The Old Broke Rancher On the Perils of Present Peeking


I keep waiting for age and wisdom to kick in and deliver me from my childish ways. But all that hard-won wisdom never seems to come, and I'm still bogged in the mire of immaturity. 

For instance, ever since I was four or five years old I have been a present peeker. I don't care if it's from Santa, the wife, brother-in-law, I'm crazy to know what it is. And that means that as soon as everyone is out the door, I'm creeping around the house, magnifying glass in hand like some kind of fat cowboy Sherlock Holmes, looking for Christmas gifts. 

There are certain tools and practices available to the Present Peeker. Even though I figured them all out myself, I will teach them to you and then you can hand them down over generations, criminal to criminal, like the trade secrets of breaking and entering or safecracking.

Here's one I invented as a little kid. You need the magnifying glass for this one. All you do is tear a tiny hole in the wrapping paper, barely large enough for the eye to behold, and then grab the aforementioned magnifying glass. Inspect the iota of exposed present for signs and clues. If it glimmers, it may be gold. If it dazzles, it may be diamonds. Also related is the skill of carefully untying and retying a bow.

If that fails you, there's always the old standby: furiously shaking the present like a gorilla trying to get the last few kernels out of a box of corn flakes. 

Often, the sound of the contents of the box shifting, rattling, or shattering will reveal their identity. Sometimes further clues can be gleaned. For instance, if you have a rectangular present about a foot or more tall and you shake it until it accidentally drops, and if, after the percussive clank accompanying the fall, a rich brown liquid begins to pool around the bottom of the present, you might get down on your hands and knees and sample it. The family dog may or may not join you. And if that draining liquid is a rich bown, tastes like peat and gives you a buzz, then congratulations! 

Your wife bought you a fine single malt scotch. If you hear a faint ticking from the present, but after you bash it against the coffee table (accidentally) while gorilla shaking it, and thereafter it ceases to tick, it was probably a nice watch. 

If it ticks and then explodes, it was a time bomb.

Time bomb present

Of course, there are many more options in the year 2023. You can check your spouse's credit card records or bank statements, or examine their Amazon orders. You can ask ChatGPT what it thinks your wife got you. You can even check your doorbell cameras for footage of your wife entering and exiting, to inspect any festive bundles she may have under her arm. But at this point, she knows I'm watching. I know because she's taken to flipping the bird at the camera. Sometimes the double bird.

But I think all of those high-tech options aren't for me, really. I still think the old ways are the best. 

But if I seem clumsy or indelicate in my approach to Present Peeking now, imagine how much worse I was when I was a little tyke. Or littler, anyway. During one Christmas season in the early 1960s, when I was by almost any estimate too old for this sort of thing, I committed perhaps my most audacious Present Peeking spree.

There had been one oblong present under the tree that year that particularly tempted me. I thought it could only be one thing, but I still had to know. So, after midnight on December 22nd, I crept downstairs and unwrapped a bit of the edge of the present, thinking that just a little wouldn't hurt. But before I knew it, my grip faltered, and the tear enlarged. An electric locomotive set fell, still in its box, from the wrapping paper, clunking on the floor. For a moment, it resembled a train derailment as if from the perspective of Godzilla. 

Now, not only was the train dented and scuffed, but the wrapping paper told a terrible story. The story, I thought, of a naughty little boy who tried to sneak a peek and got greedy. 

"What the hell is going on down there," my Dad shouted from the bedroom. 

"Earl!" my mother chastised him. "Language!"

"Nothing, Dad!"

"Go to bed, damn it!"

"Earl! Language!"

"Ok, Dad! Just grabbing a glass of milk!"

But not all was lost. Not yet. I knew where the gift wrap was. 

I couldn't hide that the train was dented and the boxes mangled. But I hoped that if I carefully rewrapped the toy and reacted with appropriate surprise when I opened it, they might somehow think they dented it - that maybe they bought it that way, their mistake. And maybe that they'd go buy me another train set to make up for the rather colossal slip of etiquette they'd committed by buying me a dented-up locomotive.


