Lies make the Baby Jesus cry. A lot. He's quite a handful. His poor mother Mary looks like she died a month ago and nobody told her. Joseph doesn’t look much better. Even Joseph’s business is suffering from The Boy's intolerance to falsehoods. Joseph's woodworking has gotten sloppy and he is snapping at the customers. I heard that when Mary’s cousin Elizabeth asked Joseph to build some shelves for her, Joseph snarled, “Go build them yourself, you old cow.”
And that’s not at all like him.
And If regular lying wasn’t bad enough for the poor little Baby Jesus, imagine how He feels when a bunch of Presbyterians use His own likeness to perpetrate a falsehood on an entire community. It would cripple Him.
That was the basic logic that my best friend, Steve Sullivan, used to convince Bobby McNally, Billy Donnelly and me to kidnap the Baby Jesus from the nativity scene at Ardleigh Presbyterian Church.
Sitting in Steve’s room, we dreamed and plotted as young boys do. Bobby and I were thirteen and Steve was fourteen. Billy was only twelve. None of us had girlfriends, so we channeled our testosterone into honing our inclination for criminal behavior and cursing. We lived for mischief. For the most part our hijinks were non-destructive. We favored more cerebral pranks.
The plan to steal the Baby Jesus was pure Sullivan.
We would steal the Baby Jesus from the nativity scene and leave a note explaining the error of putting Him into the manger before Christmas. We would steal Him on Friday, the ninth, and return Him on Christmas Eve at the stroke of midnight.
Billy slapped his forehead. “Oh, fuck! I have to go to my grandmother’s on Friday.”
Bobby said, “Don’t worry fuck-face. Friday will be a cinch. Christmas Eve will be a real pisser.”
Steve told me to write the note. And I took the job quite seriously. I wanted my first ransom note to be professional. I spent hours writing and even more time cutting out letters from magazines and newspapers and gluing them to a piece of paper. I wore a pair of ill-fitting Playtex Living Gloves to avoid leaving any fingerprints.
The note simply stated, “Any display of the Christ Child before Christmas is historically inaccurate and constitutes heresy. Your little plaster Jesus is safe. He will be returned only at the appropriate time.”
I was so proud of my note. I showed the note to Bobby, Billy, and Steve on Thursday after school. Steve laughed and said, “You’re such a homo.”
I’m sure I turned red. He punched me in the arm. Hard. Then he said, “No. This is good. They’re gonna think they’re dealing with some sick fuckin’ nut-case. This note is pretty cool.”
Bobby gave me a shove and said, “Cool for a fuckin’ nut case.”
Friday night after dinner we met at Steve’s house. Steve and Bobby seemed calm. I was so excited I felt like I constantly had to pee. In the kitchen, as we were putting on our coats to leave Steve nonchalantly went through his mother’s purse and grabbed a twenty dollar bill. “After we steal Jesus we can get some hoagies down at Rosie’s.”
Steve thought of everything.
Ardleigh Presbyterian Church was five blocks away. On our way we talked about which girls wore falsies.
Taking the Christ child was relatively uneventful. Ardleigh Street was pretty empty after dark. The lack of any traffic made being caught a real long shot. There were three spotlights popping out of the ground illuminating the stable and its occupants from below giving them an eerie look of vampires. Anyone passing by could clearly see us bathed in the vampire light. but no one did. Everything went smoothly. The hand-painted plaster Child weighed a bit more than we thought, and we had to find a rock to keep the “nut case” note from blowing away.
We had done it. Steve kept the statue of Jesus half-hidden under his coat. Rosie’s was seven blocks back in the other direction.
“This god damn thing is heavy,” Steve said. “Hey Short, let’s drop this off at your house. It’s on the fuckin’ way, and we can’t very well take Our Lord into Rosie’s, for Christ’s sake.”
My heart raced. If my mother found out it would kill her. And then my father would kill me.
“Can’t we just leave it outside?”
“You don’t want some dog to come along and piss on Our Lord and Savior, do ya?”
“Well, no but… ”
“Your sister has that box of old dolls in the basement. We’ll dress Him up and leave Him in the fuckin’ doll box. It’s perfect.”
Bobby chimed in. “Come on, Short. Are you shittin’ me? It’s brilliant.”
As much as I would have preferred the Son of God to spend the next two weeks anywhere but my house, it was a pretty good plan. Steve’s plans usually were.
