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Mutt & Jeff: Dogs on the beltline and other Christmas stories

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Bob Cook told me this story years ago, so hats off to him. He was working graveyard shift in the coal mine. It was Christmas Eve. The superintendent told the crew, “Look, you guys come in and work half a shift and then you can go home.” So they came in with their minds set on having a good time. They brought their dogs in with them as well as some whiskey.

The main task on graveyard is to scatter pulverized limestone everywhere so that the place looks pristine white. Everything gets dusted — floor, ceiling, ribs. You shoot it out through hoses and break open sacks of dust and scatter it around. Federal law requires it. It’s supposed to dampen an explosion. Sometimes the guys plaster each other just for the sheer fun of it.

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But on this night they had a different game in mind. They brought their waggy-tailed dogs over to the conveyor belt, where they loaded them on one at a time and gave them a joy ride to the top of the mine. When the mutt reached the top, a miner stopped the conveyor belt and scooped him off so he could scamper down the beltline and wait enthusiastically for another ride. A jiggling light from the bottom meant a new dog was ready to ride. These canines got thoroughly dusted ascending the tunnel. One short-haired pooch embarked snow-white at the bottom and emerged pitch-black at the top.   

One time, I saw something in the bottom of the coal mine which I treasure like a bright star blazing alone in a velvet black sky. I keep it in a golden casket in my heart, so rare because of the dismal place where I found it. It was a perfect black snowflake three inches across, perched on a humble two by four nailed across two upright timbers in the bottom of the mine as if on display in an art museum. It was an ice crystal, elegantly symmetrical, fiercely hexagonal seen by few eyes — perhaps none but my own — down in the ugly get-down sump.

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Bright Christmases past… The time we lived in the Animas Valley north of Durango, we dwelt in a cobblestone cottage surrounded by fields of soft, silent snow and Ponderosa pines. We had recently moved there from inner city Topeka, Kansas, and now we had been liberated. Mom manufactured a batch of chocolate fudge with lots of walnuts stirred in, and put it out in the snow to cool. We heard a Yo-ho-ho emanating from the snowy fields, a sleigh bell ringing, and soon there he was knocking at the door — Papa dressed up in red satin and a curly white beard, carrying a sack of toys. The first thing he did was pull off his beard and say, “Guess who Santa really is? Your own sweet Dad.”

Games. We were giddy with them. Charades. Dad pretending to be in a wrestling match with himself. The telescope trick, where you lie on the floor, Dad covers you with his coat, and extends one sleeve straight above your head. He claims that you can look up the coat sleeve and see stars. The next thing you know he’s pouring a pitcher of water onto your face. Ho-ho-ho!

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Guess who this is? A stiff-arm salute with two fingers under the nose to indicate a mustache. We all know that one — Schicklgruber the paper hanger. Followed by the Spike Jones spoof, “When Der Fuhrer says we’re the super-duper race, then we go Heil! Heil! Right in Der Fuhrer’s face.”

Next, a mattress goes up against the wall for the marvelous game of rocket ship. Dad is the rocket-launcher, supine on the floor with legs cocked back. I sit on his feet and he catapults me through the air to crash against the mattress. Like dogs on the beltline, we can’t get enough of this. More! More! The aroma of pine permeates the house. Fragile glass ornaments festoon the tree. Mom and Dad’s faces are wreathed with laughter.

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One more Christmas memory, this one with a holy hush and an aura of mystery.

You could hear carols wafting through the halls of Mapleton High School weeks before Christmas break. Students were rehearsing for an enactment of the Nativity. Our Mary and Joseph could be seen days ahead of time dressed unabashedly as the Holy Couple. Music was a specialty at our school — a public school in north Denver — and it was common at this time to hear singing in the halls. During that special season, our school was saturated with an atmosphere of holiness.

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When the day of the enactment came, our principal, Mr. DiTirro, delivered an inspiring message on the advent of the Christ child. I’ve always admired him for doing that. A year later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Mr. DiTirro called a special assembly and asked the entire school to pray for the safety and welfare of our country.

Stan Badgett shares this column with fellow conservative Paige Meredith.

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