But it’s a DRY Heat!

by Isabella Maldonado

Completely unprepared for living in an arid climate, I moved to the Phoenix area several years ago. My knowledge of the desert came from watching Wil E. Coyote chase the roadrunner around rocks and dunes as a child. Before moving here, I had spent a week at a dude ranch in Wickenburg, and figured everyone in Arizona had a horse and wore a cowboy hat.

The thermometer already registered over a hundred degrees when I arrived at Sky Harbor Airport in May. I knew I was in for trouble when I burned my fingers trying to buckle the seat belt when I got in the car. This was after I scorched the backs of my legs on the car seat.

After settling in, I noticed that the humidity usually hovered around four percent. Sometimes even two percent. Coming from a climate (Washington, DC) where the humidity was routinely between 70 and 90 percent in the summer, I was amazed. It’s definitely more pleasant to feel a dry heat, but there are limits.

As one of my new friends, a lifelong Phoenician (yes, they DO call themselves that) told me, “Anything over 110 degrees is just nasty no matter what the humidity is.” Hot is hot. I talked to other transplants and asked if they ever acclimate. Most say they eventually do, but then admit to hiding indoors from sunup to sundown from June through the end of August.

Phoenix skyline at dusk

Despite the heat, and my disappointment that I was not issued a horse and a Stetson upon arrival, I’ve come to love Phoenix. The desert has a beauty all its own, the downtown area is new and vibrant compared to buildings back East, the food is fantastic and the people are friendly. In the summer, total strangers will offer you cold bottled water as a matter of form. Shops and office buildings frequently provide bottled water to visitors as well. It’s almost as if there is an understanding that we are all in this together, because getting caught out in the midday heat can be deadly. The desert climate has evoked hospitality from a bygone era.

Of course, the bonus is that I get to chuckle when my friends from back East tell me how much snow they’re shoveling in January. I snap a selfie wearing a tank top and attach it to a text: I’VE GOT AN EMPTY GUEST ROOM. There may or may not be a prickly pear margarita in my hand…

Tirade No. 2: The Tyranny of the New Year’s Resolution

by Roger Johns

In my last post for the blog, Nothin’ But Net: A Modest (Holiday) Proposal, I took aim at the practice of giving cash as a gift. Having gotten that pet peeve off my chest, relatively unscathed, I am now emboldened to take on yet another venerated cultural phenomenon of the season: The New Year’s Resolution. I am fully aware of the recent trend away from making resolutions, so I don’t pretend to have set this bandwagon in motion, only to being a jumper-on, but, having jumped on, I here to say my piece on the subject.

                First, I have resolved to view the decline of the resolution, not as a sign of the collapse of civilization, but as the inevitable recognition of the fact that recently discovered alternatives to the resolution are worth taking a look at. For the title of ‘Best Alternative’, I nominate the New Year’s Aspiration, because aspirations are much more open ended than resolutions.

                Resolutions, to use a fifty-cent word, are too dichotomous. With resolutions, it’s either this or that, win or lose, succeed or fail. Having spent the better part of a lifetime falling victim to this cruel duality, it’s time to admit that the dichotomy has lost its charm as a motivator of self-improvement. The more forgiving (and, to my mind, far more encouraging) aspiration, is the way to go, because aspirations are really declarations of hope. They make room for the possibility of having to start over without having to admit failure. Someone wise, maybe it was Yoda, once said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” Hmmm. Maybe. If the fate of the Rebellion is at stake, then the dichotomous sentiment of such an all-or-nothing admonition sounds perfectly appropriate. Plus, it rolls off the tongue a lot more smoothly than “Aspire or aspire not . . .” But for an everyday, ordinary Joe, like me, with only a teensy fraction of my self-esteem at stake, the kinder, gentler “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” with its implicit message of hope that a future score is not entirely out of the question, hits infinitely closer to the mark. And even though there are those among us who contend that hope is not a strategy, I’m okay with that. Hope has the power to uplift, something strategy seems just a bit too functional and dry to achieve.

                Besides, dichotomies seem better suited for the young. For example, the well-meaning, but clearly dichotomous, words of encouragement ‘If you fall off the horse, pick yourself up and get back on,’ offer only two possibilities––being off the horse or being on the horse––and contains the unspoken assumption that the one doing the falling is young enough to actually get back on. At my age, if I fall off the horse, I will call 9-1-1 and pray that the hip replacement is successful. And pray further that my insurance company doesn’t force me to sue the horse under the belief that I fell only because the horse failed to act the way a reasonable equine, in similar circumstances, should have acted.