I went inside first to make sure that we could make it to the basement unseen. My sister was out and, predictably, my parents were asleep. We tip-toed to the basement and dressed Little Jesus of Nazareth in a Chatty Cathy’s light blue dress and wrapped something around His head and buried Him among the rest of the figures and slid the box back into the host of other boxes in the storage closet.
We celebrated at Rosie’s with shakes and a large pepperoni pizza and by blowing the paper wrapper off of every straw in the place.
That Sunday, after Mass, my dad was reading the paper and pointed out an article to my mother.
“Look at this,” he said, “they stole the Presbyterians’ Jesus.”
I could tell by his inflection that he enjoyed the fact that the Protestants were suffering and that their troubles were probably going to ruin Christmas for them.
As my mother read the account she made the Sign of the Cross and softly petitioned the Lord whispering, “God help us.”
I waited until mid-afternoon to smuggle that section of the paper under my coat and take it to Steve’s house.
I stopped to get Bobby on my way to Steve’s. We all read the article in Steve’s room. It was on the first page of the local news section and the headline was just below the fold. It read “Vandals Hit Nativity Scene” and it had a photograph of the empty manger. The article referred to us as “Godless hoodlums” and “saboteurs.” It also said the police were following up on some leads and expected to “apprehend the perpetrators and retrieve the missing statue before Christmas.”
The article did not mention the note.
“They’re full of shit.” Steve said. “They don’t have any leads. Besides, the fuckin’ note told them they’d get their precious little doll back by Christmas. They’re just trying to save face.”
“They didn’t mention the note,” Bobby said. “What if it blew away?”
Steve looked up from the paper. “What if you blew Father Kelly?”
“Fuck you, Sullivan.”
I wasn’t completely reassured. “You guys don’t have the fuckin’ Presbyterian Jesus stashed in you basement. What if the cops come to my house?”
Steve leaned in close to my face and said, “Just tell them… ”
“Tell them what?”
Steve smiled and let loose an extended fart.
The cops never came. Steve and his extended fart were right. Adults are usually full of shit. They make pronouncements meant to keep up the appearance that they have things under control when in reality they are as helpless as a bug in Mickey Delaney’s sadistic hands.
On Friday, the twenty-third, the last day of school before Christmas vacation, Steve, Bobby, Billy and I walked home together. We hadn’t spoken of the Jesus in the basement since Steve’s extended fart ended the discussion almost two weeks ago. We had to find a way to return the Son of God dressed in drag to the Protestants tomorrow night without getting caught.
I had to address the situation. “How the fuck are we gonna… ”
Steve was already a step ahead of me. “Let’s walk Billy home.”
Usually when we got to Ardleigh Street, Billy would turn left. He lived across the street and a few houses down from Ardleigh Presbyterian Church. As we approached Ardleigh Presbyterian Church we saw nothing. No cops. No F.B.I. agents. No Presbyterian ministers with rifles. Nothing.
Steve smiled and said, “I knew it. They aren’t expecting anything until tomorrow night. Half the congregation at their midnight service tomorrow will be cops. We have all night tonight to set things up.”
As we passed the church Steve had a look of quiet confidence on his face.
Bobby and I glanced at each other and I could see in McNally’s skinny face that he had faith in Steve. So did I. If anyone had the devious mind to make a bunch of adults, especially policemen and Presbyterians, look like assholes, it was Steve.
We were silent for the five-block walk home. When we got to my house Steve simply said, “Be at my house by five. And bring the kid.”
He and Bobby walked on without me in silence.
I brought the fetching deity-in-a-dress up from the basement in a plain brown paper bag and hid it in the bushes next to garage before anyone else got home. I prayed that dogs would choose to urinate elsewhere for the next two hours.
At five o’clock sharp I knocked on the Sullivan’s door. Steve ushered me in past their dog, Max, a German Shepherd who was crazy as a loon and scared me to death. Steve swatted his snout and quietly said, “Shut the fuck up.”
Mrs. Sullivan was sitting in her chair watching television with the gigantic cup of coffee mixed with what smelled like Aqua Velva after shave. As we passed her on our way up to Steve’s room she called out, “Merry Chrishmush, Frangie.”
“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Sullivan.”
Bobby was already sitting on Steve’s bed. He muttered his signature greeting. “Hey, fuck-face.”
I pulled the plaster Jesus out of the brown paper bag and placed it on Steve’s bed.
Steve looked over and said, “Take that fuckin’ dress off Him.”
