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August 20, 2004

Poaching Christmas

“Daddy…Is Santa Claus real?? she asks. I look at her. She’s embarrassed to ask the question. Can only feign a brief flash of eye contact. My internal mind-machine gears are turning smoothly, with the inertia of nearly four decades of experience. A well-oiled brain that’s singular focus has produced smart-assed, knee-jerk, responses for so long that it doesn’t know how to be serious, deliberate, or tactful about anything. And here is a five year old offering up her childhood for serious consideration. Her delicate world is precariously balanced on a fulcrum and the fulcrum is a lie. A deliberate, well-documented, widely promulgated forgivable, white lie that is handed down from generation to generation to like herpes.

I didn’t really start out intending to poach a Christmas Tree. They sell “Holiday Tree Permits? that allow the serfs permission to enter the Good King’s Forest on a particular day and cut a single tree, not more than six inches in girth, using only a handsaw. I had paid my fee and purchased my non-secular “Holiday Tree Permit?, but I failed to notice that the date specified was November 29th. When Jennifer and I entered the Good King’s Forest on November 30th, we were a day late.

Now, how it was decided that the National Forests should be closed that day is anyone’s guess. The organs of the government entrusted with the care of the forests evidently couldn’t be bothered with showing up to work on this particular date for reasons that escape a cursory scrutiny.

But I had my little crumb-catcher with me, and seeing as how she had been sold a bill of goods about how we were on the annual pilgrimage to sack and pillage a tree, I didn’t see that there was any reasonable thing to do except to go forward with the massacre as planned. The fact that I was technically on probation for allegedly pulling a Colt .45 pistol on a fireman crossed my mind, but it couldn’t be helped. I only had Jennifer a few days a month. If they didn’t open the forests on those days, then that was their problem, not mine. Damn the torpedoes. Full steam ahead.

Easing the Tahoe into 4-wheel drive, high-range, I followed a vestigial trail that trickled down from the main highway into a discreet section of the forest that I was reasonably sure wouldn’t be spotted from the road. If the forest wasn’t officially opened for business, there was bound to be some weathered busybody that would take it upon himself to intercept any suspicious trucks entering the woods surreptitiously, and I didn’t want to make some nosy buzzard into a small-town hero.

Jennifer and I were able to locate a suitable evergreen without much trouble. I sawed it down, and it somehow managed to find the ground without hitting her as she scampered away, scrambling uphill like a mountain goat on speed. I drug the tree down toward the Tahoe, carefully watching for additional vehicles and nosy woodsmen.

I tossed the tree into the Tahoe. It was longer than I had guessed. Probably somewhere between 9 and 10 feet. It ran from the windshield to the cargo doors and then some.

“Hurry up and get in. We’ve got to get moving.? I urged Jennifer.

“Why daddy?? She questioned.

“We need to hurry home and get this thing in some water right away.? I explained. “Remember how the tree lost all its needles last year? We didn’t get in the water fast enough.?

“Yeah daddy. Faster. Faster. Let’s get it home!? Jennifer cheered as I covered the illicit cargo with my army field jacket and headed out onto the main highway.


We made it home without incident. Predictably, the illicit tree was much taller indoors than it seemed when we pilfered it from under the auspices of the National Park Service. I put it the non-secular “Holiday Bush Stand?, and propped it near the end of the couch. Jennifer made two paper Christmas Tree ornaments, and put them on the tree, but, aside from that, it is bare. I filled it with water, but didn’t add Aspirin as I’m afraid Slinky will drink it and die from internal hemorrhaging.

Then Jennifer, aged five years, began to ask the big questions.

“Daddy…Is Santa Claus real??

I look at her. She’s embarrassed to ask the question. Can only feign a brief flash of eye contact. My internal mind-machine gears are turning smoothly, with the inertia of nearly four decades of experience. A well-oiled brain that’s singular focus has produced smart-assed, knee-jerk, responses for so long that it doesn’t know how to be serious, deliberate, or tactful about anything. And here is a five year old offering up her childhood for serious consideration. Her delicate world is precariously balanced on a fulcrum and the fulcrum is a lie. A deliberate, well-documented, widely promulgated forgivable, white lie that is handed down from generation to generation to like herpes.

“Why do you ask, angel??

“ ’Cause some of the kids at school say he isn’t.?

