Steve Dresselhaus

I would wager that this is the first story, and perhaps the last story, you will ever read where stewed prunes are a major factor.  It happened  at my  boarding school tucked away in Venezuela’s Andes Mountains.  Parents  were a loooong way away and this was  during  a time in Venezuelan history when  telephones were few and far between and calls were exceedingly expensive.    The poor dorm parents were responsible for caring for 40 boys, each of whom was creative, adventurous, smart and boosted by  a tsunami  of testosterone.   In a pecking order  which lends credence  to  Darwinian theory, each boy had to earn his position  and rank through creative behaviors, most of which were frowned upon by conservative fundamentalist tradition  in which “No” was the default position on most everything.     For the boys,  dorm life  was a wild unfettered romp of  adventure and excitement; but for the poor dorm parents, place names  like Purgatory,  Attica,  and Alcatraz come to mind.  I do not know what the dorm parents had done in a former life to merit the bad karma with which  they had been cursed by being at  my boarding school.  As evangelical Christians my dorm parents  believed in salvation through grace and not merit,  so the self-flagellation of accepting an assignment at the boarding school baffles me to this day.

One night, in an attempt to improve  efficiency, the dorm parents had pre-set the tables in   the dining room for the next day’s breakfast.  Not a bad idea.  What was not a good idea was  placing  two stewed prunes in each boy’s bowl.  I’m not sure why prunes were even offered to us, since teenaged boys living in the tropics, drinking water of dubious quality, and eating street vendor food   were seldom if ever  in need of the medicinal  benefits proffered by boiled prunes.   Regardless, the tables were set and the prunes were in place.

Lights out in the dorm was at 10:00.  The expectation was that the six boys in each room would instantly succumb to the sandman and quietly and gently fall asleep in submissive quietness.    That may have  happened  once or twice.    Usually, it was laughter, story telling, reading books by flashlight, sneaking out of the room in order to raid another room, playing practical jokes on each other  and in general doing anything but drifting   quietly off  to sleep.

The night the prunes were in the bowls presented a unique and never to be repeated opportunity for creative behavior.  The temptation was truly irresistible.  My best friend and I crept silently from our beds, out the door and down the hallway towards the dining room.  The dining room was a large room with oven-baked red clay block walls plastered with cement.  The acoustics were horrendous,  and any noise seemed to be amplified exponentially.  In an attempt to deaden the noise, large sound-absorbing panels had been attached to the walls; but it was too little too late.  A whisper became a shout, a mealtime burp  a Mount St. Helens explosion,  and  gentle discourse during meal time a  football stadium cacophony.

I have been cursed with a physical condition  which qualifies  me for neither disability pay nor a handicapped parking spot.   My   ankles and knees sometimes  pop and snap like a bowl of Rice Krispies in cold milk.   In the dining room, with its horrendous acoustics, my popping ankles sounded like the soundtrack from  a battle scene in Saving Private Ryan.  Each step produced a loud pop which echoed and reverberated in the echo chamber dining room.  We approached  the dorm parents’ table, which was centrally located in relation to all the other tables.  We ate the prunes in the dorm parents’ bowls and spit the pits back into their bowls.

As we were putting the finishing touches on our crime,  we heard a door open.  It was the door;  the door from whence  Smaug  appeared.  My popping ankles had awakened  the dragon from his deep slumber.  He was  the one creature we feared, the one being who held our fate and destiny in his hands.  The fire-breathing dorm father was awake and he was heading our way.  In panic we turned and ran back towards our room, hoping to be in our beds before the dragon could detect who the nighttime prune thieves were.

Not only were the acoustics horrendous in the dining room, but the roof leaked in places.  It had rained earlier in the day.  In our panicked race back to our room in our stocking feet, we did not notice the puddle in the hallway. Squish.  The second we stepped in the puddle we knew our fate had been sealed, as there would be no way to conceal the trail of wet footprints leading directly to our beds.  Like an inmate being led to the gas chamber, I knew the end was in sight with no way out whatsoever.  Yet I ran.  It was the running of the knowing  doomed.

I jumped into my bed, my friend, Ron,  jumped into his.  Hearts pounding, deep breathing escaping our nostrils like  steam from an old locomotive climbing the Rockies, we tried to calm ourselves,  all the while anticipating  with dread that which was as unavoidable as  sunrise on the day of a geometry test.

Like the doorway to a medieval dungeon our bedroom door opened.   Our dorm father, with the certitude of a  bloodhound trailing a wounded fugitive leaving behind his scent,  approached my bed without a moment’s hesitation.  The soggy trail of footprints on the polished terrazzo floor left what might as well have been a  large neon arrow pointing right at me, shouting out in flashing red lights “It’s him, It’s him.”  Pretending to be asleep was futile; nonetheless, I tried.

“Dress”–that was my nickname taken from my last name, Dresselhaus–“What were you doing out of bed?”  “Huh, what? Huh.”  Pretending to be waking from a deep sleep was a last desperate attempt to  deny  and delay the predestined.  “I know it was you, Dress.  The footprints end at your bed.”  Nailed.  Caught wet-footed.  Guilty as charged.  Sentence pending.  “Tomorrow we will deal with this.  Now stay in bed.”  Smaug left the room,  the smell of burning  sulfur lingering  behind him as a reminder of the inescapable fate before me.

The next morning, before the prayer, the dorm father instructed all the boys who hated stewed prunes and didn’t want to eat them to dump them into Dress and Ron’s bowls.  Like grain falling from a conveyor belt into the hold of a China bound freighter, the mound of prunes grew and grew.  I’m guessing that Ron and I each had twenty or more stewed prunes in our bowls.  The sentence was carried out.  We ate them all.

