A Christmas Present for Grandpa
by Ellis Parker Butler
I went down to Brinton's wharf to see the good ship Pole Star, which was to leave on an arctic exploration voyage the next day, and the first man I saw was my old friend Truthful Joe, as rugged an old sailor as you could wish to see. He was tremendously glad to see me; said it was his thirty-fifth voyage to the Arctic Ocean. We got to talking immediately, sitting on two cases of pemmican on the deck.
"That's funny," I said almost immediately, "there's a Negro. You don't mean to tell me a Negro is going on this voyage, Joe?"
"Certain sure he is!" said Joe. "Negroes have gone lots of times to the arctic regions -- make a habit of it -- like it. Kanakas, too -- South Sea islanders. None better in those froze-up regions. They get acclimated -- get used to the cold and all. Animals and birds get used to different climates than they are native to, the same way. Why, I knew a polar bear once -- did I ever tell you about Grandpa Utscoffer's Christmas surprise?"
"I don't remember it," I said. "What was it?"
So Truthful Joe told me about it.
It seems like -- said Truthful Joe -- I made a voyage in the good ship Clonmelton up the Brazolitos River and I pot a mighty bad case of swamp fever and couldn't shake it off, so when I got back to New York a doctor said the only way for me to get rid of it was to go up into the hills and stay for a solid year in good high air, so I asked around and heard about a lake called Teechy, up in the Shropshire Hills, in New York State. I heard about a farmer up there named Utscoffer who had a sort of shack near the lake, not so far from his farm, that a man could rent cheap, so up I went and rented that shack -- one thousand feet above sea level.
I went up there in April and it was nice. I fished some in the lake and helped make hay when it come to July, and I picked apples for the old feller when it come to September -- and then it turned cold. Gee whiskers, but it turned cold! Along by November it was twenty below zero every night, and snow a foot deep everywhere and six feet deep some places. I near froze to death in my shack, stove and all.
Well, along about the week before Christmas up come the four boys -- these grandsons of old Grandpa Utscoffer, and their names was Will and Jim and Ed and Sam. Fine boys they was, too -- lots of pep and punch to them -- and we got real well acquainted in no time. They took to me because I was a sailor and I took to them because they was so up-and-coming. So one day when they was up at my shack by the lake. Will says:
"Sailor Joe, did you ever sail in the Arctic Ocean?"
"Plenty of times and yet again some," I told him. "Why?"
"Did you ever see any polar bears there?" this Will boy asks me.
"Millions of them," I says. "Leastways thousands -- or a couple of hundred, anyway."
"That's fine!" the William boy says, turning to the others. "You know a lot about them then, don't you?"
"What I don't know about them ain't worth knowing, that's all." I said.
"Well, we're glad of that," the Sam boy said, "because we're going to surprise Grandpa Utscoffer. We're going to give him a polar bear for Christmas."
"For the land's sake!" I cried out. "Well, blast my timbers! What in tunket do you want to do that for?"
"To make him happy," the Jim boy said, sort of explaining, but the Ed boy broke in on him.
"We love dear old grandpa," he said, "and we do want to get something that will surprise and please him. So we've sent for a polar bear."
"Well," I said, sort of hesitating, "that ought to surprise him. Yes, a polar bear ought to surprise him. I'll say that much -- it ought to surprise your grandpa considerable. Where in tunket did you get the notion?"
"Well, you know grandpa's Icy Glade --" Sam began.
"Sure I do!" I said, because they didn't have to tell me anything about Icy Glade. Grandpa Utscoffer had a sign at his gate on the main road that said, "This way to Icy Glade; admission twenty-five cents; pay at the house." Because people came from all over to feel how Icy Glade felt. It was a sort of glen, with a cave at the end of it, and it was where a glacier had stopped a million years before, or something like that, and maybe a billion tons of ice or something like that was buried in that hill -- maybe not. Maybe it was just a cold place.
Anyway, in the hottest days of summer, when it was ninety-nine in the shade and one hundred and twenty in the sun, you could go into Icy Glade and it was as cold as midwinter, almost. Ice cold -- chilly -- nearly froze your gizzard in you. So I knew all about Icy Glade; I'd been there often enough. I said so.
"Then you know what Grandpa Utscoffer says every time he takes a tourist there, or a visitor," Ed said. "'All I need is a polar bear and this would be perfect! That's what he says, and he's been saying it all his life. My mother says he used to say it when she was a little girl -- 'All I need is a polar bear and this would be perfect.' So we're going to give Grandpa Utscoffer a polar bear. We're going to surprise him."
"He'll be surprised; yea, he'll be surprised," I said, and then I said, real earnest: "But, boys, do you think you'd ought to? A polar bear is a terrible fierce beast."
