Pappy part 19

While counting one’s abundance, or his paucities, a person can lose sight of the sun as it rises and sets each day.  I know of a country mouse raised in the rural extremities of Nebraska, who moved to Dallas as soon as he was independently able.  He could not wait to leave the boring life of his parent’s farm to become part of the hustle and bustle of the big city.  He achieved a generous degree of success as an attorney; married a lovely woman; they had two gifted children; and he settled into a life of quiet desperation.  The last two-thirds of his life was spent longing for the first third.  It was only late in his life that he was able to return “home,” broken by an urban pace, a divorce, and ill health.  Only then did he understand how refreshing the pastoral Nebraska sunrise was, or how soothing was the rustic sunset over the wide Nebraska horizon.

Or, I might tell you of my friend, a pour city mouse who was raised below the poverty level in inner-city Chicago.  How she struggled to become more, and did.  She worked hard for her degree in business, often mentioning that she would eventually acquire a peaceful mountain, away from the rat race of her urban childhood.  One lucky day miss mouse met a successful rancher who owned several thousand acres in Montana.  They soon married, and she moved to a grand log home that sat at the foothills of the high and lonesome.  Before long, the quietude deafened her, and the loneliness overwhelmed her.  She ultimately returned to Chicago, and now lives a moderate life happily battling the crowd for a seat on the L.  As the morning sun entwines the maze of tall buildings, she is incessantly invigorated as she opens the small, busy deli that she purchased.  As the evening sunset blends into the brownstones she listens to the happy melody of boisterous children as they play nearby. 

Back in Dallas, Trevor and I returned to the elapsing routines that sustained us.  But the sun that rose over the flat, North Texas prairie was no longer just a sweltering orb that chased us from one air-conditioned minute to another.  After forty obscure years, we had looked at Pappy’s face again.  We had seen the wisdom of struggle in his wrinkled brow; miles of smiles in the lines around his eyes; and the tempered determination of the quixotic Golden Knight who had finally defeated his wicked nemesis—the most nefarious windmill of all—and set aside his dented armor for good.  Now, as the sun lightens each new day, we can recall the picaresque gleam in his eyes; and the cheerfully, nervous stammer of a happy old man that said as we left:

Back in Dallas, Trevor and I returned to the elapsing routines that sustained us.  But the sun that rose over the flat, North Texas prairie was no longer just a sweltering orb that chased us from one air-conditioned minute to another.  After forty obscure years, we had looked at Pappy’s face again.  We had seen the wisdom of struggle in his wrinkled brow; miles of smiles in the lines around his eyes; and the tempered determination of the quixotic Golden Knight who had finally defeated his wicked nemesis—the most nefarious windmill of all—and set aside his dented armor for good.  Now, as the sun lightens each new day, we can recall the picaresque gleam in his eyes; and the cheerfully, nervous stammer of a happy old man that said as we left…

“You boys follow your dreams!”

Perhaps it was the clamor of a flurry of windmills; the commotion of lights, cameras, and action; and the angry inflections of divorce and separation, that had muffled their sound in my young ears, but I seem to recall having heard those same words forty years ago.  Now, as Darcy and I enjoyed the twilight while sitting on her patio, peacefully listening to nearby cicadas, I graciously sealed the gap of those years. 

Dawn would reveal a fresh radiance.  The video production of Father’s Day Frolics had arrived in the mail.  I would call Trevor and we would preview Pappy’s release, then telephone him and simply say…

“Hello Pappy, we love you.”   

Father’s Day Frolics was a masterpiece of awkward talent.  It exhibited a lifetime of experience at the fringes of cinematic genius.  The video was edited with a variety of gadgets from Pappy’s personal studio, borrowed tools from acquaintances, and some more sophisticated equipment from his place of work—yet it flowed with surprising facility.   It opened with musical score and cartoon segments from old classics, proceeded into vignettes of that special day, which were interweaved with a variety of special effects and entertaining segues, then ended with corresponding clips from the opening cartoons, and with the classic Porky Pig finale— “That’s all folks.”  Trevor and I watched the production with no less fascination than if we were little boys watching Stagecoach for the first time.  We were delighted, and watched it again!

The hot summer months passed, eventually relinquishing to fall, and Indian summer, which can linger in North Texas for many days while the pecans hang loosely awaiting a northern wind.  We often played Father’s Day Frolics, and called Pappy.  One such evening, he informed us that he wanted to visit us in Dallas, in mid-December.  We were ecstatic, of course, with excited anticipation of our first Christmas with our father since the Ringo Kid and Marshal Wilcox had unwrapped the hand carved, pine pistols that he had crafted, and dashed into the snowy Ohio morning four decades ago.  Yes, by all means, come for the holidays Old Man Christmas!

Just after Thanksgiving an audiotape arrived in the mail.  As I watched Louise—the manager of my apartment complex, and a sourpuss who rarely responded to anyone with more than grunts and suspicious glares—attach a beautiful evergreen wreath with a large red bow to the grill of her burgundy Cadillac, I played the tape.

