Updated: Dec 20, 2018
Chris and I are truly fortunate that we have a circle of friends whose company we enjoy and upon whom we can rely to help out when we need a hand. And we are truly blessed to have a few friends so close that they have become family over the years. Kim and Forrest, our now retired and moved away neighbors, are in that category – neighbors who became friends who grew into brother and sister to us, and whose children became like nieces and nephews.
When our children were still small, the Crocker Family and Davis Family spent lots of time together on annual apple picking trips, long car rides to New Hampshire for weekends at Storyland, and Sunday afternoons watching some new kid named Brady filling in for an injured Bledsoe. And of course, nearly every Friday night would also find us together, at our place or theirs, kids downstairs in the family room playing games or watching movies, adults in the dining room playing cribbage or cards. The memories are like a fine wine growing better with each passing year when we get together and sample a fond taste of those joyous times.
One particular memory is perhaps the best example of the level of commitment that developed as our friendship deepened. Sure, lots of friends might help you move a heavy piece of furniture or pick you up at the airport very late at night, or let the dog out if you are running late and won’t be home on time. But for those special friends, those friends who are really more like family, you can ask them for anything and they will take care of it. And you in return will do the same for them. You come to depend on each other, and you never let each other down. No hesitation. No questions. Even if it involves dressing in a Santa Claus suit, sneaking around the neighborhood and through the backyard of the Davis house at 10:00 pm on Christmas Eve in 2001. On that night, Kim and Forrest asked me to be Santa and surprise their children. Little did I know how big the surprise would be – for them, and for me. Though the bruises have all faded, and none of the scars were permanent, I remember every single detail of the misadventure. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me give you the background.
For as long as I can remember, Christmas at my mother’s house has always been celebrated on Christmas Eve. That tradition started when my older sisters were little and living in our house in Lee. My dad was a machinist at Great Northern and always willing to work on Christmas Day – with shift differentials and holiday pay factored in, he made almost as much by working Christmas Day as he did the rest of the week combined. Since my father was always gone on Christmas and in order to make sure we got to enjoy the whole “Santa came to visit and left you presents” mystery that most kids wake up to in the morning, my mother developed a routine that became a tradition. Our “family Christmas dinner” was served and enjoyed at suppertime on December 24th. After the table was cleared the little kids retreated to the back bedroom. The oldest in the group read Christmas stories and kept the little ones entertained while waiting for Santa.
I’m not exactly sure how my mother coordinated everything with such precision, but without fail, her timing was perfect and Santa always came while the kids were in the back room. We would hear sleigh bells jingling and then, nearly shaking in anticipation, the kids would emerge in single file, youngest to oldest, to gather around the tree to see what had been left for each of us. That tradition was repeated year after year without interruption, no matter what life circumstances may have changed. After my parents were divorced, my mother continued the tradition with my sisters and me in our new house in Lincoln. As our family grew with the addition of our half-brother, the tradition continued. As we each started families of our own, we simply integrated the newest members of the family – spouses at first, then later children, into our method of celebrating the holiday, then would each travel to our own homes to prepare to have our own Christmas in the morning. And so, on Christmas Eve in 2001 we were at my mother’s house getting ready to journey back home to take care of a few last minute details in order for the kids to wake up to their Glenburn Christmas. But unlike other years since the kids had been born, this year I had another chore to tend to before turning in for the night – Forrest and Kim had asked if I could be Santa Claus.
Since the kids were little and still engulfed in the magic of Christmas and Santa, we had to coordinate everything perfectly to maximize the surprise value for the Davis kids and keep the surprise secret from our own. This meant that while we had been at my mother’s house in Lincoln, Forrest had been to our house to “let out the dog”, AND to stash a white sack full of Santa suit in the basement. When we got home, we did our normal Christmas Eve routine with the kids – we made sure the stockings were all set by the chimney, that a snack for Santa Claus was prepared, and that the kids were tucked in before I could leave the house.
As soon as the coast was clear, I slipped downstairs and changed into the suit rental. Super baggy red velvet pants – check. Black plastic “spats” that buckled over my own shoes to look like Santa’s boots – check. The beard, the hat, the pillow stuffed under the coat to make a big belly – check, check and check. I slung the sack, now stuffed with crumpled newspaper to make it look full to overflowing with “goodies”, over my shoulder and snuck out the side door. I crept out into the night and began my walk through the neighborhood intent on getting to the Davis house as quickly as I could. Since it was late and getting later, I knew their kids must be getting tired, and how long could Kim possibly keep them awake?
Trouble began almost immediately. It was a dark night, and though the Davis house was only a quarter mile down a street with a few street lights, I still found it difficult to see. The beard kept creeping up over my nose and eyes, and at some point, one of the black spats came undone and I had to backtrack to find it and refasten it. My pillow belly kept shifting, and fell out at least twice. And my pants just wouldn’t stay up, even with the wide plastic belt. By the time I got to the end of the Davis driveway, I was worried that I had taken too long so as I made my way around the back of their house, I was hurrying more than I should have.
The plan had been for Chris to call Kim when I left our house, then for Kim and Forrest to gather their kids around the sliding glass door that led to the second story deck looking out over the backyard. I was supposed to walk under the deck, emerge into the yard, notice the kids, wave, give a belly laugh or two, then disappear behind their garage. Oh, if it had only been that simple!
