Selfless Allies at the Sea

Thursday June 13, 2019

Road’s End Beach, Oregon

It was mid afternoon. The sun was bright but a brisk north wind was blowing. I seemed to be totally alone on Road’s End Beach. Walking along the shore, I spotted a bird that distracted me from my thoughts. It was a bald eagle standing on a dead crab. No sooner did I grasp the oddity of this sight when the shadow of a turkey vulture announced its attack on the eagle. The vulture wanted the crab and the eagle defended its catch.

After two futile attempts to strike from above, the vulture landed a few feet from the eagle and drew itself up to full height as though to further exploit its advantage in size. But the eagle was not intimidated even as the vulture attacked its legs and returned to the sky in a menacing ploy.

Rapidly swooping back and forth, assaulting with both claws and beak, the vulture seemed intent on exhausting the eagle. At such a pace, it did look as though it would eventually succeed. All the eagle could do was defend its position on top of the crab. Never once did it attempt to actually eat it. Then the miraculous part of this fascinating drama unfolded.

Just as the vulture turned in the air for another attack, four seagulls appeared out of nowhere. In unison, they surrounded the vulture and steadily redirected its flight until it was driven far from the eagle. Once it was safe to do so, the eagle quickly devoured what it wanted of the crab. Then it abandoned what remained and limped with injury into the surf before flying away.

The vulture soon returned to claim the last of the crab without competition. The gulls had no interest in it. Based upon their behavior, their objective was to help the eagle. Their effort succeeded and it was humbling to behold.

The Young Republicans Club

Before high school I never met anyone who wasn’t a Catholic Democrat so I didn’t know what to expect when I found myself in the company of classmates from Butte’s Republican minority. How we first related to each other was through marijuana. They smoked. I smoked. We all smoked. It wasn’t until one of them said, “Maybe the Young Republicans of Butte should actually have a meeting” that I even realized the kind of company I was keeping.

The mission of the Young Republicans of Butte was to get their parents to supply dues money that could be used to buy drugs. It was a very successful mission. Parents of the Young Republicans wanted to do everything they could to support their budding party faithful and money was no obstacle. In fact, dues collection often exceeded expectations. Lucky for me, my Young Republican friends weren’t nearly as politically polarized as their parents, so I was made an honorary member.

Not wanting to disturb the flow of funds, we took great care to be out of sight when we met. In warmer months it was easy to hide in nearby woods, but in Winter we relied on roads less traveled to preserve our privacy. Sealing ourselves in the rusty remains of a brown Dodge Dart, nine of us usually lent it just enough weight to plow through the waist deep drifts covering all local routes to closed mountain campgrounds, our typical pot party destinations.

One frosty night in February 1970, the Young Republicans of Butte spent a sizeable sum of dues money on a large quantity of quality Sensimilla, then immediately headed out to the closest campground. With intervals of pushing and digging and gunning the engine, it took an hour to navigate the six miles of rutted dirt road. By the time we settled in a spot behind a stand of large pine trees, the temperature had fallen from a tolerable zero to well below. We cranked the windows tight, blasted the heat before killing the engine. Two pipes and a joint simultaneously circled between the front and back seat. Oily smoke poured from our lips. We took this as a sign that the product was rich in resins and celebrated our good fortune by lighting another round.

Intermittently occupied with fits of laughter, brilliant insights, or the fractured patterns of milky frost on the windows, we hardly noticed that the air inside the Dodge had become a dense smog until someone in the back seat tried lighting one last bowl. He struck a match and it went out immediately, then another and another. On the fifth attempt we noticed that the match head hardly even sparked, like it wanted to light but was starved of oxygen. We concluded that we must be breathing pure marijuana smoke. A united rush of paranoid adrenaline peaked in an immediate need to answer one question, “Are we going to suffocate?” An altar boy among us offered to administer last rites.

Someone in the back seat said, “Shit, I can’t take this anymore. I can’t breathe and I’ve gotta pee. She opened the car door and a rush of cold air cleared the smoke immediately. We were saved by a teeming bladder. “Hell,” said the President of the Young Republicans of Butte, “ we better make a motion to always crack a window open.” We all voted yes then rejoined our agenda by lighting another round.

