The two-man horse costume arrives about a week before the Christmas assembly. ‘Gator and Noah quickly coordinate the movements of the horse, now named Bunny. They have no problem with the close quarters of the outfit. They treat it like a football drill. We have been rehearsing the episode for more than a week. The added horse antics and pranks enhances the liveliness of the whole performance. We keep to the script, which all the actors have memorized and practiced before the improvised humor. We have a week to make it come alive. The non-actors are split into the chorus and the stage crew. The chorus already knows the standard Christmas carols. I spend time playing the music for them and rehearsing their singing. Everyone sings very well.
The first day with the live Bunny character turns into utter chaos. “Gator is learning his marks but quickly decides there are many chances to improvise. ‘Gator choreographs his entrance at the beginning of the play, trotting onstage with the Laura character on his back, rearing up and kicking as if he is a bucking bronco. He starts biting the boys on the butt and nuzzling the girls. Noah starts kicking Mr. Oleson and even Charles Ingalls whenever they aren’t looking. Their nervous anticipation of these attacks creates great humorous tension. I suggest the girls carry apples to fend off Bunny; ‘Gator makes a great show of chomping the apples, even passing one to Noah who masticates the fruit and drops it out the back of the horse costume. I assign Neil, a non-actor, to run on stage and sweep up the horse manure. The new character has no lines but he’s a natural ham, adding to the comic chaos as he cleans up the ‘stinky’ droppings.
My choice of Tammy as Laura proves prophetic,; she is a ranch girl and expert horsewoman. Tish as Nellie Oleson is less proficient, taking a few spills when she tries to ride Bunny. ‘Gator learns to be less vigorous, but Tish remains cautious, which plays into the plot as well. Mrs. McCarthy becomes adept at fielding complaints from the actors and crew. My idea to recreate horse manure for Noah to ‘drop’ is enhanced with synchronized ‘plop’ sound effects and energized clean-ups by Neil.
“How about we do the dress rehearsal in front of an elementary school audience?” I ask Mrs. McCarthy. “It’ll be a good gauge of how well the pranks and antics will go over.”
She just smiles and nods her approval. Her goal of familiarizing the class with 19th Century life on the Prairie is greatly exceeded by the live performance. The stage crew has done a great job of painting backdrops of the changing settings – Oleson’s store, the Ingalls’ house, barn and outdoor farm scenes. The many props needed are readily available. Farm life in Iowa has not changed much in the last 100 years. We take liberties to make the production less complicated. The wagon wheel that Pa must fix is changed to a baby carriage wheel. Mrs. Whipple’s seamstress shop is relocated to a corner of the general store. My planning skills are in over-drive. Mrs. McCarthy lets me run on my own. I keep her appraised of new developments. We schedule a grade school class to attend the dress rehearsal on Friday the 19th, with the actual Christmas assembly on the last day before the holiday break, Tuesday, December 23rd. It will give us the weekend to make corrections from what we learn at dress rehearsal. Hippie and friends/family are due to arrive on the weekend after a long overnight drive. Hopefully the weather will cooperate, although a White Christmas will just be frosting on the cake.
When we invite one elementary school to attend our dress rehearsal for ‘A Plum Creek Christmas’, all the other elementary schools plead to be invited. As the students file into the Aims High auditorium, I overhear many kids saying they think the actual TV cast has come to Ames. I gather the cast and crew on stage behind the curtain. The audience of 6-11 year-olds is already creating a dull roar in the auditorium.
“Y’all hear all that noise?” I ask them. “That’s 1200 kids expectin’ to see the actual characters from their favorite TV show. We ain’t gonna disappoint them ‘cause yer better than those TV actors. What we’ve done with the script will be real Prairie, not just Hollywood’s idea of what it’s like to live out here. Just think of yer granddaddys and grammas living on the edge of civilization. Just a word about speaking up. There’s 1200 noisy kids out there. Make sure that the last kid in the back row hears ya as good as the front row seats. Let’s not lose the sound battle. The same goes for the chorus. Sing yer hearts out. It will sound too loud on stage, which will really help the actors to project. Oh, and let’s have fun. We’ve done the work to be ready. All we need now is real Christmas spirit.”
