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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Pettit

A Right Jolly Old Elf

“Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house,” one would never know that the 4-time Olympic Gold medalist in the discus, and hero to hundreds of track and field followers, was really a spritely imp at heart.

Year-round, Al Oerter would always play subtle jokes on his wife, Cathy, and sister, Marianne; this behavior being especially heightened during the holiday season.

Cathy and Al Oerter as Mr. & Mrs. Santa Claus
Cathy and Al as Mr. & Mrs. Claus

The Oerter household was big on festive holiday decorations, and a lot of time was spent getting things set up just right. Cathy couldn’t remember where the four ceramic block letters, spelling out the word N-O-E-L, had come from.

They were glazed white and adorned with painted green holly, candy canes and red ornaments. At the top of each letter was a hole meant for a small, birthday cake-sized candle, whose purpose was never utilized. They were crude in a way, something one would probably never buy.

Yet, N-O-E-L went on display every year with all of the other more favored decorations, and became a major part of the annual Oerter seasonal joy (as we shall soon see).

Long before there was an "elf on the shelf," and usually when “not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse,” Al would switch the letters around.

So, one day, for instance, N-O-E-L became L-E-O-N. Cathy would discover the rearranged letters and put them back in the correct order of N-O-E-L. The next day, or next minute, or next hour, N-O-E-L would again transform into O-N-E-L or L-E-N-O or N-O-L-E or E-L-O-N or L-O-N-E or L-E-O-N-again, all surreptitiously maneuvered.

This went on back and forth throughout the season and would not end until decorations were put away after New Year’s Day. Cathy would never see him changing things up and, upon discovery, would whine in a disconcerting, drawn out way, “Aaaalll…”

The reaction? He always mimicked her saying his name like that. He then would just look at her and smile.

“His eyes, how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry!” while Al patiently waited for his next opportunity to do the four-letter scramble.

This trickster’s behavior was so much a part of Al’s character, and was exhibited during the many years of training and throwing the discus, as well. It was really about patience, and his was incredible. Some would say, glacial.

He could wait years, if needed, for someone to discover something he had put in place, or, in the case of N-O-E-L, out of place.

With “a wink of his eye and a twist of his head,” he would thrill at the eventual revelation.

In his training, he was quiet and methodical. “He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work.”

In competition, it didn’t matter if he was leading or lagging behind other throwers in distances. In fact, he didn’t really pay that much attention to others. He knew in time he would prevail and all would be revealed eventually. He could out-wait the best of them.

The first Christmas after Al’s death, when N-O-E-L remained as such throughout the season, Cathy remembers, “I was crying and grieving and missing him so much. I was going through some boxes he had stored in the linen closet.

“At the very bottom of one of them, I came across a blue, leather-bound book. On the cover, under the word ‘Journal,’ inscribed in gold, was his name ‘Al Oerter.’ I gasped, and carried it into the kitchen and placed it on the table, wondering if I should open it.

“I hesitated, but then took a deep breath and slowly and carefully opened the journal. The first few pages were blank, and I thought, momentarily, that maybe this was just a book he had never used.

“Then, on that next page, there it was in his handwriting: ‘The End by Al Oerter.’

"I started to laugh, the tears mixing with my joy. He knew, eventually, that I would find it; whether in a week or a year or five years.”

Cathy asked herself, “Was it more patience, or him being all-knowing?” She knew the answer to her question. It was simply, Al.

After all, “he was a right jolly old elf. And she laughed when she saw him, in spite of herself.”

© 2021 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved


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