The banner jumped out at us all the way across the Albertsons parking lot, which was, of course, its purpose.
"Have yourself a Real-Tree Christmas!" it cried, announcing the presence of semi-fresh trees for sale inside the locked temporary fence on which it hung. And while we were in no position to host a real, highly flammable tree in our communal home to about 10 typically drunk, occasionally drug-addled college dudes, we couldn't resist that sign.
It wasn't just the cheery message, rendered in garish greens and reds — cartoonish icicles hanging off the letters — but the spokesman pictured alongside, the man telling us, nay demanding, "Have yourself a Real-Tree Christmas!"
It was Willard Scott, the then-famous Today show weatherman best known for wishing old ladies "Happy Birthday!" and pimping Smucker's jelly to early morning TV addicts. For some reason, Willard's head — rendered about six feet high and adorned with a Santa hat — made us cackle to no end when we made our regular pilgrimages to nearby Bar-X, a legendary Salt Lake City dive (now, sadly, an overpriced cocktail lounge) known at the time for serving both kinds of beer — Coors and Coors Light — in 64-ounce "tankards" ideal for budget-minded non-Mormons living in Utah's capital.
At some point, as Christmas grew closer and most in our house had left town for the holidays, my friend Anthony and I decided that, in lieu of a tree, we needed that Willard Scott banner. Willard's enthusiasm for non-artificial shrubs would pair perfectly with our love of traditional Bing-sung Christmas tunes and bourbon-spiked, store-bought eggnog.
The crime wouldn't be easy. This particular Albertsons was open 24/7, although both the clientele and staff were of the seedy sort — like ourselves — and not likely to pay anyone else much mind. The bigger problem was the Albertsons' location; Willard was staring straight across the road into the front door of the main Salt Lake City police station.
Having seen plenty of movies, we put on our darkest duds, left the car running when we arrived and tried to act casual as we stepped to our prize. The sign was secured by tight, plastic bindings, but Anthony carried a pocketknife. With a few vigorous slices, we had Willard balled up and stuffed in a pickup truck, making a quick getaway.
We, of course, wanted to hang Willard on the outside of our house to compete with the neighbors' blinking light displays. But we thought someone might be looking for the missing meteorologist, so we kept it inside. Naturally, what looked workable standing in a parking lot was HUGE inside a house — we had to wrap the sign up and down both sides of a 25-foot hallway, effectively blocking everyone's doors to the point they had to limbo under Willard to get into their rooms.
No one was as enamored with having Willard in the house as Anthony and I. But he made for better company than some of our roommates — silent, always smiling, and he never asked for any beer or cigarettes. ♦
Dan Nailen loves bad Hallmark Channel Christmas movies and has never stolen a Christmas decoration in the state of Washington. He's an Inlander staff writer and web/special projects editor.