Reindeer Pranks (1968 – 2008)

by admin on January 10, 2009

40 Years of Reindeer Pranks

“This is my mother’s recipe for Rhubarb Dream,” Gloria said to me.  She’d just cut a great armload of rhubarb out of her garden for me and we were back in her kitchen on her farm in central Wisconsin.  I copied out the recipe from a well-used and shortening-stained card handwritten by someone – presumably her mother — who had grown up in a time when penmanship mattered.  “I use a little more rhubarb and a lot less sugar,” Gloria said, “but other than that it’s the same recipe I remember from when I was a kid.”

Besides the rhubarb and the recipe, Gloria was sending me home with  some fresh-picked basil, too much dill, about 2 cups of sugar snap peas, and a jar of homemade sweet pickles with a little quilted hat on the lid.  I ate one of the pickles in front of her, that seeming like the right thing to do.  It was delicious – just the right amount of sweet and sour and spice — and I told her so. “That’s my mom’s recipe too,” Gloria said.

When I was walking back to my rented house carrying the rhubarb and the pickles and the recipes and everything else, I got wistful for the kind of life where recipes and quilting lessons are passed from mother to daughter, where the traditions that bind one generation to the next can not only be remembered, but also touched and tasted and shared.  I don’t have that kind of bond with my own mother, but I am trying to create a new tradition of food and simple pleasures with my daughter.  Not too long ago I was trying to show her how to make matzo balls that float but she seemed less than not interested.

“Come on, Sophie,” I said, “This is like important mother-daughter bonding stuff, work with me here.”

“Dude,” she said because she is 14 and thinks that everyone including the woman attached to the womb from which she sprung should be called Dude, “That’s not us.”

“Then what is us?”  I asked peevishly.

“Reindeer pranks,” she said.

And you know, she’s right.

We’re not farmhouse pickling, rhubarb dreaming, sensitive quilt-making people.  We’re loud, slightly off-center, funny people and the first thing that comes to mind as an illustration of this is the following scene from Sophie’s first week in preschool.  Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the reindeer pranks.

Sophie was about 4 I think – it’s hard to remember since that pre-kindergarten time is kind of a blob of milestones – and I had come to pick her up from preschool.  The drill was for the parents to sign in their child in the morning and sign out in the afternoon, so there was always a knot of parents at the sign-in/out book and on this particular day Sophie was standing with me as I signed her out.  There were a lot of parents around, mostly moms, and mostly well-heeled, tennis-playing, doing-lunch kind of moms.  And in the thick of them, Sophie burped.

I bent down to her.  “What do we say when we burp?” I asked in an imitation of what a good mother would say.

“Good one!”  Sophie said.  And again, she was right – that’s exactly what we say when someone in our family burps unless it is my brother Alan in which case we say “Wow,” followed by either laughter or applause.

Now about those reindeer pranks.

Reindeer and Christmas!

My mother Lila started it; that’s why it’s a tradition.  She started it around Christmas time which only makes sense since reindeer kind of disappear after New Year’s and don’t show up again until about Thanksgiving.  The window of opportunity on this tradition is short.

Sands Hotel and Casino Las Vegas Home of the Rat Pack

We were in Las Vegas for Christmas.  This was about 1968.  We were staying at the Sands which is gone now but back in 1968 it was the happening place on the Strip.  The Sands was where the Rat Pack stayed and where they all performed – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, and all the girl singers and stand-up comics who went along with them – people like Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney, Don Rickles, and Shecky Greene.  If these names mean nothing to you, well, it’s ok, but they meant a lot to people in 1968.

The Sand's Pool Click PIC to Enlarge

My parents loved staying at The Sands.  It was beautiful, sparkling clean, glamorous and chic.  You got up late and ate breakfast in your room.  Then you went down to the pool and sunbathed or swam but women never put their heads underwater.  It was still the Hairdo Era.  There were frothy tropical cocktails at a swim-up bar in the middle of the pool, or for the serious gamblers a swim-up craps table. In the afternoon you had a massage and a nap.  Then you got dressed for dinner – men in a suit and tie and women in a low-cut cocktail dress, usually beaded.  The restaurant would not serve a man without a tie and jacket or a woman wearing pants.