“Andy said everything I would say. Let’s just do it.” Mrs. McCarthy sends us out on stage.
I step out in front of the closed curtain, followed by the ten singers of the chorus. Picking up my Gibson SG, I look up and wink at Jace. I open with the notes to ‘Jingle Bells’
The curtain opens to the front of the Plum Creek General store with Nellie Oleson standing outside. As the chorus finishes singing, out prances Bunny with Laura clinging to his mane. The kids all go ‘ah,’ and start giggling as Laura and Nellie trade sticking-out tongues at each other. Laura dismounts to allow Nellie to ride. Noah kicks, knocking over a milk can, while ‘Gator is hopping up and down, so Nellie can’t get on. The kids start laughing now. Nellie finally mounts Bunny.
Nellie: (on Laura’s horse, Bunny) “Can I gallop him?”
Laura: “No. You be careful, Nellie Oleson. I don’t want him to get all winded.”
(The Ingalls family comes out of Oleson’s Mercantile)
Charles: “Laura, come on. Time to go!”
Laura: (to Nellie) “That’s enough. Pa’s ready to go.”
Nellie: “Just one more time?”
Laura: “No, now get off
‘Gator reaches around trying to bite Nellie.
Nellie: “You ought to get a saddle for him.”
Laura: “I don’t need one.” (Sticking out her tongue at Nellie)
Nellie: “If he was mine, I’d get him a saddle.”
Laura: “Well, he isn’t yours.”
(‘Gator neighs and prances around Laura.)
(Nellie runs to her father)
Nellie: “You’d buy him for me, wouldn’t you? The pony? If I told you how much I wanted him?”
(Bunny runs over to listen to her plea.)
Noah shouts out: ‘Stop farting ‘Gator.’
Kids love fart jokes. The kids are now roaring with laughter
Nellie: “Please? I promise I won’t ask for another single solitary thing for Christmas if you buy me Bunny.”
(Bunny shaking his rear end, deposits a fake pile of manure.)
Now the kids are screaming with laughter.
(The smallest kid in the class, Neil, runs out with a shovel and removes the manure to continued hilarity. A large number of kids from the back rows run forward and sit on the floor below the stage.
(Bunny trots over, looking at the seated kids, sniffs like he’s smelling them, turns around and deposits more manure.) The little kid runs out and cleans it up again.
Mr. Oleson: “Uh, Laura? Would.. would you take $5 for him?”
Laura: “He’s not for sale.”
(Bunny runs over and nuzzles Laura. The kids cheer.)
Nellie:” You can’t say that. Only your Pa can say that. He’s for sale, isn’t he, Mr. Ingalls?”
Charles: “I’m afraid not, Nellie. That’s Laura’s horse. If she doesn’t want to sell him, she doesn’t have to sell him.”
(Laura grins at Nellie, who glares back)
Nellie: “He don’t even have a saddle.”
Laura: “I hate that Nellie Oleson!”
Caroline: “Laura! Don’t say hate–don’t even think hate! Now, you may be angry, but try to understand. I’m sure Nellie must have some fine qualities in her.”
Charles: “Your Ma’s right. On the way home, we’ll try and think of one.”
(Laura laughs as Caroline hides a smile)
The audience is clapping and stomping their feet. The elementary teachers attempt to get the kids back in their seats. Mrs. McCarthy intercedes, telling them the kids are part of the show, as if we had planned it.
The chorus and I play ‘Jingle Bell Rock,’
with Bunny reappearing, shaking the bells on his back. The noise is deafening. I turn up my amp to maximum as the chorus sings as loud as they can. I note to have mics for the assembly.
The play proceeds, with great cheers and hilarity every time Bunny appears. He also comes out between scenes. One time he neighs the chorus to Jingle Bells. I jump in on guitar, once I recognize the tune.