Steve outlined the plan. Bobby and I knew we were in the presence of a great mind. What the plan lacked in specificity it made up for with sheer balls. Every policeman and Presbyterian in attendance at the Ardleigh Presbyterian Church midnight service would remember Christmas 1966 for the rest of their lives.
At least that was the plan.
The simple beauty of the plan was to return Jesus to the manger tonight but not reveal Him until tomorrow night.
Steve put the statue back into the brown paper bag and the three of us walked to Billy Donnelly’s house on the other side of Ardleigh Street, across from Ardleigh Presbyterian Church. It was a huge house and his bedroom was on the third floor. In the winter, when there weren’t any leaves on the trees, Billy had an unobstructed view of the front of Ardleigh Presbyterian Church.
When we got to Billy’s room, he was working on a radio-controlled model airplane. It was an early gift from his grandmother. We turned out the lights and looked across to Ardleigh Presbyterian Church. Billy got a pair of binoculars. There was a light on inside the church. Bobby volunteered to go inside and find out who was in the church. We all walked over to the church and Bobby went up to the door while Billy, Steve, the Baby Jesus, and I and hid in the bushes on the side of the church.
Bobby threw the door open and yelled, “Anybody home?”
A woman was decorating the altar with bright red poinsettias. She glared at Bobby. “What are you doing in here?”
Bobby looked around to see if there was anyone else. Nonchalantly he said, “I lost my watch. Is it Christmas yet?”
“Get out of here before I call the cops.”
“Easy lady. Don’t have a stroke. I’m leavin’.”
And as he walked through the door he called back to her. “Try smilin’. It’s fuckin’ Christmas.”
As the door shut behind him he whispered in the general direction of the bushes, “It’s safe fuck-face. It’s just some old flower lady.”
We went to the manger and removed all the straw. We placed the statue into the manger and shoved the straw on either side of the statue and then covered the whole shebang with a layer of straw. Steve patted the straw and said, “Be a good little Jesus now. I don’t want to hear a peep outta ya.”
Besides the note I had written, my biggest contribution to the plan was to create a “black-out” to give Bobby the cover of darkness to remove the thin layer of straw covering the little Jesus already resting comfortably in His manger. As we left we unscrewed the three floodlight bulbs until they went out, and then screwed them back in slowly just until they made contact. The lights were “on”, but only by a hair.
The stage was set. Jesus was safely back in His manger. We walked back down Ardleigh Street to Billy Donnelly’s house.
Once up in Billy’s room, we discussed various tactics to create diversions. As we conspired, Billy continued working on his airplane.
Even with Bobby’s legendary speed and the cover of darkness, something would be needed to divert the attention of the assembly. Steve came up with the idea of using an M-80. “I’ll tie the fuse to a lit cigarette and put it on the sidewalk directly across the street from the nativity scene. In five minutes or so, the cigarette burns down to the fuse, and… Voilà! Diversion.”
We all agreed on the plan.
On Saturday, Christmas Eve, everybody had certain family rituals to attend. I didn’t see Bobby or Billy during daylight hours at all. I saw Steve briefly. He stopped by after he stole a pack of Benson & Hedges from his mother. We both smoked a couple behind Steve’s house. That made me nauseous for an hour or so.
Billy called me around dinnertime and told me that he was working on a back-up plan. I begged him to tell me what it was, but he would only say, “You’ll see.”
Midnight Mass was a mob scene. Every negligent Catholic came out of the woodwork for Christmas Midnight Mass. The parking lot was always overflowing and most families came early to get a spot. We got there at 11:15. It was like a circus populated with drunken carolers, cranky babies, and even a few Protestants who lived nearby and picked their church the way most people pick a pair of socks to wear.
Steve said we should all meet by the confessional at 11:30. It was easy to “get separated” from the rest of the family. I was the first one at the confessional. Steve showed up next followed by Bobby. The three of us were all dressed up in suits and ties, not looking at all like the tough-guy saboteurs we were set on being.
It was time to go and there was no sign of Billy. I hadn’t seen any of the Donnelly family, and they were hard to miss with their flaming red hair. At 11:38 Steve made the decision to go to ahead without Billy.
When we arrived at Ardleigh Presbyterian Church there was a crowd out front. Nothing like the mayhem back at our church, but a respectable number of worshippers. There were a few uniformed policemen standing watch and an unknown number of plain-clothes undercover cops. We stood near the corner and Steve watched the crowd.
Squinting through the darkness he said, “I don’t think there are that many Presbyterians in the whole fuckin’ state. I’ll bet most of them are cops.”
