There are a whole lot of reasons I ought to go to hell. It is by the saving grace of an Almighty God that I already have been assured of a place in heaven but, to be real honest, I think even my eternal Savior had reason for pause when it comes to my ‘Christmas Sheep Caper.’ I believe if you recognize a wrong and ask for God’s forgiveness, things work out. But I also believe my sense of humor is a gift from God, a heavenly blessing, and some of the angels get a giggle over the stunts I still pull.
Just a night or two ago I took what would be my last sip in the glass and my cigar out on the porch. As is my daily custom, I said my night’s prayers for those I figure need a nudge and, when I finally said ‘Amen’ I still had about an inch left in my glass as well as on my smoke. Well, allowing my mind to wander, suddenly I began to laugh as my holiday memories took me on a walk.
When you can laugh at yourself or with yourself, usually in those fleeting moments I wake up during the night, it is the kind of laughter that rises from your belly and makes your eyes water. For whatever reason I will never know, it was completely out of the blue that I remembered ‘The Christmas Sheep’ and I ain’t talking about those like you see in a manger scene.
For over 60 or more years in my life, a boy named Bobby Caldwell was my very best friend. My love for him was unfathomable, as his for me, and the fact for over half of a century we talked on the phone EVERY DAY is, sadly, something only the two of us will ever understand. Maybe it was a joke, a stock tip, where to buy tires, who was the best mechanic for tuning three two-barrel Holley carburetors … every day for over 50 years.
Bobby died eight years ago this Christmas Day, with me hugging from behind as we sat in the snow, with me frantically squeezing his chest in some sort of desperate Heimlich Maneuver way for the ghost of a heartbeat. When he crumpled in front of my mother and his new wife’s eyes without any warning or ominous sign at all, it turned into the greatest tragedy of my life. He had been married to his dearest Gina for hardly a month and Mom had gone gourmet crazy preparing the ultimate lunch for a Christmas Day.
As he and Gina drove into our drive, I was out having a snowball fight with my frenzied dogs, who would leap to catch my throws with the ease of a tennis ball but were then mystified over what would happen next. My pooch would make a stunning grab for the ball, race back to put it in front of me feet but by then nature would have occurred. Water? They would sniff frantically, looking for the ball, and I think stuff like that is funny.
Bobby and Gina had brought a bottle of wine for our feast that came over on the Mayflower. It had been autographed by Napoleon Bonaparte, was captured by General Patton after he read the German general Rommell’s book in Africa, and was saved for “a greater time” by JFK on his honeymoon with Jackie.
The day Bobby died has curiously been air beneath my wings ever since because of a phenomenon far too few of us ever realize -- true agape friendship is precious because it is so rare. I’m talking unconditional, no strings, fat or short, long or tall, thick or thin. Unquestionable. Unchallengeable. Invincible. Total. His memory will endure me for the rest of my life and, while I mourn that many millions will never know such love, I celebrate that I did. Yes, I did.
I still wonder how can I ever thank God for sending Bobby into my life, how can I ever, ever, not recognize the gifts Bobby gave to me, and how can I never not yearn for the day my natural death will reunite us at that sun-splashed rue Vieille du Temple sidewalk bar in the Paris section of heaven. What fun teaching the girls my Southern accent. Yes, … Oui, oui.! Lucky men will understand this very word.
Which brings us to the Christmas Morning Sheep. There has been a lot of water go downstream since Bobby and I pulled a lot of our pranks. It is great fun as well as great sport to pull off one caper after another but the far more immeasurable delight was never getting caught at it. Trust me, there are some who to this day who wonder whatever happened. I’m talking ‘priceless.’
For instance, Bobby was a very successful stock broker for a well-known firm. We would … rather notoriously I might add … share lunch at what was called “the bad boy’s table” and I can’t recall how many tricks were spawned over sliced Vidalia onion and chilled tomato salads. One day Bobby shows up and was grousing about some senior partner in Philly or wherever it was, cheating him out of a commission. I told Bobby to call me and to give me the old geezer’s direct line and the jerk’s executive secretary’s name …
Now, I have learned through years of research and experience the best way to set the hook is loud and fast. Never let a pigeon’s voice interrupt your own and a great technique in pulling a ruse is that it is an immeasurable help to have an audio of a police radio or emergency sirens playing in the background of a telephone scam. Please, it is so ridiculous it needs no explanation but the urgency a siren creates is breathtaking to a moron.
