North Coast Journal


Christmas stars

by Maka MacKenna

The day I started fifth grade we spent all day singing Christmas songs although it was barely September. Why? Because in a few weeks we'd make our annual pilgrimage to sing Christmas carols on local TV for an adoring public. This public consisted of our parents and people who couldn't find anything to watch on the other two channels.

For weeks we perfected our four-part harmonies. We knew things were getting serious when we moved to stand-up practices on "the risers."

In the choir biz, "risers" are the steps a choir stands on. I was terrified of them. They were rickety, wobbly and narrow. Standing on top, at least 6 feet off the ground, I teetered with my back to the abyss.

But miserable as being on top was, it was better than being in the middle. If you wobbled on top, chances were no one would notice, but if you wobbled in the middle, everyone knew. In those pre-PC days, the offending wobbler was likely to be called a "spazz" or "retard" for the rest of the day or longer.

Top was bad, middle was worse, but that year, as one of the smaller kids, I was in the first row. Here you had the advantage of solid ground. On the other hand, hearing the risers squeak and sway as the bigger, clumsier kids lumbered up to their places on the top was distinctly scary. I heard the foreshadowing of doom in those maritime creakings. I prayed for Christmas, or at least the Christmas TV show, to hurry and be done with.

Finally we donned our bright red robes and were bused to the station. There we were herded into a warehouse-like building and ignored by the station personnel, who flitted about their glamorous tasks as we gawked.

We shuffled onto a sound stage where the feared risers awaited. They were just as creaky and shaky as the ones at school, which was reassuring. The cameraman practiced his moves, glumly panning back and forth as if trying to find a way to make us look interesting.

The floor director explained that when the red light on the camera was lit, we would be ON, on LIVE TV. And me in the front row. I stared down the ugly dead eye of the camera. The red light came ON and we started to sing, I think it was "The Coventry Carol."

Then I heard it -- the low rumble of disaster in the top rows. I turned around just in time to witness the fatal chain of events. Ralph Hartley, a big kid, slipped and pushed Janie Jacobs in the row below, who knocked against Robbie Kennedy just above me, who flailed his arms and knocked off the two kids next to him as he fell to our level.

The event was made more picturesque by the robes, which formed a ragged scarlet "V" where once had been uniform rows of color. I jumped away just in time, but Sherry Klinger, one robe over, went sprawling on the floor with five or six others.

Chaos reigned. We trampled on each other's robes, trying to regain formation. Some of the girls sobbed, and one of the boys crawled around looking for his retainer which had somehow gotten away from him.

The red light had gone out and you could see from the monitor they were broadcasting a slide of a Christmas bell and playing music over it. The cameraman's expression had turned to pure hatred and the floor director stood several feet further back when he again signaled we were about to go on. We weren't really recovered, but we did manage to stagger through our songs.

The big surprise came at home. No one outside the station had seen the disaster! Our families hadn't even noticed how shaken and short of breath we were. They thought we were terrific.

We attributed this to the magic of television, but in fact it was a tribute to the wisdom of tape delay when the truth is just too ugly to air. Thus we learned young: What you see on the screen isn't always the whole story.

Maka MacKenna is a Eureka free-lance writer who says she is "available for talk shows and dinner parties."

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