I’ll Be Late for the Christmas Party

I live in a modest home, alone; I inherited from my mom. It’s in the small, cozy town of Arlington, Washington, which is about thirty minutes from the Boeing aircraft factory in Everett. My step father was the swing shift supervisor charged with the assembly of nose cones for jetliners at Boeing, and my mother worked within the payroll department.

I was a tall, lanky, studious kid, lacking in athletic skills, with the acne inherited from dad which plagued me throughout school, and kept me from attracting girls. The only date I ever had was with a foreign exchange student at the Senior Prom, who dumped early in the evening to hang out with the “jocks”.

Mom and dad were high school sweethearts and married after graduation from high school in the sixties. Rather than be separated by the draft, they both volunteered to join the Air Force who promised to station them together. My mom was an enlisted clerk-typist, and my father flew on “Huey” helicopters, rescuing downed pilots. Dad dreamed of becoming a Seattle firefighter, completed his examinations, and was scheduled for the next years training class after receiving his Honorable Discharge from the Air Force. Mom made it home but dad was killed in action. Mom loved dad, and spoke of him frequently. He was kind, gentlemanly, strong, smart, but she used to tell me about the awful jokes his crew told him because of his acne scars,

“Holms, you don’t need a gun to scare away the “VC”, all they have to do is get a look at your ugly, scarred mug!”

My dad loved his crew and never took their ribbing seriously. I was born about six months after mom arrived home, and was discharged from the Air Force. Mom was tough and smart. She immediately applied for a “VA” home loan, requiring no down payment, and found us a cute, comfortable, home in Arlington. My mom wanted the best for us. She only earned a high school diploma, and realized she needed more skills to land a well paying job. She took advantage of her “GI Bill” benefits taking bookkeeping courses at the local community college, while I was with her mother or in childcare. Mom started in the secretarial pool at Boeing, and was promoted quickly through the ranks, into the position of “Director of Payroll”, reporting to the CFO.

Mom met my step father, Mel, who was a hard working, blue collar employee at Boeing with almost twenty years under his belt. Although Mel was short, stout, pudgy, and balding, mom was lonely, and Mel’s work ethic reminded her of dad, so they began dating, and later, decided to marry. Mel spent his days uncomfortably positioned within the nose cones of jetliners, soldering electrical components. I believe the cramped conditions caused him acute back pain, and the soldering fumes damaged his brain. He never missed a day of work, and accepted all the overtime that was available.

I believe the back pain, fumes, and the many hours working in cramped conditions, changed him from the decent man my mom loved, into an angry monster. He would clock out after work, head to the tavern with his buddies, get drunk, head home, and often scold my mother for the food she had meticulously placed on the table hours earlier, which was no longer warm. He screamed at mom,

“Why the hell isn’t my supper hot?

“Mel, honey, I expected you home by six thirty. I’m not running a diner!”

“What the hell did you say to me woman? Sitting all day on your ass, high atop headquarters, with all the big shots, put twenty pounds on you. I can’t stand the sight of you anymore!”

Mom began crying. Mel approached mom with his fist clenched,

“Don’t you ever disrespect my mother, you bastard! I’m going to teach you a lesson in manners!”

“Why don’t you try and give me my first lesson, pimple punk!”

I grabbed a fork, ready to leap from my seat at the dinner table and pummel Mel.

Mom placed her hands firmly upon my shoulders preventing me to rise from the dinner table.

“It’s all right, honey. Mel is just tired and hungry. Go sit in your recliner, Mel. I’ll reheat your meal and bring it to you on a tray.”

Mel stumbled into the living room and fell into his recliner, falling asleep.

“I hate that bastard, mom. You don’t have to take any more crap from him!”

“It’s between Mel, and me, honey. You stay out of it. I don’t want anything jeopardizing your bright future.”

Mom kissed me on the cheek, and retreated to the kitchen.

Mel didn’t spare any contempt for his stepson, often hurling insults at me,

“Why don’t I ever see you on a date? Is it that pimple scarred face frightening the girls away, or are you gay?”

I never burdened mom by telling her about Mel’s insults, but I feared sooner or later, I’d have to defend mom from a beating. I don’t know why mom stayed with him. Mel and I seldom spoke with each other. I realized he was jealous knowing a white collar, well paid job, was waiting for me at Boeing as mom reported directly to the CFO. Mel would often look over my text books as I studied accounting, and sarcastically remark,

“Text books are meant for the dunces at headquarters who could learn a thing or two from the men completing the hard work on the factory floor!”

Mel accidently started a fire while soldering wires, the flames rose so quickly, it melted the nose cone into a closed coffin, where he burned to death. Rescue was impossible. It took a team of workers two hours just to open the melted sarcophagus and retrieve his charred body. Mom kept her feelings about the loss of Mel to herself. I suspect she was glad to be rid of him.

I won a full academic scholarship to the nearby University of Washington where I majored in business administration and accounting. I enjoyed the natural beauty of Seattle and spent my weekends hiking and exploring the beautiful woods and mountains. The fragrance of the tall trees, fauna, and sparklingly streams made a lasting impression on me.

