*Today’s post is by my dear friend and former colleague, Kenton Adler.*
In the spring of 1973 my mother went on a month-long business trip to Europe. She was a buyer for the May company in Colorado, and she went overseas pretty regularly. This particular trip was a little different because my dad arranged to fly over and meet her in Spain, and they made a nice vacation of it for a week or so. They came back with a new-found love for Sangria, which is basically a red wine enhanced with citrus fruit and other ingredients. As a seventeen-year-old I was allowed to partake of the results of various sangria experiments which I very much enjoyed.
“What does that have to do with Christmas?” you may well ask. Well, by Christmas of 1973, Mom had taken a different job at a very upscale gift shop, and she decided to invite all of her co-workers over for a Christmas party. Her parties were not frequent, but they were always very nice. She always had the place looking like something from the cover of McCall’s or Better Homes and Gardens, with great food, and for this particular party she planned to introduce everyone to the joys of Sangria. She spent a pretty fair amount of time planning the menu, rounding up the ingredients for everything and getting the house cleaned up for guests. We generally did not spend much time in the living room. That was the special room, and a lot of the time I was growing up there was plastic over the furniture, and we couldn’t walk on the carpet in there if we were wearing shoes. The upholstery at that time was a white background with bright green vines and blue flowers. That was on the sofa, two matching chairs, and the valance above the white curtains. The carpet in there was just a shade darker than sky blue. The walls and ceiling were white, and we had a fireplace made out of rectangular pieces of light-colored stone, and a wood mantle.
On the day of the party the mantle was loaded with Christmas cards, and three stockings hung from it. My mom had made the stockings, one for me, my sister and brother, when we were little kids. Mine was green velvet with a large yellow Christmas tree decorated with little rhinestones. My sister’s stocking was red with the image of a doll, and my brother’s was also red with a little train on it. All three had white satin trim folded down over the top. Late in the afternoon Mom decided to have a fire started in the fireplace. She asked my brother to handle that. He was eleven at the time, and was a very experienced fire starter. He liked to play with matches when he was younger and once managed to ignite a box of clothes previously destined for Goodwill that was stored out in the garage. As punishment he was given 1000 stick matches and sat down at the end of the driveway until he had lit them all. I don’t know if that cured him, but he didn’t burn up any more boxes in the garage.
For the party fire he selected some nice split pine logs to get things going, and had set aside some small, whole apple logs to throw on after everything was going. The apple burned slow and long and really smelled good. In 1973 technology had advanced to the point of these fire-starting cubes that were available at the store, and he got his pine all situated in the grate, set three or four of those cubes underneath the logs and knelt in front of the hearth with a stick match and set off the cubes. The cubes were jellied kerosene, essentially a domestic grade napalm. They lit right up, and in a matter of seconds, the logs caught, and the fire in the fireplace was roaring. It only took a few more seconds for us to notice that thick black smoke was starting to curl out from the top of the fireplace opening, and that the flames were also coming out. My brother dashed over and saved the stockings. The fire was licking at the bottom of the mantle, and the Christmas cards were in danger of being consumed. Seriously, the flames were probably four or five feet high. The smoke had gotten REALLY black and thick and was now pouring out of the front of the fireplace, up the wall, across the ceiling of the living room and spreading all over. Seems no one had bothered to check that the flue was open. This was the first time that winter a fire had been built in that fireplace, and so the flue was still closed from the year before.
Mother got VERY excited and was sort of running around saying, “Call the fire department. Call the fire department.” I don’t really recall what my dad was doing right that minute, as I headed into the kitchen at a pretty rapid clip and filled the biggest stew pot I could find with water from the sink. I dashed back into the living room and dumped the contents onto the fire. It subsided considerably, although that action did provide for a LOT of smoky steam. Seeing that I’d had some success, I went back to the kitchen and re-filled the pot and repeated the process. This time the fire went out, but another big gush of steam resulted. By the time the excitement was over the wall above the fireplace, and the ceiling were blackened from the smoke, as were the white curtains. The smoke stains went across the living room and down the upstairs hallway, and the place smelled heavily of smoke.
Mother could have canceled the party that evening, but she didn’t. She opened all the windows to air the place out and went right on preparing the table decoration, the food and the Sangria. When the guests arrived she explained what had happened and why the place smelled like a warehouse fire. Everyone expressed their happiness that it hadn’t been worse and enjoyed the food, wine and fellowship.
I still have two of those stockings, mine and my brother’s. I hope my sister still has hers, but I don’t know for sure. The stockings are no worse for the wear and tear, and some forty-one years later, that is still one of my most memorable Christmases.