Spending Time

“Sit down, sit down,” she’d say in her insistent Italian way that sounded more like discipline than intended affection. Lydia lived like she talked, clearly focused, to the point, no time to waste. She worked hard because it wasn’t worth doing it any other way.

Lydia owned a restaurant that supported a large extended family in a manner that none of them would likely have achieved on their own. The youngest daughter in a family that emigrated from Italy in 1922, she was ten when her father brought them to Butte with visions of golden lodes just inches beneath their feet. Within a few months, creditors hammered those visions into a hard reality. They were poor in Italy, but never so poor as they became in America. Disabled by a wounded pride, Lydia’s father refused to take up any other kind of work. His family were left to make their own way in the new world.

As was common for children of that era, Lydia had little time for play. From the age of five, she spent most of her time helping in the kitchen. At thirteen, she got her first job as a cook’s helper in a local boarding house. Her older sisters got married, her parents had two more children and her father was incapable of holding a job. At fifteen, Lydia became the family’s sole financial support.

At first, she enjoyed cooking. She was good at it and was recognized for it. A mixture of duty, enthusiasm and raw talent fueled her sixteen hour days as she climbed from kitchen help in the boarding house to chief cook at the Rocky Mountain Cafe to owner of her own nationally-known restaurant.

In the 1930’s, the Rocky Mountain was a good place to build a reputation. It was said that people around the world had heard of the restaurant, even if they’d never been to the United States. Once during World War II someone mailed a letter from Europe addressed with only the words, Rocky Mountain CafĂ©, USA, and the letter arrived. The restaurant was famous, but largely because of the quality of its cook. When Lydia left the Rocky Mountain to open a place under her own name, customers didn’t hesitate to follow.

With the opening of her own restaurant, Lydia had the added responsibility of running a business. Sixteen-hour days now filled all seven days of the week. Duty completely consumed enthusiasm as she was also left to care for an aging mother and disabled brother. Her work-day started at two in the afternoon and ended at five the next morning.

One evening during the early1950’s, the accumulated pressures were feeling heavier than usual. She stopped to spend a few minutes with a customer who never failed to have dinner there each time he came through Butte. Desperate for a sympathetic ear, Lydia told him she was afraid she couldn’t get through the next few days. There was just too much work for one person. Being a traveling salesman, the customer understood the challenge of packing long hours into short days. He reached briefly into his coat pocket, then took Lydia’s hands into his. Leaning toward her from across the table, he said in a whisper, “These might help with the work. One should last about twelve hours. Take another one before the last one wears off.” He then transferred a small bag of black capsules from his hand into hers.

Even though she had spent nearly all of her life surrounded by gambling, drinking, and hired companions, Lydia herself never had time for personal experience with any of it. So, when she looked at the stash of amphetamines in her hand, she had no reason to think of them as anything but black pills that could help her cope. The first one was on its way to work before she left the table.

For the next three days, Lydia stayed awake on Black Beauties, completing an improbable number of tasks. Impressed by what she’d accomplished, she wanted more when the stash ran dry. Maybe these pills would finally be the business partner she could trust. She’d supply the will, they’d supply the way. But the salesman never returned.

Thirty years later, still innocent about what those pills really contained, Lydia would tell this story completely without shame, like she was hoping to find another supplier. “Just think what I could do, if I never had to sleep,” she’d say.

But Italians aren’t good at hiding their feelings. The regret in her heart could easily be read on her face as she would continue, “To tell you the truth, though, I think I really kind of burnt myself out.” Then she’d cast her eyes to the ceiling and clear her throat as it tightened. “And if I had to do it again, I’d take more time for myself. It went so fast I just never stopped to think about it. I spent my life before I knew what it was worth.”