I graduated with honors from U of W and my mother already had a junior auditor position lined up for me at Boeing. I was good with accounting and my mother pleaded with me to join Boeing, but I didn’t like the noise of the Boeing factory floor, smell of chemicals, barking loudspeakers, and the tight quarters the employees worked within. At my mom’s urging, I agreed to meet with her boss, the CFO of Boeing. He was a tall, slender, handsome, brilliant, aerospace engineer, much younger than I would have expected. He was also kind, considerate, but tested my ability to work with financial reports. I passed his testing with ease and humility.

“Hutch’s Lumber Company”, was located in a nondescript, midrise office building with a commanding view of the port, where, from the President’s office, Mr. Hutchison could watch his lumber being loaded onto truck trailers, rail cars, and cargo ships destined for locations throughout the US, and the world for the construction of new homes and buildings.

Mr. Hutchinson survived Iwo Jima, and, after discharge from the Marine’s, returned to his native Seattle. Armed only with a buzz saw, axe, and a flatbed lumber truck, he leased forest land suitable for cutting quality lumber, began cutting trees, and selling them to the mills. His timing was perfect as post WW2 America was experiencing a home building boom. He soon bought the land and many additional acres surrounding it, in addition to building his own milling operation, resulting in higher profits. Within a decade, Hutch’s Lumber Company was one of the largest employers in Seattle. Mr. Hutchinson had a reverence for the forest. He was always considerate to cut trees only in areas where the ecosystem wouldn’t be upset, and would plant saplings for future cutting. There wasn’t a name for it at the time, but he was the forerunner of “sustainability”.

After I left the Boeing interview, and was awarded a job offer, I hit the freeway and found myself behind a bright red “Hutch’s Lumber Company” truck loaded with neatly stacked, freshly cut lumber. I was curious, and wanted to see what the lumber business was all about. Hutch’s Lumber Company was a prestigious company in Seattle, and I always admired their bright red flat bed trucks hauling neatly stacked lumber or recently felled trees. I followed the truck to its headquarters. I asked the guard at the gate if I could visit the employment office. It was refreshing to be free from the classroom, the confinement of an aerospace factory, and witness the hard working men and women, wearing overalls, gloves, silver hard hats, whistling, joking, and ribbing each other, as they cut, loaded, and performed their work outside in the lumber yard, rain or shine, warm or cold.

I was told to wait outside a tiny, one room office with the door marked, “Employment”. Behind the door, I could make out the faint sound of a man “making time” with a woman on the telephone. I braced myself in my “Sears best” suit when I heard the phone slam and the door open. I was greeted by Nathan Andrew Hutchison, whose card read, “Personnel Department Chief”. Nathan was handsome, tall, blond, athletic, and was Mr. Hutchinson’s only son. Nathan invited me to sit, quickly reviewed my sparse resume, but his interest picked up when he read, “University of Washington graduate.”

“Hello, fellow “Husky!” I graduated last year. Man, a double major in business and accounting; you took college seriously. I majored in “frat parties” and barely graduated. Why do you want to work here? There’s plenty of work for an “accounting” guy in the fancy, glass office towers in Seattle?”

“I enjoy the forest and have a reverence for the beautiful trees, streams, and rivers of Seattle. I’ve always appreciated your company’s stewardship of the woods.”

“What’s your ultimate goal, “Edgar Holms?”

“I’d like to work my way into the accounting department and make a positive contribution to your company’s “bottom line”.

“I like you Holms but my pop has a hard and fast rule about new hires which usually results in smart candidates like you turning and running.”

“What’s that, Mr. Hutchison?”

“You’re required to spend a year working alongside the “hard hats” out in the lumber yard. You’ll wear a hard hat, overalls, gloves, and load or ship lumber for one year. We pay well, offer great benefits, overtime, but it can be grueling work, especially when we’re up against a deadline, or it’s raining and cold. If your foreman gives you the “thumbs up” after twelve months, I’ll promote you into headquarters. You can start tomorrow, but I’ve got to run now for an early dinner date with a former Husky cheerleader. Want the job? I need your answer now.”

“Thank you for the opportunity Mr. Hutchison. I’ll make you and the company proud!”

“I’m confidant you will, Holms. The shift starts at 6:00 am. Get yourself a pair of steel toed work boots, leather gloves, metal helmet, and dress for the changing Seattle weather conditions. Tell the guard at the gate, you’re there to see the Foreman, Mr. Rogers. Good luck.”

During my first six months, the work was grueling. Many a night, I’d skip dinner and go right to bed. I woke every morning at 4:30, grabbing my metal lunch box, lovingly prepared by mom the night before, and be out the door and on the freeway. Most days, the shift would extend hours after 4:00 pm quitting time, lasting late into the evening. The overtime was generous, and since I was living at home, my bank account was growing rapidly.

