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ColumnistsBy The Way with Bill ChapmanConundrum at the North Pole

Conundrum at the North Pole

by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.
Santa’s pointy-eared elves were having an awful time of it! The conveyor belt upon which rode the Teddy bears, model cars, train sets, smart phones, dolls, doll houses, jack-in-the-box and wind-up toys had jammed no less than three times already this morning and it was only ten o’clock! Now it had jammed again. This of all things at the busiest time of the year! There remained only days before Christmas Eve, even fewer because they couldn’t really count Christmas Eve itself. Everything had to be packed and onto Santa’s polished crimson sleigh no later than noon on Christmas Eve if he were to make his worldwide rounds on time. To complicate matters further, Santa had lately put on a bit of weight which was having the disadvantage of stealing precious moments in his descent down the chimneys (except those in which slick metal liners had been installed although they sometimes propelled Santa with near disastrous results).

Jingle and Garlofski, two of the elder elves who knew their way around machinery, had doffed their green woolen hats and little red coats and crawled under the rolling conveyor belt to examine what may have caused the disruption. Shortly a shout of glee from one of them arose from beneath the rail announcing that the source of the dilemma had been located. Within seconds, however, the elation faded to a groan. The humour of the elves once again reclaimed despondency. The problem was more than a mere slippage; it was a broken cog, the repair of which could mean hours or even days before the belt was made reliable again. As well-made as it was the machinery at the North Pole had been in service for a very, very long time. What with the cold and the infrequent use of the machinery for several months of the year (when the elves went on fishing trips for a much needed vacation) the more delicate features of the equipment occasionally broke or just fell apart. Most often the damage was little more than an inconvenience but occasionally – such as now – the problem necessitated extra attention. It had been years since the elves had encountered a delay of this scope, and they made a collective sigh in recognition of the fact that they knew reparations were about due!

Garlofski didn’t like to have to do it, but he directly concluded that the seriousness of the affair meant he would have to speak to Santa Claus. This was a weighty matter and the boss had to be consulted. Putting back on his little red coat (for Garlofski was of the old school of propriety) and after having rearranged his wiry white hair as best he could without the benefit of a looking glass, Garlofski set off across the creaking wooden factory floor in the direction of Santa’s office in the far corner. There he could see Santa earnestly poring over his vast list of children’s names, checking it once again before his imminent departure. Santa was busy! But this had to be done.

Garlofski achieved the office door and timidly stretched around the door frame into Santa’s sanctuary. “Excuse me, Santa”, he whispered , “I need to talk to you about No. 5. It’s been acting up and we may have trouble getting the toys into the hands of the packers before noon tomorrow.”

Santa, bulging in his large wooden chair where he sat in his white long-sleeved undershirt with his wide red suspenders pulled about his chest, looked up from his paperwork. Over the top of his small round gold spectacles, Santa blinked and eyed the elf. “What was that?”, Santa asked. “What about No. 5?”

“It’s No. 5”, replied Garlofski., “On the fritz it seems”.

Santa gulped. He glanced hurriedly at the large cuckoo clock on the wall and saw that it was getting on (Santa’s clock, by the way, is in days, not hours). December 23rd. Time was running out. This was not good news.

“Can you repair it?”, asked Santa, though he knew by the mere fact that Garlofski was at his door meant that there was more to this than had been related. Mrs. Claus (who had been attending to her chores in an adjoining office) overheard the whispers and knew in an instant that something was amiss. Even the small grey mouse warming itself in the corner by the pot-bellied stove sensed something was astir. Everyone was all ears, so to speak!

“No”, said Garlofski. “I’ll need to go to the Village to order a replacement part, and one of the reindeer may have to fly to the South to collect it.”, he added. Then he paused. He knew that Santa would require time to absorb the scope of the dilemma. The mere thought of commandeering one of the reindeer to perform an extra duty at this late stage of the proceedings was asking a great deal. Besides the reindeer were more than accustomed to being left quietly idle before Christmas Eve in preparation for the arduous journey before them. They required their “down time” so to speak, the opportunity to build their strength in anticipation of the long and frosty flight that awaited them. There were even rustles abroad that there might be a snow storm from the far North which would only hinder them further.