Hanks A Lot

Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs” poisoned Mexican marijuana fields with paraquat. So finding a reliable supply of the plant was a constant challenge at a time when demand was on the rise in the early 1980’s. Beyond the legacy of a Haight Street lifestyle, marijuana was the only affordable and effective palliative for those caught in the first wave of the AIDS epidemic. 

Scott Smith, Harvey Milk’s former partner, decided to remedy the problem by consolidating product from secret homegrown sources into a weed retailing boutique. At his apartment near Castro and Eighteen, center of the City’s busiest gay district, he opened a full service cannabis outlet called “The Store”.

There was a semi-formal process for becoming a customer. In order to become one, you had to be introduced by one. My friend Charles was among the first to be admitted and he recommended me into the fold soon after. 

Everyone involved with the store was named Hank which seemed like more of a joke than a serious stab at anonymity. Scott and most of the other Hanks were well known in the City. By the time “The Store” was operating in full swing, there was a constant and obvious stream of customers up and down the stairs to the top floor of the purple Victorian in the heart of gay San Francisco. 

The purchase process was simple. I’d call and ask for Hank, tell them my name and who introduced me, and I’d be given an appointment slot at “The Store”. For the first few months, appointments were spaced far apart so that customers didn’t see each other. Traffic soon exceeded the number of time slots, though, and customers were passing each other on the stairs. A long fainting couch was added to a formal seating area where a melange of Drag queens, leather men, and three-piece suits waited patiently for their time to score. 

The merchandise was displayed on a card table in the dining room. You could smell and touch the wares, but not light up. Your purchase was weighed on an antique balance scale used in an assay office during the Gold Rush. These were men who knew how to retail. 

Scott had remained politically active after Harvey’s death, so when San Francisco won the 1984 Democratic convention, Scott was first in line to volunteer. Being from Mississippi, he asked to be the “official greeter” for his home state delegates. The Mississppi down home delegates, though, weren’t at all gay about having Scott as their greeter and they asked for a straight replacement. This made the national news. “Democratic Party Discriminates Against a Gay Son of the Solid South”. Using the lessons he learned from Harvey about making Media that changes minds, Scott welcomed the opportunity to tell his side of the story. 

On the street in front of the purple Victorian, also known as “The Store”, Scott was interviewed on all the national news channels. Watching CBS that night, I imagined the banner “Homosexual Drug Haven” scrolling under Scott’s name and thought, “Oh my god, what if?”

A few days later, I got a frantic phone call from my friend Charles. “The Store” had just gotten raided by the DEA and he was there when it happened. 

At the time, Charles was one of the three-piece suit customers. An inheritance from his Georgia-Pacific wood products family hadn’t been handed down yet, so he occupied himself in the meantime by handling the Haas Family finances. Charles had no tolerance for personal inconvenience even when it impacted the dreams of those closet to him. His partner, Jonathan, knew this first hand.

Jonathan was doing post-graduate work in medieval Italian at San Francisco State and won a Fullbright scholarship to study in Florence for two years. Preparation was made to ensure that Charles would be comfortable in Italy, including renting a villa in the hills so he wouldn’t be exposed to city annoyance.  They lasted two months. The Italians were too loud and rude for Charles. He insisted that Jonathan cede the scholarship so they could return to San Francisco. Charles was not the kind of person who could survive doing time on drug charges. 

Charles was in “The Store”, at the card table, making a purchase when the raid started. Payment was about to change hands as the DEA hammered through the front door. With an eye toward self preservation and financial reward, Charles kept the cash, grabbed the weed, and searched for the nearest exit. 

Squeezing the booty into his Armani briefcase, he left through a bathroom window, then scaled the ten foot privacy fence and hid for hours in the back row of the Strand Adult Theater on Market Street. For once, its cum encrusted seats did not annoy him. Charles was the only one in “The Store” who escaped arrest that day, and he even managed to come away with some contra ban. By the time he called me from a phone booth inside the Strand, Charles was expressing a degree of gratitude unusual for his upbringing. 