I enjoyed my work. I developed camaraderie with the hard working, less educated workers with large families whose livelihood depended upon their jobs. They taught me “tricks of the trade” on loading wood, driving a forklift, maneuvering a diesel truck with a flatbed trailer within tight quarters, but most of all, how to stay safe. There was a twenty year veteran of the company who was killed when an unsecured pile of wood fell off the trailer and crushed him to death.

We’d share stories at lunch, talk sports, and were a friendly team. I was always invited by the crew to join them for a beer at a nearby tavern after work, but I didn’t drink. They didn’t take offense when I declined their invitations.

In six months, my muscles grew, and my acne disappeared. I felt like a man. The crew referred to Nathan Andrew Hutchinson as “NAH” behind his back, because it was short for “Never Ass Hole” when somebody expected a raise, bonus, or submitted an idea for improving efficiency in the yard. The crew considered him a lazy, no talent, example of nepotism, and didn’t respect him. I refrained from referencing Nathan with disrespect.

The employees loved his father who started the company with only an ax, buzz saw, and a flatbed pickup truck. They enjoyed his surprise visits to the lumber yard to say “hello” to each crew member he knew by name. Mr. Hutchinson was in his nineties. He wasn’t a large man, hunched over from years of hard work, walking with a cane, and still had a full head of silver hair he combed back, likely with “old school” “Brylcreem” or “Vitalis”. He wore a neatly trimmed moustache and beard. Despite his age, he could still lend a hand, if necessary, including maneuvering the forklifts, and driving the lumber trucks towing trailers. He loved his business and his employees.

Inventory was maintained through a series of different colors painted on one end of the cord of lumber. Each color identified the quality, destination, or price of the cord. I also noticed the delivery orders, and scheduling of trips in and out of the yard, were completed on a clipboard with pen or pencil. It was the early days of computers and spreadsheet software, but in my spare time, I was able to convert many of the paper systems into software systems which quickly organized, calculated, and stored the data which could be emailed throughout the company, saving time and increasing efficiency. We began marking each cord of woood with an ID # rather than paint, which permitted greater accuracy in tracking and inventory control.

I was nearing my sixth month anniversary on the job, and the foreman, “Rogers” barked,

“Kid, you’re wanted in the President’s office. Don’t worry about cleaning up. Mr. Hutchinson respects lumber dust, grease, and mud on hard working employees. I’ve been advising him of your innovations and he wants to promote you. Don’t worry, kid, I’ve known “Hutch” for thirty years, and he’s a fair, no nonsense man. Whatever he asks you, give it to him straight, he’ll respect you, and you may not have to see my ugly mug again.”

“Thank you, Mr. Rogers, I’m on my way.”

“Kid, don’t forget your friends down here in the yard. Good luck, Edgar!”

I entered the lobby of the non-descript office building which was in keeping with Mr. Hutchinson’s prudent business practices. I was met by his secretary, and escorted directly to Mr. Hutchinson’s office. She knocked twice on the heavy, double, walnut doors,

“Who is it? What do you want?

“I’m here to deliver Edgar Holms, Sir.”

“Show him in!”

I entered Mr. Hutchinson’s office, the nerve center of a $200m per year in annual sales company. It was a sparse office with floor to ceilings windows, revealing all of the business operations within the lumber yard. I noticed Mr. Hutchinson’s son, Nathan Andrew Hutchinson, was in the office, sipping on a whiskey or bourbon remarking,

“Well done, Holms! You’re the first in the history of the company to be promoted so fast!”

Mr. Hutchinson rose from behind his desk, shook my hand firmly with his large, bear like paw, revealing a life of hard work,

“Take a seat, Edgar.”

I noticed a hand carved motto within his magnificent, walnut, executive desk,

“We help build the world!”

“I want to thank you for your inventory control innovations and promote you immediately into accounting. My son, Eddy, runs the department, and you’ll be working closely with him, and on occasion, with both of us. My secretary will discuss your raise, 401k, bonus, and other perks with you. Take the rest of the day off but show up tomorrow in a suit. Congratulations, son. We’ll be seeing more of each other.”

Nathan rose and walked me to the door, shook my hand, and said,

“Congratulations, Holms”.

He slammed the solid walnut double doors to the office, behind me.

The secretary was an older woman and kind,

“Congratulations, Edgar. You impressed Mr. Hutchinson. I’ve been working for him for over forty years, and he isn’t impressed easily. I’ll discuss your raise and other matters with you, tomorrow.”

As I waited for the elevator, I overheard Mr. Hutchinson yell at Nathan,

“Why the hell can’t you emulate that kid? Get out of here and let me work!”

When I hit the parking lot, I immediately called mom with the good news. She was proud of me as I could hear her silently cry.

It was about a year after my hiring; mom was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. I was called into the office of the Boeing CFO for whom my mother faithfully worked. He told me,

“Edgar, I personally arranged for your mother to be examined by the best cancer specialists in the Northwest. There’s nothing they can do for her but keep her comfortable. Brace yourself, they tell me she won’t last long.

