Christmas Eve and all was not well. What was supposed to be an early day of chores, then a relaxing day spent with Claire and Bugsy before heading to services at church was quickly turning into a nightmare of tangled wires, accusing stares and flat-out desperation.
At 6 a.m. Aunt Pinkie had called Hooter. “I don't know why I ever let you talk me into buying new lights,” she scolded. “They went out sometime in the night, and we won't be having Christmas until you get them fixed.” Click.
Surely, it was just a fuse or a loose plug, thought Hooter. After all, the lights he'd convinced his aunt to buy after Christmas last year, on sale and for peanuts on the dollar were supposed to work even if a bulb or two went out. The lights presumably met every standard created by multi-national governments and were supposed to be as indestructible as a stable of Taiwanese workers could make them.
Aunt Pinkie took her lights serious, too. Every Thanksgiving, sometime between scalded pinfeathers and pumpkin pie she would announce, while looking directly at Hooter, “If someone is willing to help me with the lights this year, I'm ready any time.” Which roughly translated meant, “You have seven days. The clock has started.”
What joy Hooter had felt hauling the new lights home last year, knowing his days of testing each and every socket (some 1,250) in Aunt Pinkie's ancient strings were finally over. Never mind the fact, at least for one year he wouldn't have to untangle the preceding year's rat's nests of wires and bulbs to get started.
That's just how it had worked, too. Taking each new string from its shiny box, testing them, then hanging them was quick and easy. Plug in the main cord, and BINGO! First time.
The Great Unraveling
“I don't know what can be so hard about unrolling a few strings of lights and plugging them in,” said Aunt Pinkie, through her screen door. “You know where everything is.”
Hooter's heart was heavy and his dander was up, but he had a plan that he was fairly proud of. On the ride over, he figured rather than waste time he'd start by changing all of the main fuses in the house. He checked each fuse as he traded it for a new one: nothing burnt, far as he could see. He plugged the main cord back in—the outlet was on his Aunt's closed-in porch, then snaked underneath a window—and went back out with the hope of the season.
Nothing. Dead and lifeless as aged road-kill.
Plan B: Rifle though Pinkie's shop for enough extension cords that he could tie into the main, then go up on the roof and test each string one at a time.
Hooter was climbing the ladder when he realized Pinkie's early morning wake-up call had been so unexpected and unwanted that he'd forgotten his slide-guards; it was a frosty morning, too.
For perspective, Aunt Pinkie's roof is plumb steep. So, years ago when he was bequeathed the light-hanging responsibilities Hooter had created slide-guards from the stuffing in old lawn chair cushions. He wasn't sure what the material was, but wrap it around hands, feet and knees and you stuck like glue to the roof. In fact, Hooter had to admit there were times he'd hop from one eave to the next, just for the fun of it, like a shaggy-faced, wrangler-patched version of Spider Man.
Rather than take time to go back home for the guards, he remembered what he'd first thought of doing clear back then: just string some old ropes together; tie one end to a tool belt; tie the other end to his pickup bumper, parked on the opposite side of the house from where he was working; and wall-laa, a safety harness. The worst that could happen Hooter figured is that you lost your footing and slid to the end of the slack.
It worked perfectly. Hooter wished he could say the same for the lights.
That Light at the End
He unplugged every string from the next and tested each separately. They worked fine. Soon as he hooked more than one string together, though, nothing. He tried the same thing with a different arrangement of extension cords. Still nothing. He went back inside and checked all of the fuses again. Nada.
By this time, Hooter's growling gut told him it was closing in on noon and he still wasn't any closer to a solution. Then it hit him. Maybe the problem was in the receptacle on the porch. More extension cords later, he plugged the main into the shop, then started the process all over again, checking the individual strings first. Again, each worked great. He hooked a couple of strings together. They worked. His heart began to race as he started plugging more strings together and they still worked. Finally, he had them all hooked together. He plugged them in: Eureka! For a good 10 seconds, the lights glowed through the gloomy day like a wonderland. Then, just like that, they went out again.
