December was usually a slow month for farm families, but not at our house. My mother’s father had died suddenly a few years earlier and was buried on Christmas Eve, with light snowflakes covering the newly dug earth. Since then the holidays were a bittersweet time for my mother, who warded off the blues by throwing herself into a whirlwind of Christmas activities. She baked pies and cakes, made homemade candy and fudge and roasted hams and turkeys galore. Most of the bounty she gave away to less fortunate families in the area, but there were still plenty of goodies for her brood to nibble on. While Baptists aren’t known for a plethora of vices, it was generally believed that the Bible’s forbiddance of gluttony was waived during the month of December. A popular Christmas present in our family was warm, baggy flannel pajamas. Probably because we’d all gotten too fat to wear our regular clothes.
When she wasn’t cooking, my mother was immersed in holiday decorating. She larded the outside of our house with hundreds of twinkly lights. Every electrical outlet in our home was stuffed with a Rube Goldberg configuration of cube taps and electric cables. My father took to hiding an extension cord in his truck so he’d have one in case he needed to use his drill or saw; otherwise my mother would have snarfed it for her ever growing annual display. Along the way, I’m sure she broke -- or at least severely bent --- every rule associated with electrical safety. How our home avoided becoming a tinder box I’ll never know.
The centerpiece of her interior scheme was the tree, and she and I would venture out into the woods, hatchet in hand, to select a fine specimen. We usually did this on a day my father had gone into town to run errands --she didn't trust his judgement in Christmas trees-- and after a few minutes of rambling through the brush we’d locate a young pine or cedar about 6 foot tall. My mother liked to step back and visualize all her holiday geegaws hanging from it. Once it had been judged suitable in height, shape and fullness, I’d take the hatchet and hack away at the tree’s base while my mother implored me repeatedly not to cut my foot off. A few days before Christmas we’d return to the woods as a family and retrieve the final touches for her masterpiece. As my father shot down mistletoe with his rifle, my mother and I would cut holly branches and pull up strands of running cedar vines, which she would use for garland. By Christmas Eve, every flat surface in our home was covered with some type of festive seasonal flora. Thank God none of us suffered from hay fever.
Along with all this hub-bub was Mrs. Willis’ Christmas play and its ambitious schedule of twice a week rehearsals. Despite the dodgy talent she had to work with, the production was shaping up nicely. My younger cousin Richie had been given the pivotal role of Tommy, and as long as he and I didn’t look at each other, he could avoid giggling long enough to pull off the character’s existential confusion and resentment. Six years earlier, Richie and I had spent a memorable afternoon dressing up stray cats in baby clothes and the hilarious images were still vivid in our minds. I caught a lucky break as Angel #2 because Angel #1 turned out to be none other than the beautiful Vicky Willis, who was equally easy on the eyes and ears. Her lovely soprano carried our O Holy Night duet, and my job basically was to stay out of the way. In fairness, I did actually sing and not just move my lips. But when we arrived at the dramatic “fall on your knees” section, I shifted into a barely audible register and let Vicky’s lilting tone carry the load. In the long run, it was best for everyone.
The play still had a few rough spots, my father’s turn as narrator chief among them. He tried mightily to memorize his speeches, but the sheer volume of verbiage overwhelmed him. Mrs. Willis told him that he didn’t need to recite perfectly; that she could fix him up with a prop clipboard --like a factory manager or something-- and he could just read the lines whenever his memory failed. While my father was tolerant to a fault of others’ shortcomings, he was brutally critical of his own, and insisted that he would learn his part just like everyone else. No clipboards or cheat sheets for him. The Andersons have a long history of mule-headedness; eschewing simple, practical solutions in favor of vague, absolutist notions of how things ought to be. We are the stuff of self-help books.
