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December 24, 2017

The Year Santa Claus Fell Hard

This image was generated by AI under the author's direction. Santa Claus isn't dead; he's merely sprawling.

This story is guaranteed 100% true. I hope you enjoy it.

My mother was the oldest (and most responsible) of four children.  While they eventually relocated to Northern California, they grew up on a farm in Atoka County, southeastern Oklahoma – a region called “Little Dixie,” as it shares its culture and geography with the American South. On scholarship, Mother went to Denton Women’s College (now Texas Women’s University) in Denton, Texas, near the Oklahoma border. Women’s college back then meant studies in home economics, Gregg shorthand, and other secretarial skills.

This flour sack dress was Mother's during her childhood. Flour sack clothing was common in the early 20th century . Once the flour companies caught on they began using nicer fabrics, such as this blue gingham.

Mother was never to graduate. Instead, at a dance, she met my father – then a mid-20’s seminarian from Tennessee who was studying in Ft. Worth. They married when Mother was 19 and remained so until my father’s death 56 years later.

But this story is about my uncles, one Christmas Eve in my early childhood.

Mother had a sister, my Aunt Sammy, and two brothers, my uncles John Winston and Don Ray. Uncle John was my favorite – he was a diehard prankster; always up to something and often in trouble. And he was everyone’s image of a teenaged boy of the times. He had built a jalopy from a Model A Ford that he tinkered with incessantly, he applied “Groom & Clean” to his hair, men's hair tonic to his forearms, and wore a white T-shirt with unfiltered Camel cigarettes rolled in the sleeve. He NASCAR'd his white '65 Ford F100 around town at terrifying speeds, and had mastered the art of conversing while smoking a cigarette, dangling an impossibly long ash.

This Model A Ford jalopy captures the spirit of Uncle John's. He had once promised to take my sister and I for a drive, but after a lot of coughing and spitting noises, it refused to start. He pushed us down the road instead, my sister grandly seated behind the steering wheel.

I recall sitting in the family room of my grandparent's craftsman-style home on many a night, watching my Uncles laughing, drinking brown bottles of Burgie beer, and snicking their Zippo lighters open and closed as they chain smoked their Camels.

One of those nights was Christmas Even when Bonnie Sue and I were visiting. I must have been four years old and Bonnie Sue would have been eight the night Uncle John outdid himself.

It was getting late, and we were being threatened with bedtime. Of course, we had no expectation of sleeping that night, being filled with anticipation and anxious for Christmas morning. But mother was firm, as always, and we had been up past bedtime.

My sister, Bonnie Sue, and I at Lake Arrowhead, California, near in age to the time of the story.

No one noted that my uncles had quietly disappeared from family room. Just before we were sent off to bed, the front door burst open and our uncles came storming in waving shotguns. Real ones. (Members of mother's family always had firearms near to hand..)

My uncles appropriated two chairs near the fire, which was unlit that pleasant night. Uncle John looked at me and my sister with a grim, serious face.

"You see that fireplace? We’re gonna sit here all night! And when Santa Claus comes slidin’ down that chimney, we're shootin' him!" He sat back in his chair, pumping the empty shotgun for emphasis.

Uncle John (left), Uncle Don, and an unknown companion.

You can’t say something like that to a four year old without expecting it to be taken as gospel truth. And so I did – as did Bonnie Sue.

Behind my tears at the impending loss of Santa Claus and his bag of toys, I dimly recall the uproar that followed. Mother went full "big sis" and was furious with her two brothers. I believe my Aunt Sammy was also there and she would have sided with her sister.

Somehow, Bonnie and I got to bed and even dropped off to sleep that night. And Santa Claus, who survived what must have been a close shave, was good to us that year after all. I recall riding around the Christmas tree on a battery powered, yellow plastic bulldozer.

Uncle John was about 16 years old back then. He dropped out of high school not long after but prospered in the auto salvage and repair business. He died in his early 40's of oat cell cancer, leaving behind a wife, a son, and two daughters.

This time of year, it's especially joyous to remember times past. I wish you a Merry Christmas.

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