Santa let drop his cigar-like fountain pen onto the worn oak desk and stretched back in his ageing wooden chair, letting go an exhausted puff. He would have to think about this. Without removing his fixed gaze from the pile of papers on the desk before him, Santa said to Garlofski in a low and measured voice, “Come in and close the door behind you, Garlofski.” As Garlofski did so, ever so cautiously, Santa added, “We have a problem!”

Over the next several minutes Santa explained that there had recently been a bit of a stir among the reindeer arising from all the attention Rudolf had lately garnered for having led the team through a particularly inclement night a number of years ago. Rudolf’s celebrity had gone viral and was now world-wide. He had even been memorialized in song. The possible combination of further bad weather and the pressing need to reignite the factory machinery would provide incredible serendipity for augmented notoriety if Rudolf were again asked to save the day. Santa could already hear the muted protests from Donner and Dancer, Prancer and Blixen and the others! Santa would naturally have preferred to imagine that everything was cozy among the reindeer, but sensitivities had to be acknowledged. They were after all only reindeer and it was not beneath them to harbour a modicum of jealousy, especially as they had been at this for such a long time and Rudolf was a fairly new recruit to the herd.

As Santa began to reflect more deeply upon the quandary, Santa reminded himself that as a matter of pure logic before determining the answer, he needed to know the precise question. Looking squarely at Garlofski, Santa queried, “Tell me exactly what is wrong with the conveyor belt.”

Stunned, Garlofski gulped. He thought he had already told Santa what was the problem. “Well”, he began hesitantly, “one of the main gears of the conveyor belt is severely damaged; it can’t be repaired; we need a new one to replace it. Without it, we can’t get all the toys from the storage room to your sleigh for packing. And for delivery to the children.”

Santa mused upon this further intelligence. “So!”, he said, raising his head to the ceiling as if fully to comprehend what was being said, “You’re telling me the problem isn’t so much the conveyor belt as getting the toys onto the sleigh. And the sleigh is of course outside the opposite end of the factory waiting to be loaded. Is that correct?” Santa returned his sharpened gaze to Garlofski as he awaited the reply.

“Yes”, replied Garlofski timidly, not knowing where this was leading. “Yes that is correct, Santa.”

“Well then”, rejoined Santa, “we’ll just have to ignore the conveyor belt and find another way of getting the toys from the storage room onto the sleigh.” He paused for a moment to allow Garlofski time to pick up the thread. “And”, Santa continued, “if we can’t get the toys to the sleigh, we’ll have to get the sleigh to the toys!”

Garlofski still hadn’t grasped Santa’s meaning. Indeed Garlofski’s first instinct was to imagine that Santa was suffering from the strain of the time of year, that he required some much-needed sleep to clear his head. Nonetheless Garlofski was generous enough to give Santa the benefit of the doubt. “Yes”, repeated Garlofski, “we have to get the sleigh to the toys!” As if to punctuate the dilemma, a burst of wind and snow suddenly blew across the shuttered windows of Santa’s office, causing them both to look up momentarily.

Returning to the matter at hand Santa could of course see that Garlofski was still at sea so he explained further. “Surely we have enough time – at least more than we would if we were to send someone to the South for a new part – to arrange a platform at the back of the storage room upon which to park the sleigh, and we could then load the sleigh directly from the storage room?”

Garlofski considered this carefully. He was beginning to detect the sense of Santa’s theory. What was, however, the obvious stumbling block was – as Santa knew full well himself – the storage room where the toys had been built and awaited removal was at the very edge of a precipitous mountain edge. Originally the storage room had been built there to allow the hard-working elves a delightful southern view over the magnificent valley below while they laboured long hours on their fabrications. Garlofski was hard pressed to imagine how anyone could possibly construct a platform at the back of the store room, hanging over the edge of a cliff.

Perceiving the difficulty, Santa enlarged upon his plan. “We will construct a chute, our own creation of a conveyor belt, capitalizing upon gravity without the necessity of cogs and wheels!”, he exclaimed with self-evident delight.