Another area of difficulty was the dog, played by Richie’s ancient Labrador mix named Snuffy. The dog became quite excited at the rehearsals, and had a tendency to issue a foul and appalling wind at the play’s critical moments. The trait was actually useful during the sentimental finale, as Snuffy’s emissions caused the cast to become genuinely weepy. There was some talk of replacing the beast, but despite his digestive issues Snuffy was a superbly trained animal. He unfailingly sat, barked and played dead on command; all vital attributes to the sense of pathos Mrs. Willis wanted to convey.
The performance was scheduled for the Sunday before Christmas, and all that week my father burned the midnight oil in an attempt to master his monologues. Late Saturday night, my father’s memorization was interrupted by an abrupt knock on the door. It was Eppie, his three remaining teeth gleaming in the moonlight and blood gushing from a slash on his forehead.
“Call the law Mister Annason, call the law!”
As a blistering wave of fetid alcohol essence reached my father’s nostrils, he grabbed a handkerchief from his back pocket and handed it to Eppie, who began to dab at his wounds.
“What in the world happened Eppie?”
The ruckus had prized my mother and me from our warm beds, and soon she was preparing a cloth soaked with hydrogen peroxide to give Eppie’s noggin a thorough cleaning.
As Eppie flopped down on the back stoop, the whole sordid story came out. Eppie’s daughter Lisa and her husband Frank were visiting from Baltimore. As the trio sipped on Eppie’s powerful moonshine, a heated argument ensued concerning a loan Eppie had neglected to repay. Frank had always been a decent enough sort when he lived here, but since he and Lisa moved to Maryland he had fallen in with a rough crowd. There were rumors he supplemented his income from the Esskay meat packing plant by selling heroin. Frank decided that Eppie needed to be taught a lesson and, grabbing an empty bottle, the thuggish Frank pummeled his father-in-law to the brink of unconsciousness. Eppie managed to crawl away, and meander the half mile or so to our house.
“And I’ll tell ya somethin’ else,” said Eppie, drawing his saga to a close, “Frank’s car ain’t got no license on it!”
My father, who could be quite sarcastic when he was tired, retorted, "Slicing a man’s head open is pretty bad, but defying the Division of Motor Vehicles? Now that’s uncalled for,”
As Eppie detailed the full measure of Frank’s perfidy, the lights of a speeding automobile could be seen in the distance exiting Eppie’s yard and tear-assing up the road. As the lights passed by our house, they briefly gave Eppie’s bleeding cranium a heroic back glow.
“There they go now!!” cried Eppie, “Y’all get on back to Baltimore! If Frank ever comes around here again, I’ll show him! I'll show him!"
“You’ve already shown him how much you can bleed.” my father quipped.
Eppie’s first-aid rag was saturated in blood, and the flow from the gaping cut showed no signs of stopping. My father told Eppie to get in the truck and he’d take him to the Emergency Room for stitches. Eppie responded to my father’s offer by vomiting on the glistening grass, followed by several spasms of dry heaves.
“If you’re through making a spectacle of yourself, let’s go.” barked my father. “Look on the bright side. Now they won’t have to pump your stomach.”
The following night was the premiere of our play, and the church quickly filled to capacity. Uncle Larry had to empty the little wooden donation box in the vestibule as it was stuffed full of dollar bills with a long queue of patrons yet to enter. When showtime arrived, the sanctuary lights dimmed and the choir marched in by candle light to a rousing overture of Oh Come, All Ye Faithful. That afternoon, a makeshift network of curtains and scrims had been installed in front of the pulpit. As the choir settled into their seats, the apparatus slowly and squeakily opened revealing my father, dashingly clad in a top coat and fedora --which he and my mother had made a special trip to Lynchburg to purchase-- standing in front of a hand-painted backdrop of a small town covered in snow. Then, absolutely nothing happened.
