Wednesday, December 21, 2016


This week, my son-in-law out in Washington is playing Santa Claus for the kids there (his grandchildren, my great grandchildren). They're still very little, so we'll see how that goes. 
But hearing about this made me think of another Christmas many years ago when my dad decided to dress up as Santa at our house. That one, I can report, definitely did not work out so hot.
Here's story:
It was Christmas eve (when we've always opened presents in my family). I was about 12, my two little sisters, Lorie and Pam (the only ones born at that point) were like 3 and 2. We had it set up so that Dad would slip out of the living room at a certain point and go upstairs and dress up in his Santa get-up. It wasn't a full-fledged, bona fide suit, mind you; I don't know if there wasn't any available or the folks just couldn't afford one back then. Anyway, he dressed in a pair of bright red long underwear, a pair of high-topped rubber boots, and a Santa mask, hat attached.
My recollection of said mask, even after all these years, was that it was a pretty sorry creation. The accompanying picture doesn't begin to match it. Like I said, money was kinda tight back then so I suspect it was the best my folks could afford.
Mom and I entertained the little girls while Dad was getting ready. The upstairs was accessed by a closed stairway with a door at the bottom. The deal was, Dad (as Santa) would come down and knock on the door. Then we'd go through the whole “Who could that be?” bit and send one of the girls (Lorie, I think, because she was the oldest) to open the door and see. At which point, Dad/Santa would step out saying “Ho-ho-ho” … Which was exactly how it went.
At that point, however, the master plan careened off the rails. One look at this big stranger in red underwear wearing a ghastly mask and my two sisters let out screams that may still be echoing somewhere yet today. They bolted into the arms of me and my mom, howling and hiding their faces like it was the Frankenstein monster coming after them. Dad, in the meantime, was frantically trying to get shed of his bag of presents and pull off that stupid mask, hollering, “It's Daddy, honeys … Don't be afraid … It's Daddy!” But the howls of the little ones kept drowning him out for several chaotic minutes.
Finally, the mask was removed and hidden away, the kids could see it was Dad, and everything calmed down. There were still presents to open and that was the ultimate healing balm that saved the evening and helped turn everything into a Merry Christmas.
Now ... as Mr. Paul Harvey used to like to say … Here's THE REST of the story:
Remember me --- the innocent little 12-year-old “helper” to the foregoing? Not surprisingly, I was often called upon to babysit my little sisters in those days. Now I loved them very much but, being on the brink of my teen years and beginning to feel my oats a bit, craving to be “cool” and having interests of my own to pursue, it should also not come as a surprise that babysitting didn't exactly thrill me a whole lot. Plus, truth be told, my sweet little sisters could be stinkers and didn't always mind me like I thought they should.
Re-enter the dreaded Santa Claus mask which, like the aforementioned Frankenstein monster, was not so easily destroyed. I knew where it had been stashed. And, I'm not proud to say, pukey little 12-year-old me wasn't above resurrecting it and putting it to use …
I don't think I ever resorted to actually putting it on. But one one day when the little darlings were acting up, I yanked the mask out from hiding and waved it at them, threatening to put it on. That was enough. They snapped to attention and jumped to Best Behavior like soldiers in basic training. In the weeks and months that followed, all I had to do was say the words “I'll get that Santa Claus mask” and I suddenly had two golden children.
Eventually, though, I overplayed my hand and the effectiveness of the threats wore off. Plus, as the girls got older, they simply no longer found the mask so scary. But, for a while there, whenever I was babysitting I had me some mighty well behaved little girls.
Now I'm not recommending this --- or any form of it --- as an effective form of controlling your kids. In hindsight it was pretty mean and I probably deserved to have had somebody scare the crap out of me for payback. But, come on, you gotta admit that using a Santa mask as a non-violent tool to control a couple of sometimes-brats was quasi-clever and has a kind of humorous side to it, too. Don't it? The saving grace, I hope, is that my sisters still did (and do) love me, and for any nasty trick I ever played on them there were also many hours of love and affection showered on them (and the rest of my siblings as they came along) by me.
You forgive me, Lorie and Pam … don't you?

Friday, December 16, 2016

Noteworthy Reads: SEASON OF ICE by Richard Prosch

I've written before in these pages about the work of Richard Prosch and my admiration for same. This latest collection of short stories by Prosch only increases that admiration and therefore becomes yet another offering that I highly recommend.

