Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A Christmas like no other

Commentary by Betty Bell


Betty Bell

In Shoshone, in December 1946, I stepped down from the train into a hiss of steam and boarded the bus to Sun Valley where I was to work as a soda fountain attendant in the drug store. When the bus descended Timmerman Hill, the driver pointed up the valley and said, "See, up there, there're the mountains, there's Baldy." He didn't point to anything that jibed with how I'd pictured Sun Valley—with a Matterhorn on one side and an Eiger on the other. These were far lesser mountains and I thought what the heck—anybody can ski down hills like those. Humble pie came later.

I shared a room with three roommates in a barracks behind the Challenger Inn whimsically called Balsam Chalet. When all of us were there, two could sidestep past one another if the other two hunkered in their bunks with their knees pulled up. But I lucked out with my roommates, each from a different exotic state, exotic meaning not Nebraska where I hailed from.

It was not a laid-back job, fountain attending. When the drugstore opened at 8 every morning there'd already be a crowd waiting to wolf down our specialty, Frisbee-sized sweet rolls slathered with butter and then heated precisely to the frosting melt point. In late afternoon the push was for our chocolate malted milk shakes, and they weren't bottom-line concoctions. We packed the containers full and the mixer sent the ice cream flying.

Sun Valley didn't remind me even a little bit of Omaha: piled-high snow that stayed white all winter ... snow sculptures everywhere, and never one that reminded me of snowmen I'd known ... steam always rising from the outdoor heated pool ... skiers clomping about with their skis on their shoulders, skiers I envied, especially the hot dog skiers who shouldered 7-foot boards and walked with a forward lean.

But the best thing about that Christmas was the employee choir. I hadn't sung in a choir since an early terrible stint in a Catholic boarding school where, in pre-dawn carol practice in a bone-cold church, the holy water was a block of ice and Sister poked a long blue finger from her cavernous sleeve and pointed it straight at me: "You there—not so loud. You're leading everyone astray."

So I mimed then, expertly mimed, and expertly did I fake great breaths as if I were singing with great gusto. But I wanted to sing—I longed to sing. So, in Sun Valley, when the hands-on general manager Pat Rogers—make that Mr. Rogers—warned us that if we missed choir practice when we weren't on the job we should pick up a railroad pass back to our point of origin. But I didn't need to be coerced.

At first, with a residue of Sister trauma still clinging to me, I mimed, but soon enough I broke into song. We'd just got going on Silent Night when the choirmaster stopped us and warned us about "S." "Two hundred carolers singing every "S" sound like 70 snakes slithering through slippery sod," he said, and when I was back in my room I wrote out each carol phonetically, and if I was alone I practiced out loud: "Eye-lent night, Holy night, all ih calm, all ih bright ... "

On Christmas Eve, in the jammed Challenger Inn square, kids watched Santa arrive in what might have been the prototype Santa sleigh, and then everyone ooohed and ahhhed when the ski school serpentined down Dollar, though in that fledgling torchlight parade it was sometimes a fractured serpent and sometimes one swollen as if it had swallowed a rabbit whole.

Finally it was the choir's turn, and we were splendid—and splendidly did we contain our S's. The ovation was thunderous, and if it was possible to bask when it's 10 degrees below zero, that's what we did.

Afterwards, several of us sneaked into the steaming pool, and then I went to the Opera House for a packed midnight Mass. On the stage, the crèche next to the altar was life-sized, and heaped high around the manger was sweet-smelling straw. A couple of times I had to take deep breaths—you know, those deep breaths you try not to show when your emotions near the spill-over point.

Not everything about that Christmas is cobwebby memory—today, when I have an infrequent spell of holiday exuberance, I still sing carols, and I'm still mindful of my S's: "Dashing through the no, in a one horse open lay, o'er the fields we go, laughing all the way ... "

Merry Christmuh, pilgrims.

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