Santa Claus’ Failure
We had a neighbor back east who bordered on what might commonly be called “a weirdo” or maybe more succinctly, “a crackpot.” He was a nice enough fellow when he stopped by to chat, always coming with a joke that was either corny or didn’t have a “punch line.” He apparently had this need to be assured of his likeability, his good-naturedness. Occasionally we would laugh at some off-colored remark, more often to humor him along to get it over with. He was a little too young to be retired but somehow he managed to “work the system” so that he could manage to get by on disability supplemented by occasional handyman work for neighbors or the few relatives he had in the area. Known by the name “Bubba” – his given name was Randolph, a name he despised. Hence, he settled on one we thought was far worse: “Bubba”. A slight-built fellow, Bubba weighed no more than 95 pounds – made us wonder what kind of food he lived on.
Several years ago we had planned to have a stone mason do over our main fireplace and chimney. The weather was giving us ample signal that an early fall was closing in. The old fireplace was small and unsightly so we decided to enlarge it considerably so as to give off enough heat to warm our new double living room after removing the adjoining wall to the rarely used dining room. It was an idea we had put off for years and it was actually Bubba who came up with the idea of the project on one of his visits, even offering dimensions for the planned fireplace. He took great pride in showing us the plans for that part of the project: Huge boulders on either side, a keystone at the opening’s top that he personally made with a stone axe and different chisels. Then he fashioned a mantle from a beam from an old cow barn. We were never sure what particular interest he had in this whole idea, why he was so intent on seeing his ideas come to fruition. We offered him money on several occasions but he steadfastly refused. When our contractor finished it several weeks later it looked so rustic, so big, so Bubba! It was really masculine and beautiful by all standards.
Harvest time came and went, it got progressively colder and by mid-December we had a howler of a snow storm. But then, Bubba was not to be seen anywhere in this farming community for weeks at a time. Neighbors accustomed to running into him at the feed store or maybe the local gas station or diner wondered if he moved or was sick. He was pretty much a solitary man, no wife, no kids, just two cats.
Then he showed up again here and there, jolly as ever, never explaining where he’d been. A few people commented that this wasn’t the first time of Bubba’s just disappearing. He had a barn at the back of his property, behind a stand of tall spruce trees. It seemed almost a mystery that he never had any cattle, chickens or other farm animals. He certainly had the room for a hobby such as that. Someone had told us once that he had either a mule or a horse but there were no fences visible on the property so we totally ruled out that possibility.
Christmas was coming soon, sparkling lights glittered on most front porches or nearby evergreen trees or shrubs. It was our daughters’ idea to place colored Christmas lights not only on the wreath on the front door, the spruce tree in the living room and the one by the edge of the walk near the front porch, but also around the huge new chimney. They’d remembered how Bubba seemed to literally “own” that chimney. They said it belonged to that fireplace and, to their way of thinking, that was his project. He somehow got word, indirectly from school kids of our daughters’ tribute to him. Feeling really good and warm with the spirit of the holidays and a crackling fireplace in front of us we called him, left a message for him to drop by one of these days for some cookies, a glass of wine, maybe even something a little stronger. He never returned the call, something just unlike him.
Then came Christmas Eve, dark as pitch outside, no moon or stars at all and quiet as never before. We had a custom of giving out gifts on Christmas Eve. A black sky and all around darkness lent so much to the spirit of Christmas for our family. The outdoor lights could not have looked more Christmas-y.
We were about half through doling out gifts, chattering away with one another when we heard an outrageous yell, mixed with muffled swearing, banging sounds, kicking noises. It scared the heck out of all of us and the two girls ran to their rooms screaming uncontrollably. It was coming from all over, inside, outside. I ran to the door, opened it and ran out without even a coat on. It got even louder. I took me more than a few minutes to located the position of the clatter, and a mix of screams, swearing, even crying. Looking around, I saw tracks in the snow leading to the rear of the house. And then I saw it – a ladder against the lower level of the roof 14 feet up. I could not believe my eyes; it was Bubba, one Randolph Bubba Finnerty, on the top of, or should I say, partially on top of the chimney. He had on a silly red coat with a furry white collar and a red-fringed hat. He could not move. He was stuck in the flue unable to release himself, unable to get out. “Get me outta here!” he screamed. “My feet are burnin’ up; my boots are gone!” The snow was off the roof on that side and I literally ran up the ladder to his side. He was now crying, maybe because of pain, maybe because of embarrassment. I gave a huge bear hug around his middle and yanked him out of the flue. His legs were red and blistered but his boots were gone. The girls came out, still crying, looked up and saw me with Bubba over my shoulders as I slowly came down the ladder. Mom opened a back window, horrified as to what she saw, and started sobbing. We brought him into the house, sat him down in the kitchen and gently removed his socks, cleaned and medicated his feet and legs. Then he regained a little composure and mentioned his boots. They had fallen down inside the chimney. Thank God this night we hadn’t started the fireplace earlier. We opened the damper fully and the boots tumbled out, black with soot and scorched on the soles. They would survive and so would Bubba. We gave him a few cookies, a glass of bubbly and tried to cheer him up. He was sobbing again. We asked him to stay overnight but he declined – said he had to get the horse home. Horse? What horse? We had no idea he had come with a horse. Oh, My God, a horse and a sleigh! They were behind four fir trees, totally hidden from our view. He pulled on the scorched boots, finished his drink and repeated that he had to get home and feed his horse, the horse we never knew even existed.
Bubba had spent weeks, maybe even months, behind his house in his barn building a sleigh for the occasion that he had planned for. The scheme was a poorly thought out, and an almost fatal adventure. We checked in on him several days later and he was coming along alright but the incident was something he never wanted to talk about again. He merely thought that the chimney flue was big enough to pull off a fete that he may well have never gotten to fully experience. But, more than anything, his heart was in it from the very beginning. In one way maybe this world should have more of those kind of Bubba’s.