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Date: 00-03-18 11:42:41 EST
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Here's your free excerpt from The Death of Innocence, by John and Patsy Ramsey.
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Christmas Day, 1996
A few flakes of snow drifted over the mountains towering above Boulder, Colorado, as multicolored lights sparkled in houses up and down the streets, well before the first rays of sunlight broke on December 25. A thin curtain of darkness still hung over Fifteenth Street when our nine-year-old son, Burke, and six-year-old daughter, JonBenét, bounded up the back stairs to our third-floor bedroom at about 6:30, jumping on our bed and bouncing up and down. Childhood innocence and excitement in its purest form.
"C'mon, wake up! It's Christmas!" shouted JonBenét.
"Yeah. We gotta see what Santa brought for us!" Burke chimed in. "Hurry up."
The previous year on Christmas Eve, Burke had gone to bed at the normal time and then gotten up at 12:30 a.m., ready to open presents. We tried to explain that Santa was still working his way across the country. "He's probably just now in Georgia. You must be sound asleep until morning, to make sure he stops by." We were doing much better this year since the kids waited until 6:30 a.m. to rouse us.
"Be careful, guys!" Patsy said, forcing her eyes open. "You'll fall off the bed."
"Get up, Mom," they cried in unison. "It's Christmas!"
Patsy got up and moved toward her bathroom at the other end of the master suite. I slipped out of bed and went down the two flights of stairs to the living room, where Santa had left his surprises. When I was a child, my dad would keep my brother, Jeff, and me waiting in great anxiety while he plugged in the tree, put Christmas records on the hi-fi, and set up the 16 mm movie camera and flood lights to record the events of the morning. I couldn't stand all that waiting then. Now, here I was doing exactly the same things to my kids, in exactly the same way-making them wait when they were so excited. Funny how we become so much like our parents as we grow older.
The kids still believed in Santa. Why shouldn't they? They always had presents from Mom and Dad-and then got special gifts from Santa. Stop believing in Santa, and you lose out on a set of gifts. Burke and JonBenét knew how to work the system. Patsy and I savored the night before Christmas, helping Santa Claus put everything in place.
Last night had been no different. We had made several trips to the basement, where Patsy kept the wrapped gifts stashed away. Then she had arranged them under the fat Fraser fir, which reached to the ceiling of our living room. Joe Barnhill, our neighbor, had met me in front of our home with the new bicycle for JonBenét, which he had been hiding in his basement for us. JonBenét had outgrown her training bike. A bigger bicycle had been on her wish list, and we could now look forward to some family bike trips together. All Burke really wanted this year was a Nintendo 64 video game system, and Patsy felt she had scored a real coup by locating one just a few days prior to Christmas, even though this was the hot item, sold out everywhere. Several other unwrapped gifts from Santa were arranged next to the bicycle and the Nintendo so each child would know whose pile was whose. Santa's unwrapped presents were a tradition from Patsy's side of the family. It was always a challenge to merge these family traditions; but after sixteen years, we had our routine down pat.
That Christmas Eve, with all the gifts arranged, Patsy and I had taken in the beauty of the evening. The tree, the lights, the gifts. It doesn't get more magical than this, I thought as the timeless melody of "Silent Night" from the Mannheim Steamroller CD played softly in the kitchen. No other night of the year held the anticipation of Christmas Eve. Looking up at the magnificently decorated tree, I thought that it really seemed as if there were peace on earth. We had no idea how fragile this moment was.
Now, with Christmas morning here, Santa had just one more thing to do before the little ones waiting on the third floor were allowed to rip into the picturesque setting. I slipped out to the garage and quickly wheeled in a new bike for Patsy.
"Okay, everyone," I called up the stairs. "Looks like Santa has been here!" Down they came, giggling and shouting, and running immediately to their respective treasures. Patsy was right behind them; she stopped at the threshold of the living room and looked at me with wide eyes.
"Would you look at that!" I teased. "Santa even brought Mommy a new bicycle!" We exchanged quick glances. "Boy, that Santa. He's really full of surprises this year!" Patsy said with a grin, mostly for the kids' benefit.