Absorbing this additional detail, Garlofski was still having difficulty imagining how exactly the chute was to be constructed. Nonetheless Garlofski uttered a respectful, “Oh, I see” though of course he didn’t.

“Yes”, said Santa, continuing, “we’ll build a slide from the storage room to the mountain terraces below. Come with me”, he added. “Let’s have a look! We’ve no time to lose!”

With this Santa and Garlofski exited the corner office and headed across the factory floor to the storage room at the back of the building. All the other elves, upon seeing Santa and Garlofski so clearly upon a mission, momentarily arrested their diligent efforts to wonder what was about. Naturally they had no idea. The elves looked at one another quizzically, shrugged and turned down the sides of their mouths as evidence of their incomprehension. “What could they be planning?”, they asked themselves.

Once Santa and Garlofski gained the toy storage room, Santa made straight-way for the large frosted window at the back of the room from which he could see the brilliant winter moon already rising in the southwestern sky, illuminating the snowbound valley below (remember: this is the North Pole and sunshine here is limited in the winter). Pressing his nose against the window pane, Santa did his best to peer down the side of the mountain which receded immediately below where he now stood. “There!”, he ejaculated, “There is the answer to our problems!”, and he pointed a stubby finger downwards in the direction of a plateau which projected from the side of the mountain some fifteen metres below. I’ll fly my sleigh round to that plateau and then we can position the chute from here to there. No problem! Simple!” And with that Santa turned and waddled back to his office to recommence the review of his list, confident that he had wrestled the problem to the ground. There were things to be done.

Garlofski, on the other hand, stood frozen in his steps, mouth open, wide-eyed, staring first at the valley, then at Santa’s withdrawing figure. It became immediately clear to Garlofski that it was he who would have to engineer the chute of which Santa had spoken so favourably. And this “right some quick” as the elves were wont to exclaim when under particular pressure.

With uncommon agility, Garlofski bounced into the factory to the centre of the floor where he began commanding everyone within earshot to give him attention. Garlofski called the elves by name, “Jingle, Jangle, Aaron, Roger, Ju-Jube, Francois, Cotelle, Ollie” and so on (their names were as varied as the languages they spoke). The machinery of the room (at least what there was of it that remained functional) ground to an unceremonious halt. Only the whirring of the overhead fans could now be heard. Garlofski stood with his hands upon his hips, waiting for all to gather round. Then, taking a deep breath, he began his cryptic explanation of the plan to load Santa’s sleigh by noon on Christmas Eve. As you might imagine there were many in attendance who thought, as Garlofski had previously thought of Santa, that there was no sense in the proposal, but when the alternatives were reviewed it was clear that there was but one course of action.

What, however, had yet to be explained, was precisely how they were to construct a chute. While the idea of a chute had its appeal, the implementation of the idea was less convincing. It was a mistake to assume that material of every description for any purpose is always available at the North Pole. The capital of their production was focused upon toys, not hardware. A heated conversation ensued among the elves as almost every one of them began tossing suggestions into the communal ring for consideration. Some of the proposals were good, others not so. None of them, however, answered all possible objections. At last Garlofski had to call a stop to the debate and demand that action be taken. This determined approach, unfortunately, did little more than retard the consummation of the transaction. They still hadn’t a clue how to proceed.

Meanwhile, at the far side of the factory floor secreted from the immediate throng, were two young elves listening intently to what transpired. These were Nicholas and Sven, who hadn’t yet qualified themselves as expert toy-makers, yet apprentices to the task. Their pointed ears were however finely tuned to the rising dilemma. Almost in unison Nicholas and Sven turned to look at one another and nodded in agreement. They had a notion. Nicholas and Sven often spent their afternoons after instruction in the spacious fireplace room of Elf House. There they diverted themselves from the rigours of their training by rolling themselves into the huge Persian rug which spread upon the hardwood floor of the Great Hall in front of the monstrous stone fireplace. Neither had been discovered in this mischievous preoccupation, one which now afforded them an expertise which would have otherwise been quite unanticipated.

