By Sharon Sweda
Janet hears Henry’s familiar bellow. She knows, without looking or hearing the stomp of his boots, that in an instant, he and his flannel jacket will race out the door of their 1940’s bungalow. She also knows where he is going.
It is five days before Christmas in the Kraemer household. Henry and Janet well-reflect their simple, blue-collar neighborhood. It is predominately crime-free and neighbors are friendly. Yet, this is Christmas — when things are different on Georgia Avenue.
Henry loves Christmas. Each Christmas, he creates a masterpiece in the front yard. He is precise in its assembly and maintenance. And each year, early on Dec. 26, Henry battles after-Christmas crowds to add half-priced strands to his collection of multi-colored bulbs.
“Think they hide in the alley?”
Visibly winded from his sprint to pursue the culprits, he gasps before adding, “I can catch them on the sidewalk!”
This is the routine. Just before Thanksgiving, Henry sorts cords, checking for malfunctions and assembling strands in proper sequence and pattern. Inevitably, a bulb burns out, leaving the entire strand dark until the faulty one is detected and replaced. It requires days to transfer the strands to their outdoor position.
It is spectacular! The roof is outlined with an equal number of bulbs on either side. Blue, green, orange, red and white are repeated in order. The large bulbs are in excellent repair. Henry painstakingly dabs paint on bald glass, worn-clear from years of use and Midwestern elements.
“I have really outdone myself this year!” Henry declares, as if by cue, each Christmas.
Janet returns a supportive nod.
Henry endures another tradition, as well. He and the boys on Georgia Avenue vie for control of the lights. Henry loves the sport. He is proud to be the owner of a manicured lawn with handpicked weeds. He boasts perfectly shoveled snow from first fall to last. Henry’s 1958 Country Esquire is showroom clean. A hard worker, Henry cares for the fruits of his labor and vows to save the neighborhood from hooligans.
And so it is each year. Through other seasons, Henry shares tales of chasing rebels to retrieve stolen bulbs. Some suspect Henry keeps count. Hidden in the pocket of his jacket is a likely scorecard indicating wins and losses, Henry versus the Hooligans. Updated yearly, until 1964 and Henry’s accident, which nearly cripples him. Physicians marvel at his restricted walk.
“Christmas will be difficult,” Janet explains in a call to their daughter in Texas.
Debbie suggests a visit.
“It will get Dad away from home for Thanksgiving. Maybe he’ll forget the lights.”
Daughter and mother agree when a “click” signals that someone on the party line wants to make a call.
“I like holidays at home,” Henry grumbles, unaware of the plan to distract him.
“Stay for Christmas?” Debbie proposes during Thanksgiving desert.
Her offer is rejected and the Kraemer’s return to Ohio. Henry stiffens as Janet steers their auto into the driveway. The home is dark and Henry spots shadows in the backyard.
“Stay in the car,” he commands, fearing he cannot protect the house, or worse, cannot protect Janet.
Henry yells toward the shadows. “Who’s there? Come out!”
“Wait, Mr. Kraemer!” a voice returns. “It’s us!”
“Who? Who is there?”
“Tommy and Ralph — the Hooligans!”
Before Henry responds, the Kraemer house is magically illuminated and glowing. Christmas lights are strewn upon the house and shrubs. The front railing is wrapped in traditional fashion. Henry stares in disbelief.
“We can’t imagine Christmas without your decorations,” Tommy says. “My mother overheard Mrs. Kraemer and Debbie’s telephone conversation.”
“Then why steal my bulbs? It makes them all go out.”
“It’s fun to sneak and hide from you! It’s our best Christmas memory,” Ralph concedes. “We decided to surprise you. Luckily, Mrs. Warner had a key to deposit your mail.”
“Who would believe the Hooligans would do something for me?”
Henry is shocked at the incredible gesture. Henry invites them in for cookies and cocoa. Yet, the biggest surprise is not the light display. The greatest surprise is that Henry actually likes these guys. He likes them so well, that when the visit is nearly over, he beckons them to bundle up and walk with him to the front yard.
“Before you leave,” Henry says with a tone, “I am going to share some pointers about decorating.”
Light snow falls upon the odd pals as Henry instructs them about the importance of balance and pattern and perfectly strung lights.