After a few beats of silence, some members of the audience began shift in their pews, accompanied by the distant hacking of those stricken with winter colds. The silence continued as my father starred mutely into the distance. He’d been with Eppie at the Emergency Room until 4 AM, and somewhere along the way his hours of preparation had deserted him. But Mrs. Willis had learned the first rule of directing -- be prepared for disaster-- and she had it covered. She quickly signaled her son Ernesto, who was standing just offstage and dressed in heavy winter clothes. Ernesto walked out to my dad as though he were simply a passer by and, with a slick move worthy of a star quarterback, handed him a newspaper, on the back of which Mrs. Willis had scotch taped all of of my father’s speeches. Despite Ernesto’s heavy covering, several patrons recognized the football hero. As he walked off to the wings, his cameo drew appreciative applause.
My surprised father glanced at the paper and, his memory jogged, was off to the races: “This time of night I always like to go out for a newspaper” --Ooh, nice ad lib there Dad-- “And with all the bad news these days, it’s easy to lose faith in the true meaning of Christmas. Tonight I’d like to tell you about two people who faced a crisis of faith: a little boy named Tommy and a doctor who lost his nerve and gave up on life...”
From there, the play progressed quite smoothly, with establishing scenes of Tommy’s love for his faithful dog, and the subsequent tragic accident that would land Buck at death’s door. These dramatic chunks were interspersed with meditative monologues from my father and carols from the choir, while Ernesto and the rest of the crew quickly made changes in scenery. At the veterinary clinic, Buck’s condition grew progressively worse. The local vet ultimately decided that Buck’s only hope was a rare and complex operation that was far beyond his ability. He only knew of one doctor capable of such a difficult procedure, and that was old Doc Hanley, who now lived in a shack by the river and hadn’t practiced in years. While Snuffy, his body ensnared in a web of medical tubes and attachments, convincingly played dead on the examining table, my grief stricken cousin Richie embraced him and lashed out at God in confusion and anger.
The next scene would take place at Doc Hanley’s decrepit cottage, so my father had quite a bit of time to fill. He informed us of Doc Hanley’s tragic backstory; how he had once had a thriving practice, but one day made a careless mistake that caused the death of an expensive thoroughbred horse. In the resulting lawsuit, Doc Hanley had lost his practice, his home and his family, and now lived like a hermit with a whiskey bottle as his only companion.
Uncle Duke had been cast as Doc Hanley, and all those years of watching Bonanza had instilled him with a surprisingly polished sense of timing. The scene opened with Tommy desperately knocking on the cabin’s door while Duke slumped in his chair, enjoying the deep, dreamless sleep of drunkards. Rudely awakened, Uncle Duke began to gruffly holler at Richie, but his performance never descended to Mr. Adkins’ legendary degree of eccentric bad taste. As Tommy told his heartbreaking story, Doc Hanley’s addled mind began to clear. Amid Tommy’s pleas, Doc Hanley was struck by Tommy’s resemblance to his own long lost son. He reluctantly agreed to attempt the risky surgery, warning Tommy not to get his hopes up.
A small room behind the pulpit was being used as a staging area, and Vicky and I were waiting there when Mrs. Willis came over for a last minute costume check of Angels 1 and 2. Mrs. Gormley, who worked as a seamstress at the Burlington plant, had fashioned some white bedsheets into fairly respectable celestial attire, complete with halos made from pipe cleaners laden with gold glitter. Our heavenly ponchos passing muster with the director, Mrs. Willis whispered for us to wait for our cue and “just do your best,” which didn’t exactly fill me with confidence.
According to plan, while Buck’s surgery was being performed in silhouette, Vicky and I would enter stage left in front of the scrim and, under an intensely focused spotlight, deliver an O Holy Night for the ages. I lined up behind Vicky at the staging room door, and as she opened it ever so slightly to listen for our cue, a remarkable thing happened. Vicky began to bend down until her hands were resting on her knees. Which, of course, meant her lovely tuchas was thrust out right in front of me. And, yes, through her flowing spectral vestment, one could see that there were unclad wonders beneath. While I tried to remain calm, I was understandably quite delighted at this turn of events. In fact, certain of my anatomical regions spontaneously expressed that delight in an extremely tangible way. Thank goodness angels preferred baggy, relaxed fit garments.
