Were we all to tune the ol’ Philco tabletop radio to KOH AM-630 sixty years ago this Christmas morning, we’d probably hear the mellifluous voice of Cactus Tom, who ruled the early morning airwaves in early postwar Reno. Tom Cafferty worked as a Reno casino card dealer in the mid-1930s, but broke into broadcasting a few years later at WGN in Chicago. After World War II, he managed an advertising agency in Los Angeles and played bit parts in Western movies and worked as a disc jockey. He became the morning disc jockey at Reno’s KOH in the 1950s, and began appearing also on KOLO-TV in 1961.
Cactus Tom, while at KOH in their magnificent old Queen Anne house-turned-studio on the site of the present Greyhound station by the Truckee, recited the following poem annually, thereby giving birth to a local Christmas tradition. To the best of my research, it’s not copyright-protected other than by its appearance in this RGJ edition. But if we save it or pass it around to our friends let’s give a little attribution, to Tom, and to Nicholas D. Jackson, a popular, enduring and nocturnal habitué of Reno’s late-night downtown watering holes, where, legend has it, he wrote the verse on a cocktail napkin and offered it to Tom:
“Twas the night before Christmas, an’ ol’ Smokey Joe lay a’shiverin’ deep in his sack.
While a coyote wailed, kinda mournful and low, an’ the wind drifted snow ‘round his shack,
An’ the moon played Roulette with the cold starry sky; til the clouds piled like chips on the black.
An’ Ol’ Smokey Joe kept a wonderin’ why Fate had placed him alone in this shack.
“Then Ol’ Smokey Joe, with a questioning look felt around for his boots on the floor,
And from one took a sock which he hung on a hook attached to the worn cabin door.
Then shiverin’ a bit he walked back to his bed, and he slipped to his knees for a prayer,
An’ the kerosene lamp that hung overhead etched a silvery halo there.
“Then Ol’ Smokey Joe reached up for the light that hung on a nail overhead,
An’ he glanced to see if this stocking hung right, and then nestled deep in his bed.
And just before he fell sound asleep, he heard the noise of hooves on the flat,
An’ he knew that the cattle would soon bed down in the sheltered lee of his shack.
“The night wore on and a little grey mouse sneaked down from the eaves for a look,
A timid l’il soul without a home – ‘til he spotted the sock on the hook.
A tiny ol’ hole he chewed in the heel, a window where he could watch Joe;
Then he spent the whole night a‘packin’ in straw, and at dawn fell asleep in the toe.
“And a cow gave birth to a calf that night between the shack and a drift;
And it nuzzled the calf to the cabin door, Ol’ Smokey Joe’s Christmas gift.
Next mornin’ the sun came a’streamin’ through, lit the cabin’s every nook,
Smokey Joe waked up, kinda cautious-like, and’ gave that ol’ sock a look.
“Then a smile lit up his worn, kind face, he gave out with a mirthful squeal,
Threw a crust of bread to the little grey mouse, who peeked through the hole in the heel.
With the mouse tucked away in the crook of his arm, he opened the cabin door;
His heart started dancing and he felt a warmth like he’d never quite felt before.
“For there starin’ at him on his wobbly ol’ legs stood a calf, kinda shakey and worn;
Just waitin’ for Joe and a pail of hot milk, an’ a spot by the stove to keep warm.
And that night with the mouse sound asleep in the sock, and the calf cuddled up in the grate,
Ol’ Joe knew the answer of why he lived there, with the grey mouse, the calf, and Fate.”
Robert Service, in his epic Cremation of Sam McGee, couldn’t have written that yarn any better. Reno history is silent on the fate of poet and raconteur Nicholas D. Jackson; Tom Cafferty passed away on Dec. 11, 1993 in Reno.
This will be our last chance to visit before the prancing and pawing of each little hoof on our rooftop – I wish you all my best, and send thanks for your wonderful letters and calls over the year – those cherished presents that arrive weekly and won’t fit under my tree. And, we’ll amend our usual closing slightly and defer to Tiny Tim Cratchett, who said it best: “God bless us, everyone!”
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this © column last appeared in the RGJ in December 2015
ADDED AFTER ORIGINAL PUBLICATION: CACTUS TOM’S OBIT © RGJ 1993