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Accidentally Great
By Paula Killen

For 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 bad happened.
Ask Jesus.

I was 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 deal.

We 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.

My 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 emergency.

And 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.

We 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.

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.

Then my mother asked my dad, "John do you smell something burning?"

My dad said, "No."

Mom said, "Really? Because I think I smell smoke."

"I'm sorry, but there is no smoke!" My dad resolved.

Mom insisted, "John, I think there's a fire!"

Dad smiled. He was about to win this round. "Honey, where there is no smoke, there is no fire."

"Then why is the paint peeling off the hood of our car?" my mother asked coyly.

We 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.

Flames leapt from the hood, the car filled with smoke. Someone yelled, "IT'S GONNA BLOW!"

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