“Well…what do you think??

“I think he’s real.?

“Then he is real, isn’t he, angel??

“Yay! So I’ll still get my presents.?

“Yes, baby. You’ll still get your presents.?

“Daddy…why do you and mommy live in different houses??

The questions weren’t getting any easier. I felt like I was hooked up to the world’s most efficient lie-detector. A five year old with steely blue eyes and a world defined by the words that emanate from the mouths of her parents, of which I was indisputably one. She had been carefully assembling these little bombshell questions, accumulating them in her mind, like fireflies in a mason jar.

“Well, baby, it’s like this. Mommy and daddy used to live together. Remember, I told you that I used to live down the hill with you and mommy, but you were just a baby, so you wouldn’t really remember that time. But then, sometimes parents don’t get along so well, so your momma and I decided that we could get along better if we each got our own house. So, now I have my own house, and momma has her own house. I like it up here in the woods better than I liked it when I was in Lakewood. And this way, you have a great big yard to play in when you come to see daddy, OK baby??

“OK. Daddy.?

We were safe, at least for the time being. I hadn’t called my ex-wife a nag. I managed to keep the Monster-In-Law out of the conversation entirely. She was still willing to give quarter to Santa and his flying reindeer, at least so long as the presents materialized under the tree. The ship seemed to have avoided the eminent peril and smoother sailing appeared on the horizon.

Of her own volition, Jennifer began to write up a list for Santa Claus.

“Daddy…How do you spell Hamster??

“H-A-M-S-T-E-R.?

“Daddy…How do you spell DVD??

Laughing. “D-V-D?.

“Daddy…How do you spell puppy…a REAL puppy??

Somewhere during the process, it occurred to her that, if Santa was real, and if she could get her message directly to the man, it didn’t matter what her parents thought. It didn’t matter that mom was vociferously and intractably opposed to a hamster, a puppy, or a horse. Santa was the guy that decided who got what under the tree.

So, she scratched out her Christmas wish list, deliberately, one letter at a time. Inadvertently, but inevitably, revealing her plan. Attempting to be as coy and discreet as a five year old child can possibly be when plotting their first big coup. It was fascinating to watch the gears turning in her young brain. Like watching a general assembling his troops before a battle.

“How do you spell dawg bull??

Poor Jennifer. She was trying to cover all of the bases. Everything that a dog might need right out of the box. She’s trying to dot all of her I’s and cross her T’s. But, she’s learning English from a mom that grew up in Houston, and a dad that did eighteen years in Mississippi.

“You mean dawg bull?? I ask, trying hard to pronounce “dog? and “bowl? correctly for the first time in my life, but saying “dawg bull? in spite of myself. After all, you can’t deny a leopard his spots. “It’s D-O-G new word B-O-W-E-L? and only now do I realize that I’ve spelled ‘dog bowel’ instead of ‘dog bowl’. Horse feathers. Jennifer, ever the diligent scribe, faithfully copied it down verbatim, and, in the final copy, asked Santa for “A real puppy. That’s comes with a dog bowel and puppy chow – Golden Retriever? so that, aside from the misspellings, it seems like it might have been a military requisition. “One puppy, real, Golden Retriever.?



I looked at her list and snapped a few photos. We put it in an envelope but daddy didn’t have any stamps, so I promised to mail it to the North Pole first chance I got. It probably doesn’t need any stamps, but I’ve already put a return address on it, and I can’t dare chance it showing up in my mailbox on December 28th with an “Insufficient Postage – Return To Sender? stamped across it. That’s the kind of thing that would send a child into an asylum and an unsuspecting postman to an early grave.

In the final analysis, after flying the Santa Claus letter halfway across the continent and back, we decided it would be safest to hand deliver it to “the man? himself. Plus, it was cheaper than buying a stamp, so we cornered Santa and Mrs. Claus down in Evergreen. Jennifer, after having gathered up the courage to ask her father if Santa Claus was real, suddenly remembered that she was teetering on the cusp of the tender age of six as soon as she climbed into his lap, and fell deathly silent. It was all she could do to remove the list from her pocket and hand it to Santa. Her tongue, driven by the fear and uncertainty that had suddenly overcome her, found the inside of her cheek, and pushed it outward, like a mermaid’s purse.

Posted by Peenie Wallie on August 20, 2004 at 9:23 PM

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