                No, I think it’s best to avoid the negativity inherent in the seemingly innocent practice of making New Year’s resolutions, so I invite you all to join with me in setting your sights on a few well-chosen aspirations instead. There is strength in numbers, so we might succeed in elevating the aspiration to its rightful place.

Note: Yes, I’m aware that I’ve now used the word ‘tyranny’ in two consecutive blog posts (this is called an “echo” in the writing business, and is considered a failure of imagination [or, at least, a lackadaisical approach to editing]) but I am disinclined to bow to the tyranny of the conventions of copyediting, because that’s just too dichotomous. Besides, I like the word.

Roger Johns, is the award-winning author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries.

Police Pursuits: The Thrill of the Chase

I’ll admit it. I like to drive fast — and as an officer, if certain conditions were met, I could legally flick on my lights and siren and disregard the rules of the road. After all, it’s nearly impossible to catch violators without exceeding the speed limit. But it was a calculated risk. While I was exempt from the vehicle code statutes, at no time was I relieved of my duty to drive in a safe manner and with due regard to the safety of others.  

In the police academy, we had about 80 hours of vehicle operation instruction. Driving was considered a critical task: fail driving, fail the academy. (For the curious, firearms and defensive tactics rounded out the critical trifecta.) The coursework included precision driving, routine vehicle operation, and high-speed pursuit driving — all to prepare us for our duties as officers. On patrol, we were more likely to collide with objects while parking or at slow speed than at higher speeds, but for every mile of increased speed, the possibility of catastrophic injury or damage increased as well.

The flashing lights of a police car.

My academy was on the grounds of a decommissioned air base that had been repurposed. As cadets, we practiced our driving skills on unused runways. For most of us, it was the first time we’d driven a patrol car, and the academy cars were outfitted with all the standard radios and gear, plus they were modified to include full roll cages and 5-point safety harnesses. During high-speed exercises, we wore helmets.

The precision driving course was a cone course where cadets had to maneuver the car through various parking, tight turns, and reverse driving patterns. Routine patrol operations included using the radio while driving and patrolling techniques — which was really all about not becoming so distracted that you drove into a wall, or curb, or that sweet little elderly man crossing legally in the sidewalk. 

Decision making was fun. With an instructor in the passenger seat, the cadet had to drive into the bottom of the Y shaped cone pattern at various speeds. At the last second the instructor would yell right or left. The goal was to react quickly enough to end up in the appropriate lane. A lot of cones gave their lives during the exercise but every cadet learned that the faster their speed, the less time they had to react to outside demands. 

One of the most enjoyable exercises took place after the fire department came in and soaped the runways. While driving, friction is your friend. It keeps the wheels of your vehicle in contact with the road. Mix static friction, rolling friction, torque, soap, and giddy cadets together and you’ve got all the ingredients for a great course on skid management and braking. It was probably the closest we came to playing during the academy.

As much fun as it was let loose on a skid pan, my favorite class was pursuit driving. The cone course was massive. Instructors sat in the passenger seats, and during the initial passes, coached the drivers through curves and corners, advising when to brake, when to accelerate, and how to use the straight-aways. After a couple of spins, a suspect vehicle entered the course — and the chase was on. 

For the uninitiated, pursuit driving is a lot like playing tag — only ideally without the contact. It is easy for new officers to get tunnel vision, and cops must fight the mindset that catching the suspect is always the ultimate goal. It’s not. Maintaining public safety is. On the street, pursuit driving is an ongoing exercise in risk management. In the academy, it was our first and last opportunity to chase another car without the weight of liability. On that runway, we killed cones, spun out of control, lost our suspects. We also learned how to carve corners, push our limits, and control our emotions. 

I really didn’t think much about our instructors’ role in the passenger seat until I became a field training officer. Few things are scarier than sitting next to a trainee on their first code-three run. A couple of them wrapped the mic cord around the steering column because in their excitement, they forgot to put it back on the stand. That first pursuit is sensation overload: the roar of the engine, the smell of brakes, a blaring siren, red and blue lights bouncing outside the windows, the taste of adrenaline. Experience helps cops manage the overload, but it never stops being exciting.