The highlight of the play is the star on the tree, at which we play ‘We Three Kings.’
The audience of kids quiets as the Christmas mood settles them down. Bunny comes down from the stage, sitting with the kids, who pile on top of ‘Gator and Noah.
It was time to give Bunny to Nellie.
(Laura goes to the barn to get Bunny)
Nellie: “I’ll be good to him. I promise.”
Laura: “You better be. (to Bunny) Come on.”
(Bunny refuses to go to Nellie, hiding behind Laura.)
Mr. Oleson: “Thank you, Laura. Now, steady, Bunny. That’s a boy. There you go. You got a new home. Yes, sir. Steady, Bunny.”
(Bunny slinks away, climbing down with the kids on the floor. They hold onto to him, to keep him safe)
(Laura comes inside crying)
Caroline: “Oh, Laura. Oh. I just love my new stove. Don’t cry.”
Carrie: “Papa, open mine. Open mine, Papa.”
Charles: “Carrie, we almost forgot about you. Well, that’s quite a present. Who’s it for?”
Carrie: “Baby Jesus.”
Charles: “Oh. Well, let’s see. (unwraps the star) That is very pretty, Carrie. Want to put it on the tree? Come on. Up we go. There.”
Charles: (to Caroline) “Merry Christmas.”
Caroline: “Merry Christmas.”
Carrie: “Happy birthday, Baby Jesus.”
We end with ‘Silent Night’ as Charles holds Carrie up to place the star on the tree.
All the players and crew join the chorus in singing the carol. Kids are clapping and crying at the same time. The curtain comes down. The clapping gives us a curtain call. We send ‘Gator and Noah out. They bow as Bunny, then pull off their costume, take real bows, with big grins at the resounding cheers. We all join them on stage.
Heck, this is just the dress rehearsal.
Mrs. McCarthy is besieged by the elementary school teachers, congratulating her on getting teenagers to do a real Christmas play and to make it so much fun.
“It’s your kids that made it fun. They are part of the performance, too,” she reminds them. “Good luck getting them to settle down back in class.”
“We told their parents and the buses to pick them up here. It’s a surprise half-day.”
“It is a Merry Christmas,” Mrs. McCarthy is beaming.
I’m smiling at her, until she comes over to hug me. I feel like I’m back in grammar school.
“They’re ready to make me teacher of the year, when you deserve all the credit,” she compliments me.
“Thank you for feeding my addiction. I need that rush from performing.”
“It’s a gift, Andy. Never disparage it.”
She gives me a better outlook. Never one to miss an accolade. No false humility here.
I wonder how we’re going to top the dress rehearsal with the actual assembly performance on Tuesday. I doubt that high schoolers will be as entranced by the antics added to the script. I decide to rely on ‘Gator to entertain our peers. Fart jokes work on kids of all ages. Mrs. McCarthy and I agree that there is no need to rehearse or make changes. Better not to overdo rehearsing. We do need to instruct the players to play to the audience by waiting for the laughs and cheers to die down before going on with their lines. That’s if we get the same raucous reception with the older kids.
I spend Friday night writing out Christmas cards to all my friends and second families in Miami. 1975 was a tumultuous year for me, affecting everyone I know. I have so much to say to the Watt family that I write a complete letter to enclose with my card. Cards are sufficient for most of my friends – the Stones, Uncles Tam and Steve, Father Frank, Hippie’s moms, Susan and Dad, Coach Earl, Mike Sr, Jay, and even Doug Weston. They have all been influential. I fill each card with thanks and reminiscences. The twins get home about midnight and sit with me reading the cards.
“You have so many people in your life,” Amy is amazed. “You treat them all like family.”
“That’s what happens for an only child; you adopt second families. I always wanted brothers and sisters. Most of my military friends had 5 or 6 siblings.”
“Did you write to any of them?” Angela always spots weak links in my stories.
“Naw. We always expected to just move on to new assignments.”
