HoHo Shorts Countdown: "The Shortest Match" by Edith Edwards

Dec 10, 2013

We received so many wonderful submissions to our 2013 Homemade Holiday Shorts Story Contest that we wanted to share six more of our favorites with you! Every day this week we'll post a different author's story.  Homemade Holiday Shorts will air live on December 15th at 6pm on WHQR 91.3 fm. Tune in (or purchase tickets to the live performance) to hear Rachel Lewis Hilburn read the winning story, Mebane Boyd's "Kurisumasu."


The Shortest Match


The week before Christmas 1958 was frigid. It was so cold that no one ventured outdoors except out of necessity. School was out for the holidays, but Christmas shopping was at a standstill. It was just too cold.

In addition to the winter freeze, a pall hung over the country. The boom economy following World War II had ended.  The nation’s finances had not sunk to the lows of the Great Depression, nor the depths that would come in later years. Nevertheless, people had come to realize that the good times could not last forever.

My father was general foreman of an ironworker’s crew on a hydroelectric dam being built on the Roanoke River near Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. He and his men were luckier than many—they had jobs. Being ironworkers, they had no choice but to work in the cold.

A hydroelectric dam is a monstrous construction. When finished, this dam would be 3,050 feet long and form an eight-mile reservoir. It would take 245,000 cubic yards of concrete to build—the equivalent of a sidewalk six feet wide and 189 miles long.  The powerhouse would rise to an elevation of 142 feet above sea level.

On December 23, the dam was three-fourths constructed. It rose like a specter behind the ironworkers. Most of the rebar and steel was in place—ready for the concrete walls to be added.

The men were in high spirits. They would work the next day, December 24—which was also payday—but not on the December 25th.

A barrel drum was filled with wood and burned throughout the day. On breaks, the men warmed their numb hands over the crackle and pop of the flames before returning to work. These hard-driving, sometimes coarse men stood around the drum and joked about the amount of food and liquor they would consume on Christmas Day.

Except one man. Jody Lawrence was just glad to have a job. That fall Jody and his wife had dragged their aged trailer and three children around much of the South. Work had been sporadic at best. This job was different. After two months of steady employment, Jody could afford a decent Christmas for his family.

“Hey, Jode, you got a big Christmas Day planned with that pretty little wife of yours? She sure could get my heart beating fast,” Merck the Irishman joked.

Jody smiled and blushed, but did not answer. His concern was how he was going to assemble a bicycle with training wheels without his five-year-old seeing it.

Around four o’clock the job supervisor came on site. The tradesmen exchanged glances. This could mean good news—maybe bonuses—or something else. The supervisor called my father into the guardhouse.

Joe Maloney was a big man. My father had worked with him for many years and respected him. Today, though, the dent in his forehead, caused long ago by a rod of loose rebar, pulsed in agitation.

Joe wasted no time. “Andy, you have to let half of your men go. Do it tonight. Work’s slowed down and we don’t need ten ironworkers on your crew.”

My father stared at his boss. “Come on, Joe. Not tonight. Let’s at least get through Christmas. Besides, this dam is a huge project and we are no where close to being finished.”

“Tonight. I have my orders and that’s the way it has to be. You’re right, there’s more to do on the dam, but you ironworkers are caught up and we don’t need so many of you. Maybe things will pick up the first of the year, who knows?” The supervisor left without meeting the eyes of the nervous ironworkers who had gathered around the fire.

"If you draw a broken match, you'll take your tools at the end of the day and not come back."

The partially completed dam provided a grim backdrop as my father called his crew together and explained the situation. “I’m sorry,” he said. “If I had a choice, this wouldn’t happen. You’re all good men and good workers. I hate to lose anyone.

“The only way I can figure out how to make this fair is for you to draw matches. I’ll take ten matchsticks—five will be regular size and five will be broken. If you draw a broken match, you’ll take your tools at the end of the day and not come back.

Ten men, looking more like frightened children than the hardy souls they were, gathered in a circle. My father was a heavy smoker as were many men in the 1950s, so he had plenty of matches. He went in the guardhouse and prepared the lottery. Then he returned and held out his left hand. The tops of the matches stuck out of his enclosed thumb and forefinger in a fist that could not close completely because of a smashed little finger.

Each man drew a match, followed by a sigh of relief or resignation. When he got to Jody Lawrence, there were only two left—one short and one long. Sweat poured from beneath Jody’s hardhat as he shut his eyes and drew. Turning the stick over in his palm he gasped. He had drawn a short match.

One large tear trickled down Jody’s cheek but was quickly swiped away by his massive hand. As he turned his back to the others, his shoulders hunched and his cheeks sagged. Jody had aged ten years in two minutes.

At quarter to five my father was in the guardhouse preparing for the end of his shift when someone knocked on the door. “Come in,” my father growled, not in the mood for conversation.

“Andy,” began Bob Merton, an ironworker who had drawn a long match. “I feel awful about what happened—especially for Jody.”

“You think I don’t?” My dad snapped. “But there’s nothing I can do about it. I did what I was told and it was fair and square.”

“I know, I know. I’m not blaming you. I just want you to give Jody my long match. You know my Margie has a job and we don’t have kids, so we’ll get by. This will give Margie extra time to visit her mother—not something I’m looking forward to, but I’ll survive. Please give Jody my match.”

“Are you sure, Bob? Work is work and we all can use the money. Do you need to discuss this with Margie?”

“Margie would want me to do this. It’s not often we get to make a difference, a real difference, in someone else’s life. She would agree with me. That family needs to have a happy Christmas and not worry that their daddy doesn’t have a job.”

So my father gave Jody Lawrence the match but didn’t tell him where it came from. Bob Merton spent a less than wonderful Christmas at his mother-in-law’s. Work picked up in January and Joe Maloney said to rehire ironworkers.

Bob Merton was the first man my father called.

Edith Edwards is a retired school speech pathologist who writes historical fiction. Her newest book is "Spy of Brunswick County" and is featured on her webpage: edithedwards.com. She enjoys hearing from her readers.