My academy training made me a safer driver. It taught me to look beyond the hood of my car and assess my surroundings for hazards. It revealed the limits of my ability. It demonstrated that cars have limits, too, and that the quality of tires really does matter. Lights and sirens may give an officer the right of way, but they don’t add a magical layer of protection around the car. And it’s always better to arrive safely at one’s destination than crash along the way.

Happy New Year!

Micki Browning

Old-School Cops

By Brian Thiem: I recently participated in a discussion with a group of active and retired Oakland PD officers where a few officers referred to themselves as “old guys.” They reminisced about the “poor youngsters” never knowing the fun their job once was.

Since the cops who considered themselves “old guys” were hired when I was a lieutenant, I wonder what that makes me. I still think of them as youngsters—the twenty-something rookies I knew them as. It got me thinking about how policing changes from one generation of cops to the next, and how our perspectives change as we transition in our careers.

In society at large, a generation is considered to last about thirty years. We think of our parents as the older generation and our children as the younger generation. But police generations are much shorter, maybe half that length.

When I came on in 1980, the old-timers were rookies in the tumultuous 60’s, the days of Vietnam War protests, the SLA, and the Black Panthers (Oakland was their birthplace). Law enforcement changed radically in the late 60s and 70s, as did the rest of American. When I was a rookie, the old-timers reminisced about those good old days.

I remember the ten and twenty-year veteran police officers chastising me for choosing policing as a career when I came on because politicians and courts were tying our hands so we could no longer do our job. They were sure criminals would soon rule the streets because bad guys would get away since police could no longer shoot fleeing felons. When they became cops, it was legal and acceptable to yell, “Police—Stop” to a burglar that was running down the street with a stolen TV and shoot him in the back when he didn’t. Police and citizens alike are horrified at that today.

These old timers also ridiculed court decisions that required them to advise suspects of the right to remain silent before interrogating them, and were incensed that the Supreme Court demanded officers have an articulable reasonable suspicion a person was involved in criminal activity before they could stop and detain them.

It seemed I was still a youngster to many in my department when I transferred to Homicide as a sergeant with eight years on. But when I came out six years later and became a patrol sergeant, there was no doubt I was now an old-timer in my new job. I was assigned to the rookie squad, full of officers in their early twenties, who saw me as closer to their parents’ age (I was 39), than their own. As any police sergeant knows, supervising a squad full of rookies is similar to parenting a bunch of kids. I constantly worried about them getting hurt or caught up in serious misconduct, and wondered if they would ever grow up and mature. They did…and now consider themselves old-timers.

By the time I made lieutenant in my early 40s, I really was the parents’ age of many of the rookies on my watch, and even some of my younger sergeants viewed me as belonging to an earlier generation of policing.

These young sergeants came on when the department was evolving into Community Policing, which we old timers silently believed to be just a fad that would soon die. We saw it as little more than a formalized “beat health,” philosophy, which we had embraced as beat cops, taking responsibility for the citizens and everything else on our beats.

Then came OPD’s version of CompStat—computers spitting out crime data, which directed where and how we policed the city. It transformed policing into a top-to-bottom-driven organization. When I came on, beat cops knew where the crime was occurring and who was doing it on their beats and handled it. Now, captains and deputy chiefs directed beat officers’ priorities based on crime statistics. Once again, many of us old-timers figured it was a fad that would soon disappear. It didn’t.

In the discussion I referred to at the beginning of this piece, a few of these officers who were considering themselves old-timers defined old-school cops as those who had never made an arrest without a BWC (body-worn camera). I retired long before body cams became part of OPD’s uniform.

However, I have trouble seeing pre-body cams as the dividing line for “old-school.” I think of old-school cops as those officers who carried six-shot revolvers, wrote reports on paper, and drove marked police cars with a rotating “cherry” on the roof.

Law enforcement is a reflection of society. It changes and evolves with it. The new officers today cannot imagine policing without the scrutiny of body cams, computer generated report writing, and restrictive rules on use of force. These young officers don’t see me as merely an old-school cop. They see me my generation as dinosaurs.

As new generations of police officers take over the profession, some things will remain the same. Cops will remember their early days on the street as the good old days, they’ll be certain new laws and rules will destroy the profession, and they will be unable to fathom why a young man or woman would want to pin on a badge today.

