‘Old Yeller’ is a Christmas story in its own right

Published 9:24 am Saturday, December 24, 2016

By John Railey
Winston-Salem Journal

Wednesday night, I was getting ready to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” and/or “A Christmas Carol” one more time as I wrote this column. But then I stumbled on a favorite from my boyhood, “Old Yeller,” on cable TV, and settled in, realizing I’d found a different kind of Christmas inspiration.
“Wonderful Life” and “Christmas Carol,” as excellent as they are, are all about being redeemed through the baptism of regained childhood innocence. The 1957 film “Old Yeller,” in its own way, is darker and more realistic, a story about the bittersweet costs of losing that innocence.
Maybe that’s what Christmas is really all about, especially this year.
Many readers tell me stories of happy Christmases, and they are good. But some tell me stories of sad ones, of lost innocence, and they are good as well.
As our long winter of discontent settles in after the 2016 elections, many of us feel like our country has lost its innocence. We’re incredulous over the votes of friends and family. Politicians from Washington to Raleigh have turned out to be flawed humans with feet of clay and brains of mud.
Some of us were fooled. We’ve hardened our hearts.
Some, like me, look for lessons to lead us out of the darkness.
In “Old Yeller,” set in Texas right after the Civil War and from the novel by the great Fred Gipson, two boys fall in love with a burly, egg-sucking yellow dog of a stray that turns out to be intensely loyal to the boys and their mother as their father is far away on a long cattle drive.
The big dog is a Good Samaritan. And he loves his family unconditionally, like Christ loves us.
Old Yeller saves the older boy’s life when wild pigs he’s trying to harvest attack him, then the pigs attack Old Yeller, almost killing him. The dog recovers, then gets rabies while defending his family against a wolf that had the disease. Ravaged by rabies, Old Yeller becomes a snarling, diseased shadow of his former self that the older boy forces himself to fatally shoot. He has no choice.
Innocence lost.
The boy, embittered, shoulders on. His papa returns with a few words of wisdom. “Life’s like that sometimes,” he tells his son. “Now and then, for no good reason a man can figure, life will just haul out and knock him flat, but it’s not all like that.”
The boy eventually embraces a puppy, a son of Old Yeller, a dog that just might embody the promise of his father.
Even in this Disney movie, it’s obvious that the puppy does not redeem the boy’s innocence. Nor could it, just as even the best Christmas can’t redeem our childlike innocence, no matter how much we might think it can in the wonderful hours of this day.
We’ll join together today and forget our differences. But tomorrow, many of us will once again shoulder those disagreements and sink the bitterness down into our cancer-prone guts. We’ll all be crippled, losing out on the love some of “the least of these” try to teach us.
The political disagreements don’t stop today, nor should they. But we have to find a way to wage them civilly and to reach consensus on key issues.
All too soon, today will be over and we’ll leave family and friends, back in the cold chill of 2016 America.
Maybe what we can try to do is carry forth just a bit of the promise of Christmas. Many of us know that our dogs love us unconditionally. Maybe that’s too much to ask of many humans.
But we are all tied, and that’s just not a lot of Christmas Day fluff. On our best days, especially locally, we rise and fall together.
On any given day in Southampton County, people of good will of both parties and no parties come together to serve the “the least of us,” regardless of the harm being done in Washington.
These people set a fine example. Maybe some of us need to limp forward, to heal, just as that boy in “Old Yeller” did, bringing along his bruised innocence.
Somehow, someway, we have to find a way to forge a path forward together, following in the footsteps of the man whose birth we celebrate today.
Merry Christmas, friends.
JOHN RAILEY, who grew up in Courtland, is the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, which first published this column. Contact him at jrailey@wsjournal.com.