The entertainer Danny Kaye (1911 – 1987) was a good many famous things contained in one person. He was an actor who starred in 17 movies, a dancer, comedian, novelty song singer, (try “Oh, By Jingo”, here https://youtu.be/SAw7MA8sAIc ) gourmet chef, pilot, and philanthropist. He was great with children and excelled at story telling.
in 1960, he put his name to a collection of children’s stories; “Danny Kaye’s Stories From Faraway Places.” It’s a surprisingly deep set of tales, several of which have been stuck in my head for decades.
Growing up in Western Montana, where the summers are short and the winters abundant, a favorite of these tales was “The Candle In The Darkness.” Something I saw recently in Lafayette Square reminded me of the story, so let me set it up with a brief and probably inaccurate retelling.
The winters in Russia make those of St Louis seem balmy. It’s a season when people mostly stay inside by the fire when they can, which leads to conversation, which sometimes leads to competition.
Early one winter evening, Yuri sat by the hearth at an inn with three of his friends. They began comparing deeds of strength and bravery each had performed. The stories tumbled from his comrades, leaving Yuri feeling unaccomplished and less than valiant. Eager to stake a claim and prove his mettle, he announced to the others that he was able to withstand prolonged cold effortlessly. The others called him on this, demanding proof of his boast.
Perhaps unwisely, he offered to stay outside in the snow, without his greatcoat, until the sun rose the following day. He would take comfort from no fire or source of heat during the long arctic night, and report to his friends in the morning. If he proved insufficient to the task, Yuri would have to prepare a fine feast for the others. With that, he bid his friends good night, and stepped outside.
The night was extremely dark and bitterly cold. There were no stars nor moon above as the sky was cloudy and snow began to fall. Yuri paced back and forth to keep his circulation going, and marveled at how slow the time passed.
Lights in the houses of the village eventually winked out, one at a time, as if to emphasize the gathering dark. Yuri stamped his feet, just to keep some feeling in them, and thrust his hands deeper into his pockets. The snow continued to fall.
A great loneliness came over him, alone in the night, and he couldn’t help but stare at the Eastern skyline, in hopes of any faint trace of light beginning to break. But the night remained unfriendly and dark. Yuri began to feel the urge to lie down and sleep, despite knowing he might well freeze to death in the act. He kicked through the snow and tried to warm himself with anger at his foolishness for making a silly bet.
He then stopped in his tracks. Far off, someone lighted a candle, and it cast a tiny glow that Yuri could barely see through the fluttering snow. It seemed warm and comforting somehow, a reassurance that he wasn’t completely isolated in the dark and cold.
No longer afraid, he stared at the faraway light, and made it past four o’clock, five o’clock, and finally there appeared a little slit of light on the horizon. It grew brighter, finally bursting into a glorious full sun. Yuri stumbled to his house on feet that felt nothing, and lit a fire in his hearth. Yuri didn’t know if his warmth was coming from the fireplace, or the knowledge that he had proven himself to his friends.
Shortly afterward, those comrades came to check on their wager. When they learned that Yuri had accomplished his feat, they were amazed, and asked how he managed it. Yuri replied that it was very difficult, and he reached a moment of crisis when he thought he had lost, but a small candle in a faraway window encouraged him to tough it out.
“Ah! A candle! Then you did have a source of warmth, as a candle gives off heat.”
Yuri protested that it couldn’t possibly have provided any real comfort to him, as it was at the far end of the village. His friends were unmoved by the argument, and demanded that he prepare them a fine dinner that evening. Yuri sadly conceded, telling them to return that evening for dinner.
When the sun went down, the three friends arrived at Yuri’s home. None of them had eaten since seeing him, as they wanted to save space for a great dinner. They sat, laughing and talking while Yuri stayed in the kitchen. They waited and waited, with appetites growing by the minute, and they inquired frequently, but Yuri shouted that nothing was ready yet, and to hang in there.
Smelling no signs of food cooking, the men grew very impatient, asking if they could possibly help with the preparation, or eat some now and wait for the rest to be fully cooked later. Yuri apologized, and explained that everything was in one pot, so they would just have to wait.
When their impatience got the best of them, the three friends barged into the kitchen doorway and then stood there, speechless. Hanging from the high ceiling was a large cookpot. Far below the pot, on the floor was a lighted candle. Yuri was on a high stool, craning his neck to see into the pot.
He turned to them innocently and said; I’m so sorry, my friends, that the meal is cooking so slowly. Please wait just a little more – the candle does put out heat. You told me so yourselves.
I wrote that story in order to write you this one. My intrepid dog and I were out in Lafayette Park the other day, on a day so cold and raw and grey that we saw no one else during a long lap around the inside of the fence. As we walked along Missouri Avenue, we happened to see a small light in the distance; something like this:
See the small light on the porch of the third house from the left? Its cheery orange glow was the brightest thing we’d seen all morning, and couldn’t help but cast a little warmth our way.
On closer inspection, I was reminded of once meeting the owner, who told me the cat is a non-resident who moved one day onto his front porch, and never left. Being a kind sort, he set a small bed on the porch for the cat’s comfort, and a heat lamp has served, during the last couple of winters, just to take the chill off.
Regardless of your feelings toward felines, you have to admit that it adds some warmth to an otherwise grey February day.
Thanks to Danny Kaye’s Stories From Faraway Places; Random House; New York; 1960
Photo of Danny Kaye from The Museum Of Family History; Stephen Lasky at http://www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/lia-bklyn-kaye.htm