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A Farmer Far Afield – Crazy Christmas Past

By John Mattingly

We had a crazy Uncle Bob in our family. He wasn’t clinically crazy, he was just odd. My mom said he turned “funny” when he was born and never straightened out. He visited us at Christmas for many years when I was a kid. I actually thought Bob was pretty cool. He could rile my parents in ways I couldn’t.

One time Bob declared at the dinner table that he was coming out as an atheist. My mom, who could swordplay with the best of them in conversation, quickly informed those of us at the table that Bob wasn’t really an atheist, he just didn’t like to go to church.

To which Bob said something like, “Whaddaya you mean, I love churches,” and my mom shot back, stabbing him with her eyes, “Yeah, from the outside.”

Another time Bob waited until after grace had been said over Christmas lunch to tell my mom that if god really was our heavenly father, he was a deadbeat dad, absent for something like four billion years.

It was the first time I ever saw my mom speechless.

And there was the time Bob said the Pope looked like he’d stolen a costume from the wardrobe of Elvis Presley. I laughed at that one, though I wasn’t sure why.

Whenever anyone expressed a regret, Bob would play the air violin and say, “Where’s Wagner when we need him? But hey, you can’t put the dung back in the donkey.”

I sometimes repeated his funnier sayings in school, and kids laughed.

If anyone talked pie-in-the-sky, Bob always had a quip for them. Such as the time my brother said he wanted to grow up and pitch for the Pittsburg Pirates, to which Bob said, “Yeah, yeah, I wanna find a suitcase fulla hundreds, let’s see who gets lucky first.”

My parents always took him aside when he arrived and checked his pockets. He might have been on drugs, or pills or something, but as a kid I never found out exactly what might have been his problem. He wasn’t married, his pantlegs never covered his ankles, sometimes he wore a necktie knotted to the size of an apple, and there was a look in his eyes, a look that told me right away he was full of tricks. He lived in Denver, worked at a bookstore, and was always in the process of finishing another unpublished novel.

He told me he didn’t think he was special because half the people in America were frustrated novelists. One of his manuscripts, which he titled Babel, Babel, Little Star, involved a man who worked in a corner office, wore a suit, and drove a big car. Then one day the man started crying at work and couldn’t stop. As the man’s life passed before him, sad story by sad story, the man eventually cried himself to death. The man dehydrated, his blood slowly turning to tears coming out his eyes, and then, obviously: curtains.

Bob also wrote a book comparing organized religion to American football, linking certain football penalties to Biblical characters, such as “false start” to the Prodigal Son, “intentional grounding” to Joshua, and “unnecessary roughness” to Job. My dad admitted Bob had some interesting analogies when we were watching the Christmas football game on TV one year.

One evening in front of the fireplace, Bob asked, apropos of nothing, why people said that so-and-so person was God-fearing? What’s that all about, kids? Nobody says, “She’s a child-fearing mother,” or “He’s a wife-fearing man” — well, OK, maybe some do, but nobody ever says, “Oh, that couple just fears their dogs to death.”

My aunt got up and left, but my dad politely asked Bob to let it go with the drama and philosophy.

But I was interested, and asked Bob what he was getting at.

He said he’d leave it to us kids to figure out why religion benefited from framing love with fear.

When it came to Christmas presents, Bob went all out. One year he gave my aunt (she seemed to be his favorite target for pranks and jabs) a shoebox full of sticks. She yelled to his face that he was calling her a witch, and that Christmas became packed with special memories.

One year he gave my dad a bundle of about a dozen old phone books, to which my dad, ever the gentleman, told Bob how glad he was to have phone numbers for Bird City, Kansas, a place he’d always wanted to go.

For us kids, Bob gave us these strange, Chinese candies, made of stale chocolate-covered prunes, and one year I got a broken plastic toy gun and my brother got a bow and arrow set with four broken arrows. One year he gave me a short story about a man who became lost in a city and never found his way out. I remember the last line of the story was, “Just because you want to get at what’s at the bottom of the abyss, doesn’t mean the abyss has a bottom.” A message seemed always to be lurking Bob’s peculiar madness. I actually looked forward to seeing him.

But then, one year he went too far with the creepy Christmas presents. He gave my mom four mousetraps containing four trapped rubber rats. After that, my mom decided to take action. She had a black belt in retribution when she needed it, and enlisted the whole family to come up with a plan to give Uncle Bob a dose of his own medicine. We knew it had to be both clever and diabolical, not simple and pointless, such as a whoopee cushion, a rubber bat in his bed, or pickle juice in his coffee. No, the plan had to have moving parts, unexpected angles, and blindside him when he least expected it.

Finally, we arrived at the solution.

A few days before Christmas Uncle Bob arrived with his bundle of gifts and retired to the guest room, as usual. Next day, my brother coaxed him to come to town with him to get groceries. That’s when we went to work. Our plan required time and precision. My brother knew to keep Bob in town for at least three hours, and fortunately, we had the necessary skill sets within the family to execute our plan without the help of outside labor.

On Christmas day, Bob took a chair in the corner of the living room, waiting for the gratification of seeing us react to his “presents.” We all made a point of opening his gifts first. My brother opened his to find a fine fly rod. I got a really handy tool set. Mom opened hers to find the very salt and pepper shaker set she’d been missing in her collection. “Oh, Bob, how did you ever know that this is exactly what I wanted?”

As the rest of the family opened their gifts from Bob, they chimed in, thanking him profusely for his insight and thoughtfulness.

Bob, the rascal that he was, took credit for all the fine gifts, until, that is, he started to open the gifts from us to him and found the all rotten spoofs he’d intended for us. The big long box in which my brother found a fly rod contained a gnarly aspen branch. The box from which I received a tool set contained an assortment of unremarkable rocks.

After opening a few more gifts, Bob set the others aside and smiled as he said, “OK, OK, Uncle.”

John Mattingly cultivates prose, among other things, and was most recently seen near Creede.