By Bob Huber
An independent survey this week showed that hidden in the dusty catacombs of my files are dozens of juicy Christmas stories I experienced as a young, insolvent reporter. But only one stands out as a reminder of how innocent I was in those days. (Some biased reports claim I was stupid.) That story goes like this:
A young mother in Denver hocked her cheap wedding band just before Christmas to buy a scraggly holiday tree for her three children. Her husband had emptied the family coffers and deserted her, and the pawn shop proprietor who loaned her the money called me with the story.
Don’t ask how the pawn shop owner knew me.
Well, my heart went frump when I saw that family inside their cold, wretched apartment. Their pathetic little tree was decorated with can lids and strips of toilet paper. I went back to the city room and typed up my lamentation.
I suppose it was a slow news day, because that afternoon the story came out on the front page. A picture made the family look like starving Albanians with bad teeth.
Well, the yarn caused the city of Denver to come unglued. I never understood why, but wallets popped open that hadn’t seen light of day since gold-rush years. Donations poured into designated banks, and dentists gave free fillings. On top of that, canned goods and packaged food piled high at the newspaper and had to be trucked to a warehouse.
And that was just the beginning. Service clubs promoted a joint money-raising event called “Feel Good About Christmas” featuring every musical act in the area and culminating in a public appearance of the family on Christmas eve at the local sports arena. All proceeds went to a special college fund for the kids.
The upshot was, by Christmas eve I was exhausted chasing that comet’s tail. I’d written a daily flood of follow-ups and sidebars, and to tell the truth, I was sorry I’d ever hocked my grandfather’s gold watch to that blabbermouth pawn broker.
But on Christmas eve, the night of the big blowout, I was at the sports arena waiting with half the population of Denver for the family’s grand appearance. I glanced at my new watch, which was a weathered Timex the pawn broker sold me for $3, and an ominous mood swept over me. The family was an hour late.
At that moment the Denver police chief, a balding, disgruntled man, stepped onto the stage and held up a beefy hand for silence. The huge audience hushed, and everyone suddenly knew by the chief’s expression that something was terribly wrong.
“You folks go on home,” he growled into the microphone. “The show’s over.” He turned abruptly and walked from the stage. Everyone sat in silence.
I ran backstage and confronted the chief. “What happened?” I said. “Has there been an accident?”
The chief looked me up and down like I had just stolen the last pencil from a blind beggar. “Your downtrodden little mother took off,” he said. “She cleaned out the bank accounts, bought a new Chrysler station wagon, and picked up her husband and enough food to last a year. They’re probably in Florida by now. It was a scam.”
“A fraud, a hoax,” he said. “They’re swindlers. The kids weren’t even theirs. They got them from an orphanage and dumped them at a movie this afternoon. They’ve been doing this sting for a dozen years, netting about 40 grand every Christmas, plus free dental care and all the food they can carry.”
“Well I’ll be …” I said.
“I don’t doubt it,” the chief said.
All of which explains why some folks in Denver to this day get a little goosey when I mention Christmas. Some even claim Santa Claus is nothing but a bunco artist who shows up each year in a red leather jacket and biker’s boots, spreads a lot of phony goodwill, introduces everyone to greed, then leaves town with the swag.
But as it turned out, my impoverished family prospered by the experience. We were able to trot home some of the left-behind canned beans and cake mixes, and our own poor, downtrodden family — a product of my naive youth — had a very merry Christmas.
Bob Huber is a retired journalist living in Portales. He can be contacted at 356-3674.