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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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A really big deal

December 1st, 2004

birdhunter.jpgBY BUD GARDNER

Christmas was almost always a really big deal when I was a kid, back in the early Fifties. My dad was a chemical engineer, happily making metal alloys and rolling out thousands of miles of aluminum sheet to help Henry Kaiser make more millions, and we were definitely comfortable middle class in a poor rural area, slowly morphing into the suburbs of the growing city of Spokane, Washington. I was very conscious growing up that my Christmas was much more remunerative than many of my grade school classmates’ at Veradale Elementary.

The year I got a three-speed Schwinn, in the fifth grade, I went to school after the Christmas break eager to tell everybody about my great new bike. The first guy I ran into, going up the steps, was Stan Goehner. I knew he got beat up at home, because he came to school with bruises, and one time with a black eye that hung on for weeks. Broken thumb, broken wrist, he always had excuses, but all the boys knew his dad was a drunk and he beat up Stan’s mom, and Stan, too.

But the bike year he hadn’t been beat up, and, beaming, he said, “Look at the gloves I got!” as he produced a pair of roughout leather work gloves from the back pocket of his jeans and thrust them forward for me to see.

“Nice,” I said. I knew that was it for Stan. In the fifth grade you always start at the top, right? Who starts with the knitted winter socks from aunt Elsie? Well, I told him about the books I got, from my Grampa; I didn’t feel comfortable telling him about the bike. Lordy, middle-class guilt in rural Spokane valley in 1953.

But the really remarkable Christmas was the following year, when on Christmas morning my brother Rod, a year and a half younger, and I came down the stairs in our pj’s and bathrobes, ready to be cute and smiley for dad to take his home movies of the cheerful festival of burgeoning materialism, to find no apparent excess in store for us. There was a training wheels bike for younger brother Paul, with a big red bow on the handlebars, and the usual sorted piles of “regular” presents for each of us, even baby brother Jamie. We tried to quell growing dismay. Had we screwed up too many times in cleaning our room or forgotten to take out the garbage too often without having to be reminded? Was it true about the lumps of coal and willow switches?

Our mom was all ready for that. “Oh, look at those faces,” she said, smiling. She mussed Rod’s hair and directed us to the dining room table, where our orange juice and vitamins waited. Dad laughed and went back to getting the movie camera set up. Paul pounded down the stairs, saw the bike, screeched with delight, and in seconds was trying to ride it around the living room, giant bow and all. “Hold it a minute,” Dad said, “I don’t have the camera ready yet.”

Rod and I exchanged apprehensive glances, and as we sat down at the table we noticed the red envelope propped against the holly Frosty Christmas candle centerpiece, inscribed, “To Buddy and Roddy from Santa.” I got to it first, and ripped it open as Rod ran to my side of the table. The envelope produced a round card cut into a spiral, and all round and round the turns of the spiral was a message in Morse code. We had been learning the code in Scouts, but this unexpected turn seemed daunting, and our reckless Christmas enthusiasm was fast becoming anxious frustration.

We knew Dad was behind this. He had been in Navy Intelligence during the war. Morse code was second nature to him, but we were real rookies. We looked up, hopefully, and he was watching, smiling. “Looks like you have your work cut out for you,” he said, and, laughing, turned back to his camera gear. He switched on the floodlights, and you could feel the heat rise in the room.

Work cut out for us, indeed. Paul was delighted just sitting on his bike making motorcycle sounds, but we were stuck. Lucky for us the message was simple and direct, but even so it took agonizing long minutes to decode the dots and dashes.

“Happy you are if you look under car.” It was the first leg of a treasure hunt, and our excitement instantly rekindled. We ran to the porch and got on our galoshes over slippers and pajamas, and rushed through the snow to the garage. On hands and knees, even in the gloomy garage we easily spotted the red envelope, and Rod scrambled on the dank dirt floor under the Ford station wagon and retrieved the next of the coded couplets. There were three more after the car one: the vegetable drawer in the kitchen (“Onions and spuds for a couple of puds”); under Rod’s bed (“Nurlies, we trust, because Rod never dusts”); down in the basement (“check under washer and make Christmas posher“); and finally, right back to the living room (“To cure Christmas blueses, check where Dad snoozes”).

Up the basement stairs two at a time and into the hot floodlights, and there was Dad behind the tripod with the camera rolling, chuckling with self-congratulation. He always loved to wind us up. We dived for the couch, and as there was nothing sitting there, we tore off the cushions, but again nothing, no red envelope — nothing. I jumped over the end of the couch and peered into the dark, narrow gap between the couch and the wall. I could make out two long, narrow wrapped boxes at the far end, but lying on the floor and stretching out my arm as far as I could, I just couldn’t reach them. Rod was smaller enough to get his shoulder in and reach farther, and he was able to jiggle the boxes back toward us till he could grab hold and pull them out, one at a time.

The boxes were heavy and clumsy, so we didn’t even bother to pick them up, just tore off the paper there on the floor, then just sat there, stunned and staring in disbelief at the dark brown writing on the heavy cardboard. Could this be real? Winchester Arms Company? Our hearts thumped. Neither of us had even been brave enough to put such a thing on our Christmas list, but yes indeed, each of the boxes yielded up a new bolt-action .22 rifle with dully gleaming blued barrel and shiny finished stock. We stroked and fondled them reverently, turned them in our hands, sighted down the barrels, barely able to speak.

We patiently weathered the anticipated lecture about the awesome responsibility that comes with a firearm and made ourselves sit still through the rest of the Christmas tree ceremony, smiling and holding up our gifts for the camera before running off to change our clothes to go outside.

Before Christmas dinner that afternoon I’d shot a finch and two sparrows and Rod had gotten a chickadee and a wren. Strange to think about that in these more enlightened times, but back in the Fifties, out in the country, we didn’t give it much thought. I became a pretty good shot. Got my rifleman merit badge and my sharpshooter medal, and for a while there was regular terror on squirrels and gophers and such. And we really were careful, as far as humans and domestic animals and livestock were concerned. We didn’t want to do anything to risk our gun privileges.

I think it was about three years later when I nailed a Red-Shafted Flicker, beautiful bird, off the top of a pole about two hundred feet off. Incredible shot with a .22 long rifle. Just tumbled off the pole and went straight down. I was thrilled, until I saw the gorgeous little bugger with my big bullet hole through his chest. I nearly puked and was overwhelmed with shame.

Never shot another living thing. I still have that old .22. It’s up in the garage loft; hasn’t been fired in thirty-five years. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Christmas Issue, Gardner | Link to this Entry

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