I apologize but I have to discuss some of your family business affairs with you. Mel had a meager death benefit insurance policy. Upon examination of the policy, he had changed the Beneficiary from your mother, to a “shady” bookie in Vegas, I suspect he owed money, so there won’t be any insurance proceeds coming to you. Mel also had a union pension due his wife and yourself, but he borrowed against it without your mother’s knowledge, and unfortunately, the pension will be kept as repayment by the union.”

I want you to know that Boeing is paying all of the funeral expenses in recognition of her decades of hard work, but your mother instructed me to have her remains cremated, placed within an airtight box, and permanently welded into a discrete location inside one of our new airliners. It was your mom’s way of insuring she would be in constant motion around the world. I’ll make all of the arrangements when I hear of her passing. You’ll be invited to see her “seat” on the plane if that’s your wish.”

Edgar, you’re mother was an extraordinary employee. She often told me how proud she was of you, and I’ll miss her dearly. I want you to know there will always be a challenging position here at Boeing should you want it. I know Hutch personally, and I’ll have to engage in a fistfight with the old bastard to tear you away from him, but I’ll take my “lumps”.

Boeing has made arrangements to admit her, and cover all of the costs, into the finest hospice in the State. Your mother will live out her last days in luxury, like a “Queen”.

I’m sorry for your loss, Edgar. Goodbye, and good luck, son.”

Boeing admitted mom into to a beautiful hospice resembling a five star hotel with kind caregivers, and her window looked straight at Mount Rainier. Fresh flowers were sent every day with a kind note from her fellow employees, including her boss, and the President of Boeing. Her hospice suite was larger than our house. I’d visit her every day after work, leaving when she fell asleep, and on the weekends, until she became too exhausted to entertain me. The staff told me she stopped eating and death was near. The morphine kept her comfortable but her time to pass quickly arrived one evening. I held her hand, and mom gripped my hand like a vice as death appeared, but she managed to whisper, “You remind me of your father who would be proud of you. I love you, son.”

Her grip softened when she died. I’ll never forget mom. I owe my work ethic to her, and my desire to take a chance with a blue collar company with a great crew of guys to my father.

Hutch’s Lumber Company had an annual Christmas party at Mr. Hutchinson’s mountaintop, log cabin inspired, summer mansion, on Orcas Island just off Seattle, which included a commanding view of the harbor and islands beyond. On a clear day, you could see Canada. Everybody with the title “SVP” and above was required to attend, flown by private plane to the small airport on Orcas Island, and boarded vans delivering them to Mr. Hutchinson’s mansion at the end of a long, winding, narrow dirt road. Prominently parked in the premier spot underneath the flag pole displaying the American, State of Washington, and “Hutch’s Lumber Company” flags, was a 1950’s Ford pickup truck Mr. Hutchison still drove since he started the company. At the end of the Christmas party around 10:00 pm, everybody who didn’t make their own accommodations on the island, would board the vans, return to the Orcas airport, and be flown back to Seattle.

In the ensuing five years, I worked within the accounting department, assembling profit and loss statements, balance sheets, and statements of cash flows. It was November and I hadn’t seen Mr. Hutchinson for weeks. I didn’t find it my place to ask where he was but hoped he was ok, but as soon as I saw Nathan move into his father’s office, I knew Mr. Hutchinson was ill or dead. Nobody in the company noticed except the secretary. I was summoned to Mr. Hutchinson’s office. The secretary was tearful as she was winding up the affairs within her office,

“Hello, Edgar. It’s nice to see you again. I’m sorry you’ll be given some disturbing news by Mr. Hutchinson’s son.”

She escorted me to the heavy, double, walnut doors, knocking twice, saying nothing.

“If that’s Holms, bring him in. I know you’re upset, Phyllis. Take the remainder of the day off and regain your composure.”

“Thank you, Mr. Hutchinson.”

Phyllis gave me a hug, collected her purse, and proceeded to the elevator, wiping tears from her eyes.

Nathan was sitting at his father desk, feet atop the carved inscription, and sipping bourbon or whiskey.

“Take a seat, Holms. I have disappointing news for you. It’s been my father’s tradition every Thanksgiving; to drive his vintage, first pickup truck, upon which he painted “Hutch’s Lumber Company” on the door, up into the woods, where he would carefully pick out, and fell, the perfect Christmas tree. He always carried a sapling he would plant within its place. The tree was on a steep slope, and, as he laid the buzz saw into the tree, he slipped, and the buzz saw nipped his femoral artery. He wasn’t found for three days, but the search party said he bled out quickly and painlessly. I’ve kept it a secret because my father told me that upon his death, the company would stay open for business, with no ceremonies, and business as usual!”

I wiped a tear from my eye, and felt like I lost a second father. I lowered my head, unable to say anything to assuage the loss of an icon and father to Nathan.

“Edgar, my father spoke highly of your ambition, intelligence, and admittedly, used your talents to give me a swift kick in the ass which I needed. I knew I could never live up to your standards, and love for the business. I have more disappointing news which only you, corporate consul, and I are privy to. I trust you, Edgar, to keep this information confidential.

