“I think you boys need to leave.”
The man in the flannel shirt and baseball hat gave Luther Jr. and me a look that was somewhere between rehearsed menace and weary resignation with a touch of genuine perplexion thrown in. I really didn’t know what the guy’s problem was. I mean, yes, I had just asked another shopper if she was a reindeer, but I didn’t see how that was any of his business.
The Reindeer Hunt was a Christmas game my church’s youth minister, Mike, had devised or borrowed or something where the youth group was turned loose upon the mall, searching for nine people designated as “reindeer.” The only clue regarding their identities was that they would be wearing red and green. There may have been a prize for the team that found the most reindeer, but as a twelve year-old and newly minted “youth,” I was just excited at the prospect of using the mall as a playground.
Now, I feel mostly guilty and kind of depressed when I go to the mall, especially at Christmastime, but I loved the mall as a kid. It was more than just the village square my stinky paper mill town didn’t have. It was glamour. It was excitement. My parents always just wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible, but to me, visiting the mall was like a voyage to the heart of a glittering constellation of 1980s variety. I wrote a paper in fourth grade about how I wished I could be whisked away from my mundane life in a giant, miles-long spaceship, something like Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer, but inside it would be like a bunch of malls end-on-end. Also, I think Snoopy might have been the pilot.
Several years later, with the hard-won realism of a seventh grader, I realized that running around in the mall on a nonsensical secret mission, free of adult oversight, was as close as I was going to get to my intergalactic retail adventure. I’m not sure what lesson the Reindeer Hunt was supposed to teach. Maybe it was just for fun, but it was rare that Mike would have us embark on an activity without a purpose beyond the realm of secular enjoyment. He had one game we played during lock-ins called “Underground Church” that had something to do with simulating the persecution of Christians in the early days of the church, when believers dodged the Roman authorities and met in secret.
But, it was basically just hide-and-seek with all the lights out in the Sunday school building. It was also, probably, a great opportunity for teenagers to hide in the dark and make out. This was not, of course, something I was cool enough to know about first-hand, although a girl did once grab my hand as we ran through the dark to escape the designated Romans, but when I plowed full-speed into a table lurking invisibly at balls-level, she kept going.
For the purposes of the Reindeer Hunt, I was partnered-up not with a girl but with Luther Jr. Older than the other kids in his grade and a bit of an outcast at youth group functions, Luther Jr gave the impression of being from somewhere way back in the country, not to mention way back in time, acting and dressing in an oddly old-fashioned, slow-motion manner. With his polyester jeans, snap-button rodeo shirts, and goofy smile, I half suspected that Luther Jr. was a long-forgotten Sears mannequin that old Luther Sr. had brought to life in some sort of Geppetto/Pinocchio situation.
I doubt I paired with Luther Jr. willingly, but I don’t remember. I always felt like I was getting stuck with the weird kids during any group activity, and I told myself this was because adults knew I would be patient and kind with them. But, in truth, I probably would have ended up with the same partners organically through social selection, being a weird kid myself, sci-fi mall fantasies and such.
Luther Jr. seemed perfectly willing to follow my lead as the self-appointed mall covert-ops specialist, and we met with unbelievable luck almost immediately when I spotted a woman from our church near the crowd gathered for photos with Santa – exactly where a mall reindeer should be, when you think about it.
“There’s Karen! She has to be one!” I shouted. Was it really going to be this easy? “Let’s go!”
“Okey-dokey,” assented Luther Jr..
I ran up to her with Luther Jr. loping along behind. Karen stutter-stepped briefly as if she considered fleeing, but she decided against it and instead faced us with a look of embarrassed disappointment.
“Don’t tell Mike you found me so quick,” she pleaded as she passed a card to us. It said, “Blitzen.”
“Okey-dokey,” said Luther Jr., taking it.
Luther Jr. and I excitedly roamed the mall bolstered by our early success, but it started to seem like maybe Karen was the only easy target that Mike had selected. As it turned out, a week before Christmas at the mall, “dressed in red and green” did not narrow down the field so much. Our inquiries were met with responses that ranged from amusement to offense, but most hovered in the area of confusion. After a string of disappointments out in the mall itself, we decided to scour the stores, starting with Woolworth’s.