The news that night made Scott look like a drug lord. On the eve of the Democratic Convention, footage of the raid was broadcast nationally. Shutting down the “The Store” just days before the convention accomplished at least two political goals. Dianne Feinstein, despite being the first female mayor of a notoriously liberal city, earned tough-on-crime credibility among Ronald Regan democrats, and a delighted delegation from Mississippi had a convenient reason to decline Scott's homosexual hand of friendship.

A few years later, I was cleaning out a drawer and found a scribbled phone number labeled, “The Store”. Curious to see if it still worked, I dialed it up. A warm voice answered, but dipped below freezing when I asked, “Is Hank there?” 

“How did you get this number?”, he demanded.

“Ah, I used to know a group, kind of into performance art, called ‘Hank’. Just calling to see if they're still around,” I replied. “My friend Charles was a big fan”. 

“No Hanks here now, Honey," the voice snorted back. "They retired after the clients from hell came knocking. But the current management hopes your friend enjoyed the sample he salvaged from his last visit." 

"I'll let him know you wish him well," I said ending the call with a smile knowing that somewhere in the City, “The Store” most certainly survived.

Retro Intro Spection

Susan quickly checked her mascara in the rear view mirror of her vintage Honda Civic. She reached down to turn the ignition and in the back of her mind she heard her mother’s voice asking, “ Susan Jeanette, just where do you think you’re going?” 

At the age of forty-two she was still feeling surprised by the question, caught off guard, fumbling for an answer. Where was she going? How did she get where she was now? 

She had arrived at another turning point that wasn’t on the map. A year ago she left behind a marriage that was always too hard to justify. When she left her only emotion amounted to a deep disappointment over another failure at becoming someone through someone else. – The defining attachment.

Like now in the rear view mirror, sometimes she would catch a glimpse of herself and the reflection would ignite an insight.

This happened once in the early eighties when she was heavily involved in the women’s movement. She became another woman’s lover without considering why. If she felt any attraction at all it was to the idea that she was living outside of society’s rules. But over time it was clear that one set of rules had simply replaced another. She saw this and moved on to the haven of graduate school and then to marriage, as though she were a character in someone else’s story. 

Her mind refocused on the present. She had already sacrificed much of her life to fear and was finally realizing that she could actively choose what to do with the rest. She turned the ignition and revved the engine. It was time to pull away.

Being in Berlin

In a grainy colorless broadcast on CBS News, I watched John Kennedy declare himself a Berliner near the Wall in 1963, and the hope of seeing that city myself became embedded in my dreams. I took German classes in high school and college, preparing for the day. Then in 2008, long after the Wall had finally fallen, I was on a plane to this place that enchanted me as a child. 

Before leaving, I thoroughly researched Berlin. Read books, saw films and, in a life-long calling to end cannabis prohibition, contacted Hemp activists there working at the forefront of European drug policy reform. Yet the impact of actually being in Berlin was jolting. The weight of history is palpable there, perhaps because the legacy of its past is still so present. In young adults whose childhood was enclosed by the Wall, distrust and disruption remain. Berlin is an outpost on the porous edge of morality. 

True to the German stereotype, Berlin’s public transportation system is an outstanding example of engineering efficiency. Trains were so reliable and direct, it felt like flying from one station to the next. Even street traffic was not intimidating. Along broad boulevards, drivers obey traffic signals in such perfect unison, it seemed they were coordinated by remote control. On the surface, everyday life in Berlin appears to be orchestrated with a fastidious precision that excludes the unexpected. Then I found Friedrichstrasse. 

Living many years in San Francisco, I thought I’d seen the broadest array of sexual accessories anywhere in the world, but the erotic storefronts along Friedrichstrasse were unique in one prominent aspect. Scattered among the mannequins in B&D devices were ordinary hot water bottles and Fleet enema kits. Tourist articles I’d read mentioned the German preference for toilets with special shelves designed to collect shit. Much has also been written about the contrasting German obsession with cleanliness and feces which Freud first described as the controlling behavior of the “anal retentive”. On Friedrichstrasse, common drugstore laxatives were alluring sex toys. 