♫♪♭♫You better watch out, you better not cry…An old, vinyl, version of the song, crackling with countless abrasive turns beneath a well-worn phonograph needle, came bellowing out my patio door.  …You better not pout, I’m telling you why.  Santa Claus is coming to town. ♪♭♫ Louise was just putting the finishing touches on her project, and as she brushed the pine needles from her hands she glanced in my direction.  I don’t think that she saw me from where she was, but I could see her.  Her normal glower had changed ever so slightly to a twinkle in her eyes, and her usual scowl had partially rotated to the position of a reverse humbug.  ♫♪He’s making a list, and checking it twice. He’s going to find out who’s naughty and nice. I turned the volume down and Louise concurred with a sudden miserly glance around to see if any strangers had entered the property—and had perceived a weakness in her smile.  He sees you when you’re sleeping.  He knows when you’re awake. ♪  She then looked once again in my direction, He knows when you’ve been bad or good… and we made eye contact. …So be good for goodness sake. ♫  Louise smiled for one final refrain; Santa Claus is coming to town, revealing what I had always understood about this bulldog puppy.  I closed my door and continued to listen.

Do you remember when you got that song, and one that you played even more than that—which I couldn’t find in a real fast hurry here—Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer?  It was either Santa Claus is Coming to Town, or Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, and you played them over and over.  You were far more instrumental in that than Trevor was. 

Well, the year before you realized that there was no Santa Claus, Trevor had figured it out.  What!  I paused the tape briefly.  My heart was pounding.  There is no Santa Claus?  I paced for a minute or two, then calmed down and turned the audio back on.  He came to me and he said,

“Daddy, there isn’t any Santa Clause, is there?  And there’s no Easter Bunny either?” 

I had to tell him then that, well, yes, in a way there is—in spirit.  And I said,

“You haven’t told Mark this, have you?”                  

Trevor said “no,” he hadn’t told Mark this. 

So I said “Let’s just have a wonderful Christmas this year, and you and I will be Santa Claus for Mark.”

You went through that Christmas blithely unaware that Trevor was cynically mumbling,

“Well, I know that there’s no Santa Claus.”

It was the year before that that Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer came out.  I had given you a copy of that on a small, bright red record, and a copy of this, Santa Claus Coming to Town.  You played them over and over again.  We had a very small phonograph, which we had just gotten.

As a matter of fact, you played Rudolf so much that it rang continuously in my mind until I eventually wrote a parody of it, called Adolph the Bright Behind-ed Monkey.  Of course… He stammered with a touch of fatherly embarrassment …I didn’t use the word behind in my story.  I even did a Christmas card that year, which I sent to some of our close friends.

I paused again.  I remembered it well.  I had not recalled the name Adolph; rather, I remembered it as Randolph, but I did remember it well.  Over the years perhaps I had changed a word or two, but I have never forgotten Pappy’s version.  Many a festive night during the Christmas holidays I have downed a pint or two and then burst out in song:

Randolph the Bright Assed Monkey

Randolph the bright assed monkey,
Had a very shiny ass,
And if you ever saw it,
You would say it shined like glass.
All of the other monkeys
Used to laugh and call him names.
They wouldn’t let poor Randolph
Join in any monkey shines.
Then one foggy Christmas Eve,
Santa came to say,
“Randolph with your ass so bright,
Won’t you be my tail light?”
Then how the monkeys loved him.
They jumped about and sang with glee.
“Randolph the bright assed monkey,
You’ll go back in history.”

The story of Rudolf the reindeer was written in 1939 by Robert May, an employee in the advertising department of Montgomery Ward.  It is said that Rudolf was not the original name of the red-nosed reindeer.  Mr. May first wrote the poem using the name Rollo.  ♫♪ Rollo the Red-Nosed Reindeer, had a very shiny nose…♭♫ Reginald was also rejected.  ♫ Reginald with your nose so bright…♭♫ Rudolf was selected, the tale was illustrated by Denver Gillen, and during that Christmas season Montgomery Ward gave away nearly two and a half million copies of the small booklet. 

In 1949 Gene Autry put the poem to music and recorded it.  It became an immediate success, and has endured as one of the most popular tunes of the Christmas holidays, second only to White Christmas“…Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, you’ll go down in history!”

My apologies to Robert May, whom I hope is not rolling over in his grave, or to Gene Autry as he rides through the eternal, western sunset.  Or, perhaps he is just fading away, as old cowboys do.  It is certain, though, that this great classic will never fade away as an icon of Christmas music, any more than Pappy’s silly little rendition will ever fade from my heart and vocal cords.  I listened to the remainder of the audiotape.

That was the year that I had carved two little pistols out of pinewood, and had wrapped them as gifts for you boys.  You loved those little guns, and ran out into the snow to play Stagecoach. 

