There is often a temptation to make Christmas especially memorable—a Hallmark experience that you and your family will treasure forever. But I’ve learned that the memories you make may not necessarily be the ones you want.
When I was 11 years old, I wanted to make Christmas really special by writing a play. I had written Christmas plays for my family before, but they had been traditional musicals—tepid affairs featuring my brother and sisters and cousins reenacting the Nativity in our family room for relatives and neighbors.
I decided to set my new play in a prison. I had seen the movie “Cool Hand Luke,” and it had really opened my eyes to things. The prisoners, particularly Paul Newman and George Kennedy, were good ol’ boys who couldn’t catch a break. The movie had exposed me to the harsh realities of life in a Southern prison and these realities, I decided, would be at the core of my groundbreaking work: “The Miracle in Cell 307.” I spent the week before Christmas writing.
Halfway through the script, it became obvious to me that I was born to play the main character, Dr. Gus Spiros, a handsome and brilliant surgeon who was falsely imprisoned for the murder of a gym teacher, Miss Wilkie, which just happened to be the name of my own gym teacher. If that cut too close to home, I grimly thought, so be it.
The play was set on Christmas Eve, the day before Dr. Spiros was to be released from prison. His baby daughter was dying from leprosy, and his pending release afforded him one last chance to operate on her before—as his wife, Mrs. Dr. Gus Spiros wrote in a letter that he tearfully read aloud—the baby’s arms and legs fell off. Hours before Dr. Spiros was to be released, he would be taunted by a sadistic guard and provoked into attacking him, first with a “shank” that the resourceful doctor had fashioned from a smuggled-in spoon, then with a chain saw the doctor had fashioned from a smuggled-in fork. When the warden discovered the crime, he revoked Dr. Spiros’ parole and sentenced him to be hanged. Just as the good (and short-tempered) doctor was to be led away to the gallows, another man, “a strangely quiet but nice prisoner,” would intercede and claim to be the killer. “For I have died for man once, and I shall do so again,” he would say, in his one and only line. Dr. Spiros would thankfully embrace this prisoner, comment on his strong resemblance to Jesus, then head home to his wife and soon-to-be-just-a-torso daughter.
It was a tear-jerker to be sure, but I was looking for gritty realism here, not a Charlie Brown Christmas. I wanted people to think and feel in ways they had never done before. I wanted to make my mark and, in the process, make that
Christmas the most memorable ever.
On Christmas Eve day, I set about turning our family room into a prison cell. I made jail bars out of construction paper and hung them from the ceiling, dragged up a cot from the basement and stripped it down to its thin, bare mattress,
brought in a large cooking pot and taped a sign, “For Urine,” onto it.
“Wow, what’s all this?” my mother asked.
“Getting ready for the play.”
She looked around the stark room. “Aren’t you just going to sing Christmas carols?”
I quickly pushed my father’s chain saw under the cot with my foot. “I don’t think we’re singing carols this year,” I said.
An hour before curtain time, I finally assembled my cast for our first and only rehearsal. During practice, it became apparent that my play was essentially a one-man show—I had virtually all the lines, including the narration. This didn’t sit well with my brother and sisters and cousins who, after much pleading on my part, reluctantly agreed to participate. Despite their lack of enthusiasm, when I opened the doors that separated our family room from our living room and saw the standing-room-only crowd of aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors, I felt confident I could pull it off.
“Good evening,” I said, speaking in what I hoped was a Southern drawl. (The prison was set on an island “off the coast” of Tennessee.) “While y’all enjoy a safe and comfortable Christmas, we have to remember that there are men, good men, rotting away in smelly prisons who are having a real sad and lonely Christmas. For some of these poor fellers, human beings all, it might just be their last Christmas ever on God’s green Earth. Welcome to the ‘Miracle in Cell 307!’” I gravely bowed.
“The Miracle in what?” I heard my father ask. Then I heard him ask, “Is that my chain saw?”
The play proceeded in fits and starts. Despite the fact that my brother, Little Nicky, the sadistic guard, took his sweet time dying after I stabbed him with the shank (I wisely decided not to use the chain saw), and my father twice tried to stop
the play (“Okay, I think we’ve seen enough”), we eventually came to the climactic scene.
When my cousin, Big Nicky, the “strangely quiet but nice prisoner,” uttered his one line and was led away with a noose tied around his neck (while my sisters and I soulfully sang "Silent Night”), I felt we had triumphed. I stepped forward to once again narrate.
“No one knows to this day who that strangely quiet but nice prisoner was . . . the man who died for another’s sins.”
“Holy Christ!” my father gasped.
I winked. “Exactly,” I said and bowed.
There was applause, but it was less than thunderous. I looked up, confused. I had expected tears, heart-rending sobs, a standing ovation, a spontaneous singing of “Joy to the World.” Instead, I heard the sound of muffled laughter. Laughter! Through my growing shock, I saw the faces of my audience, some laughing openly, others doing their best to hide it. When my older sister proclaimed the play stupid and my cousins and brother agreed, I raced off to my room, humiliated.
I stayed there for awhile, fighting back tears and feeling very misunderstood. “Miracle” had been anything but. I started to cry. This was the worst Christmas ever, I decided.
My mother soon came upstairs and said things mothers are supposed to say, and I eventually felt better. “I thought your play was very interesting,” she said. “Though next year, you may just want to sing carols again.”
“I wanted to make this Christmas special.”
“All Christmases are special. Just having the family together makes them special. So no more violence and no more plays about prisons in Tennessee. ”
“Okay,” I sniffled.
A year later I resisted the urge to write a sequel, “Miracle in North Vietnam” (set in a POW camp in Hanoi) and wrote another Nativity musical instead. It was unremarkable and unmemorable, but everyone liked it, and we all sang “Joy to the World” at the end.