me, perfect events rarely inspire fond memories. That's why I love
the holidays. Especially Christmas. Christmas is an accident waiting
to happen. Jesus himself was "accidentally" born in a
barn and it worked out pretty great for him. And for everybody
else as well. There is almost no reason to tell a story unless something
nine years old before we had a great Christmas. Sure all
the others had been swell, presents food people, blah. The Christmas
before, my Grandmother had crashed her Cadillac into our brick wall
and that was cool, but not great. I grew up in Southern California,
so no snow or sleet ever encroached on our holiday; dry turkey was
a drag, but not a calamity. We were thrifty, middle class--we always
had more than enough. Until the great Christmas, I never
much pondered the "have" and "have not" of it
all. My younger brother and I would cry when the Grinch stole Christmas,
but the Grinch always brought it back again. Booo Whoville. So big
were beach people. I'd only seen snow once. So when it was announced
that we would be spending Christmas in a rented cabin up at Big
Bear Mountain, I was confused. In the '70s, Big Bear Mountain was
cool. We weren't cool; we were Republicans, the poster people for
the nuclear family, small, white and resistant to change. It was
shocking! The trip would require a sweater, a hat, and mittens.
Stuff I didn't have. I wanted to be cute in Big Bear. Cool not cold.
Dad said that what we didn't have, we'd buy in Big Bear. It was
so nuts. We were going to spend money, play cards in a cozy cabin
and possibly learn to ski? This incredible break with tradition
was the first risky thing my parents had ever suggested we do. It
was like they'd handed me a pack of cigarettes and said, "Let's
all smoke." The trip was clearly going to be dangerous.
younger brother Jefferson dashed off a quick note to Santa, informing
him of our travel plans. God forbid he couldn't find us! My mother,
an organizational genius, attended to every other detail of the
trip. Our brand new beige Volvo sedan was loaded to the gills with
everything Christmas would require. A tree, ornaments, suitcases,
and our pet guinea pigs, Winnie and Pooh. Dad put snow chains for
our tires in the trunk. We hooked a U-Haul trailer to the hitch
and stuffed it with wrapped packages, food, firewood. The works!
We would be roughing it for a few days. We were prepared for an
we were going it alone, no boozy grandparents, no stupid cousins
or third wheels. Just the four of us were heading up that mountain
and that felt somehow profound.
left at 8am on Christmas Eve morning. Forty minutes into the two-hour
trip, my brother and I engaged in the usual fight over space in
the back seat. There was no winning, there was a clear dividing
line and yet
my brother was a snitch and a whiner. Half my
size, he managed to beat the crap out of me regularly. He'd get
pumped up on pure rage and attack me with plastic strips of Hot
Wheels track. Or simply bite me. He was an ass. We called my Dad
"Prickles" because he had a buzz cut and his tiny hairs
stood up on his scalp like millions of angry thorns. He also could
have a pretty prickly disposition while driving. He ruled everything.
The temperature, the door locks, the radio, the passengers, the
other cars. The whole GD highway was his. He was not hip to taking
junk off us kids. He didn't want to tell us more than once. He was
not having a fight. He told us, "Goddamn it. Quit!" We
didn't. So, Dad said that was it. We would not be stopping to eat,
or go tinkle, or anything. We were not allowed to speak until we
got to the cabin. My mother was no help. She just sat there.
was silence as we started up the mountain. Silence when we spotted
patches of snow hanging in the trees. Silence for more than an hour.
my mother asked my dad, "John do you smell something burning?"
dad said, "No."
said, "Really? Because I think I smell smoke."
sorry, but there is no smoke!" My dad resolved.
insisted, "John, I think there's a fire!"
smiled. He was about to win this round. "Honey, where there
is no smoke, there is no fire."
why is the paint peeling off the hood of our car?" my mother
were just at the crest of the mountain. Some men in yellow vests
were fixing the road. Traffic was slow; there was a long line of
cars behind us. Suddenly the men in vests were waving their arms,
recommending that we GET OUT OF THE CAR IMMEDIATELY.
leapt from the hood, the car filled with smoke. Someone yelled,
"IT'S GONNA BLOW!"
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