Helen Chappell - December 2006
A Child’s Christmas on Beddoe’s Island
-from A Fright of Ghosts
One of the classic Eastern Shore defenses in homicide trials is “he needed killin’.” And believe me, some people do.
That Christmas Day was the moment of peace on earth and good will toward men, even Balls and Wescotts and Fotneys, which I personally thought was pushing the envelope. Dysfunctional Family Christmas: everyone brings a covered dish, a guest and an unresolved issue.
I poured myself a second glass of the plonk that had been my contribution to the fun and went back to mashing potatoes. I’m not much of a cook, but I would rather be Mom’s sous-chef than watch football. Besides, even after all these years, I have a little trouble with the idea that our house becomes a tourist attraction for five counties over the Christmas holidays.
“I think the company will do your father some good,” Mom said as she ladled out spoonfuls of dough on a cookie sheet for cat’s head biscuits. “He’s been feeling a little down since Hardee Swann passed on.”
“Oh,” I nodded. “Poor Dad, I forgot about that. I guess Christmas just won’t be the same for him this year.”
Mom and I pondered this for a moment of respectful silence.
See there’s always this little matter of Dad’s Christmas lights.
There’s this Captain Hardee Swan over to Oysterback with a whole big bunch of moving Christmas figures and holiday display cases and pre- recorded caroling music and elves, sleighs, snowmen and Santas and maybe five or six more lights than Dad has, which makes him crazy, since it is my father’s great ambition to be the King of Christmas Lights. He and this Captain Hardee have a lifelong rivalry left over from their days as competitors in the log canoe races. The origins of the feud are lost in the mists of time, but you can be certain that no one can cherish and nurture a grudge as long or as hard as an Eastern Shoreman.
It may be lost in the mists of time, but those two sure hadn’t lost track of it, and Christmas was the time when they brought it all out and pasted it up all over their houses for the world to see, then plugged it all in. God forbid one of them should have one less Tiny Twinkle Light than the other.
Last year, Dad got some of those three-dimensional wire figures from the flea market over to Seaford. Added to the 69,999 lights he picked up at Earlene and Delmar P.’s yard sale, it looked real good and gave off a nice, post-nuclear glow you could see all the way across the river to Tubman’s Corners.
But then he heard a rumor that Mr. Hardee had gone to the black market and purchased the legendary Computo Lite 5000 Bulb Serial Set that alternately flashes out MERRY CHRISTMAS and HAPPY NEW YEAR in traveling blinkers.
Normally, you have to be a pro to possess these lights. You have to be a registered retail display operator or a licensed dealer to own these mega-watt, computerized babies. In some states, there’s talk of registering Computo Lite 5000 Bulb Serial Sets, to keep them out of the hands of amateurs, but the one thing Dad and Mr. Hardee agreed on was that if Computo Lites are outlawed, only outlaws will have Computo Lights.
Still, I guess Dad thought his chestnuts were fried when he got word about Mr. Hardee’s Christmas Lights Coup.
But then, at South of the Border on their way back from Florida last April, our neighbors Earl and Mertis picked up a 1986 Elko 43-Piece Illuminated Nativity Set – and that was the moment Dad knew there was a Supreme Being Who smiled on him.
The Elko 86 Model 43-Piece Illuminated Nativity Set is the jewel in the crown of any serious Christmas light enthusiast, including, as it does, the Grazing Donkey discontinued in later sets because of complaints that it fell over in high winds. Of course, you do have the ‘86 edition Melchior who looks like Lyle Alzado, but that’s a small price to pay for the glory of knowing you own a collector’s dream. Compared to an ‘86 Elko Nativity, Computo Lites are birthday candles.
Dad started putting up his lights the day after Thanksgiving. It takes him about a week to get everything straightened out, and to get untangled from all the wires without hanging himself from the porch rafters. After all, that light-up Santa on the rooftop and those eight glowing reindeer don’t just nail themselves to the ridgepole. With the intensity of an interior designer on meth, he moved those Elko nativity figures this way and that in the yard until he had them just so, even though it meant that he had to take out a good part of the crepe myrtle to do it.
When he flipped the switch, the whole island looked like it was bathed in a post-nuclear glow, but people come from five counties around and Slower Delaware to see his display, and I think he enjoys the attention, at least until he gets the electric bill in January.
Mom’s long since given up trying to talk any sense into him about those lights. “It’s a small thing and it makes him happy.” Doll sighed, like she was talking more to herself that to me. “It’s because his family was so poor when he was a kid that he wants to make up for it now. Your father just loves his Christmas lights, that’s all.”
Last year, after he got his wiring straightened out and Beddoe’s Island was bathed in a warm midday radiance, Dad, gloating with anticipated triumph, hopped in the truck and drove down to Oysterback to see Mr. Hardee’s display.
When he got to Mr. Hardee’s house, he was astonished to find it was decorated with only a tasteful Christmas wreath. Not a lite in site, so to speak. Mrs. Hardee, a woman of the sinisterly tasteful Martha Stewart school, sadly informed Dad that Mr. Hardee had passed over a fortnight ago.