“You can trust me to maintain the confidentiality of the information, Mr. Hutchinson.”

“Effective January 2nd, Hutch’s Lumber Company will be owned by a Canadian lumber conglomerate. It was a difficult decision to sell but the price was too good to pass up, and the state and federal regulations are becoming too cumbersome for me to continue. All employees, including the executive staff, will be notified by email on December 30th, and provided two weeks’ severance pay. Sadly, our Christmas party will be our last, but it will be an opportunity to toast a company approaching its 100th anniversary, and its founder. The Governor has accepted our invitation and will provide a eulogy.”

Nathan never gave a damn about the company and saw the sale as an early retirement. For years, I had been correcting his accounting mistakes, and completing the accounting work which was his responsibility for which he took credit, often placing it upon my desk at 4:30 pm on a Friday, and expecting it to be completed, first thing Monday morning.

I thought about the awful timing of the announcement as loyal workers were looking forward to enjoying the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Many of the employees were approaching retirement age, and weren’t prepared for the loss of a salary, and other employees had young families to support. Two weeks’ severance pay was an insult to the employees who gave their hearts and souls to the company.

“You’re terminated effective immediately, Edgar. I know you’ve accumulated an impressive company matched 401K. I suspect you’ll be landing another job with less stress, more pay, and prestige after the New Year. I’ll provide you with an excellent reference.”

“Please accept my condolences on the loss of your father. He was a great man. I’ll miss Hutch’s Lumber Company.”

“I grew up with the company, and suffered under the watchful eye of my father my entire life. He was a tough old bastard, and losing mom and my little sister in an automobile crash, made dad expect more from his only surviving son, who, frankly, could never live up to his expectations. After the loss of mom and my little sister, dad refrained from dating or marriage which might have brought him happiness. I miss him but in some ways don’t. I expect you at the Christmas party as I’ve planned to announce the passing of my father, and the sale of the company. If you’ll excuse me, I have to jump on a conference call with the corporate attorneys handling the sale. Don’t be late for the Christmas party!”

I was fired on a Thursday morning but choose to finish out my work day. This was the only Christmas party I looked forward to attending because it was in honor of Mr. Hutchinson, and an opportunity to pay homage to his wife and daughter.

On Friday, I decided to take the Ferry from the Anacortes Ferry Terminal in Seattle, aboard the ferry for the hour and a half trip to Orcas Island, where I made arrangements for a cozy, “A” frame cabin, a mile up a dirt road near the entrance to Moran State Park. I’d wake to deer grazing in my yard, and a chorus of birds singing. I had a rental car waiting for me at the Orca’s ferry terminal where I would first stop at the small town market for groceries.

As the ferry retreated from the landing towards Orcas Island, I pondered how I would miss the preparation of the balance sheets, profit and loss statements, statement of cash flows, and other accounting duties so essential to the company. I missed having the opportunity to share the news about the company with my mother, and receive her soothing assurances everything would “work out”, when the “going got tough”. I felt betrayed by Nathan, selling a company I grew to love, and notifying the employees of their termination over Christmas with a meager severance. It hurt me that he didn’t have the decency to acknowledge the recent loss of my mother.

The specter of finding another satisfying job, seemed dauntless. I could call the CFO at Boeing and be hired, but Boeing would remind me of my loving mother and terrible Mel. Perhaps, I’d travel until I figured things out. I recalled the motto carved into Mr. Hutchinson’s desk,

“We help build the world!”

We did it with quality products, and reverence for the forest. I would truly miss the work, and a unique American company, now owned by a foreign conglomerate. I hoped they would treat the forest with reverence but I doubted it.

After the Christmas party, I’d spend the remainder of the weekend on the island hiking, and reveling in the natural beauty of the streams, lakes, and rivers of the marvelous island. I would have dinner in the quaint town, or at the Rosario resort, and use the time to reflect upon my plans moving forward. I was alone in the world. My parents deceased, no siblings, immediate family, and unfortunately, no woman to share my grief and wonder of the Christmas holiday.

The cabin was cozy and a perfect escape into nature from the turmoil which had befallen me as a son and a loyal employee. As I was preparing for the Christmas party, I resented having to fake Christmas cheer. I can’t change the inevitable trajectory of my lonely life. Most of all, I resent Nathan’s taking over his father’s beloved summer mansion, and using the party as an excuse to show off his motorized land and water “toys” including, Mr. Hutchinson’s valuable art collection, consisting of paintings, sculpture, printmaking, photography, and murals from “The Northwest School”, flourishing in Seattle during the 1930s-40s. Most of the collection was from the most famous artists of the period, known as “the big four”:  Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves and Mark Tobey. Their artwork became nationally recognized when Life Magazine published a 1953 feature article on them. It took decades for Mr. Hutchinson to assemble his prize art collection, and I knew it would break his heart to see the collection sold at auction. I hope he made arrangements within his Trust to bequeath the collection to the Seattle Art Museum or the University of Washington.

