Monday afternoon, four
days â€™til Christmas Eve.
â€śJingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the
way . . .â€ť
Flight One-oh-one to Boston is cancelled. Passengers are
directed to the
information desk for further instructions.
â€śJingle Bells, Jingle
Bells, Jingle all the way . . .â€ť
Six-seven-three to Syracuse is cancelled. Passengers are
directed to the
information desk for further instructions.
â€śJingle Bells, Jingle
Bells, Jingle all the way . . . â€ť
Flight Nine-eight-five to Bangor, Maine is cancelled.
directed to the information desk for further
â€śJingle Bells, Jingle
Bells, Jingle all the way . . .â€ť
on the staticky
public address system went with cancellations of what
appeared to be all
northbound flights in the face of a coming blizzard. The
taking off today from Philadelphia International Airport
headed south, or to the western U.S. Since the southbound
headed this way and would probably hit full-force
tomorrow, chances were
there wouldnâ€™t be any northbound flights tomorrow, either.
backdrop to the
distressing announcements, speakers in the airport
terminal piped out,
over and over and over, like a stuck record, a bouncy
version of Jingle
Bells. Meanwhile, holiday travelersâ€”those not stunned over
land-locked at this all-important time of the yearâ€”laughed
out to strangers with jolly â€śMerry Christmasâ€ť greetings as
along toward their designated gates.
particular was feeling less than jolly. â€śI hate snow. I
hate that sorry
song. In fact, Iâ€™m beginning to hate Christmas.â€ť Navy
Merrick slunk lower in his Naugahyde booth and glared out
the window of
the airport coffee shop. He watched grimly as fat
beginning to come down like celestial post-it
notes . . . reminders that
mere mortals and their technological advances, such as
be frozen in place on a whim of the gods.
midst of Samâ€™s
grumbling to himself, Lt. Andrew Oâ€™Dell slid into the
opposite booth and
handed him one of the two cups of coffee in his hands, the
smiling. â€śNow, now, Slick. Since when did you become the
Christmas Happiness? Or rather, the Blue angel of
un-Happiness?â€ť he corrected, staring pointedly at the
blue and yellow Blue Angel badge with the F/A Hornet Jets
in a diamond
formation that was positioned proudly on Samâ€™s
uniform . . . just as it
was on his.
current members of the renowned six-man Blue Angels Flight
Squadron. Considered the best of the best, these jet
high-precision, aerobatic maneuvers in breath-taking,
razzle dazzle air
shows across the world. Although their flying talents were
Blue Angelsâ€™ main role was to serve as role models and
ambassadors for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.
for you to say,
Andy. Youâ€™re not gonna be stuck in the City of Brotherly
Love for the
next day or two. Youâ€™re almost home . . .
just a short puddle jump to
didnâ€™t look a bit
sympathetic . . . probably because his
thoughts were consumed with his
fianceeâ€”a dairy farmer, of all thingsâ€”whom he hadnâ€™t seen
months. He and Andy had come up from Pensacola, homebase
to the Blue
Angels, less than an hour ago. It should have been a short
them. Then, after Christmas, theyâ€™d travel to NAF, the
Facility, in El Centro, California, where the squadron
â€śKnowing you, Slick,
youâ€™ll find something to occupy your time,â€ť Andy said in
Navy nugget suffering from a bit of misplaced hero
on cue, an
American Airlines flight attendant walked by, gave Sam a
once-over, then flashed him a not-so-subtle smile that
â€śHey, sailor, Iâ€™d like to know you better,â€ť before sitting
companions at a nearby table.
hooted in an undertone.
uniform. Women have this thing about men in a killer
You donâ€™t see
them going ga-ga over me, do you?â€ť
questioned with a raised eyebrow, even as he instinctively
womanâ€™s once-over. His slow, lazy perusal registered her
trim figure and
attractive facial features and the fact that she could
pass for a
red-headed version of Cameron Diaz. Even better, her legs
were a shade
longer than a Hornet jet stream. Still, he turned back to
with an â€śOh, well.â€ť shrug. Reciprocating her smile would
amount to an
invitation . . . one he was not interested
in. In fact, heâ€™d become
bored with the whole dating game for a long time now.
wasnâ€™t a vain
person . . . well, not too
vain . . . but heâ€™d had no trouble attracting
females since he was thirteen years old and discovered
that his dark
hair, blue eyes and tall frame were assets to be milked
for all their
worth. But it wasnâ€™t just his looks. Hell, heâ€™d gotten
charm down to an
art form before heâ€™d turned ten, and earned his nickname
of Slick which
had stuck all these years, right down to being his call
name in the
Blues. Yep, charm had been a necessary survival skill when
law and criminal elements in the inner city neighborhood
his early years, heâ€™d been raisedâ€”or, rather, ignoredâ€”by a
mother, whoâ€™d been practically a kid herself.
