Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

February 13, 1862: Thaw Out the Holly

With the giving and getting of gifts growing to a crescendo in late December, it is to many a glass of cold water in the face when the merriment suddenly gives way to a bleak long winter with scarcely a box or a bow in sight. The people of Norwich, a city on England’s east coast, a couple of centuries ago found a way to keep on giving by elevating February 13, St. Valentine’s Eve to a Christmas-like celebration.

According to an 1862 account, this Victorian tradition was evidently peculiar to Norwich: visitors to the city were often puzzled to find the shop windows crammed with gifts in early February and newspapers full of advertisements for ‘Useful and Ornamental Articles Suitable for the Season’ available from local retailers.

As soon as it got dark on St. Valentine’s Eve, the streets were swarming with folks carrying baskets of treasures to be anonymously dropped on doorsteps throughout the city. They’d deposit a gift, bang on the door, and rush away before anyone inside could reach the door. Indoors there were excited shrieks and shouts, flushed faces, sparkling eyes and laughter, a rush to the door, examination of the parcels.

Practical jokers  were everywhere as well, ringing doorbells and running off, leaving mock parcels that were pulled away by string when someone attempted to pick them up. Large parcels that dwindled to nothing as the recipient fought through layer after layer of wrapping, and even larger parcels containing live boys who would jump out, steal a kiss, and run away.

As with most holidays that involve children out after dark and mischief, the celebration of St. Valentine’s Eve fell out of favor, to be replaced by the Hallmark-inspired and saintless Valentine’s Day.

No Valentine, This One

Hal Foster had been drawing the Tarzan comic strip based on the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs for several years, but itched to create his own original strip. He began work on a feature called Derek, Son of Thane, set in Arthurian England. Before the strip had its coming out party on February 13, 1937, it had gone through a couple of name changes, first to Prince Arn and eventually to Prince Valiant.

Prince Valiant was five years old when his story began, a continuous story that has been told through 4,000 Sunday episodes. Without a whole lot of deference to historical accuracy, Val’s adventure’s take him throughout Europe, Africa, the Far East and even the Americas in a time frame covering hundreds of years. He does battle with Huns, Vikings, Sorcerers, witches and a slew of monsters from prehistoric to modern, but always big.

Foster drew the strip until 1971 and wrote the continuity until 1980. Since then, other artists have kept it alive. Foster died in 1982, at age 89.

Fore, I mean duck

Golf is thought of as relatively safe sport.  But for the safety of others, there are just some people who should not be allowed on a golf course.  Vice President Spiro Agnew had the dubious distinction of beaning not just one but three spectators on this day in 1971 during the Bob Hope Desert Classic.  On his very first drive, he sliced into the crowd for a two-bagger, bouncing off a man to nail his wife as well.  On his next shot, he hit a woman, sending her to the hospital.  The previous year, Agnew had managed to hit his partner in the back of the head.

Sweet Sugar Cane, Part 2: Roll Out the Barrel

They were drinking from this barrel of rum?”

They weren’t, and that was odd. They’d take a drink from a bottle then pour the rest of it into the barrel until it was filled to the brim.”

And how is it that there is a barrel of rum in your kitchen?” the judge asked.

Napoleon makes rum,” Mrs. Napoleon answered, and then, glowering at her husband, added: “Very bad rum.”

Please continue.”

They were drinking and making strange talk. ‘Kind of scrawny,’ says the one. ‘Not so much as you’d think,’ says the other. ‘I’d say not over 120 pounds,’ says the one. ‘You’d be surprised,’ says the other. ‘Ready?’ says the one. ‘Ready,’ says the other. Then they stand up and stagger toward me. ‘How much do you weigh?’ says the one. And when I refused to tell them, they were happy about it. Grinning like drunk crocodiles. And the one takes me by the head and the other by the feet and they lift me off the ground. ‘Stop, let me down,’ I shouted. Napoleon just says, ‘Hush, it’ll be all right.’ ‘Take her shoes off,’ says the other. ‘And her dress.’ ‘We’ll make allowance for the dress,’ says Napoleon. I start screaming, and they dump me into the barrel of rum, right up to my neck.” She shook a fist at the defendants and shouted: “You assassins. I want you hung.”

Please, Mrs. Napoleon,” soothed the judge. “I know this is very trying, but if you could continue.”