The fancy restaurant at The Sands was called The Captain’s Table and when I was a girl they served things like Lobster Thermidor and Asparagus in Hollandaise, the kind of heart attack on a plate you just can’t get anymore.  The Captain’s Table was indeed high-class, but it was by no means the fanciest place in town.  That distinction went to a restaurant over at the Dunes (another hotel that’s since been imploded and forgotten) called The Sultan’s Table (the Dunes was like the Sands but with a slightly Arabian Nights twist).

Sultan's Table at the DUNES 1968 Click PIC to Enlarge

At the Sultan’s Table, the waiters wore something that looked like a cross between a tuxedo and a matador’s outfit and they made things at your table – Caesar salad to start and Cherries Jubilee or Crepe Suzette to finish.  This was also the Era of Flaming Things, meat kabobs skewered on silver swords and the aforementioned desserts, so when the restaurant was full on a holiday weekend the place looked like it was on fire and smelled like sterno.  (In fact, one time, a supposedly soused waiter who had sprinkled the brandy on a little too liberally did set my parents’ table on fire but this is a story my father used to tell and he died before I could hear it enough times to make it my story.)

Toreadoresque tuxedos and flambéing aside, the one feature that made the Sultan’s Table Las Vegas’ most exquisite restaurant was that a woman (probably more than one now that I think about it) in a red velvet dress played a giant golden harp while seated in an enormous white swan boat that floated in a shallow tiled pool in the center of the restaurant.

“Now, that’s class,” my dad used to say.  Funny how things go from “class” to “tacky” in just one generation.  I did love that swan boat, though.

I also used to love to watch my parents get dressed; my dad letting me choose his cufflinks and tie tack, and my mother who took so much time just putting on her stockings, smoothing them against her legs, attaching the tops to her garter.  She was very beautiful back then and favored the pale and frosted makeup that was just coming into fashion.  Her hairdo – dyed and teased – was a masterpiece of bobby pins and Aquanet.  Sometimes, she put on perfume but usually my mother’s scent was hairspray.

My parents always went downstairs in the evening in a good mood and usually came back either mad at each other or themselves.  I wasn’t sure what happened in between the time they left and the time they came back but I knew it had something to do with gambling.  Both my parents were inveterate gamblers… my mother taught me how to play blackjack when I was about 7.  “Always double down on 11 when the dealer is showing 6 or under,” she’d tell me and I guess looking back on it now, the passing on of that knowledge was my mom’s version of the rhubarb dream recipe.  I still play blackjack the way she taught me.

When we went to Vegas, though, I rarely got to go downstairs at night.  Children were not allowed to even walk through a casino the way they are now.  Instead, I stayed in our room with a hotel babysitter (who actually wore a hotel uniform with her name embroidered on it) watching TV (Bewitched, The Munsters, Gilligan’s Island) and playing cards.  “Why’d you split your kings,” I’d ask the sitter.  “Don’t split pictures, only aces and eights.”

Sinatra's Sands ~ Sin City

One time I was allowed to come downstairs at night was for Christmas dinner at The Sands 1968.  Most of the people staying in the hotel then were Jews – Las Vegas really was considered “Sin City” back then and didn’t immediately spring to mind for people looking for somewhere to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  But as far as the outward signs of the Coca-Cola commercial type-Christmas well, they were everywhere and the Sands lobby and casino were decorated with holiday appropriate lights and ornaments and candy canes… and right at the edge of the casino where people came in off the Strip entrance, there was an enormous, life-sized diorama with Santa Claus in his sleigh overflowing with sacks of toys – and also $100 chips and silver dollars – being pulled by the usual suspects (8 reindeer and Rudolph).  Santa had a motor inside so he could endlessly pivot at the waist, bend forward slightly and then back – since one hand was raised this was supposed to give Santa the ability to wave, but really it just looked like a half-hearted effort on Santa’s part to shed a few pounds;  up-down-twist, up-down-twist …

“Santa is really starting to piss me off,” my mother said when we passed the display on our way to dinner.  I’d learned long ago that asking her why Santa pissed her off would get me nowhere so I just let it drop.  But this time, my mother had a plan.

“Can you get our table while we pop into the newsstand?” she asked my dad.  “Female stuff,” she said by way of explanation.  Then she grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me toward the shop.