now Sam was
feeling all charmed out. He didnâ€™t give a flying fig about
another womanâ€”gorgeous or not. He was tired. Perhaps it
was this forced
trip back to Snowdon, Maine . . . a place
he had studiously avoided for
fourteen years, ever since his high school graduation. He
had no choice
now, though. His old mentor, George Garrison, was getting
he couldnâ€™t let him down. Heâ€™d promised he would be there
Eve, and he would be, by damn . . .
blizzard or not.
oh, man! I canâ€™t
imagine what it must be like to have
women . . . and men, too . . . do
double takes when you pass by . . . just
because youâ€™re so good looking.
God, I envy you.â€ť Though he was in perfect physical
required by the Blue Angels regimen, Andy would never be
handsome . . . not with all those freckles
and his gap-toothed, David
Letterman smile and a cowlick sticking up on his crown, in
spite of his
thirty-two, but he felt old compared to the exuberant,
and over-talkative Andy, who was a mere twenty-six. Andy
had just joined
the Blues this past year, while Sam was in his third year
Blues . . . including ten years with the
Navy, after college.
a deep breath,
he said, â€śAndy, I envy you.â€ť
Andy was clearly
pictures of you and Cindy . . . and the
farm she inherited when her
parents died. You can tell, just by looking at the glow on
her face, how
much she loves you. And that farmhouse will be perfect
when you start to
raise a family. Hell, youâ€™ve already got a readymade
family with those
younger sisters sheâ€™s helping to raise.â€ť He shrugged, at a
explain himself further. â€śYouâ€™ve got it all.â€ť
bobbed up and down a few times before he choked out,
â€śYeah, I guess I
me what your
Christmas will be like,â€ť Sam encouraged, wanting to take
away from himself.
smiled and his
face lit up like a Christmas tree. â€śCindy and I both come
families. I have three brothers and two sisters. Sheâ€™s got
sisters. Then, there are lots of aunts and uncles and
Loud, thatâ€™s the best way to describe our Christmases. And
Plenty of good, homegrown food. Always a stuffed turkey
baked ham. My mother makes the pies . . .
eight of them . . . two each
of pumpkin, apple, mince meat and lemon meringue. Aunt
Nellie makes the
cakes; my favorite is Devilâ€™s Food with boiled icing.
Yummm. We probably
never got as many big ticket items as other kids did, but
I canâ€™t recall
thought for a
moment, still smiling, â€śItâ€™s a happy time.â€ť
exactly how Sam
had always imagined a family Christmas should be. The
Waltons . . . only
about you, Slick?
What do you do on Christmas?â€ť
tilted his head
quizzically, not sure if he was kidding or not.
this for a dose
of reality? My earliest Christmas memory is of me grabbing
the bell from
the Salvation Army lady, whacking her over the head with
stealing all the money in the kettle.â€ť
narrowed his eyes
at him. â€śExactly how old were you?â€ť
times in rapid progression. What had come over him to
reveal a memory
heâ€™d thought long-buried? Finally, when Andy refused to
silence as a reply, he told him, â€śEight.â€ť
was a long time
ago. No big deal!â€ť he said gruffly.
seemed about to
say more, then cut himself off. â€śHey, I have an idea. Why
donâ€™t you come
home with me for Christmas? Good grief! My cousin Valerie
ga-ga over you. Sheâ€™s a massage therapist.â€ť Andy
laughed. â€śI wish I
could. Especially with a ga-ga massage therapist.
But I have to
be in Maine by Friday.â€ť
put his hand on
Samâ€™s forearm. â€śYou seem really down in the dumps. Itâ€™s
not just the
weather delay, is it?â€ť
cell phone rang then. He was spared from answering Andyâ€™s
question . . .
a procedure which would involve even more painful
â€śMerrick here,â€ť Sam
said, flicking up the lid of his cell phone with a thumb
and holding the
mini console to his ear.
â€śSamuel! Itâ€™s so good
to hear your voice,â€ť a jovial voice spoke out.
to be George.