After breakfast we went to school.  The dorm father had contacted the school and obtained permission for us to make as many journeys to the bathroom as needed due to the predicted and near certain effects of overdosing on stewed prunes.  We survived the day.  I don’t recall how many trips to the bathroom I made that day, but I do know it was many.   I have not eaten a stewed prune in over 40 years.




Christmas is that wonderful time of year which brings out the best in a person, or  perhaps the worst.  The best is the loving generosity of a parent towards the children, the worshipful  practices in which we remember the birth of Jesus the King,  and the time joyfully  invested with the family creating memories and traditions.  It really is the most wonderful time of  the year.   Or is it?

While the romantic revels in the goodness and joy of Christmas, there is an evil parallel to the season  which makes the Grinch look like a jovial buddy.  The horrors  of Christmas orbit around  a central  malignant evil which is the decorated live Christmas tree.  I’m not talking about the evil imagined by some fundamentalist semi-cult group that says the prophet Jeremiah  was preaching against the Christmas tree in his judgment against idolatry 605 years  B.C., before the nativity.  No, I’m much more pragmatic.  I’m talking about the  evil unleashed at the  taking down of the tree after all the good times are over.  The Christmas tree is to Christmas what the January credit card bill is  to personal debt after  December’s  mindless and irresponsible spending.   Taking down the tree is  like waking up the morning  after a 12-hour pub crawl the night before (something I have only heard about but never experienced)   and realizing that it is only now that the true price is to be paid.  Any residual  joy of the season is quickly buried under an avalanche of tree-spawned suffering and remorse at having succumbed yet once again to the “but they are so pretty and they smell so good” from your wife.   Guys, don’t fall for it.  It is a trap that will surely ensnare you.

The first thing to awaken your seasonal misery  is the removal of all the lights and ornaments from the tree.   Taking down the lights and ornaments is an indisputable refutation  of the theory of  evolution, as it proves that disorder follows order–never the other way around.  A major  component  of the scientific process  is obligatory repetition of experimentation  to validate the theory.  I  now have 30 years of  accumulated research  from oft-repeated studies  which  conclusively prove  that everything  does indeed go from order to disorder, from order to randomness  and never the other way around.  Unless self organization can ever be  documented somewhere, Darwin’s theory will forever languish in a dreamy  La La Land of  impossibility.  Every year I promise myself that I’ll put the ornaments  and lights back in order neatly in their own  little plastic windowed    boxes originally packed by diminutive Chinese slaves with fingers the size of toothpicks and carefully inspected by # 8.   Every year entropy triumphs as I end up  jamming the strings of lights into plastic shopping bags from Safeway .  Every year my collection of light strings  grows bigger and bigger, as I can never find all the lights I purchased the year before till after I have purchased more lights to replace the ones I couldn’t find before the  most recent trip to Ace or Home Depot.

Every year as I rewrap the “first Christmas together” ornament in increasingly yellow , 29-year-old newspaper, the sense of history is rekindled.  I see the three-decades-old  ads for ground beef and nostalgically  ask myself,  “Was a pound of hamburger really that cheap back then?”       My kids look at the faded  old  newspaper and wonder what it is.  Being of the e-generation they have never seen solid news and  are unaware that words on paper can tell a story.  To them, these  paper thingies  belong on Tatooine  in some other galaxy long, long ago.  I never tire of watching my kids get to the bottom of the column and try to figure out how to scroll down to the next page.

But the central misery remains the tree itself  and its disposal.  As the lights are harvested from the tree, needles plunge to the carpet in numbers so vast they  defy humanity’s ability to count them.  The only number that approximates the number of needles is  how much money you will save by switching to GEICO.    Of course, if you switch to Progressive you will also save a bundle.  I am becoming exceedingly wealthy by  switching  my auto insurance  back and forth every fifteen minutes and saving $483 with every switch.    I’m saving close to $2,000 every hour.

Once the tree’s lights and ornaments are removed, it is time to pull the tree from its plastic base.  This involves dad prostrating himself  on the floor under the needle-shedding branches and trying to unscrew those impossibly small screws that have held the tree upright for the past month and which have now  melded with it, become part of the tree.  Of course you can only reach three of the four screws.  The fourth screw is always on the far  side of the trunk; and unless you can bend your wrist like a treble clef you simply cannot loosen the screw.  Eventually after sufficient contortion, strain and a string of words best not used anytime near Christmas, the last screw is loosened and the tree flops over.

This only reveals a fresh problem.  As the tree is lifted out of its base, a primordial soup with Darwinian potential for the spontaneous  generation of life is revealed.  Water, sap, pine needles and dog saliva have aged into a biohazard with major terrorist applications.  The US Department of Homeland Security is for this very reason   pressuring  President Obama to issue an executive order banning Christmas.  It is not  President Obama’s predilection  towards all things Muslim that is motivating his crusade against Christianity. It is love of country  that is motivating him to keep Christmas tree water out of the hands of Islamic extremists.  The Federal government  in its entirety is  opposed to  missionaries spreading Christianity into the Middle East.   As  Muslims  convert to Christianity and begin celebrating  Christmas,  Christmas  tree water would quickly be discovered by America’s enemies and used against us in some sort  of macabre tree-had.

Once the tree has been dragged out of the living room and the furniture returned to its proper place, one would assume the Christmas season to be officially over.  No, that is not the case.  For  as long as you own your house you will be celebrating Christmas by picking desiccated and stiletto sharp finger-pricking needles out of your carpet, your socks, your sweater, the curtains, your sofa,  and  your kids’ Legos.  Like a botanist counting tree rings, you will vividly recall your Christmases past as you identify the needles.  “Look, Honey, a blue spruce needle.  Wasn’t that Christmas of 1987?”  “No, dear, we had a fir tree that year. Blue spruce was 1993.”

Christmas–“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”