After questioning some bewildered kids in the toy department and then taking a quick break while I browsed the GI Joes, Luther Jr. and I worked our way through the greeting card aisle, the pharmacy, the periphery of the lunch counter area, and ladies’ lingerie, a section of the store which had the unfortunate effect of making the question, “Are you a reindeer?” somehow even stranger and also slightly creepy.
I asked Luther Jr. if he wanted to try the toy section one more time. I didn’t really expect our fortunes to suddenly reverse there; I just liked having an excuse to look at the action figures again.
“Okey-dokey,” said Luther Jr., possibly more aware of my true motivation than he let on.
There was a heavy-set woman with a bad perm pushing a cart through the aisle of boys’ toys, but she left silently with an angry look when I approached her. I was flipping through the GI Joe men hanging on the pegs when the guy in the Christmas-colored flannel shirt told us to get out.
“Go on,” he gestured toward the door with the roll of wrapping paper he was carrying.
“Are you a reindeer?” asked Luther Jr.
Angrily, the man took a swing at Luther Jr. with the roll of wrapping paper and then chased us through the store until he crashed into a Christmas display. We ran out the door, a dusting of fake snow and wrecked artificial trees in our wake, as the man shook his tinsel-encircled fist in impotent rage.
At least that’s what happened in the fantasy version of events I’ve replayed in my head. In reality, I was always a really obedient kid. A rule follower. A random adult who’d popped into Woolworth’s to buy wrapping paper told twelve year-old me to leave? Done. Without question. But I couldn’t figure out why the guy wanted to ruin my fun.
You know how in the movies whenever a detective goes into a bar to question the patrons, someone always says, “I knew you were a cop the second you walked in?” I am not that person. When I went to Lollapallooza several years later, the middle-aged, moustached, graying, balding man in plaid shorts, aviator shades, and a crisp new Lollapallooza t-shirt only struck me as slightly out of place. When he tackled a kid who jumped the rope into a pricier seating section, only then did it make sense.
It seems pretty obvious now that the guy who kicked us out of Woolworth’s was the store detective, the undercover version of what we’d now call a loss-prevention specialist. But, I guess Luther Jr. and I were lucky that it was the worst thing that happened to us that night; one other kid approached a woman only to be met with an angry boyfriend getting in his face and shouting, “You calling my girlfriend a reindeer?!” I can only assume the situation resolved itself the moment this ridiculous question was asked out loud, creating a smokescreen of embarrassing absurdity behind which the kid escaped.
There was no debriefing afterward, no sort of “what did we all learn from this?” reflection with Mike. But, looking back, I wonder if the Reindeer Hunt actually did have some sort of ecclesiastical intent. Mike was a big advocate of prosthelytizing to people on the street – witnessing, we called it – and I think maybe the Reindeer Hunt was a way to make us more comfortable with approaching strangers. Once you’ve asked someone if they’re an ungulate most commonly found on the tundra and not in, say, a shopping mall, inquiring if they’ve accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior would seem marginally less awkward.
If it was a training exercise, it was one we never tried again. When I asked Mike the next Christmas if we would be doing the Reindeer Hunt, he said that some parents had called him to express their concerns. Later in my teen years, I would figure out that whenever a counselor, teacher, or coach said “some parents expressed concerns,” this usually just meant my own mother.
Woolworth’s closed not too long after that, but I hope the store-cop still remembers Luther Jr. and me when this time of year comes around. I like to think that two weirdos perpetrating Yuletide-themed harassment upon unsuspecting Christmas shoppers provided the high point of a long holiday shift for him. That he smiled and shook his head in good-natured bemusement the second we left. That, deep down, he regretted having to remove just a little bit of Christmas magic from the world. But, probably, he just thought we were perverts with a fetish for ladies’ underwear who were going to shoplift GI Joes. And he better not think that I’m going to fucking forget it when Snoopy and I start the interview process for staffing the Spacemall.