Saint Nicholas

Several years ago, I penned a tale titled Saint Nicholas which I now post every year as a holiday greeting to friends near and far. Knowing that many folks find the holidays a bit overwhelming, I wrote this seasonal short story to remind us all what is truly important and to provide an emotional lift to those in need. If I’ve done my job well, this story will put a smile on your face and some warmth in your hearts. Feel free to share if you think it might mean something to others. Here’s wishing you and yours a safe and happy holiday season.

Bruce Robert Coffin

Saint Nicholas

I’ve always believed that it’s part of the human condition to focus on the negative. Maybe it has something to do with our upbringing, although upon reflection we are all raised very differently so perhaps not. Whatever it is, it definitely exists in each of us. How else can we explain the age old news reporting axiom “if it bleeds it leads?” Police officers are even more inclined to focus on the negative. Being exposed to it day in and day out tends to make one jaded. But, I’m getting way ahead of myself. I should probably begin by telling you a little bit about me before I tell you my story.

My name is Crispin Mallory and, in case you haven’t already guessed, I am a police officer. I’ve been with the same department for thirty years, pushing a cruiser around,  investigating motor vehicle accidents, breaking up domestics, chasing down criminals, and writing the occasional traffic citation.

One day, several years back, I was working a double shift. Cops aren’t paid all that well and when an overtime opportunity presents itself most of us are quick to say yes. It was December twenty-fourth and I had just finished my first tour. I’d returned to the station to attend roll call before heading back out for another eight hours. I was tired and not in a particularly festive mood, mostly due to the fact that I had to work on Christmas, which meant my wife and two children would be celebrating without me. Another holiday missed. Such is the life of a cop. Anyway, the sergeant held me back after the briefing, said he had a task for me. I was instructed to return some valuables to a local home for the aged. Apparently one of the nursing staff had confessed to stealing jewelry from some of the residents at the home, to support her drug habit. See what I mean? All negative. The sergeant provided me with the name of the medical administrator and asked me to deliver the items to him.

After checking out a squad car and loading my gear, I got on the radio and requested that the dispatcher show me 10-6 (busy) on assignment. I drove toward the nursing home, stopping long enough to grab a drive-through coffee along the way.

I parked in the lot and made my way inside. The receptionist was talking to one of the orderlies and they both turned as I entered.

“Hello officer,” the receptionist said. “Merry Christmas.”

I returned the greeting.

“What can I do for you?” she asked.

“I’m looking for Mr. Ashby,” I said. “I’m supposed to deliver something to him.”

“I’ll try his extension.”

I wandered around the lobby as she tried to locate Ashby. Everything was brightly painted and decorated for the season. In one corner stood a small lit Christmas tree from which emanated the pleasant scent of balsam. I wondered if the employees were still allowed to call it a Christmas tree.

“Officer,” the receptionist called out. 


“Mr. Ashby will be right out.”

I thanked her and continued to look around. Ashby walked up to me and introduced himself as the facility’s head administrator. I explained my purpose for being there and he led me back to his office so we could talk in private.

Once we were seated, I handed him the package and an evidence slip explaining that he needed to sign for the items.

“I am so pleased that your detectives were able to recover so many of the things that our former employee took. I’m sure you can imagine how much these items mean to the residents here. Some of these pieces of jewelry aren’t all that valuable, but they represent gifts from and memories of loved ones. As I’m sure you know, some things are worth far more than money.”

I agreed. After going through each of the items he signed for them and returned the evidence sheet to me. I stood, preparing to leave, when he stopped me.

“I don’t suppose you’d be willing to do me one small favor, would you, officer?”

I wondered why I would need to do another favor for him. After all, I’d just returned a number of stolen items. Shouldn’t that have been sufficient?

“I really do need to get back on the road, Mr. Ashby,” I said.

“You’re right. I shouldn’t impose. You’ve got places to go I imagine.”

Now verbally he was letting me off the hook, but his tone and facial expression told another story. I knew he was attempting reverse psychology on me. Something my wife and I did to our kids daily.

“What do you need?” I asked.

“It’ll only take a second. I promise. But it will mean so much to her.”

Ashby proceeded to tell me about an eighty-one-year-old patient named Ruth Perkins. Mrs. Perkins was suffering from Alzheimer’s.

