My Favorite Catastrophic Christmas
D. Michael Denny - New Jersey
Wed 21st November 2001
My unconventional Christmas story begins in July of 1954 in Wasco, Illinois. The Denny family -- living behind our roadside tavern/restaurant -- consisted of my parents, Peter J. and Della Denny; my 9-year-old sister, Susan, and yours truly, age 17. The fifth, and newest member of our family was that noble friend of man, canis familiaris i.e. a dog. Specifically, a 3 1/2-foot tall, 123 pound, 8-year-old pedigreed Great Dane whose credentials put both sides of my family's lineage to shame.
The princely appearance of this aristocrat among us took place very suddenly. My father had discovered that one of our customers was being transferred out of state by his company, but couldn't take the dog with him. After solemnly pledging to provide the blue-blooded beast with the genteel quality of life to which he had become accustomed (and throwing in a case of the owner's favorite scotch), dad was awarded the dog.
At first, there was some confusion over his name (the dog's, not my father's). The tag on his choke-chain said "Hunter 3879". However, all efforts to address him as "Hunter" were futile. "Here Hunter, here Hunter," I would plead as the dog walked obliviously across the lawn. "Hunter ... Hunter!" dad would yell, "**** it, get over here!" Again, no reaction; no response. It was as though he was deaf to the sound of his own name (not my father, the dog). Then I made an interesting discovery.
By inserting the word "boy" into my call (such as "Here Hunter, here boy,") he would perk up and come running. Eventually, we stopped calling him Hunter altogether and just referred to him as "Boy." The mystery was finally solved a few weeks later when the former owner finally sent us the dog's pedigree papers. To our chagrin, it turned out that his name was in fact "Boy." Specifically, Golden Boy of Crestmont. And the nametag on his chain? "Hunter" was actually the prefix of his former owner's phone number: Hunter 3879!
At first, Boy fit into our family routine as well as any clumsy behemoth squeezed into a modest five-room home might be expected. However, before very long, certain events triggered certain idiosyncrasies in Boy's behavior -- quickly altering our lives.
The first revealed itself one sullen, sultry, summer afternoon when one of our not infrequent Illinois thunderstorms began boiling up on the western horizon. At the first startling clap of thunder, Boy, who was playing out in the yard with me, bolted toward the front door. True, the door was closed, but a screen door designed to keep out common houseflies and miscellaneous mosquitoes is no match for a panic-stricken 123-pound Great Dane in full flight.
As my father and I discovered, finding a large dog in a small house can be a more difficult task than you might think, especially when the animal in question has been driven by mindless fear. Eventually, though, we did find him, wedged behind the toilet seat in our little bathroom. Hours after the storm had passed, Boy finally emerged -- looking a little sheepish perhaps, but by no means apologetic.
(Ever since I accidentally burned down the family garage in 1947, and suffered the predictably painful consequences of that action, I have been loath to be the bearer of bad news to authority figures. None-the-less I immediately reported Boy's break-in to my father.)
A few weeks later my father was to experience Boy's keraunophobia (fear of thunder and/or lighting) up-close and personal, as they say. Seated in the bathroom on a lazy Sunday afternoon, dad was placidly perusing through a copy of Field and Stream, when the first loud thunderclap struck.
Fortunately, the screen door was open this time. Unfortunately (and unbeknownst to my father), the bathroom door was ajar. Before dad could comprehend (much less react to) the sounds of frantic clawing and skidding racing toward him, Golden Boy of Crestmont came hurtling through the bathroom door; knocking my father off his contemplative throne and wedging both of them behind the toilet seat. It's a good thing Dad was a dog lover.
Along with keraunophobia, Boy suffered from one other peculiarity. It was his absolute awkwardness in ambulating on any waxed wooden or linoleum floor, which is why Mom and I had grave doubts about the advisability of bringing Boy along on our annual, blitzkrieg-style Christmas Goodwill Tour to visit assorted grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Dad would hear none of our doubts however, and one brisk December morning, we all piled into the family Roadmaster and headed South to La Salle-Peru, 70 miles away. Two poignant scenes of that extraordinary holiday homecoming are imprinted indelibly in my mind . . .