Heading south from a concentration of S&M shops at its intersection with Leipziger Strasse, Friedrichstrasse crosses Checkpoint Charlie where East German State Security, known as Stasi, once passed life and death judgement on every aspect of human behavior, a nexus of sex and control. As the German-born Henry Kissinger said, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” 

After being immersed for a few days in such intense energy, I began to crave a toke or two just to lighten up. The Hemp activists I contacted would have some marijuana but we weren’t scheduled to meet until midway through my visit so I opted to try a high profile sales spot I’d found online. 

The Kottbusser U-bahn station, located in an old section of the Mitte district, is known for Turkish hash trafficking. I expected that transactions there would be similar to those among strangers in most public places, quick and subdued. My greatest concern was that I wouldn’t be able to identify the dealers so I practiced some German slang (Etwas zum kiffen?) in case they needed prompting.

Entering the underground passage to Kottbusser station, my concerns were immediately replaced by an onslaught of offers. Swarming with customers and dealers, the tunnel vibrated with haggling in business English as hands full of hash bars were waved in my face. Tempting me to part with cash, prices dropped within seconds from 20 Euros for one bar - to 15 Euros for a bar and a half - to 10 Euros for two bars. Exchanging 10 Euros for more hashish than I’d ever owned, I quickly returned to the relative calm of street traffic above. 

The bars were each about three inches long, half an inch wide, and as rigid as metal. As I later discovered, the hash probably contained lead to make it heavier which also explained the consistency. Back in my room, I chipped off crumbs of hash and rolled it with tobacco from cheap cigarettes. My contrivance worked but struggling for a drag of contraband near the remains of the Berlin Wall wasn’t the high I wanted. 

Meeting the German drug policy activists was a heartening contrast to my Turkish retail hash experience. I connected with them in the Berlin Hemp Museum which is also home the Hemp Parade (Hanfparade), the largest annual legalization demonstration in Europe. The basement of the Museum served as an air raid shelter in two World Wars. I spent the evening in that former shelter, smoking marijuana from old Chinese porcelain pipes with people I had just meet in a foreign country. And felt perfectly at home. 

Our conversation centered on International drug policy, as they educated me about US responsibility for creating and maintaining the global “War on Drugs”. Steffen Geyer, a well-known German activist, summed up the situation by saying, “The US invented the War on Drugs. Now it must invent the solution to ending it. The whole world is waiting. Legalize it for us, please!” 

At the close of the evening, my hosts gave me a small supply of locally grown product and advised me to discard the Turkish hash because of contaminants. I asked about another supply source I’d seen on the web, a bar called Zapata, but none of the activists had been there. Out of simple curiosity, I set out for a visit the next day. 

Oranienburger Strasse in the Mitte district, not far from my hotel, was the acknowledged center of the city’s cool factor. An online “underground” guide recommended Zapata im Tacheles at Oranienburger Strasse 54 as one of the most reliable places to score hash and marijuana in Berlin. Of course, there were rules of engagement. To indicate you were looking to score: sit alone at the bar, order red wine, wait to be approached. Traveling alone and preferring red wine, these were rules I was already following. 

A large Medieval Spanish coat of arms marked the entrance to Zapata in a nest of squatting tenements. I arrived around ten in the evening, too early by Berlin standards, so was conveniently alone at the bar. Soon after ordering a house rotwein, a voice behind me in British English said, “Pardon me, Madame. May I take this seat beside you?” 

He stood well over six feet tall and was thin but moved with the confident strength of a dancer. With the exception of a red shirt, his clothes and riding boots were black, including a leather duster that nearly touched the floor. Dark straight hair was slicked back from a high forehead that topped a long triangular face. A narrow beard framed the acute angle of his chin. Despite the formidable outfit, I was softened by the impeccable politeness, the flattery of focused attention. Without hesitation I said, “Yes!”

With a slight bow at the waist, he introduced himself as Jack. His companion, a long haired dachshund, was appropriately called Blackie. I felt an immediate obligation to reciprocate his civility. After telling him my name, he began to weave an interrogation during which I confided to being an American tourist traveling alone for the first time. When I mentioned that Zapata seemed to be a smoker friendly bar, his eyes locked onto mine. “I understand what you want”, he said. The scenario proceeded just as it was described online. My expectations had been met and I forgot I was talking to a stranger. 