“She’s all alone now,” Ashby said. “Her husband passed last year. They had one son, Nicholas, and he was a police officer. Nicholas was killed during a shootout many years ago. Apparently, he would visit her every Christmas, whether he was working or not and it meant the world to her. Her Alzheimer’s is advanced but she still manages to put several good days together each month. I have no idea how she does it, but she does.”

I sat down again as he continued.

“Every month since the death of her husband, just prior to the twenty-fifth, she gets it into her head that Christmas is approaching. She gets so excited and makes a point to tell all of the staff that her son is coming to visit. She even has a lighted ceramic tree that she makes us put up in her room. Of course when the twenty-fifth passes and Nicholas doesn’t show up her condition quickly worsens and she reverts back to her former state. It really is quite sad.”

“What do you want me to do?” I asked. “I’m not her son.”

“I know that, but I thought it might cheer her up to get a visit from an officer in uniform. If you could just stop by and wish her a Merry Christmas.”

I only wanted to get back to my comfort zone. Back to my cruiser. I really wasn’t enjoying the idea of popping in on an already confused old woman, possibly making her situation worse. But Ashby’s attempt at reverse psychology must have worked because I found myself saying okay.

He told me that he’d introduce me, then he led me down the hall to her room. I followed, amid the stares and whispers of the other residents. Each of them probably wondering what the cop was doing there. At last he stopped and entered a room. The sign on the door said R. Perkins and a white ceramic tree stood on the table under the window. As I rounded the corner I saw her sitting up in bed, wearing a festive green robe over a red sweater. She was wearing makeup and it looked like she had just paid a visit to the hair dresser. She looked dignified and radiant, like someone waiting to be called upon, not at all what I had expected.

“Mrs. Perkins,” Ashby said. “I’ve brought you a visitor.”

She turned toward me and her blue eyes lit up instantly. “Nicholas,” she cried out. “My Saint Nicholas, I knew you’d come. Didn’t I say he would come? Oh, this is the best Christmas ever.”

She held her arms out to me as I approached the bed. Awkwardly, I bent down toward her. She hugged me tightly, even kissed me on the cheek.

“Merry Christmas,” I said, as I felt myself blushing.

“I should leave the two of you alone now,” Ashby said, as he left.

I sat down in the chair beside the bed and she began asking me all sorts of questions. I was afraid that I might say the wrong thing, but as time passed it became obvious that nothing I said would lessen her faith that I was her son. We talked for close to an hour. I told her all about my family and about my work. She asked if I remembered this thing or that and of course I told her I did. The smile never left her face.

I stayed with her until she began to tire. All the excitement had worn her out. She hugged me again and made me promise to return the following day. Christmas Day. I promised that I would and kissed her on the cheek. I returned to my cruiser and radioed that I was back in service. My heart was full and I was happier than I’d been in a long while. It was clear that my visit to Ruth Perkins had had a positive effect on both of us. I no longer cared that I’d be missing this Christmas with my own family. Don’t get me wrong, I still wanted to be with them, but after visiting a lonely old woman I realized I had no right to complain. There would be other Christmases to spend with my family. Mrs. Perkins’ family was gone leaving her with only memories.

I returned to work the following day. Christmas Day turned out to be busier than any of us had imagined. A light snowfall had left the roads slick resulting in many accidents. The calls for service were already piling up by the time I hit the street.

It was nearly one in the afternoon before I was finally able to take a lunch break. I grabbed a sandwich and a couple of eggnogs at the local market before heading over to see Mrs. Perkins. I was excited about being able to keep my promise to her and looking forward to seeing her face light up at the sight of me.

I parked in the nearly vacant lot and headed inside. The receptionist was a different girl than the one I’d spoken to the previous day. Holiday help I assumed. She asked if she could help me and I politely declined. “Thank you but I’m all set. Just visiting someone.”

I walked down the corridor to her room, stopping as I reached her door. The room was empty. Her personal belongings were gone and the nameplate was missing from the door. I felt like someone had knocked the wind out of me.

“Can I help you, officer?” a soft female voice asked from behind me.

I turned and saw a young orderly. “I’m looking for Mrs. Perkins. Ruth Perkins. Has she been moved?”

“Are you a relative?”

I pondered her question before answering. “Sort of. I just visited her yesterday.”

