avatarMike Butler

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The Unforgettable and Mysterious Ernie D. Christmas Gift

The year I just had to know what a present under the tree was early

Photo by Clint Patterson of Unsplash.

The red and green-striped rectangular box sat stacked under the family Christmas tree amongst twelve or so other presents. The writing was in a familiar all-caps dad font that read simply:

To: Mike From: Ernie D.

It was December 18, 1976.

Ernie D. was Ernie DiGregorio, a flashy Italian point guard from Providence University and a former first-round NBA draft pick of the now-defunct Buffalo Braves, who later became the San Diego and now the Los Angeles Clippers.

He was my favorite player on my favorite team, the Buffalo Braves.

When I dribbled up court, dribbled through my legs, performed behind the back passes, or shot long-range jumpers in the driveway, I was always Ernie DiGregorio. Always.

I even made sure I wore a gold necklace with a cross like Ernie D. used to wear.

Ernie D. was №15, so I would always get №15 for my youth basketball teams, too.

And no — unfortunately — the gift wasn’t really from the Brave all-star with the Pete Maravich-like razzle-dazzle basketball moves.

I wish.

Instead of just writing “From: Mom or Dad,” my dad had this fun, detective-like tradition of making a Christmas gift from a famous person as a hint to what was inside the package.

Santa was far from the only one delivering packaging to University Park in Fredonia, New York in December.

Besides the jolly old soul in the red suit, Pete Rose, Rocky Balboa, Luke Skywalker, John Travolta, Jane Fonda, and even O.J. Simpson (the Bills All-Pro running back before he was known as a murderer) had all been known to be gift-givers at the our household during the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Ho, ho, huh?

And, no, you just didn’t grab your Christmas present, viciously attack it like a Pitbull, and attempt to break a Guinness Book of World record for fastest gift opener to reveal the contents.

Nope.

Quite the contrary.

It was a much more time-consuming, deliberate approach.

Like a marathon not a 100-yard dash.

Usain Bolt your gifts aren’t welcome here.

No, sir. No way.

Christmas morning with our family often took hours upon hours upon hours. Sometimes lasting five hours. If the present was a toy, you’d had to assemble it and play with it. Clothes? They had to be tried on and displayed like you were in a fashion show. Games? You get the picture. Thankful, we never received Monopoly.

But it all started with the names on the tag.

The clue.

First, you recited the name tag aloud for everyone in the audience to hear — my dad, my mom and my brother Scot Butwell.

Then you shook it. But be careful. Not too much or too hard. Just in case the contents were “fra-gee-lay “ (hey, it’s a Christmas story! I have a Christmas Story reference).

Finally, before ripping and ravishing the wrapping, you made a prediction of what you thought the gift was.

My genius guess back on that cold snowy New York day was it was a Big Jim-type basketball action figure of Ernie DiGregorio, which I didn’t even think existed.

Remember this was decades before the internet existed.

But, the educated guess wasn’t made on Christmas morning. Nor was it made before on enthusiastic family crowd of four.

Nope it was made around a week earlier. On December 18.

I saw the interesting rectangular gift sparkling and shining under the tree one day after school. It almost invited me over to take a peak.

The clue had me stumped.

And curious.

Could there really be a figure of Ernie DiGregorio?

The curiosity was killing me. It kept me up at nights. I kept visualizing the action figure, but didn’t think it could be true.

It consumed me.

I couldn’t take it. Not even another day.

I wanted to know what was in that box. I needed to know what was in that box. I had to know what was in that box from Ernie D.

And I had to know soon.

I had to know now.

Or at least the first chance I got.

While my mom, dad, and brother were downstairs in the basement watching Name That Tune, I crept upstairs, snagged the mystery gift, grabbed a pair of scissors and a roll of scotch tape, and headed to my laboratory. The bathroom. And locked the door.

Like a surgeon, cutting for the very first time, I slowly dragged the sharp end of one of the scissor blades down the middle of the tape at the long end of the box. Carefully, I did the same thing to a matching tape line that crisscrossed the first one.

Sitting on the toilet as my heart thumped, I reached inside the wrapping and slid out the mysterious container.

“Fast Break Basketball,” I read the title aloud like Ralphie reading “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.”

Initially, I felt bummed that it wasn’t the nonexistent Ernie D. figure that I envisioned numerous days and nights.

Seconds after that, I felt guilt. Really guilty. Super guilty.

Sweat dripped from my head and my heart pounded harder. I felt like a thief that had stolen something valuable, had a guilty conscious, and now had to return the item.

I couldn’t rewrap the present fast enough, and return it back to its proper and former location under the tree.

Whew!

A week later, Christmas cookies and milk were left for Santa, and the usual quest to try and see Santa was being schemed, but — like years past — I fell asleep on Christmas Eve, and woke up the next morning to my brother Scot shaking me and yelling, “Get up, Mike, Santa left lots of presents!”

Scot was “Santa” that particular year and around an hour into the Christmas present-opening extravaganza, delivered the dreaded, guilt-ridden, rewrapped, hardly-mysterious Ernie D. gift.

My heartbeat increased again.

“Whose it from?” my dad asked with a huge grin on his face.

Think quick, Mike.

Truth be told, I’d been thinking about what to say for the past six days, and 300-plus hours.

“It’s from Ernie DiGregorio, ” I answered somewhat enthusiastically.

“What’d you think it is?” my mom asked.

Hmmmm … maybe an Ernie D. figure?” I lied — hopefully convincingly.

I ripped through the paper and attempted to display an Academy Award-winning performance, trying my best to light up with excitement and then announced rather loudly, “Wow! A basketball dice game. How cool! I can’t wait to play it. I love it!”

I wondered if they bought it.

We played the dice game later that afternoon, and many other times, too. It was strategic, fun, and helped generate my passion for basketball, a sport that I still enjoy to this day.

It was actually a great game, and a thoughtful and perfect gift.

My dad truly was a genius at finding hidden gem gifts that he knew his sons and wife would enjoy.

He had the gift of finding great gifts.

I, however, learned several valuable lessons that Christmas.

First, I never peek at gifts of any sorts anymore. Ever. If I even remotely think a package in the mail may be a surprise, I won’t open it. The surprise — regardless of what’s inside — is so much more fun than knowing what it is prior.

It makes you appreciate the gift that the person has chosen especially for you as opposed to feeling guilty from being overly impatient and sneaky.

The moral of the story is cheating isn’t fun.

And, it rids you an elephant-size of guilty.

Yes, I have passed on my dad’s tradition of putting famous celebrities’ names on gift tags as hints for our children.

However, the tape job is a hundred times thicker.

And presents are never placed under the Christmas tree early.

Nope.

We can’t take any chances that the Ernie D. incident is repeated 40-something years later.

Our wrapped Christmas presents are strategically placed about fifteen-feet high in a small loft above the door that can only be reached with a ladder.

A very wobbly ladder that I get scared climbing up.

So an early Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa to all! Or whatever you celebrate — or don’t.

May you enjoy your upcoming holiday season and time with your family, friends and loved ones, and build joyous traditions and create life-long enjoyable memories.

Maybe even learn a life lesson or two.

And remember no peeking.

Don’t be naughty. Be nice.

Thanks for reading my story.

Another Christmas memory:

Lu Skerdoo, Scot Butwell, Deborah Camp, David Asch, Sara Larca, Klara Jane Holloway, Ginger Cook, TzeLin Sam.

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