He led me into a large room behind the bar, scattered with versions of old wooden chairs and round cafe tables. Choosing one closest to us, we sat and continued to talk as he constructed two long spliffs laden with hashish. He spoke as smoothly as he rolled. His English was perfected by years of living in London and traveling in the US. We shared favorite aspects of the same American cities.  Our conversation could have taken place between friends reunited after a long absence. It was a beautiful Fall evening. He suggested we take a walk. 

Outside Zapata, he guided me down the street with a hand gently placed on my back. Lighting the spliff, he bent toward me while offering it and began a kind of animated storytelling that required all my attention to graciously appreciate. 

Absorbed in hypnotic imagination, his monologue turned to details of his exquisite apartment, how it was heaven just being there, how friends were always welcome to stay, and how I was now, of course, a friend. He bent closer, like a lover about to share a secret, and slipped his arm around mine. It felt like the hasp of a lock had snapped shut. My eyes glanced at the foreign and deserted scene around me. The spell was broken. Fear shot blood to my head. His arm tightened around mine as we proceeded toward whatever end he had planned. 

Realizing that panic would probably not be my salvation, I remained attached while my mind coursed through options. Once again distracted from my surroundings, I didn’t see a young man coming toward us until we nearly collided. He shouted “Fraulein!!” into my ear and it was like an escape hatch tore open. I yanked my arm free and spun around to follow the young man at a safe distance until finding a familiar street that lead to my hotel. I couldn’t explain what had happened but felt lucky to be looking back at it. With my mind still numb the next day, I took comfort in my favorite form of refuge - film.

Filmhaus, Berlin’s Museum of Film and Television, is housed in the Sony Centre, a spiraling mountain of glass and steel in Potsdamer Platz, the historic heart of the city. The stars of German Cinema, Marlene Dietrich, Robert Wiene, and even Leni Riefenstahl, have whole rooms in the Filmhaus dedicated to their work, but Fritz Lang is remembered with special reverence. M, Lang’s masterwork that introduced Germany to the talking film, is screened in continuous rotation. Based on an actual series of child murders, it was produced and premiered in Berlin in 1931 and is credited as being the first Film Noir.

M opens with a child singing “Just you wait a little while. The nasty man in black will come. With his little chopper, he will chop you up.” That is followed by the scene of a mother in a clean, well-ordered kitchen, carefully arranging a table setting for her child, soon to be a victim. A police detective investigating the murder says, “A mother’s first duty is to guard her children from the danger that always threatens and is often hidden in some attractive bait.” In 1937, Lang told a reporter that he made the film "to warn mothers about neglecting children." But it was also a veiled warning of the growing Nazi threat, and I was reminded of Jack the night before in the shadow world between attraction and control. 

Enchantment is not just a word used in fairy tales. It is real and dangerous and easily conjured in a naive trust of authority, civility and form. Edward Bernays, the Viennese-born “father of public relations” called it, “the engineering of consent”. I woke up, grew up, was forever changed by Berlin. It is a place with much to teach about being lulled in layers of illusion and the need to stay alert.

Time Will Tell ~ A Christmas Memory

The Christmas of 1959 in Butte Montana did not hold much hope of being merry. My father had been out of work on a labor strike since August. The thirty dollars in picket money he got each week from the union was barely enough to cover the cost of food. When Christmas arrived with the strike still holding strong, it was clear that the only gift we all would be grateful to get was a single Christmas turkey. 

The cultural center of Meaderville, our neighborhood in Butte, was Saint Helena’s Catholic Church. The building itself was not much bigger than the houses that surrounded it, but it was always so packed with people that it seemed like a cathedral in my five-year-old mind. The priest, Father Gannon, was a big man both physically and spiritually. He drove a Volkswagen bug that was heavily dented because he had a hard time turning his body to check for nearby obstacles. The bug was filled to overflowing with him as the only passenger. 