But how do you wrap a present? My mother, a perfectionist, always wrapped everyone's presents herself - including, I now realize, Dad's presents to her. She wrapped presents the way a marine makes his bed. I swear that all of her presents had pristine hospital corners. But I thought that if I was very very careful, I might be able to achieve something similar. I retrieved the wrapping paper, gold with red stripes, and slowly, haltingly, cut two vectors that I hope would make for a big enough square. I ended up with a piece about 3 feet by 3 feet. It looked a little too big for the train set, so I eyeballed it and cut another six inches off of each side. Now I tried to fold the electric locomotive box up in the wrapping paper. Now the edges nearly met, but not quite. The wrapping paper was too small.  

Ok, I frowned, trying to figure the geometry in my head. 

I need a few inches more than I've got. So I unrolled a few more feet and tried to cut around the existing length of wrapping paper, only bigger. I'm sure my tongue was jutting from my pursed lips from the focus and attention it required. 

This produced a piece of about the right size, but the edges were a little ragged. My hands, it seems, weren't quite big enough to effectively wield adult scissors. Ok, I thought, I'll just very carefully cut the ragged parts of the edges off, leaving perfect, Mother-style straight edges. I did that, more or less, and then tried wrapping it around the locomotive box again and found, to my surprise, that my job of trimming, meticulous though it was, had resulted in the wrapping paper once again coming up short. I sighed and thought, this is the last time. 

Only there wasn't enough wrapping paper left on the roll anymore. There was only about a foot and a half left. I sighed and inspected what I had to work with: two stretches of wrapping paper that were too short, and another stretch that was much too short. So I did what any normal child would do, and set about trying to cut a one-inch wide strip of wrapping paper that would augment the sides of one of the too-short lengths if carefully and subtly taped to its edges. 


Now, this looked terrible.  It was beginning to look a little leprous. Moreover, there were a few tears here and there where I had accidentally poked it with scissors or stepped on it. These I went about patching with additional tiny pieces of wrapping paper, which resembled nothing so much as the little pieces of tissue my old man pressed against his face when he cut himself shaving. 

I finished as well as I could, and set about appraising my work. It was just possible that, with a little Christmas miracle, my mother wouldn't notice. Maybe, just maybe, she would wake up blind tomorrow morning. There was nothing more that I could do. I replaced the present under the tree, secreted all of the remaining Christmas paper scraps into my room, and crawled back into bed. 

The next morning, incredibly, she didn't notice. Then Christmas Eve came, and she still didn't notice. Maybe I'd gotten away with it. 

Christmas morning she noticed. She somehow managed to wake up and get downstairs even earlier than me, and I found her waiting for me down there, sitting in a chair drawn up by the Christmas tree. 

"Do you have anything you want to tell me, Gary?"

"Yes. I love you and Merry Christmas."

"Thank you. Anything else?"

"Mmm," I said, feigning deep thought. "I can't wait for Christmas dinner."

"Anything to say about that?" She pointed at the oblong present, nestled among the others under the tree.

"Well, it looks very nice, whatever it is. I don't know what it is," I said, carefully choosing my words so as not to incriminate myself. "but it looks nice."

"Uh-huh. What about these," she asked, producing from a bag at her feet a handful of crumpled gift wrap scraps. 

"They look nice too."

"You opened one of your present and then tried, poorly, I might add, to rewrap it. And I'm worried that you think I'm a fool. Because it doesn't take Perry Mason to tell something is wrong with this." Now she lifted up the hulk of shredded wrapping paper that constituted the remains of the electric locomotive. 

"This is the noise we heard the other night, right? That thud?"

For a moment I toyed with telling her that thud had been Santa scouting the place out, but I thought I'd better not press my luck. 

"I'm very disappointed, Gary." 

She's disappointed, I thought. What about me?

She only stayed mad at me until about 11 AM, when she patted me on the head and made me hot chocolate. My only real punishment was that I had to play with a dented train, which I thought was a fine trade in the end. 

But the next year, she was ahead of me. There were three curiously-shaped presents around the tree early in December as if to drive me to sin. When I finally decided that fortune favors the bold, I again tried to draw back just a little bit of wrapping paper to see what they were. 

They turned out to be three immaculately wrapped lumps of coal. 



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John Rambo (not verified) , Thu, 12/21/2023 - 18:38
Another great story. Package Peaking, we all did it.
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