Hooter was more stunned than a career politician forced to find a job. He just stood there, leaning back into his safety harness, looking blankly from one side of the roof to the next, exactly the same way well meaning men will peer intently beneath the hood of a busted pickup, although they realize they have absolutely no idea what they're looking at or for.
As Hooter gazed on in defeat and self-pity, some part of his brain was vaguely aware of hearing his pick-up start.
Suddenly, Hooter was jerked face-first into the shingles, then dragged up the roof toward the top eave. As he passed the summit, he saw everything in the slow motion our brains reserve for spectacular wrecks.
He could see the back of Aunt Pinkie's head through the pick-up window, her short arms stretched up to the top of the wheel. The tail pipe belched happy rings of exhaust in the frosty air. And there was nothing else, nothing but about 30 feet of steep roof and few plastic reindeer between Hooter and what he was sure would be a busted neck, at best.
Instinctively, Hooter stretched out his hands and feet as far as he could, desperately trying to grab anything, taking Rudolph and his pals with him. There was no stopping now. Here came the edge of the roof, then the ground coming up fast. Then…
Everything just stopped. Miraculously, Hooter discovered that he wasn't dead. He was suspended about 3 feet off the ground, upside down, spinning lazily to the left, then back to the right.
All Hooter could figure was that Aunt Pinkie had seen him in the rear-view and stopped. And some how or another, all those Christmas light wires must have caught him.
He was partly right. From his inverted vantage point, Hooter saw Aunt Pinkie stomping toward him, madder than he'd seen her in a spell.
“Hooter McCormick! How many times have I told you not to park that bucket of bolts on my grass!”
“What do you think we are, a bunch of circus people? And what on earth are you doing? I wouldn't think you'd have time for such nonsense.”
“Here you are making a spectacle of yourself. Still haven't gotten the lights going. And, just look at my reindeer! What have you done to them? You'd better hope you haven't hurt them.”
“No more excuses, young man. Quit loafing and get those lights fixed.”
One More To-do
Hooter did get the lights fixed. Scuffed up and bent out of shape, he ripped all of the new lights off the roof and threw them in a heap. He rescued the old ancient ones from the shop. They worked perfectly. He did have to duct tape a couple of antlers back on the reindeer, though. But, from the ground, you couldn't really tell; at least he hoped you couldn't until after Christmas.
That's why it was so tempting to ask Bugsy if it wouldn't be alright to wait until after the church service to get her stuff from his shop. For the better part of a year now, she'd wait until her mom was out of sight, then give Hooter a cardboard box or envelope—some of them quite heavy—to store for her until Christmas. She's sworn him to secrecy.
“I haven't had a chance to clean up yet,” hinted Hooter. “Aunt Pinkey's electrical problems took longer than I thought.” He went on to explain why it was he was only now showing up at their place and why he looked like he'd been on the wrong end of a buzz saw, or least a decent fistfight.
“You look fine,” said Bugsy, picking up her coat.
“Now, Bugsy,” said Claire. “Hooter appears to have had a rather long day. Why don't you let him go home, then we'll meet him at church.”
“No,” said Bugsy flatly. “Hooter said he'd help me.”
Her defiance was so out of character, both Hooter and Claire were stunned for a moment. Hooter didn't know why Bugsy's plan was so important to her, but he figured if she was willing to risk a paddling, especially at Christmas, then she had a plan she was willing to fight for.
“Young lady, you come here this instant,” started Claire. But Hooter stopped her.
“You're exactly right, Bugsy. I made a promise to you and I aim to keep it. Let's go! We can still make it. Go climb in the pick-up.”
Hooter stayed behind for a minute. “I'm sorry, Claire. It's not my place. I don't know what she's up to but I know it's important to her.”
“Thanks,” whispered Claire.
“Although I have to admit,” said Hooter, closing the door. “If the three Wise Men had been in charge of Pinkie's lights I feel reasonably sure they would have had to send their apologies and overnight the Myrrh.”