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Mrs. Perkins passed away last night.”


Many years have passed since that Christmas. I’m still a police officer with the same department. Heck, I’ve been on so long now that I get every Christmas off. I’ve never forgotten Ruth Perkins or her gift to me. Oh, I know what your thinking. That it was I who gave her one last visit with her son. But I think of it a it differently. I believe Mrs. Perkins is the one who bestowed a great gift on me. She restored my faith in humanity, helped me appreciate what I have. Her belief that I was her son was so strong and so real that I couldn’t help but feel the same love for her in return. Her faith and her love changed me forever. And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

A Little Christmas Silliness… Again

Hello all!

We had a little delay in our posting schedule this week, but in honor of the holiday season, I thought I’d share an older Christmas post that got a lot of positive response a couple of years ago. We hope you enjoy, and that you have the happiest of holiday seasons!

-Ben Keller



Detective Sergeant C. Andy Kaine

24 December

19:08 —  Det. Kaine arrived at crime scene.  Initial reports scattered, ranging from misdemeanor stalking to home invasion.  Victim reports interrupting would-be burglar.  Uniformed officers have circulated initial description of overweight man in red jacket and pants.  Patrol officers in vicinity given BOLO for vehicle pulled by unidentified livestock.

19:12 — Det. Kaine entered the victim’s dwelling.  Inspection indicated no sign of forced entry.  Inside the residence, the detective observed some sort of ritualistic decorations involving socks hanging over the fireplace.  Possible involvement of psychotropic drugs, as victim reports his children were experiencing hallucinations of a “dancing sugar plum.”  Ordered tox screens on the children and contacted Child Protective Services.

19:20 — Interviewed victim.  He claims he and his wife were sleeping when they were awoken by loud noises.  He heard something on the roof, then he heard a suspect calling his accomplices by name.  “Dancer.  Prancer.  Vixen.  Cupid.”  Sent uniformed officers to canvas local strip clubs.

19:30 — Inspected roof of dwelling.  Victim reported the suspect was walking on roof.  Ordered plaster molds of footprints found in snow.  One set of boot prints, several sets of hoof prints.  Contacted Animal Control.

19:45 — Sketch artist arrived and took description from victim.  Suspect described as obese, beard and mustache, and a weird look in his eyes.  Based on the Identi-Kit rendering, issued warrant for Zach Galifinakis.  

19:50  — Victim amended his description to say that suspect looked like a “bowl full of jelly.”  Ordered tox screen for victim as well.

20:05 — Child Protective Services arrived, and we interviewed victim’s children.  We learned of a potential witness to the alleged crime.  Children reported that a frequent visitor often surveilled the home and reported on actions inside.  Contacted Research Division to review Confidential Informant files for anyone with the street name “Elf on the Shelf.”

20:15 — Children also reported this “break in” was an annual occurrence.  They cited as evidence cookies they left out for the alleged perpetrator.  After each break-in, the cookies had been partially eaten.

20:20 — Found cookies on plate near ritually decorated tree.  It was two sugar cookies.  Frosted.  One bite had been missing from each.  Took plaster molds of cookies and summoned Forensic Dentist.

20:35 — Re-interviewed “victim.”  I obtained consent to visually inspect his teeth.  Confirmation from Forensic Dentist is pending, but the victim’s dental pattern appeared to match the bite marks in the cookies.  This looks like an inside job.  Took him to the station as material witness for additional questioning.  Some drugged up madman off the streets, children safely in the custody of the state.  It feels good to make a difference.  Merry Christmas.

A Trial Separation

In every courthouse where I’ve worked, the “holiday jury” scares lawyers. They fear twelve citizens imbued with Christmas spirit. Some worry about the wrath of people whose busy time has been interrupted. Others dread the mercy they may dole out sitting during the “peace on earth, good will” season. Twelve Amiable Men, bleary-eyed from an overdose of Hallmark holiday movies, might not mete out the justice the government seeks. Of course, the holiday jury might have been convenient cover for lawyers who didn’t want to work between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Avoiding a trial became a Christmas tradition.

In honor of the holiday jury, there will be no Trial-of-the-Month for December. Instead, I’d like to build on a different Christmas tradition. My friend and fellow blogger, Bruce Coffin, annually offers a short story. He weaves a poignant tale of the Christmas season. I hope you’ll look forward to it.