One of my favorite books at time was J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. There’s a scene in the book where Holden goes to meet an old girlfriend in Manhattan for a hastily arranged date. She suggests they go skating at Radio City, where she rents the type of short skirt favored by figure skaters. Holden then realizes that’s why she wanted to go skating; to show him “how cute her butt looked.”
Perhaps that was the impulse that drove Vicky. There was really no reason for her to bend over like that; she should be able to hear just as well standing up straight. And I --pudgy, dorky and two years her junior -- had absolutely no illusions that this exotic goddess had any personal interest in me. Vicky would soon be turning 16, and able to date according to her parents’ rules. Maybe she wanted to announce to someone --anyone-- that she was ready for this new world. Maybe after a life of hard work and perfect grades, this perpetual teachers' pet felt she deserved a moment as a slutty tease. Who knows?
The rest of the performance is a blur to me. I vaguely remember marching out next to Vicky and making an attempt at singing, while leaning slightly forward to insure my angelic robe did not reveal any untoward protrusions. But I don’t recall anything else until the play’s closing moments when, Christmas morning at Tommy’s house, Doc Hanley delivered the heavily bandaged, but on the mend and out of danger Buck to his delighted owner. Tommy thanked Doc Hanley profusely for saving the dog’s life, but the veterinarian waved him off.
“It is I who should thank you Tommy,” said my Uncle Duke in his best Lorne Green impersonation. “God showed me that I am still needed in this world, and with His help, I’ve decided to reopen my practice. This is truly a miraculous Christmas! If we just have faith....”
It was about this point that Snuffy, who had done such a splendid job as Buck, got caught up in the excitement and unleashed an atrocious gaseous projection. Those in the front pews could be seen reeling their heads back as the noxious vapor wafted throughout the sanctuary. For those on stage, the effect was nothing short of hellish, as Uncle Duke had to cut short his moralizing when a spell of coughing rendered him unable to speak. There were other scraps of dialogue, including a closing summation from my dad, that had to be omitted because cast members had buried their noses deeply in their sleeves.
Frankly, the play’s point had been made. Now it was time to clear the building in the interest of public safety. Ernesto quickly closed the curtain while Mrs. Willis signaled for the organist to start Joy to the World, which the gasping choir weakly sang as they filed out. Mrs. Willis instructed Richie to take Snuffy out the back door and into the night air. Uncle Larry grabbed the thermostat key and, despite the frosty temperature outside, flicked on the central air conditioning.
Later, all the cast members --except for Snuffy-- gathered at the parsonage for refreshments. Mrs. Willis thanked us all for our hard work and dedication, while Reverend Willis made a special point of thanking his wife publicly for a job well done and kissed her on the cheek. And she had done a great job. Thanks to her quick thinking and impeccable organization, Mrs. Willis had taken a group of hayseed thespians and a flatulent, but adorable, pooch and crafted her own Christmas miracle. True to my suspicions, Vicky’s suggestive posturing apparently meant absolutely nothing. When I nervously tried to chat with her, she was pleasant but moved to the other side of the room as soon as possible. After an hour or so, the small talk began to die down and my dad and I said our goodbyes.
As we turned to leave, Ernesto called, “Oh wait Daveed, I have something for you.” He then reached into a cupboard over the TV set and took out what appeared to be a record album.
“Here, I bought this for you. My thanks for taking care of me. It’s the Hetero Tool I promised.”
Ernesto then handed me the record, which turned out to be a copy of Aqualung by the band Jethro Tull. I turned it over and on the back Ernesto had written in marker “Para mi amigo David, que saba buena musica!”
After all these years, Aqualung remains one of my favorites. Of course, these days I play it from CD or MP3, but that original vinyl, with Ernesto’s heartfelt inscription, still has an honored place in my collection. And to me, that great British rock band will always be known as Hetero Tool.