The first took place in the living room of Dad's older brother Bill. I recall only too well the small Christmas tree, exquisitely decorated by Bill's wife, the fastidious Thelma, and placed on a coffee table in the middle of the living room.
After taking off our coats, my father announced he had a little surprise for Bill and Thelma, and left the room. Knowing my father all too well, Thelma's eyes narrowed as she asked my mother, "What's Pete up to now?" "Oh," mom answered, "he just wants to show off his new dog to Bill." Thelma relaxed a bit, anticipating the appearance an adorable little puppy.
The sudden entry of what appeared to be a small horse loping into the room froze Thelma to her chair for just a fraction of a second. But that's all it took. Boy ambled across the carpeted (thankfully) room straight toward Thelma, happily wagging his long tendon-like tail. Inevitably, the precious little tree was swept off the table by aforementioned tail in one fell swoop, to the sounds of shattering glass candles and bursting bulbs.
After that little episode, the atmosphere in Uncle Bill's living room became perceptively colder and the remainder of our visit was both short-lived and sans Boy -- now exiled to the Roadmaster.
Finally, at the end of a long day, we drove up to the home of my maternal grandparents, Aufgusta and Enrico Mancini. The only one of my family oblivious of a sense of foreboding was my father -- already anticipating knocking off a bottle of Po-Po's homemade wine with the old man.
(I have never understood how my grandmother's kitchen -- which seemed to be continuously in use eighteen hours a day every day of the week -- could appear so immaculate at any given moment. In my home, I always make the evening meal for Nancy and the girls and myself. When dinner's ready, the kitchen looks like some demented Chef had made a Homeric effort to break the record for dirtying pots and pans.)
Now, being in a new house is always an adventure for a dog, and Boy was in fine spirits as he: (1) trotted into the (carpeted) living room and gave it a quick once over, (2) explored the (carpeted) bedroom, and then (3) did an abrupt about-face and set a brisk course for the dining room. This latter maneuver would prove a most unfortunate navigational decision.
The waxed linoleum floor in the dining room had an intense, almost painful sheen, like a shallow birdbath shimmering in bright sunlight. To add an even more sinister dimension to the equation, a small throw rug had been strategically placed near the entrance to the room. Innocently unaware, and traveling at a healthy trot, Boy blithely crossed over the dining room threshold and into history.
As his front paws hit the highly polished waxed surface, they slipped out from under him. I watched in frozen fascination as the immutable laws of physics locked in. Still, in the midst of his panic, it occurred to Boy to seek the safe footing promised by the throw rug a few feet away. Calling on all of his considerable strength, and what remained of his agility, he launched himself into the air and landed directly -- albeit briefly -- on his target.
Predictably, the rug exploded under the force of his fall, and the two became as one: an unguided missile that tracked inexorably at high speed toward the festive and fully laden dining room table. The noise of the impact was reminiscent of a 20-lane bowling alley on a Saturday night. The result was to transform my normally deferential and gentle grandmother into an avenging defender of her home and best china.
When Boy saw the mayhem in Aufgusta's eyes, he headed -- slipping and sliding, skidding and scratching -- for the relative safety of the kitchen. My father helped push him in the general direction, while my grandfather did his best to curb the wrath of Aufgusta who was yelling at Boy (or my father?) in no uncertain terms. Unfortunately, since neither of them understood Italian, the eloquence of her exclamations -- eloquently expressed at the top of her voice -- was lost on both of them.
Driving back home that night, my father's only regret was that he hadn't had time to throw back a few tumblers of Po-Po's wine. My mother was uncharacteristically silent, with only an occasional icy glance at my father behind the wheel. My sister Susan and Boy slept all the way home -- exhausted by the whole ordeal. As for me, I began to understand why some people dread the arrival of the holiday season.