On the way to his shop, Hooter said to a serious-looking and freckle-faced girl, “You never did tell me what was in all of those boxes and envelopes I've been holding for you.”
“And I can't tell you,” said Bugsy. “And you have to promise me you won't tell anyone what we're doing.”
“It's a deal,” said Hooter. He was thinking it was an easy secret to keep because he had no idea what was going on. He'd seen no reason not to hold the parcels for Bugsy, or any reason to tell Claire about it. He hoped he hadn't made a mistake.
Whatever the boxes and envelopes contained, when Hooter started loading the secret stash he was surprised by the volume of them.
When they got to the church, Bugsy was relieved to see that no one else had arrived yet. “I'm going to put these tags on them. Then you take them in and put them under the big tree,” she said.
About eight armloads later Hooter was finished packing in the parcels. Bugsy never said another word about it.
The pre-service social was well attended. Pastor John, a young and relatively new preacher on the circuit, had drawn a marked increase in attendance. In fact, there were so many folks at the social that Hooter had about decided he'd be able to duck Aunt Pinkie until after the service. She snuck up on him at the punch bowl.
“I've never seen reindeer with horn wraps before,” seethed Pinkie. “That is, I never had until I looked up on my roof. When you and the girls come over later, we'll have a visit about duct tape.”
Ahhh, the gift that keeps on giving, thought Hooter, feeling every inch of him stiffening up since the morning's roof skiing.
After a few carols, Pastor John began: “I'm never ceased to be amazed by God's Love and how he can always take a magical time of year like this and make it even more spectacular.
“This evening for example, I'd planned to read to you from the book of Luke, remembering how it was that God fulfilled the promises of the Old Testament and delivered to His people a Savior and Salvation. I was going to ask you to think with me what kind of faith it took for the Virgin Mary and Joseph to travel to an unknown place to be among unknown people at this most uncertain time in their young lives. I was going to ask you to ponder with me the kind of Faith it took for three Wise Men to listen to an angel, and follow a star, knowing as surely as they knew their own names that at the end of the journey they would find the Christ Child just as it had been described to them.
“I was going to share these things with you because the promise and demonstration of God's Love is as fresh, new and amazing here today as it was those many years ago.
“Instead, I'm going to share a story with you that has to do with God's children in this particular part of his Church.”
Sensing that this year's message was quickly veering into uncharted and potentially uncomfortable territory, the congregation began shifting uneasily.
“I'm proud to know just how willing one of you or some ones of you are to walk the walk of faith.” Here, Pastor John's eyes grew moist.
“As you know, on various occasions, I've mentioned the needs of families here and at my home church in Lubbock. You've always responded admirably, in addition to your other ongoing Missions work.
“Well, I received this note,” said Pastor John. He held it up briefly. “It is anonymous. It has to do with this mountain of packages you see here beneath our tree. It explains who each is for and why. It asks that I make sure each is delivered.”
By now folks were searching each other's faces for a sign of recognition. Hooter looked hard at Bugsy. She was chomping her bubble gum, seemingly oblivious to the words.
Pastor John started again with a cracking voice. “While I will not reveal the specific contents of this note, suffice it to say each gift speaks to the true needs experienced by families in our midst. They are needs I suspect no one outside of their family knows of. They are needs I'm ashamed to admit I knew nothing about. It's almost as if the benefactor has been an angelic fly on the wall, so to speak.”
“A mighty busy fly, judging by that pile,” whispered Peetie Womac from behind Hooter.
Or kids, thought Hooter, giving Bugsy a squeeze. He glanced around the room at her classmates. He'd bet big money she and some of the rest had been keeping their ears open, listening to friends, teachers and parents.
“Mind you,” continued Pastor John. “This list, these gifts don't just represent things we normally think of as gifts. There are prayers. There are letters of encouragement. In it all is the gift of hope.”
By now, the tears were flowing freely down Pastor John's face. “And each has the same tag: Love, Jesus.”