Though I had spent lots of time at their house and a fair amount of time in their yard, I didn’t have every inch memorized and even if I did, things look very different in the dark. The first injury happened right away. I was walking fast trying to get back on our pre-arranged schedule and in my haste, before my eyes could truly adjust from the street lamp lit front yard to the darkness of the backyard, I walked face first into one of the tall six-by-six posts holding up the back deck. It hurt, a lot. The beard did nothing to soften the blow as the bridge of my nose and then my left cheekbone thudded heavily on the post. Despite the ringing in my ears, I heard and felt the deck give a shake, and seem to recall a gasp from the sliding door now just above me. I rubbed my face, repositioned the beard, paused a moment to let the stars clear from my vision, then resumed my route.
The second injury was less noisy, but far more painful. As soon I emerged from under the deck, I looked up as planned to see the bright faces of the Davis kids peering down at me in shock and delight. I raised my hand in a friendly wave, began my belly laugh, then walked right though Kim’s hedge of wild roses. The pain of rose thorns ripping through the crotch of my red velvet pants was immediate and nearly overwhelming. I was looking right into the eyes of three little kids, and just over their shoulders, could see Kim and Forrest, whose delighted faces were slowing turning to another expression as I instinctively reached down to try and remove the broken stubs of rose thorn encrusted branches that were now embedded in my crotch like porcupine quills. Sure, it was dark, but as Forrest explained the next day, since I was wearing those white cotton gloves, they, and the kids, could see my hands very clearly as I maneuvered them over the front of my pants to extract the worst of the rose thorns.
Luckily, it happened quickly and though I was now dealing with a prickly, throbbing sensation just below the silver plastic belt buckle, I stuck to the plan and resumed my acting. Wave, belly laugh, ho, ho ho!
The third injury, the one that ended the kid’s show, was the most painful. A short distance from the stairs to the back deck, Forrest had a small storage shed where he kept his garden tools and pool supplies. On the side of the shed he had his extension ladder, his canoe, and the long-handled pool skimmer. To this day, I’m not sure which of those three I hit. The bruise I showed Chris and Kim the next day was too big to have come from the pool skimmer handle, and too small to have been caused by the bow of the canoe, so I always assumed it was the extension ladder. Regardless, as I hurried on after the debacle at the rose bushes, as I was finishing up my last wave and belly laugh looking back over my shoulder up at the kids, something hit me in the chest and dug deep into my stomach.
I’m not sure if you have ever been punched in the solar plexus – it’s a small bundle of nerves that congregated in the soft hollow spot just below your sternum. To be hit there, especially to be hit there hard, is a nearly indescribable sensation. Unfortunately, while trying to extract the rose thorns, I had shoved my pillow belly to the side so it offered no protection at all. I couldn’t breathe. At the impact, my hat and beard had flown off but I could see them in the dark as I doubled over, retching a little. I tried to reach down for the hat, but my fingers weren’t working right so I kept dropping it. I took two or three half bent, wobbly steps, then tried to stand up straight. That proved too much exertion, too soon. I fell over sideways, but fortunately landed half behind the shed, out of sight of the kids. I know, because when I could get to my knees, I couldn’t see the house anymore, so leaned against the shed out of sight until my breath stopped coming in ragged gasps and the dizziness cleared. I also took this hidden opportunity to clear the last of the rose thorn from my pants, especially the ones that had worked their way inside, and eventually managed to stand back up.
Slowly, very slowly, I crept around the back of Forrest’s garage, them up the dark side of their driveway, and made my way back to our house. As I limped back into the garage, Chris met me at the door.
“Oh my god, I just got off the phone with Kim! Are you alright?”
She helped me inside. I had never managed to pick up the hat and the beard. At some point, I had also dropped the sack, so that was missing too. And not one but both black spats were gone. I managed to convey to Chris what was missing, and I heard her half of the phone conversation with Forrest.
“Yes, the beard, the hat, the bag and both boots”
“He said the beard and hat are between the rose bushes and the shed”
"He doesn’t remember losing the boots. Maybe on the road?”
“No, I think he’s ok. He’s on the couch sleeping now”
“Oh, you’re welcome, anytime. Merry Christmas to both of you too!”
We got together the next afternoon for the kids to play and while they were preoccupied showing each other their new toys, the adults had a drink in the dining room as I filled Kim and Forrest in on the details that they hadn’t witnessed first-hand. They had already seen the long scratch on my slightly swollen left cheek but didn’t know how that had happened, and both visibly winced when I lifted up my shirt to show them the deep blue hue that had appeared in the center of my chest sometime overnight. Of course, I couldn’t show them the worst of the scratches, but they had seen how those injuries were inflicted and both had a little too much fun at my expense acting out for Chris how I had stoically tried to stay in character while I was straddling Kim’s rose garden.
When they were leaving, everyone wished everyone else a Merry Christmas, and hugged all around. As I was hugging Kim goodbye, she whispered in my ear,
“Thank you so much! You’re the best”
“You’re very welcome” I replied. “But Forrest is the bunny for Easter”