The kids screamed and cheered as they realized that Santa had brought just about everything on their lists. JonBenét wanted to take her new bike outside for a spin, but Burke suggested, "Let's get all the other gifts opened first." Ah, the wise and experienced big brother. JonBenét agreed. They quickly busied themselves playing Santa's elves and distributing the beautifully wrapped gifts. JonBenét asked for Burke's assistance with the nametags, since he could read and she couldn't. It was the most fun in the world, doling out the gifts and seeing whose pile would become the biggest.
I always insisted that everyone take turns unwrapping a gift, starting with the kids, since their piles far outweighed ours. Patsy had spent a lot of time wrapping all those gifts, and we wanted the moment to last as long as possible. We had inherited this tradition from the Ramsey side of the family; Patsy's family had always just ripped everything open at once.
"Wow! A remote-control car!" Burke shouted as he raised the prize overhead for everyone to see.
"That's nice-who is it from?" Patsy asked.
"I dunno," he replied, shrugging his shoulders.
"Let's keep track, so we can write thank-you notes," she urged.
Patsy rearranged the gifts in JonBenét's stack so that a very special box would be opened last. Inside was a My Twinn doll, fashioned to look like JonBenét from pictures Patsy had furnished the doll maker, with a couple of matching outfits so JonBenét and the doll could dress alike.
JonBenét opened the box and examined the doll with a look of curiosity.
"Well, now, doesn't she look like you?" Patsy asked.
JonBenét held the doll at arm's length and tilted her head slightly. "I really don't think she looks that much like me," she concluded and laid the doll to one side. She quickly returned to a jewelry craft set, which she had previously opened.
Patsy looked at me, raised her eyebrows, and gave a disappointed shrug. Sometimes the big gift you had in mind for your kids really wasn't the hit you had expected.
Soon JonBenét slipped under the tree and removed a brightly wrapped gift from its hiding place near the back. She had found exactly the right present for me at FAO Schwarz during a trip to New York City with her mom in November. Patsy later told me that when JonBenét had seen the shiny red gumball machine that dispensed jellybeans, she insisted I had to have it because I love jellybeans. She marched across the room and proudly presented the gift to me, with a big hug and kiss.
"Betcha can't guess what this is!" she teased.
"Give me a little hint," I pried. The suspense was too much for her, so she quickly helped me unwrap the package.
"Oh, wow. Would you look at that!" I exclaimed.
"Do you really like it, Daddy?"
"I sure do, Honey. I love it and I love you!" I gave her a big hug.
A moment later she looked up at me. "Daddy, what about . . .?" She did the standard charade symbol for a movie camera with one hand to her face and the other cranking the film reel. She was excited and wanted me to take home videos.
"Well . . ." I said rubbing my chin. "I forgot to charge the batteries of the video camera last night. They're all run down. But here is our regular camera. I can take a few pictures. You get over there next to Mommy."
Since the death of my oldest daughter, Beth, I hadn't wanted to take away from the moment at hand by stepping out of the scene to videotape or photograph it. I felt that life was too precious and went past too quickly to interrupt it by fussing with a camera. Now I wanted to live in the moment, rather than preserving it for later enjoyment. We had learned the hard way that sometimes later can be too sad. I still was not up to looking at the home videos we had made of all those earlier Christmases when Beth was still with us. I thought about just how special this Christmas morning was as I snapped a few pictures of the children with their opened gifts lying around the room. I had no way of knowing these would be the last photographs I would take of my youngest and most defenseless daughter.
While the kids played with their gifts, Patsy and I went to the kitchen to prepare our traditional Christmas morning breakfast of pancakes, bacon, corn beef hash, and hash browns. I usually made the pancakes, so I got all the ingredients together while Patsy set the table and cooked the rest of the breakfast. JonBenét always loved to get into the act and was right under my elbows, standing on a stool by the stove, to help pour the pancake batter. She normally liked to make a Mickey Mouse shape with the batter and decorate it at the table with fruit and raisins to make the face come to life, but there wasn't time for that on this Christmas Day. Too many new things to play with. Burke came to the table just long enough to eat a bite. As far as he was concerned, eating got in the way of playing.
Once breakfast was over, the day unfolded with the usual chaos of the neighborhood children coming and going, reporting on the loot that had been left for them. The boys from across the alley drifted in with their remote-control toys, and they all went outside to race their battery-powered cars up and down the street in front of our house.