I’d like to offer another small story to join with Bruce’s. Although this tale likely won’t tug at your heartstrings, it might convince you to protect your ankles or wear a helmet during your December adventures.

May y’all have a safe and joyous holiday season.

Mark Thielman

Santa in the Cellblock

Just before the annual holiday takeoff, Dasher twisted his fetlock. He landed wrong during a hotly contested reindeer game. Although Dasher promptly buried his leg in a snowbank, a task easily accomplished at the North Pole, his hoof swelled up like a fruitcake. It looked round and brown but dotted with small green and red colored bits No one had ever seen a foreleg quite like it. He limped back to his stall with a heavy-hooved clop, clop, CLOP. The chief veterinarian ruled him, unable to travel with the sleigh on Santa’s busiest night of the year. Dasher couldn’t pass the flight protocols.

The lead job, therefore, got handed off to his protégé, Lightning. A highly decorated student, Lightning had been groomed for the top job. He had studied the manuals and memorized the procedures. Mostly, Santa liked his cockiness, his deering-do, he called it. Lightning stood as a study in leadership as the deer-collar was adjusted, the traces straightened, and the bells affixed. The calf, however, quickly learned that success in the simulator was not the same as flying in the real world; the decisions came faster, the air stung colder, the clouds cloaked thicker. The stars, when he could see them, appeared far more jumbled. As the sleigh flew south, high altitudes remained cold, even by North Pole standards. Ice crystals clotted his lashes, limiting his vision. Navigation, in short, proved unimaginably hard in the December sky of the Northern Hemisphere. Before long, the rookie reindeer found himself horribly and irrecoverably lost. Compounding the problem, Santa steadfastly refused to install a global positioning system. He insisted on piloting by earthly landmarks, the North Star, and a near total reliance upon his trusty team. He still slid down chimneys, even at the environmentally sensitive, “green” houses where the roofs were completely covered in solar panels. It was, perhaps, no coincidence that “Yule” rhymed with “Old School.”

By the time the sleigh flew over the Red River, crossing from Oklahoma into Texas, Lightning, lost and confused, started to get panicky. Fear welled within him. He hoped the city beneath his airborne hooves was Fort Worth, but it might have been Dallas or even Lubbock, Lightning wasn’t sure. He’d never seen Dallas from a drawn sleigh at night. Through the ice prisms clogging his lashes, he saw a flat roofed structure alongside a building with a tall green spire. If he could land, just for a moment, he thought to himself, he might thaw his face and get his bearings. He put the sleigh into a steep dive.

Santa felt himself thrown hard against the dash rail of the sleigh. The breath burst from his lungs, a cloud of frozen exhale exploded out of his beard. The G forces pressed against him. The sled pushed hard into his chest, squeezing the remaining air from him. Lightning snapped sharply out of the dive and landed with a lurch on the roof. Santa, again, launched backward. This time, Old St. Nick’s head struck the sleigh’s backboard with a resounding thwack.

Santa sat for a moment stunned, his brain scrambled and oxygen starved. Red and green spots, like those on Dasher’s foreleg, danced in front of Santa’s narrowed vision. Then, he stepped off the sleigh, staggered a bit, and shook his head. With a gloved hand, he grabbed the sack of toys that he had stowed. Santa stuck out his elfin tongue and tasted the air.

“Strange,” he said to no one. The crisp night air tasted like Fort Worth rather than Charleston, South Carolina, his intended destination. Again, he stuck his tongue out and gathered another mouthful. He rolled the flavors around, pursing his lips. The culinary gears spun beneath that great red hat as he struggled to place the familiar tastes. No salt air, no palmetto, rather natural gas with a soupçon of barbecue and old rodeo — it most definitely was Fort Worth.

“No matter. I’ve got to go there too. Although we do need to practice that landing.” Lightning kept his head down in shame. Santa peered inside the bag, adjusting it and trying to focus.  St. Nick shook his head, his beard dancing back and forth like a ship’s sail in a hurricane. Finally, he adjusted the contents, removing some toy sailboats and substituting cowboy gear. Not many tradeoffs were required. No matter where his sleigh landed, nearly every child wanted some electronic game or another these days. Santa blinked his eyes twice and made his way toward the chimney.