It’s late afternoon and the two lane road is narrow and winding. Tall trees lining both sides of the narrow road provide a canopy of darkness, and there are no streetlights. Just a single yellow line down the middle of the road guides me to the Christmas party.

The narrow road continues to twist and turn as the remaining day light grows dimmer. I turn on my headlights and drive slowly as the narrow road is unfamiliar. I struggle to keep my eyes on the yellow line, and I miss a hair pin turn, cross the yellow line into the oncoming lane. I hear a blaring horn similar to that of our lumber trucks; see the giant truck and trailer approach, warning me by flashing its headlights, and sounding its horn. It’s approaching closer by the second. I attempt to swerve back into my lane, but I’m blinded by the bright headlights of the lumber truck, and struck head on. The last thing I remember was seeing the terror on the truck driver’s face before he crashed into my car head on.

I was in a dreamlike state, silent, and black. There was no bright light beckoning me, nor the familiar voices of loved ones calling for me. I was either unconsciousness or dead.

I awoke from what appeared to be a “power nap” and had total amnesia regarding the crash. I couldn’t remember why I was parked alongside the road, looked at my watch, and knew I better get moving fast unless I wanted to be late for the Christmas party. I started the car, and entered the dark, lonely road, noticing thick, freshly laid, skid marks of a truck leading deep into the forest, out of sight, and shards of metal, glass, and plastic car parts. Evidently, there must have been a terrible accident. I continued my trek down the dark highway, struggling to follow the yellow line which would lead me to a dirt road with a sign marked, “Hutch’s Hideaway. Private Road.”

“What the hell is that crossing the road?”

As I look down the road, I see something or somebody crossing the narrow highway, stopping, and standing on the yellow line with a hand up motioning me to stop. I can’t tell if it’s a park ranger, hiker or a homeless person. I begin to slow the car, and as I get closer, it begins to look like an animal, but what the hell is an animal doing standing in the middle of the road with its hand up directing me to stop like a traffic cop? I click on my high beams, and sure enough, it’s a big brown bear standing on its two hind legs wearing a Christmas stocking hat, and waving me to a stop. Maybe it’s just a drunken member of a party on his way home?

I stop the car and roll down the window. The bear leans in and says,

“Hello, Sir. I’m “Paddy”. I’m late for the Christmas Party! Can you give me a lift?”

Before I can answer, he opens the passenger door, and plops down next to me, closing the car door behind him. The stranger has a wild animal smell about him, and is so large, he causes my rental car to lean to one side as the car struggles to regain momentum, and head back down the road.

“I’m Edgar Holms. Where’s your party? I’ll drop you off as close as I can.”

Paddy places his paw around the back of my seat, and I can’t help but notice his sharp claws which didn’t appear to be part of a costume.

“I’m going to a company Christmas party and I can’t be late, Paddy.”

“Why is punctuality so important, Edgar?”

“It’s my bosses Christmas party including a eulogy read by the Governor for the passing of our founder, Mr. Hutchinson.”

“Hutch died! What a great guy! He really loved the forest and cared about its welfare. All of us inhabitants admired him. I’m sorry to hear he died.”

“I’m sorry for the loss, too, Paddy. I really don’t want to attend the party but owe it to Mr. Hutchinson to pay my last respects. The boss’s son wants all of the senior executives in attendance. It’s going to be a sad affair. His son sold Hutch’s Lumber Company and we’ve all been fired.”

“So, don’t go! Stand up for yourself, and show some courage. Mr. Hutchinson knows you gave him 110% of your efforts, and you can visit his gravesite at a later time to pay your respects. You don’t owe his son anything. I know the location of the family burial plot where Hutch will be buried alongside his wife and daughter. It’s located near the most beautiful pristine lake you’ll ever see. In fact, we’ll pass by it. I come out of hibernation every year just to attend our Christmas Party because it’s a chance to laugh, sing, and eat with my friends. The Christmas party is the highlight of my year.”

“My job was all I have, Paddy. I have no family, wife, job, and no future. I’m nothing without my job.”

Paddy’s massive arm rested across my shoulder like a “coach” consoling a player.

“You’re nothing? You’re human! You’re still young, and healthy. Take control of your destiny, and follow your instincts. Don’t do anything you don’t enjoy or be with people who don’t appreciate you! You’ve been given a free pass by life to start over! In about a mile, you’ll see a sign which says “Misty Campground”, pull in there and stop”.

I think to myself,

“I can drop Paddy at the camp ground and probably still make the party on time.”

“Here’s the campground, Edgar, turn in here!”

The sage remarks coming from a big brown bear with a Christmas stocking hat really “freaked me out”. I don’t know how old Paddy is but he seems wise like an old man. His persona is similar to the loving grandpa or uncle everyone wants. Most of all he is genuine. He knows what’s important to him, and for Paddy, it is living in the moment. He reminds me oddly, of Mr. Hutchinson.

I slow my car and make the turn into the campground and stop. I turn to Paddy and hold out my hand to shake his massive paw, thank him for his sage advice, and wish him a Merry Christmas.