I called this corporate cheat, growling convincingly that the IRS would love to know how many other colleagues he swindled, and asked him what was he planning to do after he would abruptly leave the security business. My patter was so corny the guy was scared to death. Trust me on this; the bigger the idiot the easier it is to knock him to his knees.
Oh, how I wish I could tell you we only did this a few times but doing crazy stuff a whole lot was more fun. Whew – the laughs and, yes, the Philly idiot made sure Bobby got every penny of his due. What could possibly be more fun than slaying such dragons and, through the years, we would scream with laughter over remembering certain ones who we had bagged.
Okay, the sheep. On the last Saturday before Christmas every year Bobby’s family would have a huge cocktail party for all of its many friends. It was fabulous and one of the great joys of the year. Oh, you’d gussy up, waiting until after 5 o’clock to shower, spay on the fru-fru of the day, and wearing not just a Christmas tie over a heavily-starched shirt but your shiniest shoes as well.
Curiously, this particular devil in my ear one year decided I should be part of Bobby’s Christmas. I’d read about these blow-up dolls that these adult stores were selling so I put on an extra coat that made me appear heavier than I was, dark glasses, a baseball cap that said Wichita State, and went shopping. Well, this place I went had a variety of freaky stuff that could get you put in a mental hospital if you ever got caught with it but, lo and almighty, there was for sale a box that included – oh faith and Begorrah -- an anatomically-correct blow-up sheep.
Whoa! I still have no idea what was in the box, how the thing worked, what it took to get a ‘bah,’ …. I’m just not there, but how ever could this be a jolly Christmas without one of the things? My only hope was not to break the polypropylene wrapper. If I had … hello ... that we be ample proof I’d qualify as pervert.
I cut a mad dash to Office Depot, bought enough craft paper and tape to wrap my prize while it was in the trunk, and then took the now innocuous package to the blue-haired gift wrapper in the basement of a Hamilton Place department store. I wanted the best … the $15.99 Ultra Christmas deluxe … with three different colored ribbons over a shiny foil. And, hey, it even included this small plastic Christmas tree standing in the middle of the bow.
My handwriting left a long time ago – I can’t even sign a speeding ticket – so I got Miss Bluehair to write the card. “To dearest Bobby … all of my love, Bathsheba.”
The night of the family party, after the liquor had set in strong on the crowd and everybody had enough to eat to make ‘em drowsy, I went to the car and fetched my gift, making my way straight through the crowd in a hurried way avoiding all eye contact. There was the huge Christmas tree in the den, piled high with gaily-wrapped gifts all around underneath, and I nestled the sheep off to the left side underneath the boughs, inconspicuous despite the plastic tree sticking out of the bow. I arranged a couple of smaller presents on top of it and … lordy, the trap was set.
Please understand. I was not there on Christmas morning when my pigeon, his three sisters and his mom and dad had scrambled eggs, cheese grits, English muffins with Seville marmalade, and Bailey-laced coffee. Nor was I there when his daddy passed out the gifts when the family moved to the tree.
Yet I can only imagine what transpired when my champion opened his gift from Bathsheba. Think about it … opening such a gift with all your sisters watching. I can picture him sitting there, his legs akimbo in his PJs, as the girls and his parents looked at him, his face quickly morphing into that of a mule chewing a big mouthful of thorns and bumble bees. Can’t you see it? Can’t you feel it? Can’t you live it?
Bobby never mentioned it to me until eight months later when we were driving to a dove shoot. “You remember that sheep thing?” I remained silent but he didn’t. “I’ll never try to even the score on that one ... but only because in the past half-year I have come to realize there is no possible way I can. You want me to open you a beer?”
Perfect, just perfect. But, oh my God in heaven, not a day has past that I am not reminded of my love for Bobby and now, eight years since his heavenly birthday, my sides still hurt at the thought of the entire family’s blank stares as they watched my boy read the box of his anatomically-correct blow-up ewe. Put yourself in the photo … how could you possibly keep your grip looking at some lost soul holding his blow-up Christmas toy?
Just like you who have those you have loved with no less fervor, what a sweet pillow of memories do we bring to next Tuesday’s Christmas table. Bah … bah … baaaah.