For the most part, Prosch's previous work fell, broadly-speaking, into the category of Westerns --- his more traditional tales featuring John Coburn, the gunman known as the Perigrene; another series featuring the more laid-back Deputy Whit Branham; and numerous stand-alones, including the Spur Award-winning “Scalpers”. Not to mention his turn-0f-the-century YA series starring rambunctious Jo Harper.

In SEASON OF ICE, the tales are contemporary crime stories. Some are set in larger cities, some have nameless settings, several take place in Prosch's fictional Meadows Ford, Nebraska. Prosch is at his very best when writing about his beloved Cornhusker State. But, no matter the setting, the characters are real and memorable, the stories make an impact --- often with a skillful twist, and the writing is crisp and distinctly Prosch.
Do not pass this up.
As stated at the outset, I strongly recommend it.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Noteworthy Reads: BLAZE! THE CHRISTMAS JOURNEY by Stephen Mertz

For anyone who hasn't wised up to the fact that a good Western yarn can reach far beyond being just another “shoot-'em-up”, this entertaining tale by Steve Mertz would be a good place to start getting your attitude adjusted.

This latest entry (number 14) in the Blaze! adult Western series --- chronicling the adventures of J.D. and Kate Blaze, the Old West's only husband-and-wife team of gunfighters, as created by Mr. Mertz himself --- has just about everything you'd want in a rousing page-turner: humor, romance, tragedy, adventure, some surprising twists including nice touches of nostalgia and inspiration … and, oh yeah, plenty of gun-blazing action. The cast of characters is well drawn and colorful and along the way we also get a little deeper insight into the backgrounds of J.D. and Kate themselves.

All in all, another fast-paced and enjoyable read from creator Mertz. If you aren't already familiar with the Blaze series, this is a good place to start … and then go out and catch up on the other titles by a variety of veteran writers. You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Another Look: LAWMAN (1971, Burt Lancaster)

This largely overlooked Western is a tight, tough action drama with an all-star cast, several of whom give particularly effective performances that help elevate the film to an above-average oater well worth 99 minutes of your viewing time.

The plot is pretty basic. Six cowboys deliver some cattle to the railhead in the town of Bannock. That night they get drunk and rowdy and shoot up the town before riding out. Unknown to them, an old man is is killed by a stray bullet.

Some weeks later, the marshal of Bannock, Jared Maddox (Burt Lancaster), shows in the town of Sabbath, home base for the cowboys. He was out of town chasing a fugitive when the cowboys hit his town and now he's bent on taking the six men back to stand trial --- minus one he already caught up with, who he brings belly down over a horse when he rides into town. “He called me out,” he tersely explains to Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan), the sheriff of Sabbath. When he solicits Ryan's help in bringing in the others, he learns that the men had been hired by Vince Bronson (Lee J. Cobb), the wealthy rancher who has the town and the whole surrounding area in his pocket --- including the sheriff. The latter won't go up against Bronson to help Maddox, but he is willing to take a message to the rancher to see if he'll cooperate in returning to Bannock with the others to face charges. Maddox agrees to give them 24 hours to turn themselves in before he starts going after them one by one.

Bronson, who genuinely did not know anybody had been hurt or killed in the Bannock shooting, feels remorse for the incident. He figures he could easily buy the judge in Bannock and get everybody off with little or no jail time, but doesn't really want to go to all that trouble. After putting it to a vote among the other men involved and finding none of them wanting to go back either, he's not willing to force them to do so. So he sends the sheriff back try and buy off Maddox.

But Maddox can't be bought. Like a grim, obsessive, borderline psychotic Ahab, he won't be swerved from his mission. With no hand raised to help him and even knowing full well that the judge in Bannock will be bribed by Bronson if it ever gets that far, he sets out to do his duty as he sees it. After the 24 hours are up, he sets out after each of the men. In a series of bloody confrontations, he takes two of them into custody and ends up killing most of the others until it comes to a final violent showdown in the streets of town.

The nuances and undertones of the story and characters are what sets LAWMAN apart. The performances by Ryan and Cobb as two men tormented by their violent pasts and no longer having the stomach for more of the same are especially effective. Same for Robert Duvall in a somewhat minor role that he makes memorable. Sheree North, appearing in a brief romantic angle that seems somewhat forced into the storyline, nevertheless comes across well. Then there's Lancaster, who at first seems almost wooden in his performance --- until you realize he is actually nailing the stoic, emotionless character he is portraying.

Good stuff. Recommended.