'Twas the night before Christmas, 1971, I think 'twas. Actually, it was about 4:00 AM Christmas morning--the time that old S. Claus, having covered his route all the way down to the bottom of South America somewhere, was on his way home to the North Pole for his long winter's nap.
And I and my cap, I was all settled in for a toasty winter's nap of my own, when I was rudely brought back from those visions of sugar plums by my jangling bedside telephone. "Mr. Cullum," said the phone, "You'd better come down to the Landing. We've caught him red-handed! And do you have a key to the beer box? There was some gunfire and the keg beer is leaking all over the place!" Another break-in! This would make four in a row!
This little "Cat" had been coming along about once a week lately in the wee morning hours. He'd break out one of the small panes of glass next to the Landing entrance and reach in and unbolt the door. (This was at the original Landing down by the Nix building). Once inside, he'd head straight for his target, the Landing cigarette machine, and before anyone could say "Merry Christmas," he'd relieve the machine of its receipts and be on his way. And this was so quick and easy, he just decided to help us out by regularly emptying the cigarette machine take for us.
After three such visits, I asked the Nix building folks (they were our landlords in those early days) to have their security boys keep watch on the Landing. This they did, dispatching a veteran ex-policeman, who, strange as it may seem, looked a lot like Santa Claus, minus the beard. He was complete with snow-white hair, flowing mustache, gold-rimmed spectacles, and it could easily be said that he had hardly missed any meals!
And so, upon leaving for the night, we'd lock him in to await the arrival of our cigarette machine cat burglar. But "Cat" didn't show for several nights and "Santa the Cop" sooner or later discovered the nice soft carpet on the drum riser. Settling in behind the drums, he too was enjoying a blissful winter's nap, when to his wondrous ears did appear but the tinkling, breaking glass of easy access. He woke with a start and peered wide-eyed over the top of the bass drum while Cat Man went about his work, applied his tools (small crowbar and large screw driver), and made his withdrawal from the now battle-scarred cigarette machine.
In order to approach the machine, it was necessary for Cat to travel back and forth in front of the Landing bar.
Assuming that the tension of this story now has you breathless, allow me to back off a little bit while I describe the bar.
Magnificent it was, of carved old dark wood and beveled glass mirrors. It had been built in 1903 for the Nimitz Hotel of Fredericksburg (the same Nimitz family that produced the WWII hero Admiral Chester Nimitz). Anyway, in 1921, with Prohibition under way, the Nimitz stopped serving booze and the bar was put away into dusty storage.
When the Landing came along in 1963, everyone, including yours truly, was out hustling up fixtures and furniture. The contractor had just built interior walls leaving a good, long space where he intended to build a modern bar. At that point, one of the Landing's stockholders happened upon the Nimitz treasure. It was purchased for an unbelievably low fee and shipped quickly to San Antonio. When assembled and worked over with Old English furniture polish, it stood gleaming and in position as though it were built for the space, a perfect fit with one inch clearance at either end.
Back into the action! Our Cat Thief attempts to exit, and as he passes the bar, our Santa Cop stands up behind the drums, gun in hand, and commands, "Hold it right there! You're under arrest!" Cat begins to run for the door, Santa fires a warning shot well behind his target.
Now the old Landing was all concrete and it was loud in there. The band sounded very loud, the customers were loud, the Waring blender was loud. Everything was loud and when a gun went off in there, it was really loud. It sounded more like a cannon. And Cat Thief fainted!
Santa Cop threw his hand to his open mouth with "Oh, no, I've killed him!" The bullet of course had not hit Cat at all, but drilled a nice clean, round bullet hole in the face of the grand old front bar. It had also clipped off a tap beer line and cold beer began spewing up, hitting the ceiling and splashing down on Cat, who was thereby revived. So, as the frantic Santa ran over to inspect the supposedly wounded Cat, he (Cat) suddenly sat up, miraculously unharmed. Santa, trembling with relief, clapped Cat in hand cuffs. And the story ends.
This may sound like a Christmas tall tale from Texas, but I give you my absolute word that it is on the level. I used to point to the bullet hole as proof but the old bar was just too big for the Hyatt Landing and it sadly went back into storage. Some of you may remember Clint Steward, our manager for 19 years. He will bear me out as he arrived on the scene a little before me and was already mopping up beer when I made my entrance with a "What's the trouble here, officer?"
Cat was led off to jail. Santa, still a bit shaky, went off to his bed. But I heard him gruffly exclaim as he shuffled on out of sight, "Well, then, Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!"
© 2001 Jim Cullum, Jr.
Illustration by Jimmy Cullum