I’ll try,” sobbed Mrs. Napoleon. “I was right up to my neck in rum. And Rollo says ‘I guess we’re set.’ And Napoleon, the fiend, says ‘oh no, we’ve got to count her head.’ ‘Well, push it in then,’ says Rollo. And Napoleon pushed my head down and rum came into my nose and I knew I’d breathed my last and he kept pushing until my head was completely under and I saw the good Lord beckoning me and I said a last prayer that both of my murderers would rot in Hell and suddenly they pulled me out and I ran screaming into the night all soaked in rum like I was the one who was drunk. I ran to the station and told the policeman what had happened. At first he didn’t believe me, thought I was drunk, but finally he followed me back. And there we found Napoleon and Rollo going at each other like a couple of wild animals, shouting about how many bottles of rum there were and how much that much rum should weigh. The policeman hauled them away and that’s the last I know.” She sat down exhausted but triumphant, and in what should have been a somber moment, the spectators, who had been giggling throughout, broke into loud laughter.


Sweet Sugar Cane is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.



Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

Angelique-o, Part 4: Christmas Dinner

The following morning, Audrey had the Christmas spirit, in spite of everyone – in spite of Grandpa Nathan who had been missing since early morning, in spite of Ron who was sleeping off his santaChristmas rum, in spite of Joey who had been complaining all day about the lack of gifts, and in spite of Kathleen who was in her room feeling sorry for herself. Audrey had the Christmas spirit because, just when the hope for a nice Christmas Day had been lost, when she had sunk to singing cruel Christmas carols about her relatives, a miracle happened – not a big Frank Capra miracle, but a miracle – a little boy who looked like Tiny Tim, bearing a big fish, a gift for the lady who had spared his best friend. And that gift inspired Audrey to cook up the best grilled grouper, fried plantain, breadfruit, callaloo soup Christmas dinner any New Englander had ever had, one that these particular New Englanders damn well better appreciate.

Audrey assigned Joey to rouse Ron and dragged Kathleen along with her to find Grandpa Nathan. They walked the beach shouting his name until they saw two figures approaching in the distance and recognized one of the pair as Grandpa Nathan. Then, as Grandpa and his companion grew nearer, Kathleen’s mouth dropped open to release the gurgle of someone dying inside. Her eyes became swollen orbs as she stared at Grandpa Nathan’s companion, a very young woman with bright eyes, a big grin and only half a bikini.

Kathleen swooned and only Audrey’s intervention kept her on her feet as Grandpa Nathan chuckled, turned around, and pulled down his swimming trunks to reveal bright red buttocks. Kathleen regained her composure enough to pull Grandpa Nathan aside and demand: “Are you, you know, fooling around with . . .”

“Are you mad?” shouted Grandpa Nathan. “She’s 19 and I’m 85. What kind of a sick old man do you think I am, Kathleen?”

Fortunately, Grandpa Nathan and his friend dressed for dinner, and it was served, with Audrey apologizing, even though she knew she shouldn’t. “I’m sorry it’s not turkey, but it’s just impossible to find . . .”

The others scowled but Grandpa Nathan broke in: “Turkey? Why turkey? This grouper is the best fish I’ve ever tasted. And I love plantain. Turkey is for New England. We’re in the Caribbean. Right Angelique-o?” His friend giggled and nodded in agreement. The others, reprimanded, stopped grumbling and picked up forks and knives. And Grandpa Nathan was right. It was a wonderful Christmas dinner, if Audrey didn’t say so herself.

After dinner, Audrey happened to overhear Grandpa Nathan whispering to Angelique-o: “Of course I’ll be back next year. I promise.” And she thought, you’ll be doing it on your own, fella. Then she thought a bit more.

Well, we’ll see.

This story originally appeared in Pitch Weekly.  It is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

Angelique-o, Part 3: Grandpa Nathan’s Autopsy

Having seen Grandpa Nathan only at breakfast and dinner for two days, the others were not as shocked as they might have been when, on the third, Joey came to the beach with an announcement. santa“Grandpa Nathan’s dead.” Audrey and Kathleen ran back to the house. Ron pretended to be asleep.

When they reached Grandpa Nathan’s darkened room they tiptoed in, stood a few feet from the bed and watched. They did not have Joey’s depth of experience with televised death and could not be so sure. But it looked like Joey was right. Kathleen stretched her arm and index finger toward the bed and poked the old man’s cheek. She pulled her arm back and they watched. Grandpa Nathan ‘s eyelids fluttered and opened to reveal eyes staring at the ceiling. “Why in God’s name are you poking at me, Kathleen?” he demanded.

“Well, we weren’t sure . . .” Kathleen mumbled. “We thought . . . well, Joey said . . .that you were, uh, dead.”

“Young Dr. Kildare said I was dead,” said Grandpa Nathan. “And you, I suppose, were performing the autopsy.”