He was the only one who could get away with calling him by
could be heard the loud barking of
dogs . . . lots of dogs. George was a
veterinarian, and the man who had practically saved his
life as a
wayward teenager, along with the lives of his best
buddies, Kevin â€śJDâ€ť
Wilder and Stan Kijewski, fellow
inmates . . . uh,
residents . . . of
the White Mountain Home for Boys in Snowdon, Maine. Kevin,
a former cop
and currently a D.C. private eye, and Stan, until recently
football player with the San Diego Typhoons, were supposed
to meet up
with him in Maine.
could pretty well
guess why George was calling now. He had asked the three
of them to come
back to Snowdon this week to be best men at his wedding.
Now, George was
checking up on him . . . like he always
had. â€śWhen can Molly and I
expect you? Chowderâ€™s on the stove, just the way you
always liked it.
The weatherâ€™s getting a mite rough up this way, and I
wanted to make
sure we get to the airport in time to pick you up.â€ť
Georgeâ€™s deep Maine
burr was a welcome melody to Samâ€™s ears. Furthermore, â€śa
mite roughâ€ť to
a Maine old-timer meant ten-below temperatures, wind chill
equal to a
North Pole gale, and snow to the
rooftops . . . what the rest of the
world considered emergency crisis conditions.
George, have you
turned on the TV today?â€ť
poodle was constipated again. I keep telling Mable not to
give her dog
Gentry still has
that poodle? Bella was her name, right?â€ť Sam had worked
Georgeâ€™s kennels as a teenager that he knew his regular
after all these years.
Bella. Musâ€™ be
moreâ€™n fifteen years old. But what was that you said about
Oh. I asked if
youâ€™ve turned on the TV today.â€ť
was a long sigh
on Georgeâ€™s end.â€ť Donâ€™t tell me, youâ€™re on TV again.
youâ€™ve got more moxie than good sense. I couldnâ€™t believe
somersault you did in your aeroplane over the White House
last summer. I
hope youâ€™re not gettinâ€™ yourself in trouble again with my
smiled, loving the
way Georgeâ€™s conversations tended to ramble. He even loved
the sounds of
all the yips and woofs and bow-wowâ€™s and meows that always
surround him. Most of all, he loved the way George was
him, as if he were still â€śSlick Merrick,
Teenager-In-Troubleâ€ť . . .
â€śGeorge, you are in
the midst of a major storm, and itâ€™s headed this way. Iâ€™m
stuck at the
airport in Philly, with all flights northbound being
cancelled for the
time being, possibly the next two days.â€ť
was a long pause
of silence. â€śDoes that mean youâ€™re not coming?â€ť Georgeâ€™s
voice was soft
when he spoke, and full of disappointment. Just like it
was the time Sam
had shoplifted those condoms from a convenience store when
fourteen . . . or when heâ€™d gotten picked
up by the police for speeding
when he was fifteen . . . or when heâ€™d
broken both legs skiing down
Suicide Run after an ice storm when he was sixteen.
â€śNo . . . no, Iâ€™ll be
there. I mean, Iâ€™m almost certain Iâ€™ll be there. Itâ€™s just
a delay for
on a minute.â€ť
George could be heard talking to a female in the room with
his fiancee. Finally, he came back and informed Sam
came up with a perfect solution for you.â€ť He paused in a
before suggesting, â€śYou can hitch a ride on the Santa
the hell is a
Santa Brigade?â€ť Almost immediately, he added, â€śI beg your
Old habits died hard. George never tolerated bad language.
Santa Brigade is
a troupe of volunteers from Winter Haven. And theyâ€™re
headed back up
this way any day now. They better be. Theyâ€™re all invited
porchbreaker of a weddinâ€™ celebration weâ€™re planning.â€ť
â€śWinter Haven? The
retirement community?â€ť Good Lord! What did a retirement
to do with him?
For years, a
bunch of the residents have been dressing up as Santas,
kids hereabouts with magic and stuff. Then, three years
ago, they rigged
up this special bus so they could travel down the eastern
visiting homeless shelters and such for a couple weeks
Theyâ€™re famous, boy. Havenâ€™t you ever heard of â€™em?â€ť
paused to listen to
the female in the room again. Before finishing. â€śMolly
just reminded me.
They were on Good Morning America a few years back.
â€™em? Diane Sawyer sat on Morey Goldsteinâ€™s lap. That old
have a head so big when he gets back here his hat wonâ€™t
remember Diane Sawyer. She passed out in a Blue Angels
plane â€™bout the
same time. I saw it myself on the TV.â€ť
braced an elbow on
the table and put his forehead in his palm. Between
and the approaching snow storm, Sam felt the mother of all
beginning to throb behind his eyes. â€śGeorge, what do all
Santas have to do with me and my cancelled flight?â€ť
careful how you
use that word geriatric, boy. Iâ€™m in that category now,
Santas, as you call them, are the answer to your prayer,
What prayer? Call
me crazy, but I donâ€™t recall praying for a long
time . . . probably
since the time my mother told me she was abandoning me
when I was ten.