“Just like you’ve moved on to us,” she can be tough.
“You two don’t need a brother? Being twins makes you so close, you don’t let others in?” I shoot back.
“You know we love you, Andy. You shook up our world when you arrived two months ago,” Amy disarms the conflict.
“You’re lucky I’m your age. Wait ‘til ya meet Tommy to find out what a little brother can be like.”
“Are you warning us?”
“Be on notice. He’s so sweet he’ll win your heart and such a pest you’ll want to kick his ass.”
“No ass kicking going on here.”
“Well, you can kiss his ass then.”
My heart is beating hard, just by mentioning him.
“Why are you blushing?” Angie has to know.
“Just excited that he’s coming to visit.”
“That’s cute. Ya sure it ain’t more than anticipation?”
“He’s my little brother. We had such fun living out in the Everglades by ourselves.”
“We’ll make him feel at home. Don’t worry.”
I tell them the back story of the ‘Gatorsaurus legend, how it was to get Tommy to stop hero-worshiping me.
“Andy’s got a groupie,” they taunt me.
“Jist warnin’ ya. He’ll be all over me. He’s real possessive.”
“Ew, sounds like a girlfriend. We’s bin wonderin’ when you’d git one.”
I give them a sharp look. Then we break up into giggles. Sisters.
“One thing ya gots ta prepare for is he wants to sing with us. And, he cain’t carry a tune worth beans. I needs ya ta pinch him when he’s off key to nudge him up.”
“That’ll be fun,” they agree.
“We used ta sing fer this black panther that come by camp at night.”
“A Black militant?”
“Naw, a real panther cat. It would sit in a tree and watch us when it got dark.”
“Did he wanna eat ya?” Amy is wide-eyed.
“That idea got Tommy all wound up. I thought the cat was protectin’ us. We’s got tons o’ stories ‘bout campin’ in the ‘Glades. Tommy kin rilly spin a tale. Just ax him when he’s here.”
‘Gator comes by for breakfast, as we have a bowling tournament that Saturday. I know it takes 24 hours to drive from Miami. I hope Hippie and everyone will arrive that evening. The girls notice that I’m worked up. Their kidding throws off my bowling, but the team does better, not coming in last for once. All the teams go for pizza at the Pit after the tournament.
The twins corner ‘Gator telling him about my groupie.
“He’s my little brother,” I correct them.
“Then he’s my little brother, too,” ‘Gator adopts him like he does everyone.
“We’re all little brothers and sisters to you, big boy,” Amy kids him.
“I needs some o’ that brotherly love,” as he grabs her in a hug.
“We alls need that Phillydellfia love,” as I break into Harold Melvin’s ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now:’
The girls back me up a Capella, as we sing to ‘Gator and the boys. The other bowling teams are well entertained.
It’s time for my pizza delivery shift. I come and go until 7pm. ‘Gator and the rest of the team are still enjoying the Pizza Pit. ‘Gator has struck a deal with the manager for free pizza since he is bringing in so much new business. The Pit becomes a legend.
I rush home hoping to see the familiar beat-up station wagon in the drive. No such luck. We all go up to the third floor and sing along to the twins’ record collection, me playing guitar, Amy on the piano, and Angela acting as DJ.
“Tim, your friends are here,” Mom calls up the stairs.
We all rush outside to greet them. The three of us, ‘Gator and his posse and the rest of the bowling team, surround the station wagon. Tommy jumps out and has both arms around me. (at least he doesn’t kiss me)
Hippie is patting me on the back. Anna stands there big as a house as I hug her.
“Hi, mama,” I greet her. They are stunned by the crowd after the long drive.
Tommy is never at a loss for words, “Y’all here jist to greet us’ns?”
‘Gator grabs him, “Sure, little bro,” as he tosses him up into the air. That shuts him up.
I grab him back, “He’s my little brother. Y’all gots to earn it.”
I hold him at arm’s length. “Y’all got big,” as I admire him, then pull him into a big hug. He won’t let go. They all go ‘aw.’