"Some are, but this one ain't," the Jim boy said. "And there couldn't be a better place for a polar bear than the cave in Icy Glade."
"The place is all right, cold enough," I admitted, "but maybe your grandpa would like something else. A polar bear costs a lot of money."
"But that's just it," the Ed boy said. "This one don't," and he pulled a newspaper out of his pocket -- a New York newspaper he had picked up somewhere. He showed me an advertisement in it.
"To Exchange --" the advertisement said. "A polar bear. Born in captivity and thoroughly house broke. Kind and gentle. Will exchange for a phonograph in good condition, or what have you? P. H. Fuamusser, Orlando, Florida."
"And we had a phonograph in good condition," said the Jim boy, "so we wrote a letter and sent the phonograph, and the polar bear is coming by express. What we wanted to ask you is if we can keep it in your shack until Christmas morning."
"No, sireebob!" I said right out flat and plain. "No polar bear can residence in my shack for one minute! I know polar bears."
So we talked that over and decided that the place to keep the polar bear until Christmas morning was in the sap house up on the hill. That's where they boil down the maple sap in the spring to make maple sugar. It is good and cold in midwinter, and fine for polar bears. Anything else would likely freeze to death there.
Well, it come along to a day or two before Christmas and I was down at Grandpa Utscoffer's farmhouse to get me some eggs, and the telephone rang and Grandma Utscoffer went to the telephone. It's a local farm line and don't work very good and Grandma Utscoffer is next to as deaf as a post and she had a terrible time with it. It took her fifteen minutes to get any sense out of it, and then she was sort of dazed.
"Willyum," she says to the Will boy, "bless my soul if I can make any decent sense out of this thing. Near as I can make out it's the agent down to the railway at Hilltown, and he says he's got a pig for you. I told him he was a fool but he says it's a pig -- near as I can make out. He says for goodness sake come and get it because it's bawlin' it's head off."
"Pig?" says Grandpa Utscoffer. "We don't want any pig. We've got a pig. We ain't but enough garbage for one pig and hardly that."
"It's all right, grandpa," the Will boy said mighty quick. "It ain't a pig. It's something else; it's a Christmas present we got to surprise you with, and you will be surprised, too."
"Well -- if it ain't a pig, all right," said Grandpa Utscoffer. "I don't want to have to stew up feed for a pig in winter."
So we went outside, the Will boy and me, and we studied what to do. Those boys sort of relied on me, me knowing about polar bears as I did. The Will boy called the others and we consulted.
"Me and Jim," the Will boy said, "will go get the polar bear whilst Ed and Sam and Sailor Joe go up and finish mending up the sap house, so the polar bear can't get out. We'll wander down the road and get old Jed Wiskit to hitch up his sledge and fetch the polar bear to the sap house."
So off Will and Jim went, down the road, and Ed and Sam and me went up to the sap house. We nailed and hammered and carried in about ten tons of snow so the polar bear would be comfortable. About two hours later -- which was mighty quick time to Hilltown and back -- here come the sledge and the boys and Jed Wiskit and the big crate was on the sledge. Jed's two old horses looked like equine Santa Clauses -- white foam froze all over them and white foam whiskers hanging from their chins.
"Tarnation!" old Jed exclaimed. "Hosses run away all the way from station, and it's uphill most of the way. Never knew the old mud turtles had that much life left in "em."
"Polar bear," I said. "Hosses have got sense. They know when a wild animal is close to them."
"Station agent he thought it was a pig," old Jed chuckled.
"My lands!" I exclaimed. "I didn't think there was an ignoramus left in the world that didn't know a polar bear from a pig when he seen one."
"But it does look something like a pig," the Will boy said. "Like a big hog, maybe. Come on, get the crate inside the sap house; I think the polar bear is catching cold."
Well, it was sneezing and coughing some. Quite considerable. Matter of fact the animal was sneezing and coughing like to sneeze and cough its head off. And it was shivering, too. It was shivering so hard that it mighty near shook the crate off the sledge. We got the crate into the sap house and I looked through a crack in the crate.
"Well, what in tarnation!" I cried, for I couldn't hardly believe my eyesight. "It is a pig."
"No, it ain't," the Jim boy said. "Look at the snoot of it; no pig has a snoot like that. You never saw a pig as tall as that, did you?"
"But look at the skin of it," I said. "No polar bear ever had a skin like that."
"But that ain't its skin," the Will boy said. "That's oilskin. The polar bear is sewed up in oilskin."
"Well, boil me in butter if it ain't!" I exclaimed. "It's all sewed up in an oilskin cover."
"Anyway," the Sam boy said, "let's get it out of the crate," and I thought so, too, because the polar bear wasn't happy in that crate. It whined like a sad puppy, and sneezed and coughed awful. So we set the sap house door ajar so we could make a sudden bolt for outside if the polar bear went for us, and the Ed boy took a hammer and began knocking boards off the crate. When enough were off to let the bear out we all made jumps for the door, but the polar bear did not move. So the Will boy -- he was brave -- went up closer.