As Pappy continued, he discussed his itinerary in regard his approaching visit.  He would have to leave a couple of days before the Twenty-fifth, but hoped that we could have an early celebration.  ♫♪The kids in girl and boy land, will have a jubilee.  They’re going to build a toy land, all around the Christmas tree. ♪ Yes, Pappy, I thought, we can have a wonderful Christmas.  Santa Claus is coming to town! ♫♪

It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere I went.  The commercial community, as usual, did not hesitate to impose their massive collection of lights, decorations, and advertisements upon the consumer before the Thanksgiving turkey had been digested.  There were, as well, the eager individuals that could not wait to adorn, embellish, decorate, trim, garnish, and deck their halls with their personal brand of holiday cheer.  I am generally slow to participate, and modest in that participation.  While I cannot tolerate the theft of Christmas, I cringe annually at the exuberance of gluttony that often dilutes Cristes maesse.                                                       

Before Christ: In ancient Babylon, the feast of the son of Isis; in Rome, the winter solstice Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, the god of Agriculture; for pagans of northern Europe the winter solstice—Yule—in honor of the sun god Miathras; Druids brought evergreen trees into their homes during the harsh winters as totems of good luck in harvest and fertility; and even feasts to the Lord at various times annually (Leviticus 23) were established by Moses, which included gifts, trees, and other symbolic items.  There is no reason for me to begrudge the celebration of the winter solstice by any means, and inadvertently I participate in the essence of this inheritance every December.  I must confess, however, that I maintain much reverence for Christmastime, and for the presence of Christ in my heart.  Consequently, I tend to fluctuate between being festive, and being somewhat musingly maudlin during the holidays.

But this year I was more upbeat than usual.  Santa Clause was coming to town.  I purchased some holiday music and lights early on, and began to decorate. I adorned the large cactus in my apartment with lights, and placed a tiny nativity scene in the sandy soil in which it was potted.  I fixed a wreath to my door.  I bought Ankh a bright red bow, which he would have nothing to do with, and attached it to a lampshade.  I strategically placed poinsettias around my apartment. (In 1828 the first ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, imported the festive plants to the U.S.).  I thought back to my childhood recalling some of the naive, holiday excitement that children experience before they are taught that they too were expelled from the garden.  In defiance, I sang Randolph the Bright Assed Monkey.  I played carols, and whistled a happy tune!

Pappy, in his Santa hat, had charmed all the flight attendants on board his flight from Tampa. They were quick to inform Trevor and I, as we met him at the gate, that our father was surely one of Santa’s elves—to which he winked, with a knowledgeable twinkle in his eye.  I looked at his grinning face and mapped the wrinkles around his eyes.  In those eyes I saw the endless quest, and I saw myself.  In those eyes I saw a blithe refusal to be afraid, and I saw Trevor. In those eyes I saw the impatient search for a toilet.

“Over there, Kringle.”  And I saw the fluffy, white ball of his Santa hat bounce as he bee-lined in the direction to which I pointed. 

It is not possible to determine the origin of Santa Claus.  Perhaps the most common link to the myth originates with Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra—a city in Asia Minor, which is now Turkey.  Saint Nicholas was known to be charitable and wise, and was said to have possessed magical powers that were revealed through miracles performed for the poor and forlorn.  I am uncertain when he relocated from the costal Mediterranean city of Myra to the North Pole, but it is easy to see why he welcomed the heavy red coat and hat given him by the people of the North.  As legends or myths spread, they absorbed characteristics from each culture that endures them.

Texas was warm compared to the North Pole, and Pappy had to remove the Santa hat during the drive to Trevor’s house—where he would stay during his visit.  His hair was thinning, and I saw myself.  He tried to comb it, but it resisted and remained somewhat unruly, and I saw Trevor.  The traffic was heavy and hurried, but we were all lighthearted, and with a little prodding on my part, we sang the Randolph Monkey songand laughed at the angry motorists rushing to and fro. 

Our first evening together was spent at Darcy’s house, where we played Christmas carols and decorated her tree.  Pappy had crafted a very lovely ornament for her; an angel made of paper and wood shavings.  She insisted that he choose a location on the tree for the delicate cherub.  He placed it toward the top, and front and center, and then stood back to view his handiwork.  In a moment of gratification at realizing that his small, simple piece of art appeared to glow in its prominent position, I saw an image of my own urges to garnish time and space. 

When finished, the tree was a masterpiece—as they all most certainly are.  We sat in the room with only the lights of the tree twinkling, and Pappy told a story about a tree that he had decorated with bubble lights when we were boys, and how we were so fascinated by those lights.  In his ability to spin that tale I was equally fascinated, as I closed my eyes briefly and heard in Pappy’s clever embellishments a narration reflective of Trevor’s witty renditions of life. 

The first night of this Christmas season with our father, whom I had never lost faith as having been a Santa, ended early as Pappy was tired from his day of travel.  After that, however, he would not lose steam until long after I had fizzled out.  That was unquestionably a characteristic that Trevor had inherited, and I realized no genetic connection there.  As they left the house to the car, I heard pappy awkwardly attempt to whistle a refrain from Santa Claus is Coming to Town.  I closed the door and skillfully whistled the remainder of the song, a talent that I had received from Mother.

Continue to part 20
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Mark T.K. Fought