Having been raised in a working-class Catholic family himself, he understood that the mystique of a traditional Latin Mass was probably the only entertainment most parishioners had in their lives. He drew us into the drama by creating excuses for us to participate. Midnight Mass at Christmas was always his most ambitious production. 

A nearly life size manger scene dominated the altar. The beatific gaze on the faces of all the figures was focused on an empty crib. A statue of the baby Jesus arrived during Midnight Mass on a red satin pillow. Dressed in white flour sack Angel robes, trimmed and gusseted with golden Christmas tree garland, my cousin Vicky and I respectfully processed the Savior of the World on that red satin pillow down the center aisle. When we arrived at the manger, a dissonant but fervent Hallelujah chorus rose up from the crush of parishioners as Father Gannon placed the baby Jesus in the crib while Vicky and I hovered nearby shedding glitter. 

Since the ’59 Christmas was so economically bleak, Father Gannon augmented the Mass by engaging the whole congregation in a lighted candle parade around the outside of the church. Music was added. Lights around the manger got new tinfoil reflectors. Saint Helena was throwing a birthday party. 

My father grew up living next door to a convent. He was the altar and errand boy of choice for both the priests and the nuns. His visits to the convent were so frequent that he claimed a casual intimacy with the nuns by seeing them so often in their underwear. This intimacy, he said, led him to the conclusion that he had seen about all the Church had to offer and none of it interested him. Outside of attending a mandatory wedding or funeral, he never set foot in any church, Catholic or otherwise. His version of Sunday worship was showing up at the back entrance to his favorite bar before the front door could legally open. 

Dad dropped me, my younger sister, my mother and her sister off at the church just as the candle procession was forming. Then said he was going home to make sure Santa didn’t get stuck in the chimney. Jackie, my younger sister, reminded him that we didn’t have a chimney. My mother said that didn’t matter much because Santa would have a hard time finding the house this year anyway. Jackie looked anxious about what that could mean, but didn’t ask. Dad said he’d be back to get us when we came out of church. There wasn’t much snow on the ground and the air was warm and still. 

The added elements in the Mass got rave reviews from the congregation. Father Gannon led us through, what seemed like, every verse of every known Christmas Carol. By the time the Mass ended it was well past one in the morning yet everyone left the church feeling revived. I was all distracted by compliments for my portrayal of such a well-behaved angel. 

During the Mass, warm winter clouds covered the surrounding hills of sulphur yellow mine waste with a deep unblemished blanket of soft white snow. It glistened in the moonlight from a sky now open to the stars. It looked like the set of a perfect Christmas movie. 

My father wasn’t there when we got out of church. My aunt, who probably loved my father more than my mother did, made excuses for his being late. We waited quietly for a few minutes until my mother shook off her denial and announced that he’d probably fallen asleep and wasn’t coming. “So”, she said, “It’s a beautiful night. We can walk.” 

We made the first tracks through that new fallen snow. We stopped periodically while Jackie made snow angels. As we walked, my mother and aunt told us about the Italian version of Santa, a kindly old woman called “La Befana”. Her legend says that on January 6th, the Feast of Epiphany, her own child died. So now she goes out every year looking for the Christ child to give him the gifts that would have gone to her son. Every year she has no luck in finding the Christ child so she leaves the gifts for all the children of the world. Each of the seven children in my mother’s family got a piece of fruit as their gift from “La Befana”. In prosperous years, this was an orange. Butte Montana in the 1920’s was weeks away from the nearest citrus grove. An orange was candied gold. 

Between stories, we sang Christmas Carols that chimed against the crystalline air. In the shared experience of a pristine landscape, bathed in the starlight of a dawning Christmas morning, we became extensions of each other and the universe. My aunt, who never went beyond a fifth-grade education, looked at my sister and me and said, “This night will never leave you. A good memory is a glimpse of everlasting life.” And the years have proven her right. Whenever I imagine Heaven, it’s a lot like that Christmas night.