Turning to everyone, “Tim’s my big brother.” Then looking at ‘Gator, “Y’all’s my bigger brother.”
The moms are introduced, taking Anna into their arms. They lead her inside as she needs the bathroom urgently.
“Yeah, she hadda stop like every ten miles. Took us forever to git here,” Hippie complains.
The twins take an instant liking to his country ways.
“Yer Andy’s best friend, or so he says.”
“I guess. I never had friends ‘til Jace and he decided ta adopt me.”
“Ya lived in Iowa ‘afore?” Amy is all sweetness.
“Jist last Fall. My Mima and Pipa live here ’bouts.”
“We don’ts call grandparents that here in Iowa.”
“Well, they’s from Texas, hadta move here ‘cause o’ my moms.”
“We gots two moms, too. Come meet ‘em.”
The twins drag him to meet the moms. Hippie is still the groupie king.
“How ya likes my friends,” I ask ‘Gator, with Tommy still attached to my hip.
“Well, they ain’t stand-offish. I thoughts y’all friends was real rich and snooty.”
“Some, but they’s too busy gitting their presents to come visit me.”
“How come yer called ‘Gator. I’s got me a fear of ‘gators since last summer,” Tommy asks.
‘Andy gave me the name ‘cause I reminded him of that ‘Gatorsaurus story y’all tells. I gits ta hear if from you now.”
Tommy finally detaches himself from me and is in his element. He describes the alligator in lurid, colorful and gruesome terms. ‘Gator is entranced and starts acting out the scenario, as Tommy describes it, lunging at the girls when Tommy relates how the ‘gator came out of the swamp, jaws snapping and tail whipping back and forth. Noah couldn’t help himself from swishing his butt back and forth, like he is still playing Bunny the horse.
The moms prepare a meal for the travelers. ‘Gator decides that most of it was for him. Anna gives him a run for his money. He claps Hippie on the back, “Ya gots yerself one fine woman, Hippie. I loves a woman who ain’t afraid to tuck in the food .”
“She’s eating for two now,” Hippie explains.
“You little devil,” “Gator slaps Hippie again, “What’s ya gonna name ‘im?”
“We’s gots ta decide that?”
“How ‘bout ‘Gator, if’n it’s a boy?” he innocently promotes himself.
“Maybe. But now I’s hopin’ for a girl.”
The moms have Hippie call the grandparents, insisting they stay the night in Ames as it is too late for the old folk to wait up. We all end up on the third floor, continuing our sing-along. The twins love pinching Tommy when he goes off-key. His choir attendance has helped his singing, but he still is afraid to reach for high notes. A little pinch jumps him right up there, almost squeaking the words.
As it is so late, ‘Gator decides everyone will spend the night as a sleepover. Most of the bowling girls can’t stay but the boy posse soon claims beds or the floor in the spare second floor bedrooms. Tommy marches right in with me up on the third. When the girls call out ‘Goodnite, Jim Bob,’ they follow it with ‘Goodnight, Tom Boy.” We giggle and called back ‘Goodnight, Mary Ellen.”
Tommy snuggles into my arms. Reaching down, he goes to grab my dick.
“We ain’t goin’ there, ‘less we’s alone,” I whisper.
He doesn’t complain, reaching both arms around me. He is asleep in no time. I’m laying on my back, looking at the ceiling with a raging hard-on, not daring to move and wake him up. I must’ve fallen asleep because it is morning. We both are stiff from not moving all night long.
Coming down to breakfast, nine teenagers for Mom’s blueberry pancakes. We all have seconds. We would have had more except Tommy is antsy to get out and drive around Ames.
“Sorry, bud. Sunday morning means Church.”
“I gots ta go ta Church here?” he complains.
Molly comes over and hugs him. “We are proud to show you off to everyone. Seems like we have a new son, at least for Christmas.”
Tommy’s gets real wide-eyed, looking around the table, checking to see if the twins agree.