You would have thought that this would have taken the fun out if it for Dad. Mom sure hoped so. I think she secretly lusts after that one tasteful spray of greens on the front door and nothing else, not even those falls of icicle lights Mertis put up last year.
Every Christmas, I’d been glad I wasn’t living at home anymore. It was too much like living on Main Street in Disney World, between the tourists on the island in the summer and the Christmas gawkers in the winter.
“So do you think this will be it for Dad this year?” I was asking. “Without Mr. Hardee, there’s really no one to compete with him.”
“I don’t know. He’s been awfully quiet about it,” Mom said.
As I set the table, I noticed that the living room was empty of everyone but the disembodied voice of John Madden, who was selling motor oil to an audience of one blinking Christmas tree.
No need to panic, I thought. But I nonetheless moved cautiously toward the open front door, which was letting the heat out. I peered out on the porch.
“Uh, Mom,” I called, “You’d better get out here. Now!”
Mom’s a big lady, but she can move really fast when she has to. I think she beat her own record for the twenty five-yard dash from the back of the house to the front porch.
We watched, stunned, as Dad, H.P. and Toby, basking in the bonhomie of a snort or three of Wild Turkey, finished draping the late Mr. Hardee Swann’s strings and strings of Computo-Lites around the privet hedge. They were all giggling. The men, not the lites.
“Okay!” Dad yelled, and Toby lumbered across the yard with the cord, which he attempted to connect into a long orange coil that Dad had run from the porch outlet to the front yard; every other available circuit had already been loaded up. Those 500 little lights made the privet hedge look like it had suddenly come up with a crop of plastic berries.
“Fire when ready, Perk!” H.P. chortled, waving his glass in the air.
“Whoo-hooo!” Dad crowed, taking a slug of his bourbon. “Plug ‘er in, Toby!”
“Now, Perk, I don’t think . . .“ Mom started to say, but before she could finish, Toby had made the connection.
For one glorious moment, the Ball property glowed like high noon in the desert. It looked like blinding summer daylight out there.
Then, in a shower of sparks and the smell of ozone, everything seemed to explode at once.
From the cruising cars and trucks on the road, filled with the tiny faces of awed kids and happy parents, there came the rising sound of cheers and applause. They thought it was part of the show. People honked their horns and yelled their approval.
As we watched, Dad’s Life-Size Good Shepherd of Graceland Reverently Illuminated Elvis Figure took flight, rising gloriously above the sparks as if the King had finally ascended bodily into Rock and Roll Heaven.
Elvis rose above the trees and hurtled over the power lines, disappearing into the darkness in an apotheosis of sparks and a hail of plastic, trailing a faint whistling sound behind him as he was swallowed into the night.
Then the whole house fell into an inky, silent blackness.
Dad’s audience starting screaming as dads hit the pedal to the metal, trying to jockey their SUV’s and mini vans away from the potential disaster. Horns were honking and tires were squealing as folks attempted to escape on the narrow, deep ditched two lane blacktop.
“Perk,” Mom finally said, in a small tight voice that boded ill for all.
“That shouldna happened,” I heard Dad mumbling. “I had it calculated down to the last amp. . .”
“Maybe that’s why that Swann fella left ‘em to you in his will,” H.P. ‘s voice floated unsteadily in the darkness. I heard him stumble and fall, cursing to himself. “Say, what’s this? Where’d this cord come from?” he asked, holding up a strange cable, wrapped with camouflage tape. “Looks like someone tried to disguise it?”
“That’s not one ‘a mine!” Dad exclaimed indignantly, examining it closely. “Where does this one go? Follow it!”
But it was Toby who appeared out of the gloom, lighting his way with the penlight on his key chain, holding up the other end of the camo’d cord. “I just figured out what the trouble was, Uncle Perk,” he announced. “Someone’s been stealing your power off the light in the shed. Got themselves a big ole outdoor power cord, all taped up so you can’t see it, and it’s screwed into the light fixture, then it leads out the window. Looks to me like it runs right down across the marsh to the harbor, too. Into someone’s boat,” he added ominously
“Someone’s boat,” Dad muttered, narrowing his eyes. “And don’t I know who?”
“Well, can’t a fella even have a Merry Christmas around here without all the lights goin’ out on him?” With the sense of timing that made him such a loser from Cape Henry to Havre de Grace, Sluggo Fotney chose that moment to lope in from the harbor. “I was just gettin’ all ready come to dinner when the lights on my boat went out.” He looked around. “Seems like you put up too many damn lights, Perk. You put my power right out!”
“Your power? Your power?” Mom roared. She doesn’t get riled up much, but when she does, it’s always a good idea to take cover. “Who the hell told you to steal our electricity, Sluggo Fotney? Sneak in our shed and steal our power?”
“Well, I didn’t think you’d mind,” Sluggo replied, firing up a cheap stogie and giving us his best ferrety grin. “I mean, we are fambly, right?”
“If it weren’t Christmas, I’d cook and eat you, Sluggo.” Mom told him. “You common sorry waterman, your damn power stealing just blew out my Christmas dinner!”
I could sense Sluggo blinking in the dark, turning this over in his cunning little brain. “Does this mean I’m not invited to dinner no more?” he finally asked.