It was hunting and stalking of the most dangerous kind: the consequences of a misstep would be drastic if not fatal. For a young man, it was a heady adventure.
I stood a short distance away from the tall tree. Underneath its heavily laden branches, my quarry lay still and silent in the night. Carefully I stalked forward in slow motion, rolling each foot slowly down from the outside edge to minimize any noise. Coming so close, I couldn’t risk an inadvertent sound if I accidentally stepped on a twig or something else lying unseen.
Checking around for hostile natives, I made sure that nothing, not even the wild dog known to roam this area, was aware of my presence. I knelt down. My target didn’t move nor did I expect it to. There would be no turning back and no escape if caught. Slowly, so very slowly, I reached forward and actually touched it, feeling the cool outer skin under my shaking fingers. Carefully, I began peeling away the tough yet delicate covering until finally I saw it: a camera lens!
Now that I knew what was inside my gift, I quickly re-wrapped and placed it back under the Christmas tree. With an application of a cellophane tape to cover an accidentally torn corner, the hostile natives of the Parent tribe would not be the wiser. I checked the hallway for signs of life or light then quietly padded back to bed.
I will now publicly admit my Noel crime: I used to be a gift "peeker." While this is considered one of the lowest forms of life aside from fungus and telemarketers, especially among mothers and spouses, the statute of limitations has expired and I should now confess my sins. However, I must also add that it was great fun and a wonderful training regimen for all those deer stalks that would come in later years.
At the time of the transgressions, I was a mere 10 or 12 years old. It was a wonderful age, free from all hints of wisdom, when I still planned to enter the fur trade as a full-time career regardless of the fact that most of the mountainmen had died off in the early 1800’s and the frontier was already buried under a thick layer of blacktop and shopping malls.
Lying awake one night, I decided that there was absolutely no reason to wait until Christmas day to see if my long-awaited camera lens was under the tree. I justified this decision on a very rational basis by reasoning: 1) the house could burn down at any moment and I might never see the lens, which would deprive my parents of their Yuletide joy at seeing the happiness they had brought me and 2) I couldn’t wait another minute
Thus decided, I crept out of the bedroom and down the hallway, using the stalking techniques I had learned from my priceless collection of old Outdoor Life magazines. While I was formerly only a textbook expert in the art, slipping down the hall provided the real-world practice I needed for sneaking up on dangerous game. It is a well-known fact among hunters that in terms of dangerous game, even a wounded Cape Buffalo is a creampuff compared to an enraged mother who discovers her son unwrapping gifts under the tree at 2 a.m.
I practiced this skill several times with great success, or so I thought. During my nighttime forays the next year, I began to notice that there were clever efforts at disguising and even booby-trapping the packages to prevent anyone from bothering them until Christmas morning. After a while, working on the camouflaged gifts became tedious and I began to develop a nervous tic, much like a bomb technician who has been on the job too long. It was time to quit the business altogether.
Years later, as an adult, there is not the same compulsion to preview gifts even though my fiancee' still goes to great lengths to camouflage my presents. I’ve tried to explain to Honey that my peeking days are well behind me but she insists on hiding things like new shoe laces inside old refrigerator cartons filled with foam peanuts. Our yearly gift-wrap bill is enormous.
However I look fondly back on those few years when I practiced my outdoor skills by silently creeping through the shadowy house like a cat, hoping to realize the secret thrill of knowing the wonders of Christmas before anyone else. It was a glorious time and those moments when I learned to freeze at the slightest noise helped to instill the thrill and skill of the stalk.
We will end this column now because I hear noises in the living room. It could be St. Nicholas…or a diminutive woman who sometimes takes after her Significant Other far too much.