“It makes me proud ya feels that way. I’s happy ta be in church wid y’all. Ya knows I love Huck as my true brother. I think he’s got the bestest family ever. I cain’t believe I gots me two new families now.”
He goes around and hugs everyone. The girls never flinch. He just sits beside me on my chair with our arms wrapped around each other.
“Now tell us the ‘Gatorsaurus story. Andy says y’all tells it best.”
“Ya all knows Huck saved me from that there abusive juvenile work camp. But even he’s no match fer ‘Gatorsaurus. I tell Huck I’s never goin’ into the heart of the Everglades, but it’s the only way out of that prison camp. No one ever lived trying to escape through the snake and alligator infested swamp. But we’s desperate. Our fellow inmates is being classified retards and insane maniacs for life, jist fer not following they’s rules. We jump the fence and immediately had to git through the endless swamp. I’s so scared, Huck had to hold my hand as we made it away from the camp in the dead of night. Huck, he knows a ton o’ stuff about campin’ and livin’ off the land. We find chickens laying eggs and rice patches fer grain, and best is when he teaches me to caitch stupid catfish by scooping them with my whole arm. Once we got the lean-to built, we decides to take a swim where the swamp is clear. We were havin’ a good ol’ time splashin’ and dunkin’ each other. I’d plumb fergot ‘bouts my fears of alligators and such. I’s not paying no attention. Suddenly Huck’s eyes git real big. He grabs me and pulls my away from the biggest ‘gator ya ever done seen. He yells ‘Gator.’ I jump on his back. We high-tail it to the island where we’s camped. After we’s safe on land, I went over the water’s edge and made fun o’ that ol’ humongous ‘gator. Bang. He’s coming right out o’ that water. His feet goin’ a hundred miles an hour, right for me. His jaws is snapping. There must be a hundred teeth, just ready ta snap me in two and et me whole. He is that big. His breath is foul and stinky. His green scales were all rotted. Green slime oozed off its back. His tail was whippin’ back ‘n forth. The worst was his eyes, never stop starin’ right at me. When he sprays water out his long nose, I sweat it is smoke. We run under a tree and ol’ Huck he pushes me up into the branches. He can’t climb over me and I’s too scared to move. ‘Gatorsaurous is charging right fer Huck. Jist at the last-minute, ol’ Huck jumps on the ‘gator’s head and bounces into the tree, right over me. ‘Gatorsaurous looks ‘round, seeing me stuck halfway safe up the tree and charges ta git me. ‘Course Huck is ready. He hit ol’ ‘Gatorsaurus on the nose with a stick. He knows ‘gators hate that. Huck reaches down and pulled me ta safety. It took more’n four hours fer that dumb ol’ ‘gator to ferget etin’ us. He finally wanders off. And never comes back. I thought at first he’s scared o’ ol’ Huck. But then I find out ‘gators gots big noses fer smellin.’ An’ ol Huck he be smellin’ so bad, that ol ‘gator ’bout lost his lunch.”
I forgot how funny Tommy makes the story. Everyone starts laughing halfway through the telling. When he finishes with me stinking so bad, Amy shouts, “An’ he’s still stinky.”
I must love abuse, ‘cause everyone is piling on. Even in church, we keep breaking out in giggles. They make the twins and me stand in the back of the choir.
I tell Molly to pinch Tommy when he goes off-key singing hymns. I keep laughing during the service as he keeps jumping because of his lame singing. I have Hippie sing his trademark ‘Amazing Grace.’ He amazes the church goers. After he finishes we all go over to sit with the moms. There are thirteen of us taking up an entire pew. We are slowly taking over the church.
Time for Hippie and Anna to leave. They promise to attend the Christmas assembly performance on Tuesday, as well as coming over from the grandparents when they can get away. Tommy is jealous when he sees how much I love that boy, making him more determined to get me alone. His possessiveness reminds me of Jack, but instead of buying his way into my heart, he plans to fuck his way in. I laugh, knowing he’s already there. How can I let him know how much I love and want him without ruining it all?