Inside the store, my mother bought a pack of cigarettes and a box of Milk Duds. “Don’t breathe a word of this to your father,” she said.  I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant since smoking cigarettes and eating candy were both pretty common activities in 1968.

She put the cigarettes in her purse and opened the Milk Duds box.  She shook about a dozen of the little brown round candies into my hand and emptied the rest of the box into her own hand.  “Follow me and do what I do,” she said in a whisper.

I obediently followed my elegant mother in her beaded cocktail dress and high heels as she clicked her way across the marble floor between the newsstand and Santa’s sleigh.  As she came alongside the reindeer she swiftly and surreptitiously deposited her handful of Milk Duds under the tail of Comet and then Blitzen I think it was.  “Go!” she said a little urgently.  “What are you waiting for?”  She screwed up her face and made a sharp quick gesture with her hand indicating I was supposed to release my load of ersatz reindeer turds pronto.  In a panic, I just kind of threw them without thinking but on that Christmas night God had a plan because my dozen Milk Duds landed in a perfect little trail right under Rudolph’s ass.

“Bingo!”  my mother said and we ran all the way to the restaurant.  I thought my heart was going to beat its way out of my chest.  We collapsed in the red leather booth where my dad was already nursing a Scotch and water.  We were gasping and laughing so hard we couldn’t get up.  My mother had tears in her eyes and so did I.

“I don’t want to know,” my dad said (and he really didn’t want to know).

By the time dinner was over we’d come back to our senses and, in fact, the 5-course dinner and the flaming chocolate bombe for dessert had made me kind of sleepy.  My dad headed off for the craps table and my mom said she’d take me up to the room.  On the way we passed the scene of our crime and sure enough the Milk Duds were still there.

“Look at that!”  A woman was pointing out to her husband the soft round candies now gently melting into the fake plastic snow.  She turned to my mother and said, “Who on earth would do a thing like that?”

My mother leaned over, picked up one of the reindeer turds and popped it into her mouth.  “I have no idea,” she said.

My mother Lila started it, I took it by the reindeer horns. and passed it to Sophie…

Now, I have to admit that that story about the reindeer and the Milk Duds was always good for a laugh but I never really considered it as having any kind of deeper meaning.  As a matter of fact, I hadn’t thought much about it or even told that reindeer story in maybe 10 years until I had occasion to remember it just last Christmas. So, like I said, my mother Lila started it…

…but I grabbed those reindeer horns too, and unwittingly passed it to Sophie – 3 generations of Lady Reindeer Pranksters…

Reindeer and Computer Dude

There is a man who lives down the street from me and Frank and Sophie (husband/aforementioned daughter) who is the neighborhood anal retentive.  His is the house that’s always freshly painted, rain gutters always clean.  All his flowers are planted in neat little rows, get pulled out before the flowers fade, and all his trees grow straight and never so much as drop a leaf – at least as far as anyone can tell.  His driveway has no cracks, his windows sparkle and even his truck parked out front always looks like he just got back from the car wash.  Maybe he did.

Now, I think I met this neighbor a few times but I don’t remember his name.  We call him “Computer Dude,”  because he can most often be seen in the evening through the un-curtained window of his den hunched in front of his computer.  It’s kind of hard to see what he’s doing but we do know Computer Dude likes Mah Jong, online Poker, and AOL Messenger.  Computer Dude has a cat that likes to sit in the den with Computer Dude on one of those enormous and ridiculous carpeted cat condo things.  The condo, however, shows no signs of the kind of clawing a normal cat would be doing to such a structure, leading us to believe that Computer Dude’s Cat – or CDC for short – is just as anal retentive as his owner.  There’s also CDW – Computer Dude’s Wife – but I kind of like her.   She isn’t usually out there with him on the weekends when he’s working on one of his “projects,” but sometimes I can hear her inside playing the banjo.

As you can imagine, the day after Thanksgiving, Computer Dude is outside putting up his Christmas decorations.  He has each strand of lights on a kind of winding bobbin type thing and this enables him to neatly and efficiently un-spool his Christmas lights along all the straight lines of his roof, eaves, and porch columns.  The lights are all absolutely evenly spaced; I’ve never seen a burned out bulb.

