Often the weirdest day of the year

It's Christmas, sometime in the mid '80s, at a small house in rural Illinois.

My grandpa and my aunt are racing each other to see who can get to the bottom of a bottle of Jack Daniel's first. The elder statesman, of course, is winning.

He's whipping up his "world famous" eggnog, which is mostly store-bought nog fortified with a generous amount of whiskey. The Jack glug-glug-glugs as he pours.

My aunt sits at the end of the table, nodding off. The elder statesman leans over to shake her awake, all the while adding more Jack to the world famous nog.

Suddenly he loses his grip on the bottle and it hits the floor. In a desperate attempt to salvage what whiskey he can, he leans down to snatch the bottle from the floor, but only tips it with his unsteady hand. The bottle skids across the linoleum, spilling a stream of Old No. 7 from the table to the refrigerator.

Everyone in the room busts out laughing. My aunt, startled by the laughter, decides it's time for bed and scoots away from the table. On her way to the couch she trudges through the lake of Tennessee whiskey, not missing a beat on her way to dreamland.

My dad makes fun of her all the next day.

Now it's Christmas Eve, same house, same town, different year.

My mother is terrible at surprises. To keep me and my brother busy while she entertains an army of Conrads and Brights who have filled the house, she produces a movie she secretly picked up from the video store the day before.

It's "Gremlins."

"They've been wanting to see it forever," mom says to my aunt (the sober one).

"And it's a Christmas movie."

Like cows trudging toward the bolt-gun line, my brother and I shut ourselves in the TV room to watch THAT MOVIE.

Never mind the terrible racism directed toward the Chinese or the satanic demons that torture and maim and kill hundreds of townsfolk, or the infamous gremlin in the microwave scene. No, the worst part of that film is what happens off-screen in the form of a terrifying story Phoebe Cates tells Zach Gillian, the hero.

Moments after they've escaped a horrible death at the hand of the gremlins, Phoebe decides it's a good time to tell her boyfriend about the time her father broke his neck in the family chimney on the way to surprising the kids. The worst part is he was wearing a Santa suit.

Dead in a chimney, wearing a Santa suit. I can't think of a worse way to go.

About the time she begins describing the stench that has built up in her house in the weeks after Christmas — y'know, the smell of her father's rotting corpse — my brother and I had seen enough.

My dad stepped into the room for that scene.

"Hey, I've been smelling something bad by the chimney," he said.

We don't have a chimney, but somehow that didn't matter.

Now we're on some desolate snow-covered Illinois highway in the '90s.

A freak winter storm blew in Christmas morning, stranding my father's in-laws somewhere between Champaign and Charleston. We opened the bulk of our presents before receiving the frantic phone call that the in-laws had skidded off the road and were hopelessly stuck.

It was up to us to rescue them — the old man, my mom, my brother and yours truly. We piled into the car. The rest of the presents would have to wait.

We were about 20 minutes into the rescue mission when we went spinning off the road into a ditch of our own. It took close to an hour to dig our way out.

By this time my parents are fighting it out.

"Why didn't you just tell them to stay home?"

"This is ridiculous."

"I can't BELIEVE we're doing this."

Finally they calm down, and there's silence in the car. Someone expresses hope that our relatives are safe by the side of the road.

About that time, the old man starts cracking jokes about the Donner party and the mood lightens considerably.

Shift to 2009.

Some people hate Christmas. I don't. Never have. I certainly don't hate it this year, but I almost did.

My old man survived a ruptured aortic aneurysm this week.

No one survives that.

Fifty percent are dead before they reach the hospital. Most of the rest die of shock and kidney failure during surgery.

His blew out on Monday as he was getting over the flu. Luckily for him, the flu and the bulging artery had irritated his lung, causing it to swell. When the artery split, the enlarged lung pushed against the artery, slowing the blood loss.

That gave the surgeon just enough time to replace the section of ruptured artery with a synthetic tube. The doctor said he had never seen anything like it before.

Prognosis is good, so far. He'll sleep through Christmas, the doctor said.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.

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