FRESH YARN presents:
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!"
My father decided that it would be a good time to park and assess the situation. There was a sudden burst of flames.
Our Volvo was now burning on the side of the road. My family flew out of the car and froze; we were just inches from the edge of a cliff. Other people had stopped; they were running and screaming up and down the highway. My brother remembered the guinea pigs in the back seat, and ran back to get them. My parents screamed and ran after him and dragged him back as flames engulfed the entire car. It appeared that the guinea pigs were toast. A brave man with a fire extinguisher put out the fire. The car sizzled and then sort of belched and shifted forward. It nearly rolled off the side of the cliff, but the weight of the U-Haul held it back. A light snow fell.
We hadn't been in Big Bear long enough to buy a sweater, hat or mittens. I had on a hang ten T-shirt and shorts. My brother was crying. My mother's purse was still in the car. My father had his wallet and a vague plan to hitch a ride down the mountain and rent a car. He walked across the two-lane highway, flagged down an RV and disappeared down the winding road. My mother said, "I told your father I smelled something burning."
We waited by the side of the road for many hours. We were cold and hungry; we all had to tinkle, and it's all we talked about. My mother found the courage to go back to the car and verify the fate of our guinea pigs. I'd seen smoked fish before and figured they would look similar, maybe just fatter in the middle, with burnt hair. My brother said they could still be alive. Bullshit! But they were still alive. My mother pulled her charred purse and the guinea pig box out of the car. My brother and I held Winnie and Pooh in our arms for warmth.
An elderly couple with New York license plates pulled off the road to look at us. The old lady rolled down her window and asked for a damage report. I dramatically recreated the scene, made sense of the fiery chaos that had left us freezing by the side of the road. The old lady clapped her hands and said that our Christmas was probably ruined. I agreed. She said that she was Jewish and didn't celebrate, but that she had a joke that might cheer me up.
"Why did Hitler commit suicide?"
I didn't even know who Hitler was, but played along. "Why?"
"Because he got his gas bill."
I laughed and laughed. Old lady was pleased with my response. She gave me an apple. They pulled away and my mother said not to eat it because the woman was a witch and the apple was probably poisoned. This was rich -- a witch, a poisoned apple, my mother suddenly cracking wise. Where had I been all my life?
Twenty thousand hours later my father returned with the rental car it was very dark and we were very blue. I had gone from feeling 100% alive to utterly brain dead. My mother wouldn't let us fall asleep for fear that we would nap and die. For insurance reasons we could not take the rental car into the snow, so going to the cabin was out of the question. A tow truck came and took our car and the U-Haul away to wherever they take those things to die. So long, presents and Christmas dinner. Goodbye cruel Big Bear Mountain.
We arrived home. We had nothing. It was still Christmas Eve.
The next morning, Christmas, confirmed my brother Jefferson's worst fear. Santa had indeed dropped our presents off at the empty cabin in Big Bear. We went to Denny's for breakfast and sat amongst other dejected Holiday Losers. The melancholy was delicious. We went to a tree lot and all they had left was a scrabbly little branch that reminded me of a Charlie Brown Christmas. We took it anyway. This was my family's greatest hour; the four of us bound by the same pain. We said things like, "At least we have each other." I never knew what it was like to have nothing before. I felt poor and outcast by fate. By accident, I had been thrown onto the "have not" pile. And burned
It was wonderful -- magic really. For weeks afterward I would pick the scab of that wound and weep with joy. I had been singed by the spirit of the season, and survived.
So now when I say, "Have a great holiday," here's what I mean. Have an accident. It will bring you fond memories for years to come. If something disastrous happens, it will eventually turn out to be a story worth telling. Maybe the greatest story ever told.
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