Around this time of year, it’s not unusual to reflect upon Christmas memories. When that happens to me, a specific one always surfaces. It happened many years ago – maybe even longer ago than that.
Each December, as another cruel and heartless winter held my hometown of Kensal, North Dakota, in its frigid clutches, the ladies of the parish auxiliary set about readying the church basement for the annual Christmas play. They created an elevated stage by laying two-by-fours flat on the floor and covering them with plywood. It didn’t raise the stage very high, but there were only about two dozen people in the audience, so they all got to sit in the front row.
After selecting the properly colored bed sheets for curtains, the mothers assigned children to the various roles. As was common practice at the time, the play centered around the arrival of the Magi at the manger, and my mother said I would be a logical choice to be one of the wise men because I got straight A’s in school. Mom’s wisdom was recognized, and I was chosen to portray Melchior without dissent.
It was a difficult role. By most historical accounts, Melchior was an elderly man with white hair, a wrinkled complexion, and a deep voice resulting from inhaling dust kicked up by camels. Conversely, I was a first-grader cursed with a mop of unruly brown hair, a boyish face turned red by the unrelenting cold, and a squeaky voice caused by too much exposure to winter’s chill.
Bobby Nogosek was a natural selection for Balthazar, the oldest Magi, because he had appeared in the previous year’s version of the play. Also, he could lower his voice by forcing his chin down onto his throat and pretending he was sucking on a lemon cough lozenge.
Eddie Haugen won the part of Gaspar, the third wise man. He didn’t actually win the role; he was threatened with disclosure of his middle name if he refused. Back then, middle names were tributes to elder relatives with names like Ambrose, Gottleib, Cletus, Ignatius, Constantine and Boris, thus frequently being used as an instrument of blackmail by the threat of exposure. So, Eddie chose to be Gaspar rather than be called Marcellus, his middle name.
Then the moms had to convert three cherub-faced youngsters into Sahara-hardened old men with raspy and crackling voices. That was a major challenge. The Magi, by all accounts available at that time in Kensal, were dark-skinned sons of the desert with large Middle Eastern hook noses; Bobby, Eddie and I had the fair skin, the rosy cheeks, and the snotty red noses typical of the offspring of the Great Plains.
Fortunately, the mothers came prepared with massive amounts of beige face powder, which they slathered upon our countenances with great fervor. The moms drew wavy lines across our foreheads with eyebrow pencils to further the illusion of old age. They attached white cotton batting to our upper lips, chins and any hair that showed below the turbans fashioned from bath towels.
Since nobody in Kensal had ever seen an actual Magi, the moms assumed nobody would notice that their Magi were wearing turbans decorated with peonies, farm scenes and advertisements for granulated sugar. And that they were clad in altered chenille bathrobes with little fuzzy balls hanging off the sleeves.
Once we completed the costuming process, we were ordered to relax around a large container of Kool-Aid prepared especially for the occasion. Being the stars of the show, we Magi naturally assumed that the Kool-Aid was meant just for us, unaware that most of it was supposed to be sold as refreshment after the first act in which Gaspar uttered his key line, “Hark, a star doth riseth far to yonder east so let us followeth it.” Nobody in Kensal knew any Arabic, so the moms felt relatively safe in making minor improvisations.
And so, we partook mightily of the free Kool-Aid, assuming it was the custom of desert dwellers. However, if Kensal’s first-grade curriculum had included advanced calculus and biology, I would have known that my bladder with a two-ounce holding capacity could not accommodate sixteen ounces of Kool-Aid. But, being blissfully unaware of the consequences, I swigged and swilled with my compatriots until we had consumed most of the liquid set before us. Then it was time to perform.
The mom in charge of scenery drew the sheets back, and we entered, harking and yondering with precision and the self-confidence that comes with drinking more than a pint of free Kool-Aid. “Hath thou seeneth yonder star?” Balthazar asked, and Gaspar and Melchior responded in unison, “Yea and verily, we hath.”
The mom in charge of props strolled behind the sheet hung as a backdrop while shining the five-watt flashlight cast in the role of the eastern star. Right on cue, we Magi began following it until we and the star reached mid-stage, where the Nativity was being held.
And nearly simultaneously, all the Kool-Aid I had gulped earlier began following the gravitational pull of the earth and plunged directly into my nether regions. I tried to shake it off as the jitters, but this was determined Kool-Aid, bent upon following its intended path regardless of my high position as a star-following Magi.
I leaned forward in the hope that the internal flood might select an alternate route, like around my abdominal cavity, where there was plenty of room because I hadn’t eaten any supper due to stage fright. But the Kool-Aid was smarter than a first-grade Magi. It had, by this time, studied my internal system and knew exactly where to go to make me go, in the most literal sense.
I went into a second stalling maneuver by bending over while pretending to brush some camel dust from the hem of my robe. When that didn’t work, I turned my back to the audience so they wouldn’t see my agonized countenance and ad-libbed, “Hark, doth I see another star that riseth in the north?” That confused the props mom because she had only one flashlight, and the script didn’t call for her to fire up another one. Balthazar came to the rescue by intoning, “No, that doth not seemeth to be a star,” and things briefly returned to normal until the next wave of Kool-Aid made its charge.
This time, it descended toward the normal point of departure with the fury of a thousand unprincipled waterfalls bent upon tidal destruction. In desperation, I leaned over the crib where the Shirley Temple doll was performing as the newborn and uttered the Middle Eastern version of “cootchie-coo” while tightly grasping my midsection with both arms in the hope that it would back up my internal organs and create a dam to hold back the Kool-Aid.
Alarmed by my non-scripted activity, Balthazar was forced to ad-lib. “Doth thou see the child?” he inquired. To which I responded, “I doth! I doth!” The strategy appeared to be initially successful, but the relief was only momentary. The inner surge had become a wave. Now I had but one hope – if I kept walking, it might stem the tide. So, I walked from one edge of the stage to the other – but the scene was only eight feet wide, so I told the other two wise men, “I seeketh the gold, Frankenstein and myrtle that we hath broughteth as gifteths.”
Eventually, the pain became so intense that I was forced to hop on one leg, then shift to the other leg and repeat the process in an attempt to trick the Kool-Aid into taking the wrong path toward its intended destination. I looked out into the audience for help, hoping that someone out there would notice my plight and yell, “Tornado!” or something similar so they’d bring down the curtain.
Finally, the first act came to an end, and one observant member of the audience rushed up to me and asked, “Do you...?” I abandoned my Magi persona and proclaimed in native Kensal-ese, “I do. I do. I really do.” She pointed to the staircase that led to a wooden outdoor relief station and whispered, “go,” and I did – both literally and figuratively.
The second act came off well with no impromptu gyrations by any of the cast members. Afterward, I asked my mom why she didn’t notice that I was acting strangely. “Oh, I thought you laced up your shoes too tight,” she responded. For several years after that, the performance was referred to as “the night of the dancing wise man.”
– Sam Lowe is a former Valley newspaperman who now writes about his travels across Arizona, the U.S. and the globe.