I watched the scene with a mild sense of amusement. Once the gifts are opened, dads tend to fade into the wallpaper while the rest of the family rushes through the day. Patsy got busy preparing for our early morning departure the next day to Charlevoix, Michigan. She had some last-minute gift wrapping to finish for John Andrew and Melinda, our older children from my first marriage. There were a few things for the Charlevoix neighbor kids as well as a few special gifts for Stewart, Melinda's fiancé, who would join us for this first-ever family Christmas get-together at our summer cottage in Charlevoix.
In addition to those tasks, Patsy was packing summer clothes and bathing suits in suitcases laid out on the bed in John Andrew's bedroom. We had booked tickets on Disney's Big Red Boat in Florida upon our return from Charlevoix. The trip would last from December 29 through New Year's, a great way to celebrate Patsy's fortieth birthday and the New Year. Burke and JonBenét were very excited about the trip. We had never been on a cruise and thought that being with Mickey Mouse and Company should be great family fun.
Patsy was always juggling several balls at once. That day she was even preparing ahead for a pageant that she and JonBenét were to attend the first week of January. Most of JonBenét's pageant clothes hung in the big closet in Melinda's room. Patsy laid out a yellow swimsuit and cover-up on the dresser in anticipation of the event.
With everyone so busy, I decided to take the opportunity to scoot out to Jefferson County Airport (Jeffco, as local pilots had nicknamed it) to check out the airplane for our departure the next day. Patsy reminded me to be back in time to get ready to go to Fleet and Priscilla White's house for an early dinner. On the way to the airport, I scanned the skies. Looked like the weather would be fine for travel tomorrow. I always started watching the weather days before we were to travel. Since weather moves from west to east, it was easy to anticipate the weather to the east, based on the weather that had moved through Colorado earlier. We had talked about going to Charlevoix before Christmas, but it would have been a logistical nightmare to arrange for Santa to find us there; we would have to get all of the goodies to Charlevoix ahead of time and then haul them back to Colorado afterward. Too hard. Best just to have Christmas in Boulder and join up with the big kids the day after.
John Andrew, Melinda, and her fiancé, Stewart, would fly Delta Air Lines from Atlanta to Minneapolis, and since our flight path would take us right over this city on our way to Charlevoix, it would be easy to stop and pick up the big kids. (Minneapolis worked because the kids could get cheap tickets from Atlanta to that city, since no one seemed to want to go to Minneapolis in the winter.) Patsy, Burke, JonBenét, and I planned to meet Mike Archuleta, our pilot, at Jeffco in the morning for a 7:00 departure. That would put us in Minneapolis in time to rendezvous with Melinda, John Andrew, and Stewart when their plane arrived at eleven. Then we would all travel together in the family plane to Charlevoix.
Though I was qualified to pilot the Beechcraft King Air C-90 alone, it always made things easier when Mike came along. With plans for landing in a busy terminal like Minneapolis during the holidays, his copiloting would add an extra safety factor. Besides, Mike was like part of the family; he and his wife, Pam, had no children of their own, so he really took up with JonBenét and Burke when he was with us. He was comfortable at the cottage and always helped out around the place; it just seemed natural for him to come along on this trip.
Of course, everyone enjoyed Charlevoix, a great place to spend the summers. We had bought our little house, almost sight unseen, in 1992. For years before that we had visited Charlevoix and spent hours with real estate agents-and by ourselves-scouting out property in the area. Patsy named the house Summer Hill because we usually visited in the summer and it was perched on a hill.
I always loved hanging around airports, and Christmas Day was no different. I loaded some of the gifts that were going to Michigan and made sure the plane was ready to go. I inherited the flying bug from my father, Jay Ramsey, who had been a decorated World War II pilot. His many missions across the treacherous Himalayas between India and China had earned him a Distinguished Flying Cross. Flying the "Hump" was risky business, and these pilots suffered a much higher fatality rate than fighter pilots in the European theater; I was lucky to have a dad who survived World War II.