He quickly found the curved metal shaft. Odd, he thought, to see a chimney twisted this way. St. Nick paused at the opening and examined the heavy metal grate covering it. A small sign marked the entrance. Santa blinked and squinted, struggling to read the words, “Caution: Jail.”

“How sweet,” the jolly elf said out loud, “Jill has almost learned to spell her own name, yet she still wants me to be careful. That’s why I like helping good boys and girls.”

Summoning up that Kris Kringle magic, he squeezed his full body as well as his toy sack through the mesh grating.  

“Some serious squirrels must live around here,” he said as he began a slide down a chimney only an elf could traverse. He said it again as he slid through the next security screen as well as the next. Finally, he found himself deep in a network of air vents.

“Oh, bother,” said Santa. “It appears that it wasn’t a chimney after all.” He briefly considered going back to the roof. He quickly dismissed the idea with the unruffled demeanor of a jolly old elf, “This should get me to the Christmas tree, too.”

Pushing his bag of toys in front of him, Santa slid on his belly through the smooth aluminum duct work. Say what you will, he thought, the route maybe long, but it sure snags the suit less than the brick and mortar of old Victorian chimneys. Santa got lost a time or two. Perhaps, things would have gone more easily if his ears were not still ringing from that landing.

“I do hope they have milk and cookies at this house,” he mumbled. “I could use a break.”

After much effort, Santa dropped in a room, round and sparsely furnished. Eight little sleeping pods branched off this main room.

  “How quaint,” Santa thought, “like the petals on a flower.”

At the far end of the great room Santa saw that the parents had made their bedroom almost entirely out of glass, enabling them to keep a watch on their children. On the opposite side of the parents’ room, Santa saw another set of children’s bedrooms mirroring these.

“Remarkable,” he said aloud. “That many children and they still want to keep a constant vigil. What devoted parents.” The heavy doors were, he thought, a bit excessive for children’s rooms. “What if there was a fire? How could they get out?”

The parents did not seem to notice Santa’s appearance in the children’s playroom. Though they wore dark pajamas, perhaps to surprise him, Santa had become less concerned about meeting a stray adult than in the old days. He remained invisible to most grownups. One older boy, however, sat alone at an octagonal table. The boy wore his green onesie. Almost ready for bed, St. Nick knew.

“Still working on his letter to Santa,” the old elf said to himself, smiling. The boy’s list must fill the page for he could see that the lad had drawn pictures on his arms of the toy guns he wanted. Despite his many years, Santa remained soft-hearted for a true believer.

Santa generally avoided contact with children on Christmas Eve. His heart, however, went out to lonely boys and girls. And, with his ears ringing and his head still spinning, he wanted to rest for a few minutes. He plopped heavily down onto the bench across from the boy.

The boy eyed him, saying nothing.

“Did you write a letter?” St. Nick asked, his eyes still not too lively or quick.

The boy remained silent.

Clearly, Santa thought, he was too stunned to speak. “A letter to the big man in charge,” Santa prompted, “telling him what you want?”

“My attorney says he is working on one,” the pajama-clad boy answered.

Santa really did shake when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly. Utterly adorable, Santa thought, the way the boy said his lawyer wrote his letter.

Santa reached out his arm offering a red striped treat. “Candy cane?”

The boy nodded. “She is one of my favorite dancers. That’s why I go to the XTC Club.”

Santa looked confused. 

The young fellow’s eyes surveyed him, examining his clothes from collar to toe. “How did you get the red suit?”

 “It’s because of the flight,” Santa answered.

 “Yep, I figured,” the boy answered, “Flight risk, that’s how most guys get red suited around here. What’s your name?

 “Oh, I have many names,” the jolly elf said.

 “Lots of the fellas do,” the boy said. “If they fingerprint ya, they’ll figure it out. What are you in for?”

“I’m in here to deliver,” Santa said.

The boy nodded in agreement. “Yep, that’s what got me in here too.”

Santa slid close to the boy on the metal bench. “Tell me what you want for Christmas.” He hoped the boy said, Peace on Earth. He loved it when teenagers saw the big picture.

“I want my lawyer to get me a habeas corpus.”

Santa nodded knowingly. In truth, he didn’t have the foggiest idea what the “Happiest Porpoise” was. He left the boy a smiling dolphin doll and candy canes for all his friends. He’d have the elves do more research before next Christmas Eve.