Now that Christmas is in sight and the Advent calendar is near the kitchen table, there are several families in particular who aren’t dreaming of manger scenes or sugar plum fairies. They are thinking about an historic near-disaster and are hoping for some silent nights this time around. They are recalling the year when Don Carson felt an urge to teach one of his famous life lessons.
Don’s children share memories with a common theme: his simple follies, general ineptitude, and measurable incompetence. Exploding hot dogs in the microwave, for example. Or replacing electric range elements without checking the circuit breakers. Home Depot once stopped by and told Don: “You can’t do it. Get some help.”
What happened that year, witnessed by back-yard neighbors from their kitchen windows, was an orchestrated demonstration gone wrong. It started with the best of intentions.
Parents, after all, are created to be wiser than their children. They’ve lived longer. They’ve learned more. Their experiences are deeper. Fathers and mothers recognize that passing wisdom on to the next generation is a high calling and great privilege. Mothers, generally, have their own warm, unique style. Fathers, generally, most often embarrass themselves. Drama lurks when dads teach with serious intent.
It is universally acknowledged that it’s important for children to know about fire and its consequences. Cavemen knew this long ago. Children need to know not to crawl toward fireplaces, understand that flames on stove tops aren’t to be touched, realize that campfires are great for singing around and for roasting marshmallows, but belong outdoors, not in the center of the family room, for example.
Don thought that his children should also know about the dangers of fire near Christmas trees. Not your standard small and smoldering burning bush, mind you. Children should know the power of fire. That’s the lesson he intended for his three young children as they stood that morning, pajama clad, staring out the picture window at Drama Dad.
With an urgency to match their first days of toilet training, he hauled the ten-foot fir out to the center of their small back yard, kicking his way through the six inches of snow from the night before. Several neighbors across the yard noticed from their rear windows that the tree was in a sad state of decline, drooping and dipping as if to touch its toes, dry as a Senate hearing on tax reform. On the way out the door its stiff needles dropped in a tell-tale trail, dotted lines of green on white.
Just moments before this funeral march his kids had stripped the tree of its ornaments and packed them away for another year’s sabbatical in the garage. The strands of lights were rolled and stored, the tree skirt neatly folded, the topping angel gently packed. All that remained was the green and red, four-footed tree stand firmly attached at the stump so that the tree stood for its final purpose: the demonstration of dry tinder, the sacrificial sapling soon to become a burnt offering so that his kids would know the dangers of playing with fire near a Christmas tree. The moral of this story? The character-building and informative lesson plan? The object lesson unmatched by any children’s sermon? Observe and be astonished by the speed with which a dry Christmas tree is consumed by towering flames. Observe, remember, and believe. To Don Carson, it felt downright sacramental.
He made sure that it had the formal feel of ceremony, a perfect ending to the annual rituals of the Advent calendar, the raucous family gatherings, the moving candlelight services, and the choreographed Christmas pageants—those delightful living Nativities populated by prepubescent shepherds, wise men, and Mary and Joseph. In Don’s mind, the high drama of those events would now be matched by this unparalleled theatrical production.
His kids stood with noses pressed against the picture window, just as they had at the Marshall Field’s display weeks before. (It was really a Macy’s now, but all were forbidden from using the word.) Now, instead of viewing some wonderful, animated fairy tale, they stared at their wise and all-knowing father in his plaid pajama bottoms, hiking boots, winter jacket, and wool hat with the drop-down ear flaps. Neighbors never thought of Don as a fashion plate. He was no Ralph Lauren. Ankle deep in snow, Don breathed in the cold morning winter air, and savored the moment.
Neighbors noticed Don holding the long wooden match high above his head, as if this was the ceremonial lighting of the Olympic flame. They could see that he had the family’s complete attention. There were fascinating new Christmas toys calling for the children, but this was something they had never seen before. Don’s wife stood behind them, gathering her flock from danger, knowing that this looked very much like it had the makings of another catastrophic adventure in the world of wisdom known only to Don. If it seemed that she was rehearsing in her mind her husband’s questionable body of work, she was.
Don bowed with a flourish, reached to the bottom rank of branches, struck the fireplace match on the side of the match box, and brought it to the bone-dry tip. That’s all it took. The flames rose rapidly with a swoosh heard inside the warm house. The family took a quick step back from the window. The tree quickly sizzled and the flames were at the top in an instant. It was a dazzling triumph, a show-and-tell moment not even Las Vegas could produce.
The violent, sudden heat forced Don back. With his arm shielding his face, he looked at the window to see how much wiser his children had become, expecting to see a look of terror and awe and newfound respect. “If this simple act heightened their fear of fire, then this will be an annual ritual,” Don thought to himself with great satisfaction.
But that was the last thing on their mind. Mother and children were performing a dance, frantically jumping up and down pointing to the top of the fiery tree.
It was Don’s turn to be awestruck. As he looked up, he knew in an instant he was in serious trouble. The flames were licking at the overhead electric lines running from the utility pole to the house. His mind raced. What if it caught fire and ran to the house? What if the house caught fire? What if a neighbor’s house went up in flames, and then the next, and soon the neighborhood, house-by-house, until all of Chicagoland was engulfed and he was doomed to find a place in the annals of Chicago disasters? Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. The Queen of Angels school. Arson Carson.
Don flew like a cornerback making a game-saving interception, straight at that tree-stand to tip the tree over. He hoped the snow would do its job and extinguish the fire. The sound of sizzle and steam told him he had succeeded. Rolling over and lying flat on his back now like the flattened and smoldering tree, he looked up at the blackened but intact power line. The house and neighborhood and greater metropolitan Chicago were saved. Not so his dignity.
When he stood, brushed off the snow, and looked to the window, he thought he might see his family on their way to rescue him from the flames or his wife on the phone to the local fire department. Instead, both he and the awestruck neighbors saw a family gaggle of giggles and laughs, with his wife smiling and shaking her head. Reflected in the window in less grand fashion than anything at Marshall Field’s, stood a soot-faced, pajama-clad, snow-covered surrogate Smokey the Bear.
Don later pointed out to the neighbors, who over the years annually thanked him for the spectacle, that this event had accomplished something quite significant in the annals of his family history. Perhaps the lesson learned is too obvious to mention. To this day, not one of his three children—now sensible and judicious adults—has ever tried to set a Christmas tree on fire, indoors or out.
A famous author once put it this way about how we teach things of importance to the young: “’Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart.” Sometimes the best gifts at Christmas are the stories of folly that last a lifetime.
Well, that’s the Advent news from the Carsons, where the wife is bright, the husband is sensitive, and all the children know their catechism.
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