No need for an autopsy on any chicken. The day they arrived, there had been a chicken in every doorway, a chicken in every pothole. Now the entire chicken population had fled, called to the sea like lemmings, perhaps, or led away by some misguided Pied Piper. The chicken she had rebuffed was the island’s last chicken. But then, as she despaired, a man spoke to her from behind. “You want mountain chickens, lady? They’re very good.”

She swung around. “Mountain chicken? Valley chicken, beach chicken, chicken with lips. If you’ve got a chicken, I want it.”

“Fifteen dollars American?”

“Twenty, if you’ve got one big enough for five people.”

The man looked at her, confused.

“I need enough for five people.” She held up five fingers.

“I got enough for six.”

“Fair enough,” said Audrey. “Nothing wrong with leftovers. Twenty American. There you go. God bless us, every one.”

The man pointed at the cardboard box a few feet to the left, before pocketing the money and shuffling off.

Oh dear, is it going to be alive? She regarded the box as if it might get up and start walking around. She heard no clucking; that was a good sign. She hoped it wasn’t alive. She approached the box and knelt down. She lifted the lid, just enough to peer in, and gasped when she saw the six creatures inside. Not only were the mountain chickens tiny and featherless, they looked just like frogs and, yes, they were alive.

Audrey wondered if maybe Grandpa Nathan hadn’t had some kind of near-death experience that day they thought he was dead. Since that time, he had become a different person. He was almost cheerful at breakfast and dinner. He didn’t complain about the food as much. And he particularly relished insulting Ron in ways that Ron didn’t understand. He no longer slept most of the day, but would disappear with increasing frequency. Audrey discovered that some of the time he spent hanging out with the taxi drivers who were waiting for fares. They discussed politics, religion and island life. He knew them by name, knew how many brothers and sisters they had, and knew of their wives and girlfriends. They all called him big guy.

‘Twas, as they say up north, the night before Christmas, and after the others were in bed with visions of sugarplums no doubt dancing in their heads, Audrey filled their stockings with the little gifts she had picked up here and there. And then she gave the Christmas gift that made her feel best of all. She hiked a short distance up the hillside behind their house and gave the mountain chickens their freedom.


Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

Angelique-o, Part 2: Eating Tiny Tim’s Friend

Maybe she could pass a really big chicken off as a small turkey.

Last Saturday, they had touched down to sun and warmth still holding the coats they’d had to wear to santathat other airport way up north. Entering paradise, Audrey was hopeful, Kathleen airsick, Ron wobbly on his feet, Joey comparing his fate to that of Robinson Crusoe, and Grandpa Nathan expressing his outrage at the price of airline liquor, fully convinced that the little bottles were meant to be free samples and that the flight attendants were pocketing thousands of dollars.

“Five dollars for a drink. It’s obscene. We may be in a foreign country, but this airline is American and their employees ought to be subject to laws that protect us from this kind of usury.”

“Yes sir,” said the flight attendant forcing a smile. “And you have a nice day.”


“Why didn’t you just let Ron by you a drink like he offered, Daddy,” said Kathleen.

“Right,” said Grandpa. “Shows how much sense he has, paying five dollars for something they’re supposed to give away.” By Audrey’s calculation, Ron had spent at least thirty dollars on his own thirst. “And,” continued Grandpa Nathan, “he’s liable to end up my son-in-law some day, perish the thought, and bankrupt us all.”

“The movie sucked,” said Joey.

“Of course, it did,” said Grandpa Nathan. “Cost a bundle, too. Just so you can be strapped into some infernal headphones like they’re some kind of life support system. And for your generation they probably are. You’re always strapped into those things. Probably being programmed. Subliminal messages: ‘Kill all the old people. Kill all the old people.'”

Let the vacation begin.

When she finally found it, Audrey’s spirits soared. It was a really big chicken. It might actually go pound for pound with some turkeys she’d met. And the nice gentleman with the missing tooth was willing to part with it for a mere forty dollars American, which seemed high, but the man did have a large family in tow and after all it was Christmas Eve and she felt a lot like the Ebeneezer Scrooge at the end of the book – the rehabilitated Scrooge, the Scrooge who had happily forked over a preposterous amount for his Christmas turkey.

But then the smallest of the man’s children – the one who looked just like Tiny Tim – began to wail, because, as luck would have it, the chicken was the kid’s best friend. There was no way Audrey could buy, let alone eat, Tiny Tim’s friend.