When I returned home in the afternoon, JonBenét and Burke were playing outside with the neighborhood gang. Soon Patsy called for the kids to come in to clean up a little before the party. She wanted JonBenét to wear a red turtleneck with her black velvet pants so that mother and daughter would be dressed alike, but JonBenét wanted to wear the complete outfit she'd chosen. Finally Mom gave in. JonBenét put on her outfit with her black boots, which zipped up the front and had a bit of animal print trim along the top. JonBenét loved to dress up. Burke could care less.
As we were leaving for the Whites' house, JonBenét begged me to help her ride her new bike, which she had managed to bring outside. She was a tad wobbly because this bike was quite a bit bigger than her other one, but she soon steadied herself.
"Daddy, please help me ride my bike around the block, just once."
We didn't have much time before we were due at the Whites', so I promised that we'd spin around the neighborhood some other time. She looked disappointed, but agreed. Later I wished I had taken those extra few minutes. I wish I had remembered the oft-quoted axiom that children spell love T-I-M-E. I would never again be able to watch her ride a bike. The new bike was later donated to a church without her ever having enjoyed it.
With a gift basket of different coffees in hand, we arrived at the Whites', where the festivities were well underway. Several family members and friends were visiting from out of town, including Priscilla's sisters, their companions, and her parents. Missing from the gathering were the senior Whites, because Nyla White, Fleet's mother, was spending the holidays in a hospital bed in Aspen. Most of us helped ourselves to the snacks and hors d'oeuvres that Priscilla had prepared, including leftover cracked crab, which they enjoyed as a family tradition on Christmas Eve. Priscilla made a small plate especially for JonBenét to make sure there would be some left for her to try.
Dinner was served in the living and dining rooms, next to the beautifully decorated Christmas tree, glistening with silver ornaments and ribbons that reflected Priscilla's passion for all things silver. We had eaten together last Christmas, so it was beginning to feel like a new tradition for us to join their family. The fire was ablaze in the fireplace. It was Christmas Day, and life was good.
After supper, Fleet and I eventually ended up on the living room floor making paper jewelry with JonBenét and Daphne, the Whites' six-year-old daughter. Although it was a child's toy, quite a bit of dexterity was required to make the little paper beads from scratch. Everyone poked fun at the sight of these two grown men (Fleet is a big guy, over six feet tall and upwards of two hundred fifty pounds) sitting on the floor with the girls, trying to wind little strips of colored paper into beads to be strung into a necklace. Later, some carolers arrived, and we all gathered at the front door to listen. Fleet and Fleet Jr. went out with the carolers for a round of stops in the neighborhood.
Sometime around 8:30 or so, we decided to head for home; we had a big trip ahead of us in the morning and needed to leave on time so we could arrive in Minneapolis by 11:00. Besides, Patsy wanted to drop off a couple of gifts on our way home from the Whites'. We pulled up the driveway at the Walkers' and Patsy took a small package to the door, talked for a few minutes, and returned to the car. Then we drove over a few blocks to the Stines' house. Patsy had bid on three gift baskets at a recent silent auction benefit, and she and Burke took one of the baskets to their door. We had another basket in the trunk of the car intended for our friends the Fernies, but decided it was too late now to make any more visits. We would deliver their gift when we returned from Michigan.
After leaving the Stines', we returned to our house and drove down the narrow alley to our garage at the back of the house. I pushed the automatic garage door opener and we rolled in. On the way home, JonBenét had fallen fast asleep in the back seat. I got her out of the car and carried her upstairs to her room, laid her on the bed, and took off her coat and shoes. I was amazed at how sound asleep she was. It had been a long day for her. Patsy came in to finish getting JonBenét ready for bed.
Meanwhile, I went downstairs to try to get Burke to come up to bed, but he was deeply involved in assembling the miniature parking garage he had received that morning. I could tell he wasn't going to go to bed until the project was finished, so I settled down on the floor beside him. Helping him complete what his mind was focused on was the best way to get us both in bed quickly.
At about 9:30 I led Burke upstairs and got him ready for bed, then tucked him in and turned out the light. I went on up to our room on the third floor, which we had converted from an attic space to a master suite in 1993. Patsy was already in bed. I got ready, took a melatonin tablet to insure a good night's sleep, set the alarm clock for 5:30 a.m., and read in bed for a short while before turning out the light.
Unfortunately, I slept soundly.
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