes against the walls of the narrow hutungs. Vision of the sky was long blotted out as the storm vented its full fury upon the walled city. The frigid cold added misery to the unfortunates lost to wander. And those fortunate enough to have shelter had long past sought it. The usually busy hutung thinned as darkness descended.
My coolie struggled with his rickshaw, slowed to a walk as he leaned heavily into the fierceness of the howling wind.
"Stop!" I yelled over the madness of the storm.
I leaped from the rickshaw, fell upon my knees, and clawed frantically at the sand building against two tiny bodies huddled against the hutung wall.
"Oh God, don't let me be too late!" I moaned as I dug madly.
Dust was crusted upon the tear-stained faces of the two children. I listened close to each little nostril.
"They're still breathing!" I shouted to the rickshaw boy, as I furiously brushed the sand from their nostrils and mouth with my gloved hands.
The coolie pulled, I pushed, we struggled against the storm, finally arriving before the gates of How Men. I rushed to beat upon the gates with my fists, as I screamed for Big John to open up.
The girl Nan Lee stood startled as I burst through the door, two motionless bundles, one under each arm. I sent her scampering for Butslow to fetch hot water, cloths, towels. . The urgency in my voice was commanding as I deposited the bundles upon the warm k'ang.
"They're half frozen!" I muttered, breathing hard. ,hurry! We must get the sand out of their mouths and noses."
One child squirmed, and then the other showed signs of life as Nan Lee returned. I quickly loosened their clothing, Nan Lee wrung out a towel, steaming dry, wiping crusted dust from their small, moon-round faces.
Butslow stood nervously, a steaming pot of tea in his hands. I commanded him:
"Cast more coals upon the fire so the k'ang will be warmer! And bring another brazier into the great room!"
Under Nan Lee's swiftly moving hands, life began to return. The taller one released the hand he clutched of the fat one. Soon, a painful groan was followed by a weak sobbing cry. The taller one opened his eyes, stared, a fierce scold set upon his little face. I smiled down at him:
"He's tough all right, he's gonna make it!"
I thought it best to give the tykes a cold bath to draw the frostbite. That was how we did it in the mountain country. Start cold, then gradually warm 'em up!
The girl Nan Lee sent Butslow hurrying to fetch the big tub, hot and cold water.
She began to strip the two. Then, in startled surprise, exclaimed:
"Da-Ren, they're both little boys!"
"My Lord, what a Christmas present, two 'stem-winders'! Isn't that something?" I snorted.
I wonder how in the world anyone could abandon two little boys in a raging winter storm, knowing full well they would perish. I remembered the missionary tales about how the Chinese put little girl babies out to die, and sometimes even threw them from cliffs into the sea to drown. But never little boys! Sons were guarded preciously as long as the family could maintain them.
"It wouldn't have made a difference to me," I said, bald-face or stem-winders. Babies are babies, I love 'em all. Besides, what would this world be like without little girls, anyway?"
I smiled as I kissed Nan Lee's cheek and patted her playfully.
Butslow hurried in with the tub and water, and brought the old scrubbing-woman from the kitchen.
"Da-Ren, she knows plenty about babies. She has raised many in her day - vellie savvy, she can make well!" Nan Lee smiled as she stepped out of the old woman's way.
The old woman set to work. The girls, Tara and Soochow Sue, pitched in to help. I stood above them, supervising as apprehensively as if the boys were my very own.
Throughout the night, How Hen was a busy place - no one slept. Came the morning, the boys ceased their crying. They took porridge from the insistent hand of the old woman, and whimpered off to sleep as she massaged their bodies with camphor oil.
The storm passed as suddenly as it came. Christmas morning dawned bright and clear. The houseboys brought warm food and tea. Nan Lee looked upon the sleeping boys and said:
"Da-Ren, how you say stateside? You have two little Jesus boys instead of one this Christmas morn!" She smiled as she sipped her tea.
"Yes! Do you think old Buddha will mind if there are two little Christian Jesus boys in China?"
"I don't think so!" she replied.
"Then I shall give them Christian names and christen them!"
I called Butslow to gather all the family of How Men in the great room. I held one of the boys on each knee and named them.
"This one I shall name Toughie! He always looks so tough without smiling!
"The other shall answer to Butterball, he is so round and fat and happy!"
Then I called for Butslow to bring two little candles. We lit them with ceremony, one for each, and placed them in the window for all the world to see that Toughie and the Butterball had safely found a new home on that Christmas Day.Comment
What is it that binds us to this place as to no other? It is not the well or the bell or the stone walls. or the crisp October nights. No, our love for this place is based upon the fact that it is as it was meant to be, The University of the People.