Looking at his watch, Bobby said, “C’mon fuck-face. It’s time.”
It was 11:52. Bobby and I made our way through the crowd to our stations next to the floodlights. I took the center light and Bobby took the one on the right. Steve was going to take the left light after he placed the M-80 tied to the lit cigarette.
Steve crossed to the other side of the street and lit one of his mother’s Benson & Hedges. A well-dressed man on his way to Ardleigh Presbyterian Church wagged his finger at Steve and said, “Does you mother know you’re smoking?”
Steve answered without even looking at the gentleman. “Does you mother know you’re a queer?”
The man walked across the street to Ardleigh Presbyterian Church and Steve leaned against a telephone pole and attached the M-80 to the cigarette about an inch from the glowing tip. He placed it on the ground carefully angling the cigarette slightly upward to ensure that it would burn “up” to the fuse. He was standing by the spotlight on the left by 11:57.
Suddenly, an overweight policeman in uniform stepped out of the crowd and positioned himself immediately to the left of the manger. His name tag read “Porter.” Steve and Bobby and I exchanged glances. I could see that Steve was nervous. Bobby could probably still move the straw and bolt behind Ardleigh Presbyterian Church, jump the fence and avoid capture, but this big fatso might just ruin the plan.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, Billy Donnelly was watching from his brother Dennis’ room on the second floor window with binoculars. Billy had spent all morning spray-painting his radio-controlled airplane black. The plane was positioned just outside Dennis’ window on the overhang above the Donnelly’s porch. As he watched us he was squeezing a tube of Testor’s model cement, emptying its contents onto the wings and fuselage of the forty-two inch model.
At midnight the big Presbyterian bell above Ardleigh Presbyterian Church rang.
Billy started his airplane, struck a match, and set fire to the Testor’s model cement on the wing.
Steve’s plan was to synchronize our assault using either the M-80 explosion or the twelfth toll of the big Presbyterian bell. Whichever came first.
The bell tolled a countdown. Eleven… ten… nine…
Five… four… three… Bobby looked across to Steve and me with a little smile and winked. He was going for it.
Billy Donnelly’s plane was airborne.
The big Presbyterian bell struck twelve and the three of us tapped the spotlights with our shiny black church shoes.
The nativity scene and all the people standing outside Ardleigh Presbyterian Church were plunged into darkness. It was only in the darkness that Officer Potter saw a flaming cross-shaped object headed straight for him. He cried out, “Oh shit!”
As if it were the exclamation point to Officer Potter’s cry the M-80 exploded.
A few ladies screamed and a dog in the distance started barking.
To avoid the flaming cross Officer Potter lunged to his left knocking into the manger and plowing right into Bobby who was running at full steam toward the manger. They both rolled into the wall of the stable, snapping the front corner support. The entire stable collapsed, beheading one of the plaster Magi.
Bobby scrambled out from under Officer Potter. The airplane pulled out of its dive and flew over the crowd. It circled above the crowd twice, turned and flew around the corner of the church disappearing from view.
Bobby was gone.
A Presbyterian minister in full regalia pushed me aside and screwed one of the spotlights back in illuminating the devastation.
A few feet in front of the spotlight, thrown clear of the wreckage, lying on His back facing the crowd was the little Presbyterian Jesus waving to the crowd with both plaster hands.
The Presbyterians slowly dispersed. Some were headed back into Ardleigh Presbyterian Church and others were just going home. Steve and I left the scene slowly, trying to look like Presbyterians.
As we walked back to Mass Steve and I were speechless. Steve finally broke the silence.
“Can you believe it? Little Billy fucking Donnelly… That little red-head fuck is a genius.”
“Yeah… That was pretty fuckin’ cool.”
We slipped into the back of the church. Midnight Mass was nearly over. Most of the people standing in the back were drunk and talking pretty loudly to be heard over the pipe organ. Miss Riordan, the eighty-seven year-old organist, was doing her best to keep the tempo as she blasted Away in a Manger while people lined up to receive Holy Communion. I spotted Bobby going up to receive Holy Communion.
Little Billy fucking Donnelly was with him.
The following afternoon, when Christmas morning slid into watching hours of football, I took a walk past Ardleigh Presbyterian Church. They had propped up the corner of the stable with three cinder blocks, but it was still leaning considerably to the right. There were now only two wise men and the donkey’s ear was being held in place with electrical tape.
Billy fucking Donnelly…