"Come, Alonzo! Come, Alonzo!" he called. "Nice old bear; come on out!"
Alonzo, the Florida man had wrote, was the bear's name. But the bear did not come out. So we all ventured closer and coaxed it, but it would not come. So we got pieces of sap wood and done our best to pry that polar bear out of the crate, but it would not pry. It backed away back in the crate and hung on with its claws. So we went around back and up-ended the crate and just naturally dumped the polar bear out of it. Alonzo sort of fell on one ear on the snow, with its hind end up, and lay there.
"I swan to goodness!" I said. "I never in my born days seen a polar bear like this one is!"
It never moved at all, except to heave a little when it sneezed. The boys took a couple of pieces of sap wood and pried the polar bear up and I got down and looked under it. Trouble was that one of its paws had got caught in a rent in the oilskin and it couldn't move, so I pulled out my knife and began ripping the oilskin cover off the bear. And what do you think was under that oilskin? A blanket! Yes, sir, a blanket! Sewed on. So I ripped that blanket off of Alonzo, and under it was another blanket. Four blankets in all, and all sewed onto that bear. And when the last blanket was off from Alonzo we just stood and stared at him.
I never in my life seen a bear like that one -- no, sir! From nose to tail it was as bare as an apple -- not a hair on it -- not even a bit of fuzz.
"Boys," I says, "the trouble with this polar bear is that it's got the mange."
It was a sad sight and no mistake. It was so lean its ribs stuck out like pickets on a fence. It stood there shaking like a leaf and sneezing every time you could count five, and coughing every time you could count ten.
"Don't it look awful?" the Sam boy said. "What can we do about it?"
"What you've got to do," I said, "is get some hair restorer and grow fur on it again. Mange cure is the best. If you rub this polar bear with mange cure morning and evening for a while you'll maybe grow fur on it."
"By Christmas? In time to surprise Grandpa Utscoffer?" the Jim boy asked.
"I guess he'd be more surprised to get it the way it is," I said, "but personally I like polar bears with more hair on. Boys," I said, looking at the bear. "I believe this bear is chilly. I believe this bear is sufferin' from the cold."
"A polar bear? Sufferin' from cold?" the Jim boy asked scornful-like.
"Does seem queer, maybe," I said, "but you got to remember this polar bear was born in captivity and has been livin' in Florida where it's hot. This ain't no longer an arctic polar bear, this is a torrid zone polar bear. Say, wait a minute, now! "
I went up close to the polar bear and looked it over and felt its skin with my fingers.
"Boys," I said, "I was wrong! This bear ain't got the mange no more than I have; it's been shaved. Its fur must have been too hot for it in Orlando, and this Fusmusser man shaved it. Its fur will grow out again or I'm a skeezicks."
Well, that was better. It cheered the boys up a lot, because there was a whale of a lot of that polar bear and giving it a mange cure rub twice a day wouldn't have been no easy job.
"Boys," I said, "I'll give you some advice, and you can take it or leave it -- if I was you I'd try to warm this polar bear up a little or it's liable to freeze to death up in this cold climate before it gets acclimated to it. If I was you I'd start a little fire under the sap pans and give the animal some warmth and comfort."
So Ed and Sam got sap wood and started a fire under the evaporation pans, and the minute Alonzo felt that warmth he chirked right up. He lifted his head and sniffed the smoke and when he sensed where the heat was coming from he waddled right over to the sap outfit and climbed into the lowest sap pan and curled down on it.
And that wouldn't do at all. A polar bear with fur on it might lie down on a hot sap pan and only scorch the fur off him, but a naked one would sure blister all up in a minute or two when the fire got going good. And the fire was getting going real good. Me and the Sam boy tried to pull Alonzo off the pan, but he was too much weight for us and we called for help, and the whole five of us took hold of him and did get him off.
But even an acclimated polar bear is as strong as a horse, nearly, and it took all five of us to hold him off from the sap pan. We got him pushed up against the side of the sap house and the five of us put our hands against him and pushed and that way we held him there. He struggled hard, but we held him. The only trouble was that we couldn't let go; we had to keep pushing that Alonzo polar bear against the side of the sap house until the fire burned completely out and the pans got cool, and the trouble with that was that Ed and Sam had built up such a good big fire.
In a little bit the two tons of snow we had carried in began to melt and for the first half hour we stood up to our knees in slush, and from then on up to our ankles in water. By and by Sam boy had an idea; he turned around and pushed one foot back to help hold the polar bear against the wall, and threw water into the fire and onto the sap pans. Then we let Alonzo have his own way and he climbed right into one of the sap pans and sat down on his tail.
