For the last forty years CBC has broadcast the reading of a Christmas Eve story read by Alan Maitland on their As It Happens radio shows. Maitland was known when the tradition began as “Fireside Al” and had the kind of voice that led to a dramatic reading of stories. After the first year, listeners from far corners of Canada requested the story be repeated. Some families planned their Christmas Eve gatherings so they could all sit around and listen. Others reported hearing the story on their car radios and pulling over to the side of the road so they would not miss a word of the mesmerizing story.
“The Shepherd” is set in 1957 over the North Sea where a pilot in his Valiant is returning to base in England. The story was written in 1959 when Frederick Forsyth’s then fiancée asked him to write her a ghost story as a Christmas gift. She really wanted an engagement ring and she got both, but the marriage did not survive. The original story was about ten pages long – much shorter than a published version available today which is listed at 144 pages.
I first heard this story several years ago on a Christmas Eve when our church had an earlier service for that occasion and had missed it ever since because the annual reading is usually begun at 6:30 or 7 p.m. and well publicized. If I was scheduled to play for a Christmas Eve program at church, the reading would be over before I got to a radio. This year I was sidelined with a bum leg so to speak and heard the story again. For those who missed it, there are versions on the internet, and it is a podcast from the CBC website: cbc.aih/Shepherd.
The basic facts of the story are that the pilot loses his radio contact and does not want to lose his life in the cold waters of the North Sea. In his desperation he remembers a long ago instructor who had cautioned his students in situations like this to use an erratic flying pattern to attract other aircraft in the area (flying in small triangles), and a shepherd plane would come and guide them to a landing. The pilot uses every idea he can come up with, including prayer which he mentions he was rusty at using, and then an airplane of World War II vintage appears near his wing. It is a DeHavilland Mosquito with a pilot dressed in the uniform of World War II. He thinks someone must have purchased the plane and now flies it wearing a matching uniform and the two pilots wave at each other. The letters on the Mosquito are JK and then numbers from an RAF unit.
They do reach land, and as the very last gallon of the pilot’s gas is used, he bumps into a landing strip lit by lights – apparently long abandoned. A worker at the closed base tells him it has been closed to air traffic for years but when they heard his motor had turned on the lights. They give him supper and a bed for the night, and he tells them about the plane that had guided him in and the pilot in the outdated uniform. And then the next morning he finds a picture of a DeHavilland Mosquito marked with the letters JK and a pilot who he is sure is the same one encountered the evening before – a young man named Johnny Kavanaugh from Ireland.
Several people in our area have gone back to England, France, Germany, Belgium and elsewhere to visit the graves of pilots stationed in England who died in World War II. I suspect those people would enjoy reading or listening to this now classical story. An even larger group in our area have a Kavanaugh branch in their own heritage going back to a double wedding in about 1829 in Ireland when Charles Dunnigan married Bridget Kavanaugh and her brother married a Dunnigan relative. The two couples then boarded a ship for Canada and settled near Rigaud, Quebec, where some descendants live today. Large families were common, and as it happened Charles and Bridget had nine or ten children – one girl and plenty of brothers. One of the brothers, John, went to Dublin, Ohio, where his descendants live today. A great grandchild and his wife (Keith and Paula Dunnigan) supplied the wedding story to family here after their trip to Ireland a few years ago. Three other brothers: Peter, James and Thomas, immigrated to Cavalier County in the late 1800s and have descendants here today. Family names carried down among the families in our area so the Dunnigans, McGauvrans, Darlings, Clearys and others have continued to use many of the original names. While Johnny Kavanaugh in the story may be fiction, it might be a wartime story some might like to share with their grandchildren.
12 Days of Christmas in North Dakota
A bit under the weather meant no time to really enjoy shopping for Christmas gifts this year so while waiting for yet another prescription at the drug store, I checked out their book selection hoping to find something for younger cousins. What I found was a book titled “The 12 Days of Christmas in North Dakota”. It seemed just right for two of my cousins who are now old enough to read for themselves, but one lives in North Dakota and the other in Minnesota, 0and there was only one copy of the book available. The solution seemed to be giving it to grandparents who might be visiting them both. When I found out the library does not have a copy of this book, which could appeal to more than children, it seemed like a good book to mention in Langdon Long Ago.
Henry, who lives in North Dakota, invited Piper from a city, perhaps Minnesota, to spend twelve days in North Dakota. She is happy to board a plane and arrive. On the first day they seem to have gone to Bismarck where he gives her the first day present: “a meadowlark in an elm tree”, and we learn about the state bird and the state tree at the same time. Each page begins with the number of the day and the words “my cousin gave to me...”. On day two they were in New Salem visiting the largest cow in North Dakota, and the gift was 2 Holstein horns. Day three took them to Fort Union where Piper got 3 bright beads and Indian beadwork jewelry. They stopped at Richardton next, and the brothers at the Abbey had 4 scented soaps. Day five took them to Downtown Fargo where they heard the Mighty Wurlitzer organ at the historic Fargo Theatre and met a real farmer who gave them 5 golden seeds. The seeds were in packets labelled wheat, hay, barley, soybeans and sunflowers. The farmer (pictured) wears big boots, bib overalls, a plaid shirt and a red bandana around his neck. He is surrounded by tall buildings. On the sixth day they went to the Badlands, saw the Medora Musical and enjoyed the chuck roast barbecue. The gift for day six was 6 cowboys crooning. Then the airplane headed north to Devils Lake where they spotted no devils but spent the day ice fishing. The gift for day seven was 7 walleye wriggling and then they warmed up at the Opera House in New Rockford which presented “A Christmas Carol”.
Day eight was special as they went to Standing Rock Reservation to be part of wacipi, complete with a drumming circle and a feat of dried deer-meat stew. Piper’s gift that day was 8 drummers drumming. On the ninth day of Christmas my cousin gave to me 9 bison basking. Yes, you are right, that stop was in Jamestown. Then on to Scandinavian treats at Minot where they had a friend, Jens, whose grandmother made them Rommegrot, krumkake and lefse while they watched a Sweater Dance on stage. The song continued as 10 plops of pudding for this stop. Day eleven was at the Tewaukon National Wildlife Refuge with Piper’s gift 11 pheasants flying and information about hunting in North Dakota. The last stop was Grand Forks where the UND Hockey team beat the Northern Colorado Bears 5-0. No, I did not check the paper for the score as it was part of the storyline. The gift that day was 12 skates a-sliding with the players all in green.
All through the book are illustrations by Jess Golden, and there are pages of fun facts about our state included in Piper’s letters home to her parents. The books are part of a series for each state compiled by Sterling Children’s Books of New York.