Sam shook his head, hard, to clear it. He was becoming
theyâ€™re at the Good Shepherd Shelter in Allentown,
right down the road from you.â€ť
hate to tell you
this, but Allentown isnâ€™t down the road from
whispered some specifics to him. Then Sam informed George,
two-hour drive under good conditions.â€ť
right over him. â€śMollyâ€™s ringing up their bus driver right
remember Betty Morgan.â€ť
Morgan is the
bus driver? The Betty Morgan? I thought she was a
nicknamed Betty Bad-Ass by him and his buddies, had caught
one time behind her fatherâ€™s garage with Sally Sue
Simpson. Sheâ€™d given
him a lecture that day, complete with blue language that
his face red in memory, on the need for always carrying
And she hadnâ€™t been referring to boots, either.
â€śRetired. Now sheâ€™s a
NASCAR mechanic . . . famous,
actually . . . and a bus driver for the
brigade on her off-time. Orders everyone around like a
Whatâ€™s that you say, Molly? Oh, Betty wants to know if you
can you be in
Allentown by fifteen hundred hours?â€ť
canâ€™t be there in
one hour,â€ť he replied testily, glancing at his wrist watch
some quick mental calculations. â€śItâ€™s already two oâ€™clock.
I have no
means of transportation handy. Thereâ€™s not enough time.
weatherâ€™s getting bad.â€ť Besides, I have no desire to
ride for a day
or more in a crowded bus with a bunch of senior citizen
Santas through a
blizzard. Not to mention Betty freakinâ€™ Bad-Ass Morgan.
give me a more up-to-date lecture on condoms.
ignored all his
protests, and was giving him the number of Bettyâ€™s cell
phone, which Sam
jotted down on a napkin.
let me down,â€ť
George said then. The wily old fox was manipulating him to
just like he always had.
try to find a
way to get there in a day or two, George, but Iâ€™m not
coming on a Santa
bus,â€ť he pronounced firmly.
donâ€™t rule it
out. There are no guarantees that the storm wonâ€™t get
worse, and youâ€™ll
be stuck in Philadelphia through Christmas. Talk to Betty.
See what you
not coming on a
you could hire
a taxi to Allentown.â€ť
taxi? Is he nuts?
â€śIâ€™m not coming on a Santa bus.â€ť
reminded me about somethinâ€™. The director of Winter Haven
is on that
So? â€śIâ€™m not
coming on a Santa bus.â€ť
know who that is,
donâ€™t care if
itâ€™s Julia Roberts. â€śIâ€™m not coming on a Santa bus.â€ť
wind was knocked
out his stomach, and his heart raced wildly. Jet pilots
and especially Blue Angels who performed tight maneuvers
gravitational pull, were taught to lift weights regularly
and learn how
to tense their abdominal muscles as if to prepare for a
It was called â€śhooking.â€ť Without it, they might lose
essence, the news about Reba hit Sam like a lethal
G-force, and heâ€™d had
no chance to â€śhook.â€ť
Through discipline and
occasionally alcohol, Sam had kept thoughts of Reba banked
recesses of his memory. Now, they all came rushing
forward, like a burst
Reba . . .
Reba . . . Reba . . .
was a low blow,
George,â€ť he said when he could finally speak with a
modicum of calmness.
All I said was
that Reba was on the bus. I know you had a crush on her
when you were
Yep, George is
manipulating me, bigtime. â€śA crush? I was crazy about
ya mighta told
her that . . . before you skipped town like
a cat with its tail on
years ago. I was headed for the Naval Academy,â€ť he pointed
took several deep breaths to control his temper, before
married, George. Why rake up dead ashes?â€ť
H. Merrick! You are ten kinds of a fool. Reba Anderson got
moreâ€™n ten years ago. I donâ€™t think she was married for
before she discovered that Whitby boy was light in the
Reba isnâ€™t married?
he marveled. Thank you, God! Apparently, he hadnâ€™t
to pray, after all.
feeling swept over Sam then. It took him several moments
to realize that
it was happiness, the kind of happiness a little kid
awakening on Christmas morning, when he believes that
smiling like an idiot before he spoke into the phone
again, â€śIt appears
Iâ€™ll be riding on the Santa bus, after all, George.â€ť