“Turn off the engine and the lights and let’s wait here, Edgar”.

It crosses my mind that I might be set up for a carjacking, beating, or killing. As the minutes slowly tick by, the campground gets darker, colder and still. The silence is uncomfortable but punctuated by the cries of wolves in the distance who sound like they must be at their own “party”. The moonlight provides about the same amount of luminosity as a dying light bulb.

I suddenly hear a heavy pounce atop my car. It must be a big animal! And then, I hear that familiar growl of a wolf! Suddenly, standing on my hood, and staring directly at me with steely blue eyes, is the fiercest black and grey wolf you can imagine. It must be 150 pounds with sharp, razor like teeth I’ve only seen on sharks. The wolf is coiled tightly like a spring ready to pounce, and leap through my window ripping me apart. Will Paddy protect me or is Paddy an accomplice? Just as I prepare for my inevitable death, I hear Paddy say,

“Cool it Cody! He’s our ride to the Christmas party”.

Cody “unwinds” from his fierce coil, loses the ferocity, and runs alongside to the rear passenger door. Paddy reaches around and opens the rear door for his wolf friend. Cody leaps inside, happy to get out of the cold, and closing the door behind him with his jaw locked tightly around the door handle.

“Edgar, meet Cody. Cody, meet Edgar who has graciously agreed to provide us a ride to the Christmas party.”

The wolf simply uttered a soft growl as to say, “thank you”.

“Edgar, follow this dirt road until you see the sign “Caves” and turn in there”.

“If you say so, Paddy, but I’m afraid I may be straying far and will be late for my party.”

Cody sat upright in the backset.

“Sorry about scarring you, Edgar. We wolves have a bad “rap” and I have to be more mindful to be mellow. Most people think of wolves as “loners”. Yeah, we like our freedom, but we really value friends, and I can’t wait to see them at the Christmas Party”.

“I’m a loner too, Cody.”

“Being a loner means you value freedom, or you lack trust in people, or yourself. It’s about “balance”. Trust your instincts and you’ll find the “balance” which makes you happy. The Christmas Party is my yearly opportunity to have fun and be with my friends. It’s our balance, right, Paddy?”

“I’ll second that statement!”

As we drive slowly and carefully along the dirt road through the dark forest for miles, we pass a glistening still lake. It’s the cleanest, clearest mirror you can imagine. I’m reminded Hutch will soon be reunited with his loving wife and daughter nearby. I see the moon and stars reflecting off the pristine lake and out of nowhere, a comet streaks across the mirrored lake as if to guide us to the party. At this moment, and for the first time I ever remember, I feel no fear, no loneliness, regret, pain, anger, loss, or necessity to attend Mr. Hutchinson’s Christmas party. I feel true friendship and camaraderie with Paddy and Cody. We are “one” with a common purpose. Getting to their Christmas party!

We arrive at a dead end on the road with a sign reading,

“Caution- Do Not Enter The Caves”.

I turn off the motor and notice a narrow entrance to the cave inside a granite mountain. I can see it is a tight fit and very dark inside. Paddy opened his door, and ran to the mouth of the cave, shouting,

“I’ll see you fellows inside.”

Paddy squeezes inside, and out of sight. It was a tight fit to get his big butt inside the mouth of the cave, but Paddy was successful.

Cody exits the car and approaches my door.

“It’s your turn, Edgar. You’re welcome to join us or continue to your party, but I assure you, you’ll miss the time of your life at our party”.

“How do I get inside the cave, Cody? It looks too tight and I’m claustrophobic.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be right behind you”.

I squeeze into the tight opening to the cave, and crawl through the dark, damp, musty, tunnel with many twists and turns. I have no fear knowing my friends are in front and behind me, and suspect something extraordinary awaits me at the other end. As I continue to crawl, just in the distance, I see a pinpoint of warm, glowing, yellow light, and the closer I crawl towards the light, I notice the familiar, sweet fragrance of fireplace kindling, home cooking, baked goodies, laughter, and song. I haven’t experienced this much happiness since I was a child. Suddenly, I feel a push from behind and a tender pull by my collar, and I fall out of the mouth of the cave, and into the Christmas Party!

As I get up off the floor, and dust myself off, the first thing I see is a toy train circling the cave, and atop each train car, is a bunny rabbit enjoying the ride. The cave is warm, spacious, and lit by yellow, orange, and red flames, from a massive fireplace adorned with Christmas stockings, ribbons, and Christmas bulbs. Everywhere I look there are tables covered by Christmas inspired linen, with cakes, cookies, candies, and refreshments. Paddy has already stationed himself at an upright piano and pounds out,

“Have a holly, jolly Christmas; it’s the best time of the year.”

Adjacent to the piano is a grandiose Christmas tree. It must be twelve feet high. It’s thick, green, healthy and so tall, hummingbirds, and blue birds, dutifully carry colorful bulbs and ribbons to each branch. Even the tree looks like it’s having a great time! It was the type of tree Mr. Hutchinson would have chosen for his home, and it was his custom, to carve his initial, “H” into the base of the tree. To my surprise, I saw the familiar “H” carved into the base. It was Mr. Hutchinson’s last act before he died. I was happy his Christmas tree made it to this fabulous party. It would have made him happy.