Nicholas and Sven, bumbling into one another as they reluctantly approached the congregation of senior elves, tried to make themselves visible and heard by modest intonations; however, their young voices were mere squeaks among the cacophony of debate which was transpiring. Looking up, Garlofski – his brow wrinkled with anxiety – spied the young elves approaching in the distance and recognized that they were trying to make themselves heard. In a decided act of democracy, Garlofski raised himself on his toes to elevate himself over the heads of the other elves and pointed with his gnarled index finger in the direction of Nicholas and Sven: “You!”, he shouted, “Have you something to say?” The multitude of senior elves immediately clammed up and turned round to see who among them was being addressed. Almost as quickly, they returned their attention to Garlofski, thinking that the young elves would have nothing of consequence to share at this important juncture.

“You!”, again summoned Garlofski, “Come forward and have your say”. At this the way parted on the factory floor for Nicholas and Sven and they intently made their way forward, apologizing as they went, until finally they were standing somewhat nervously in front of Garlofski.

“Well?”, said Garlofski impatiently, “What have you to say?”

Nicholas and Sven, fearing the repercussions of disclosing their illegitimate use of the Persian rug in the Great Hall, nonetheless explained that they proposed that the large Persian rug could be rolled up and adapted as a cylinder with which to transport the toys from the storage shed to the waiting sleigh below. There was a silence. Nobody said a word. Then as the crowd of elves slowly digested the scheme the volume of their excited and clamorous voices arose in concert. What a splendid concept!

What followed over the next several hours was a case-book model of collectivism. Spurred by the intoxicating knowledge that there was a resolution to this once seemingly insurmountable conundrum, the tiny elves marshaled their corporate energy, enthusiasm and plain elbow grease to bring about the harmonic progression of the toys to Santa’s now waiting sleigh on the snowy mantle beneath the toy storage room. With uncommon expediency and simplicity the toys poured one after another down the cylindrical Persian rug into the back of Santa’s sleigh. The reindeer – Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen, even Rudolf – breathed a sigh of relief as well! They were understandably primed to engage themselves in their high-speed world tour to deliver toys to children everywhere on Christmas Eve and the prospect of having to delay the expedition hadn’t been sitting at all well with them. Now, however, they could happily go about their Christmas Eve preparations, contentedly masticating the lovely hay which Santa always ensured they had before their demanding journey. Mrs. Claus was equally elated. She stood outside the main office at a respectable distance from the commotion, admiring the skillful way in which the bright and colourful toys were being manipulated from the storage room to Santa’s sleigh. As she knotted her fingers in her white apron she imagined how cheerful the children would be to see the arrival of their Christmas treasures! As for Nicholas and Sven, the authors of the escape from this brain-teaser, they instantly enjoyed a highly elevated status among their peers. Rudolf’s erstwhile notoriety had most certainly been eclipsed this year!

Still secluded in the depths of his office, Santa was also breathing a great deal more easily. He had completed the checking of his list of who is naughty and nice, and he was now afforded the final preparatory privilege of donning his red jacket, large black belt and red hat with the snowy white tassel. He conceded that the jacket was fitting somewhat less generously than last year and he vowed to cut back on the cookies which the well-meaning boys and girls invariably left for him on his global tour. All in all, as the hours approached for Santa’s departure from the North Pole things were looking up!

Next day – Christmas Eve – the hours sped by. Santa and Mrs. Claus had together enjoyed their breakfast preceding Santa’s impending departure. The steel runners of Santa’s sleigh had been sanded and polished to capitalize upon maximum swiftness in navigating the cold, winter sky. The reindeer had been fed and watered. All was in readiness. The elves had completed the final adjustments to the specialty toys and loaded them upon Santa’s sleigh.

At the customary time – in keeping with the tradition that Santa and his elves had conducted for year upon year – the elves harnessed the reindeer in their handsome tack and bells and Santa climbed aboard his magical sleigh. The stars in the sky sparkled brilliantly; the moon shone its silver light upon the glistening snow; Santa uttered a tell-tale “Ho, Ho, Ho!” and with that the reindeer tugged upon the heavily laden sleigh and whisked Santa and the cargo of toys into the sky. In an instant they had disappeared and were out of sight!

“Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night!”




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