This story first appeared in Texas Fish and Game Magazine way back in 2001. Hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas, y’all!
“This is stupid,” Doc complained. Three days before Christmas it was raining outside and we were all crowded inside the trailer at the deer lease.
His statement hurt Delbert P. Axelrod’s feelings. Secret Santas had been his idea, and we were involved simply because no one had the energy to tell him no. Excited, he’d drawn our names from a hat and assigned us a Secret Target.
Then we were committed to finding a gift for the person. We brought the wrapped packages to the lease for the exchange on the final night of the annual Christmas hunt.
“I didn’t want to do this anyway,” Doc complained. “This is the kind of thing that women like to do and it somehow becomes a tradition and then we’re locked into it for the rest of our lives. I want to come down here to hunt, tell lies…”
“And eat bacon,” Wrong Willie completed for him. Willie loves bacon so much that he can eat an entire pound by himself, and usually does. His wife doesn’t allow him that much bacon in a month. In fact, he’s been known to simply roll out of his sleeping bag and start frying bacon instead of hunting.
I once came in from the deer stand at ten in the morning and found him passed out in a plate of congealed bacon grease, with one final strip locked firmly in his fingers, moaning in ecstasy.
“Let’s get this over with,” said the Cap’n. “I need a nap.”
“It’s dark outside,” Youngster said. “Don’t you mean you want to go to sleep?”
“No. I want a nap. Then when I wake up I can go to sleep. I’m tired. Jerry Wayne’s snoring kept me up all night.”
Before the conversation could deteriorate into another discussion of nasal cavites, I handed Doc a present from under the tree. It wasn’t a real Christmas tree, only a mesquite limb someone had brought inside and stuck in a Mason jar on the table. Someone else tied a bright bandanna around the jar and the Christmas Limb was decorated with shiny pieces of chewing gum foil, half a dozen empty .270 hulls, some red berries Delbert had picked and threaded onto a string, and a few strands of yellow surveyors tape.
Doc held the present like it might explode. It was from me, so I didn’t worry. The paper hit the floor and out of a plain cardboard box a Billy Bass slid into his hand. You know, the stupid rubber singing fish-on-a-plank. You move, the bass turns its head and sings a stupid song.
“You shouldn’t have,” Doc said, looking at the stupid fish.
“I know,” I answered.
“No, really, you shouldn’t have. I hate these things.”
“So do I. But I’ve already gotten three of them this year from relatives. They all think it’s cute. I think they’re idiotic and I just wanted to share the misery.”
“It’ll make a good target,” Wrong Willie suggested.
The bass turned its head and began to sing Christmas songs. Doc immediately launched a search for the battery compartment. His pocketknife quickly appeared and the fish found itself field-dressed…and silent.
I handed Jerry Wayne his present. It was from his Secret Santa, Wrong Willie.
It was a Thomas Trout. A stupid singing trout-on-a-plank.
We thought Jerry Wayne was going to cry. “I hate these things, too,” he wept.
Wrong Willie opened his present from Doc. It was a Charlie Crappie. It began to sing demonized rock and roll songs.
Batteries hit the floor and rolled like marbles.
And so it went. Each club member opened a present and found some version of the stupid singing fish that everyone wants to buy for everyone else. It was a cacophony of singing fish that no one wanted.
We were amazed to find that no one had actually purchse any of the stupid fish. They were all gifts from someone else and the misery had been transferred to others.
We were finally through. Club Members slumped exhausted amid the rubble of shredded Christmas wrappings, clutching a combined gluttony of Stupid Personal Plastic Caterwauling-Fish-On-Planks.
I looked under the Christmas Limb and several small presents still remained. “What are those?” I asked. “They’re pretty small. Don’t tell me plastic singing minnows.”
Delbert cleared his throat. “Well, I knew you guys really didn’t want to do the Secret Santa stuff, so I brought each of you a present to go with them.” He passed the presents to the Club members.
We examined the packages with suspicion.
“What’s in here?” Wrong Willie asked. “You setting us up?”
“No,” Delbert said. “Just open them.”
Doc was first, tearing the paper off with a look of disgust, until he uncovered a worn whetstone. He started to say something caustic, but then he stopped and looked at Delbert, who smiled sheepishly. “This is old.”
“Y’all remember Dad died just after Christmas last year,” Delbert said. “I put some things aside as we emptied the house. I just thought you’d like to have something of his. IT was hid dad’s stone, my grandfather.”
Silently the remaining members opened their packages from Delbert. One held an antique Hula Popper still in the cardboard box, and another was a Peters box full of old paper shells. A folding pocket knife with a blade worn fingernail thin, a box of hand-tied flies, a battered Penn reel, a plain hand-carved decoy, a worn duck call and finally a tattered copy of Havilah Babcock stories were all unwrapped and placed in the laps of misty-eyed outdoorsmen.
No one said anything for a long while as we cleared suddenly aching throats. Everyone mumbled an embarrassed thank you. The next day, the guys loaded their trucks and headed home with the treasures packed securely away, a little wiser and closer to the meaning of Christmas.
When I closed and locked the trailer door, I looked up at the wall lined with nine battery-operated singing fish, without the batteries, and knew I’d remember this Christmas forever, thanks to the selfless gifts of a guy who valued our friendship.