It was dark by when I got back to my shack and I fixed up a rousing fire and cooked my supper, and along in an hour or so came Sam. He looked mighty worried.
"You look worried," I said.
"I'm fretted some," he said. "When I got back to the farmhouse Grandpa Utscoffer was in quite a pet. Yes, he was scolding around quite outrageous -- for him. 'I vummy!' he was saying, 'if I believed in witches I'd say all the stock on the place was witched, I would. Can't account for it no other way.' It was his live stock," the Sam boy explained. "It ran away."
"All of it?"
"Every head of it," the Sam boy said. "Three horses, twelve cows, one bull, and the pig. They went crazy, the hired man said. First the horses went crazy and busted out of the barn, and then the bull went crazy and busted right through the side of the barn, and then the cows went crazy and went after them. And, then the pig went crazy and broke down the pen and went over the hills and far away, squalling bloody murder."
"Got a scent of Alonzo," I said. "They smelled polar bear and was scared to fits. We ought to have thought of that. Same as Jed's horses ran away."
"Yes," said the Sam boy, "and the dickens of it is that the wind blows from the sap house direction all winter, with hardly a let-up. The hired man is out trying to find the stock now. but he'll have a hard hunt of it. But that ain't what's worrying me, Joe. What do polar bear eat?"
"Well -- they eat fish," I told him. "They eat seals, too, but there ain't an overplenty of seals up here in New York State. Fish is what you'll have to feed Alonzo."
"Do they -- do polar bears eat much?" this Sam boy asked me sort of tremulouslike.
"They do, Sam," I told him as gently as I could. "They eat a whale of a lot. They have bully appetites, polar bears have. Maybe a bushel of fish a day."
The Sam boy groaned and just then the three other boys came in and shut the door.
"He eats a bushel of fish a day," the Sam boy said, mighty glum.
"And nowhere around here to get fish except out of Lake Teechy," said the Will boy.
"And the lake is frozen over solid," said the Jim boy.
"With ice forty inches thick," the Ed boy said, sickishlike.
"Joe," the Sam boy asked me, "what sort of bait does a fellow use to fish through the ice with for pickerel?"
"Well, up north," I said, "what fishing we did through the ice we did with whale blubber in chunks. You go and catch a whale and cut the blubber into chunks an inch square for little fish, or a foot square for big fish, and you --"
"The only whale I know of," said the Ed boy, "is in the museum down at New York, and it ain't anything but a skeleton,"
"It wouldn't do," I said. "A whale to use as fish bait has got to have blubber on it."
So we all sat there thinking how long it would take to cut a hole through forty inches of ice, even if we had whale blubber, and we had just about made up our minds to let the polar bear starve, and be done with it, when Grandma Utscoffer came leaping up to my shack, three feet at a leap. We could hear her coming a long way off, screaming at every leap, and she fell against my door and banged it open.
"Help! Help! Help!" she screamed. "A wild animal is killing grandpa! "
"What kind of an animal, mam?" I asked her.
"A ridikilis animile," she panted.
"That's Alonzo," I said, getting up and getting inter my coat. "That's the polar bear -- he's a ridiculous animal if ever there was one. Come on, boys, or grandpa's Christmas present may damage him bad."
We rushed down the hill with Grandma Utscoffer following us, and when we got to the farmhouse we found Grandpa Utscoffer outside and looking in at the kitchen window. He was awful badly mussed up, but not injured, far as I could see. We looked in at the kitchen window and there was Alonzo; he was sitting on the kitchen floor alongside the stove and he was looking happier than I'd yet seen him look. He had a link of stovepipe in his front legs, hugging it to him, warming himself up.
"My goodness gracious, mercy lands-o'-good-ness!" Grandpa Utscoffer said. "I vum I never had no such business happen to me in my born days! What in the frostbit, sunbaked land-o'-goodness kind of a wild animule is that, anyway? "
"It's a polar bear, grandpa," the Will boy said.
"Only it's an acclimated Florida polar bear and it likes to be warm," the Jim boy said.
"We traded our secondhand phonograph for it," the Sam boy said.
"Because you own Icy Glade," the Ed boy said, "and you always said Icy Glade would be just perfect if you had a polar bear, so we got you one for a Christmas surprise, and this is it!"
And what do you think Grandpa Utscoffer said? Just then the polar bear edged up a little closer to the kitchen stove, and when I looked at Grandpa Utscoffer I saw two big tears roll down his cheeks.
"Well, ain't that nice!" he said. "A polar bear for Christmas! It's just what I wanted." He had to say that, the dear old man, because that's what everybody says when they get a Christmas present, but he turned to me then.
"Joe," he said to me, "you've been in the arctic regions; what's the quickest and painlessest way to kill a polar bear?"