And what could you say about the week? On the first day, the highlight of breakfast was Grandpa Nathan asking Ron through a mouthful of corn flakes: “My God, Ron, when do you not drink beer?” Not after two o’clock in the afternoon, after six of them, when Ron fell asleep on the beach and woke up fire engine red at five, in remarkable juxtaposition to the chalky white Kathleen who had lathered herself with sun block and cowered all day in the shade worrying about secondhand sun. Joey had been stunned into a deathlike stupor upon discovering that their accommodations lacked even the most prehistoric form of electronic entertainment. But on the other hand, Grandpa Nathan slept all day, and Audrey spent an idyllic day on the beach finishing a book of the scantest literary value.

At dinner, they were given menus devoid of beef and potatoes. Audrey found the fish chowder quite rewarding, but the others looked upon it as punishment.

Joey’s catatonic silence was brief. Upon regaining speech, he did his best to emulate his grandfather and actually surpassed his skills as a malcontent. Joey was aided by the fact that Grandpa Nathan slept through the second day as well as the first. Ron cowered with Kathleen in the shade, and Audrey got a good start on another really bad book.

Having seen Grandpa Nathan only at breakfast and dinner for two days, the others were not as shocked as they might have been when, on the third, Joey came to the beach with an announcement. “Grandpa Nathan’s dead.”


Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

Angelique-o, Part 1: Audrey’s Idea

CHRISTMAS IS COMING, the goose is getting fat, Please put an explosive device in the old man’s hat. If you haven’t got a big bomb, then a little one will do. If you haven’t got a little one, then . . .

Stop right there, Audrey, and try to practice what you preach about Christmas spirit toward all, including Grandpa Nathan.

Audrey looked around, hoping she hadn’t been singing out loud, making certain that, if she had been, no one she knew was around to hear her. And no one was – just the chattering strangers in the public market bartering their fruits and vegetables, a man whacking coconuts with a machete, and children playing football with a large jackfruit. Tomorrow was Christmas, an unusual Christmas, one that might well live forevermore in infamy, if they made it back to cold but conventional New England before reverting to their baser selves under an unfettering Caribbean sun.

The idea had originated during a nasty New England February, long after the memories of another family Christmas had slipped into an ethereal haze. As the temperature hovered at eleven degrees, Audrey phoned her sister Kathleen to float a trial balloon, her idea that maybe the family – she and Kathleen, Kathleen’s “friend” Ron and her son Joey – ought to spend next Christmas somewhere south, put the money toward that instead of gifts that would, as likely as not, be inappropriate and unappreciated. “After all,” Audrey argued, “the true spirit of Christmas doesn’t require gifts or chestnuts roasting on an open fire. The true spirit of Christmas is being together as a family, so why not be together somewhere warm. Grandpa Nathan would be happy. He’s always cold, and frankly I don’t think he likes Christmas that much anyway. Let’s just think about it.”

Now, 310 days later, Christmas Eve, the temperature hovered at 83 degrees, and before hanging the damn stockings with care, Audrey scurried about the market in a quixotic attempt to find a turkey to cook for Christmas dinner because Grandpa Nathan had not missed a traditional Christmas dinner since 1943 when he spent Christmas on board a submarine in the South Pacific, saving the free world and everyone in it, including Audrey, Kathleen, Ron, and Joey, even though Joey hadn’t been born.

Back in February, Audrey found a sympathetic audience. Numbed by cold and seduced by individual notions of tropical splendor, the rest of the family had agreed to Audrey’s Idea, as it came to be called, thus giving her full ownership and responsibility. The others had just assumed that when Audrey said south she meant Florida, somewhere within waddling distance of Disney World, but Audrey was far more cosmopolitan than the others and was eying locales much farther south – Aruba or Barbados, perhaps.

After much study, Audrey settled on a little island in the Grenadines because it was “undiscovered” and appealed to her sense of romantic adventure. The others signed on because, being undiscovered, it was cheap. Only Joey balked at the choice, unable to understand why anyone would choose a dumb place like this over Disney World. But Joey wasn’t putting up any money and therefore had no vote.


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Miracle on 34th Street is arguably the best ever Christmas movie. Early in the film, an indignant Kris Kringle, played by Edmund Gwenn, chides the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade Santa for being drunk on duty. The inebriated Santa was not Charlie Howard. The movie was made in santa11947; Charlie was the Macy’s parade Santa from 1948 to 1965.

Even before his Macy’s gig, Charlie was already the most famous and sought after Santa in the nation, having played the jolly old elf since his 4th grade Christmas pageant. He began passing his Santa skills on to other would-be Santas on September 27, 1937, when the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School opened its doors in Albion, NY. The campus was actually Charlie’s home, until in the late 1940s he opened Christmas Park right next door. There fledgling Santas could practice their ho-ho-hos on actual little children.

