There is not, to the best of my knowledge, a Guinness Book of World Records category for the longest-running Christmas practical joke. But if there were, the record would have to be held by two Idahoans.
It began decades ago, when they were a young couple in the early years of their marriage. The inspiration, curiously, was a piece of junk mail.
Then as now, greeting-card companies and charities flooded the mail with Christmas-card samples in hopes of soliciting orders or donations. These particular cards were unusual in that they could be ordered with their owners’ names – printed in gold, no less – in the space normally reserved for signatures. The young couple enjoyed a rollicking laugh over one from “The Captain and Tracy Gallup.”
“You don’t even know what kind of captain he is,” they hooted. “Army? Navy? Fire Department? The Turkish Gendarmerie? …”
“Or what his first name is. Who sends a Christmas card with a rank and no first name?”
The card was so beautiful and expensive looking that they couldn’t bring themselves to throw it away. This was either a good or a bad thing, depending on your perspective, because, in a flash of diabolical genius, it launched a practical joke of unexpected proportions.
“I know! We’ll send it to Elsa!”
By now you’ve guessed the identity of the young couple. Elsa is Elsa Ryan, my mother-in-law. When it comes to solving a mystery, she’s like a pit bull with a T-bone. We addressed the card to her home in Olympia, Wash., and mailed it to a friend in Virginia to send from there so it wouldn’t have a Boise postmark. Trying to figure out who the captain and Tracy were, and why they failed to include the return address of their home in Virginia, would turn Elsa into Miss Marple on steroids. It was perfect.
The best part was that we’d be spending Christmas with her and her husband in Olympia that year so we’d be there when the card arrived. Our expectations regarding her reaction did not go unfulfilled:
“Who are these people?” she asked approximately every hour. “He’s a captain so it must be somebody we knew in the Navy. (Her husband, John Ryan, was a Navy officer during World War II.) John, do you remember anyone named Gallup who had a wife named Tracy?”
“Gallup? I don’t think so, but it’s possible. We knew a lot of people in the Navy.”
“I don’t remember any Gallups, though. Or anyone at all named Tracy. The card talks about all the great times we had with them at beach parties so it must be somebody we knew when you were stationed in Florida.”
“Maybe so. If he’d stayed in the Navy he could be a captain by now.”
The card was the subject of continuing but mild consternation that Christmas. It wasn’t until the following year that things started to get exciting. By then we’d invented a family for the Gallups – a daughter and two sons, one of whom was a junior officer in the Navy.
“We got another one of those stupid cards from the Gallups!” Elsa told us when she called that Christmas. “It’s driving me up the walls! We’ve racked our brains and can’t think of a single person named Gallup. I’m going to find out who it is, though. I’m taking the card in to the chief’s office.”
That would be her then boss, the chief of the Washington State Patrol. This was long before the Internet, but even in the Paper Age the state patrol had ways of checking such things.
“There’s no captain named Gallup in the entire Navy,” she later reported. “Someone’s playing a joke on us.”
Undeterred, we kept the treacherous cards coming. For years! My increasingly frustrated mother-in-law was all but certain it was a joke, but there was just enough doubt to keep the pot boiling. We promoted the captain to admiral. We blessed him and Tracy with grandchildren. We moved the Gallups from Virginia to San Diego to Washington, D.C. (promoting the admiral to a job in the Pentagon). Friends who lived in those places mailed the cards. A Boise friend wrote the notes that accompanied the cards and signed them so the handwriting was always the same.
Elsa saved every card, treating them like clues in a murder mystery. She donned surgical gloves to open the envelopes, removed the contents with tweezers. Each card was duly sent to the state patrol and, ultimately, to the FBI for fingerprinting.
We even arranged a visit:
“The admiral and I may be making a trip to Seattle during the holidays,” Tracy wrote in a post script. “If so we’ll be sure to come to Olympia to see you both again and catch up.”
“What kind of woman never calls her husband anything but the admiral?” Elsa fumed. “He has to have a first name, doesn’t he?”
Well, no, actually. That was part of the fun.
We spent every other Christmas in Olympia in those days, and by mere coincidence happened to be there the year of the Gallups’ “visit.” My wife sneaked a sorry we-missed-you note from Tracy (penned by the same friend who signed the cards) into the mailbox. It was waiting when Elsa returned from some errands. Her reaction was enough to make us give her a few years off. We were afraid she’d self-combust.
The last card in the decades-long series brought the distressing news that the Gallups had separated. A friend mailed that one from New Mexico, where Tracy was living in seclusion. A reconciliation was contemplated.
But it never came. We’d run out of material and didn’t have the heart to keep the joke going.
So now you know, Elsa. It was us all along. We’re hereby confessing and publicly begging for forgiveness. None of us are getting any younger, and we don’t want you haunting us in the next life.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and look up the address of the Guinness people.