A “12-Point” Buck wearing a bow tie, is moving throughout the cave, offering guests a variety of tasty drinks, gracefully hanging from each of his 12-Point antlers. Across the other side of the cave, I see a beautiful swan. Not the “leading lady” of “Swan Lake”, but the “understudy” waiting for her big break. I watch the beautiful swan move throughout the party alone, appearing uncomfortable or self conscious, the same way I feel when I’m at parties.

The swan catches my glance and I quickly turn away embarrassed that I was staring. As I turn back to see where the Swan went, and staring me right in the face, the beautiful swan stands before me.

“Hello, I’m Priscilla. I saw you from across the room and want to tell you how impressively dressed you are. I’m so happy you came to the party”.

“I’m happy to meet you Priscilla and apologize for staring at you. My name is Edgar. You look like a prima ballerina.”

“No need to apologize for staring at me, Edgar. Swans have this “ballerina” mystique, it’s one of the reasons I don’t like parties. I’m also very self conscious about this “band” attached to my leg”.

Priscilla gracefully lifts her leg, revealing a black, plastic, tracking band which annoyingly flashes a yellow light.

“I’m just not comfortable in crowds but this year I made the resolution that I would come to the party, socialize, and not care what anybody thought of this atrocious band!”

Priscilla was elegant, kind, and when she spoke to me, it felt like high school again, just before meeting a new girlfriend.

“Why is that band attached to your leg?”

“The naturalists, who study the woods, and provide veterinary care to the animals, attached a tracking device to monitor my “migration patterns”. It’s ironic because I never migrate!”

“Would you prefer not to wear it, Priscilla?

“Oh, that would be such a wonderful Christmas present, except nobody here has an opposable thumb.”

“Allow me, my dear.”

I reached down with both hands, firmly grasping the plastic band, and broke it apart! I threw the band to the floor, crushing it with my foot, forever extinguishing the flashing yellow light. Priscilla leaned in towards me, wrapped her long neck around mine, and gently pecked my cheek. I never felt more masculine, confidant, courageous, and admired by a woman in my life!

Just at that moment, a “conga line” of wolves, bears, mountain lions, raccoons, and deer dance by us. Pricilla and I share a laugh and she suggests,

“After that “parade”, we both need a breather. Let’s sit here.”

We sit together in a plush leather sofa enjoying the merriment. Across the cave, I see Cody and a pretty red fox are off alone, in a cozy corner of the cave, enjoying each other’s company.

The twelve point buck approaches and offers us a Christmas drink.

“For the gentleman and lady, I suggest the drinks at the top right and left points of my antlers.”

Priscilla gracefully extends her long neck, and with her beak, carefully retrieves the warm scented drinks. With each sip of the tasty, warm, “hard” eggnog, I become “one with the moment” we discussed in the car. The “moment” is the company of a loving, beautiful friend.

The music, happiness, and good cheer continue to unfold for our pleasure. With each sip of the eggnog, I become happier and more content with my life than at any time I recall. A euphoric sensation begins at my toes, and moves up my body, and into my head. I’m getting sleepy and close my eyes as the room begins to spin like a slow moving merry-go-round. Priscilla’s loving wing comforts me as my head falls into its loving embrace. I close my eyes and fall into a deep sleep. Although I’m asleep, and as if dreaming, I hear,

“Beep, beep, beep…”

“Get me Epinephrine with a cardiac needle, nurse.”

“No response, flat line, doctor”.

“Hand me the paddles. Clear!”

“No response, flat line, doctor”.

“Let’s call the time of death. 12:01 am. December 25th. What did the police report say about the accident, nurse”?

“He swerved to avoid hitting an animal crossing the road, and ran head on into a lumber truck coming the opposite way. The patient was killed on impact. The logger didn’t suffer a scratch, and is very remorseful although he wasn’t negligent. He’s waiting outside for news about the patient. He’s a Hutch’s Lumber Company driver”.

“Was it a dear darting across the road, nurse”?

“No, the Trooper saw bear tracks and thinks it was a bear crossing the road”.

“I guess this poor bastard won’t make it to his Christmas Party! I’ll give the bad news to the driver.”

“Orderly, “bag” him and take him to the morgue”.

“Yes, nurse.”

The orderly was a very large man who gently wrapped my body in a clean white sheet, and placed it on the gurney for delivery to the morgue. He seemed very familiar and kind. I noticed as he was pushing the gurney, his large hands resembled bear paws.

The orderly reached the morgue, and gently wheeled my body into the refrigerated crypt remarking,

“Mercy, me! I’ve seen a lot of banged up dead humans before, but none with a smile ear to ear like this guy! I wonder what he was thinking about before he died?”

I fell permanently, into a, peaceful, forever happy, darkness.

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