Now in its 79th year (Charlie Howard died in 1966), the school promises a well-rounded Santa education covering such topics as the history of St. Nicholas and Santa Claus, the proper use of the red Santa suit and Santa make-up, working with reindeer, and flying sleigh lessons. Tuition is $475.  Students may major in either Santa or Mrs. Santa Claus. But hurry — classes begin in late October.


Aunt Nancy’s Burden, Part 2: Hanging on by a Thread

As the weather grew warmer, Uncle Ed grew to be more of a nuisance to Aunt Nancy. He required daily gurneying to and from the edge of the swimming pool where he would spend newsick2sunny days reading the Daily News, doing his crossword puzzles and word searches, and behaving as though Aunt Nancy had nothing more to do in life than his bidding. Her burden, as she now referred to Uncle Ed, continued to cling to life in his stubborn, self-centered way. The doctor who had given him only days to live last fall did, however, die.

Aunts Nancy, Joan and Clara would spend many summer days sitting side by side at the picnic table glowering at Aunt Nancy’s Burden, trying to stare him into dying while discussing the world or at least the part of it that mattered.

“Gwen says she going to marry this Sidney,” said her mother, Joan. This Sidney had been dating Gwen for two years.

“He’s a good provider,” said Aunt Nancy.

“He’s too short,” said Aunt Joan.

“He’s very intelligent,” suggested Aunt Clara.

“He’s Irish,” said Joan, silencing her sisters.

Silence remained until Aunt Nancy’s Burden shouted: “Sure could use a beer.”

As summer progressed, Aunt Nancy’s Burden grew steadily more demanding, and he adopted a rather nasty attitude toward his sisters-in-law — or the harpies of Hancock Street as he now frequently called them. Each time they would arrive to take up their stations at the picnic table, he’d announce their arrival loudly enough for Aunt Nancy to hear from inside the house.

“Oh, oh,” said Uncle Ed as he saw Aunt Clara approaching from the left. “It’s the wicked witch of the west.” Then he turned to see Aunt Joan coming from the other direction. “And — oh my God — the wicked witch of the east. Whatever will we do, Dorothy?”

The sisters murmured a curt hello and sat down at the picnic table where Aunt Nancy joined them.

“I saw Lenore Smith at the A & P yesterday,” said Aunt Clara. “Looks terrible. I think she’s losing her hair.”

“People who are losing their hair shouldn’t go to the A & P,” shuddered Aunt Nancy. “I hope she wasn’t in the produce section.”

“I hear Esther Babbit’s been in the hospital for two weeks now,” said Aunt Joan. “Hanging on by a thread, they say.”

“People shouldn’t hang on by a thread,” said Aunt Clara. “When it’s time to go, they should just go.”

Six eyes turned to stare at Aunt Nancy’s Burden who failed to take the hint. “I’m ready for a beer,” he said.

“Why don’t you put a couple dozen aspirins in it,” Aunt Clara suggested as Aunt Nancy stood up with a sigh. Aunt Joan looked at Aunt Clara, a funny look, and some sort of insight passed between them.




Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

December 25, 1914: Over There

Just after midnight on December 25, 1914, British, French and Russian troops at European battle fronts were stunned as German joyeauxtroops ceased firing and began to sing Christmas carols — in some cases, even backed up by oompah bands.

World War I had begun five months earlier and would continue for another devastating four years. This spontaneous Christmas truce continued through the night and into daylight when many of the German soldiers emerged from their trenches and called out “Merry Christmas” in their enemies’ native tongues. Finally, Allied soldiers, seeing that the Germans were unarmed, climbed out of their trenches as well. Men from both sides ventured through the so-called No Man’s Land to shake hands with the enemy. The men exchanged small presents and sang carols and songs. In one case, soldiers played an international soccer game.

It was, of course, short-lived as both sides went back to their business of killing each other.  (This true story is told in the 2005 French film Joyeux Noel.)

On Christmas Day in 1941 Bing Crosby introduced a new Christmas song on his weekly NBC radio program. The song, written by Jewish composer and lyricist Irving Berlin, went on to become the gold standard of Christmas music — the top-selling Christmas single ever and the top-selling single of any kind for another 55 years.

The success of “White Christmas” came as no surprise to Berlin, who was already a musical legend. He modestly called it “the best song I ever wrote…the best song anybody ever wrote.” Although Berlin did not celebrate Christmas, it was a day that did hold special meaning to him: his infant son died on December 25, 1928. That perhaps explains some of the ambiguous emotional strength of the song.