A couple of years ago, he added 2 conical metal trees to the front lawn.  They’re strung with tiny green and white fairy lights so at night the metal cones look like perfectly symmetrical and absolutely artificial Christmas trees.  And then just last year, what ended up being the final straw for me:  3 metal reindeer – a daddy, a mommy, and a baby I figured judging by the size of them – also strung with fairy lights, also giving the impression at night of something completely and utterly bland.

“Everyone has those dumb reindeer,” I told Sophie the first time we drove by them at night.  “Conformity in Christmas.  Conformity in everything.”

“Lighten up, Mom,” Sophie replied.

I lightened up for a few weeks, mostly by ignoring Computer Dude’s house when I drove by it.  But something about him and his Christmas lights was gnawing away at me and the day before New Year’s – the lights were still up, still straight and not a one burned out.  I couldn’t take it anymore.

“Those reindeer are really starting to piss me off,” I told Sophie. (Not recognizing my mother’s very words echoing from far-away 1968) “Something has to be done.”  Sophie accepted this at face value.

Later that night Sophie came back from a movie with her dad and said, “Well, Mom, if you’re planning on doing something now’s the time.  The Christmas lights are still on but I don’t think Computer Dude is home.  I don’t see him or CDC or CDW and all the lights are off inside.

“Change your clothes,” I said.  “Wear all black.”

Frank demurred.  “I don’t want to know,” he said and went inside to fix a drink.

Sophie and I changed into anything we had that was black, giggling the whole time.  Then we found a flashlight and took off down the street for Computer Dude’s house.  Our neighborhood doesn’t have streetlights so it’s very dark at night.  We felt like cat burglars sneaking through the dark, or maybe more like circus clowns impersonating cat burglars sneaking through the dark.  When we got to Computer Dude’s house, I told Sophie to hold the flashlight and be the lookout.  Then I performed a singular act of vandalism that had been forming in my mind for weeks.

I tried to pick up the Daddy reindeer.  He didn’t yield.  I pulled and pulled but he just wouldn’t budge.  “Computer Dude has this thing stuck in here with huge metal stakes,” I whispered.

“Of course he does!” Sophie whispered back.  “He’s Computer Dude.”

I moved on to the Mommy reindeer, not part of the original plan but I had to improvise.  With a lot of muscle and some adrenaline too I managed to wrest the Mommy reindeer out of the lawn.  “Got it!” I said triumphantly.  I took the mommy reindeer and stood her up on her hind legs and then attached her to the back of the Daddy reindeer (like I said, not the original plan, but close enough) so the two looked like they were in the process of, well, making a brother or sister for Baby reindeer who was completely oblivious to what his parents were now doing.

I stepped back into the street to admire my handiwork.  It was completely and utterly satisfying.  “Let’s go!”  Sophie said, “Before someone sees us!”  We ran all the way back to the house in absolute silence.

As soon as the door closed behind us we erupted in great loud heaving guffaws.  We laughed so hard we fell on the floor.  I remember rolling on the floor with Sophie – we both had tears in our eyes – and thinking wow, I really am actually ROFL.

completely and utterly satisfying

After our paroxysms had subsided it occurred to me that this was something we were really going to want to have a picture of in years to come – what we used to call back in the ‘60s a “Kodak moment.”  So Sophie got her camera and this time we decided we’d better take the car – less suspicious that way, as in “Yes, Officer we were just driving by when we saw these lovely reindeer.”  As I was backing out of the driveway I said, “You know, Sophie, this is always how the criminal gets caught; returning to the scene of the crime.”

“Mommy, I don’t want to go to Juvey for helping reindeer hump,” Sophie said.

As long as I live I don’t think I will ever forget those words.  As far as tender mother-daughter moments go, it doesn’t get any better than that.  And that’s when I remembered:  “You know Sophie, your grandma and I pulled a reindeer prank together about 40 years ago.”

So, after we took a picture, we drove back home and sat in the kitchen and drank some hot chocolate and broke out the playing cards.  I told Sophie the story of Vegas and her beautiful grandmother and the Milk Duds in the snow.

“I wonder what reindeer prank I’ll come up with for my daughter,” Sophie said.

“I don’t know,” I said, “but I’m sure it will be a good one.”  I smiled at my beautiful girl.  “And don’t forget…” I added, “always hit a soft 17 if the dealer’s showing a picture.”

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Remembering Lila
May 7, 2010 at 7:26 pm

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