A Christmas Tale: Break-In Day

Christmas Eve in the duck boat sees peace on earth and good will to all—both lost and found

The cover image for A Christmas Tale: Break-In Day is shown. A close of up of a rope tie on a dock can be seen with a boat floating in the background.

By Bill Miller

The day had been coming for a long time.

I’d ordered my new duck hunting boat in early April 2021. Orders were COVID-backlogged then, and the factory website included ads seeking aluminum welders. The factory rep had told me, “I think we should be able to get it to you in early August.”

But it wasn’t until Wednesday of the week before Thanksgiving that my wife and I finally made the drive to the factory to pick up the boat. Although duck opener had passed, I was thrilled to finally have the long-awaited rig tethered to my Jeep. There were still a few finishing touches to add, but with the help of a nearby dealer, I got everything taken care of. The boat was finally ready!

The first break-in would be on the day before Christmas.

Bill Miller, the author, drives away from the viewer in his new boat. He's on still, blue waters in front of a grey and brown landscape of winter.

The weather cooperated. The temp was warm­—near 50 degrees—and the breezes were light. It was a Friday, so there was no hunting on the managed reservoir near my home, which was good. I figured there would be few if any people at the landing to witness me working out the bugs that always come with putting a new rig in and out of the water for the first time.

I was right. At 10 a.m., there was only one other rig parked in the lot, plus one other pickup truck—likely guys out fishing. I pulled over and methodically went through launch prep. I’d imagined everything being “perfect” for all these months since I’d sent off the down payment. So while excitement built, I made myself slow down to be sure I was doing everything “just right.”

All set, I snapped the 50-foot rope to the eye on the front of the boat and slightly loosened the winch strap, then went to the back of the Jeep to put on my waders.

Once I backed the trailer down the ramp and close to the dock, I eased the boat smoothly off the trailer; it glided easily off the bunks. Chest puffed out and smiling big, I swaggered out to the end of the dock and tied off the boat.

After parking the Jeep and locking the doors, I ran through the sacred quintet for a departing hunter of my age: “Phone, wallet, car keys, cheaters … toilet paper?” Yep—good to go!

In the boat, I donned my life jacket and attached the lanyard to the kill switch. When I turned the key, the new motor started instantly. I untied from the dock, backed away, and put it in forward to begin the break-in protocol.

Later, when my timer clicked past 1.5 hours, I turned and headed back toward the landing. I’d allotted two hours for the first break-in, and that was just when I glided back to the dock —like a pro—and tied up.

As I climbed out, fished around in my waders to grab the Jeep keys, and walked up the ramp, my feet almost didn’t touch the ground. Things never go this perfectly for me! I was really feeling the Christmas Eve miracle.

This image recreates the moment in the story when Bill realized his boat was drifting away, no longer connected to his brand new boat which was slowly floating away from the boat landing, out in the water, towards the nature behind it.

While I’d been out, two more trailers had parked in the lot. I backed mine down and set the brake, climbed out of the Jeep, and double checked to make sure the trailer was backed far enough for easy loading. After untying the mooring lines, I grabbed the coiled 50-foot rope lying on the bow and gave the boat a shove away from the dock.

As I stood up, it was clearing the back of the dock and catching the breeze that would help pull it into position to load … except it wasn’t attached to the rope.

Somehow (I’ll never know how), the snap hook had come undone from the eye on the bow. My brand-new boat—still lacking registration numbers—was floating away from the dock, with the breeze taking it out to the lake!

I stared at the coil of rope in my hand and frantically reached to retrieve the end with the hook from the water.

How the … ? What the …  ? Who the … ?

There was only one option, and the longer I waited, the more difficult it would be. I quickly peeled off my jacket and stripped off my waders and stepped out of the boots. My hands instinctively went to my pockets and pulled my out wallet, car keys and phone. I threw everything in a wild pile, and then long-ago lifeguard training kicked in. “Reach, throw, row”—none were an option. All that was left to do was “go.”

I grabbed the rope, ran to the end of the dock, and did my best rescue leap toward the rapidly departing boat. As I hit the water, the shock of the 48-degree liquid pounded my body from neck down. I swam 75 feet out to the boat as fast as I could, looped the rope through a hook eye at the stern, then sidestroked back to the dock with the boat in tow.

Standing on the dock, hands on my knees to catch my breath, I quickly looked around. No one had seen this debacle, and I wanted to make sure no one would. I worked quickly to load the boat, pulled the Jeep up the ramp and parked.

My pile of stuff was still in the middle of the dock, so I jogged down—still stocking footed—to grab my stuff and haul it up the ramp. I laid it down in the grass, extracted my shirt and put it on.

A bass boat

The image shows the author's pile of person effects sitting on the dock, before he ventures into the water to retrieve his boat. His sunglasses, hat, phone, and keys are nestled atop some clothes he did not wish to get wet in the low temperatures.

with a single occupant was easing around the point. Fortunately, I determined that there was no way he could have seen any of the goings-on from where he was. This secret, this perfect Christmas Eve miracle gone wrong, would forever be mine … or so I thought.

I went about draining the motor, securing the tie-downs, and finishing all the other tasks necessary to trailer the boat home. As I did, from the corner of my eye I watched the angler who had just come in tie off his boat, go to his rig, and expertly power load and pull up to the opposite end of the lot. His well-rehearsed routine made it clear that he was definitely not on his break-in cruise!

I felt his eyes on me, as well. Of course, if I were watching a guy working around his boat with stocking feet, wet hair, and dripping water from the waist down, I’d stare, too. He completed his tie-down more quickly than I did, then pulled out of the driveway.

With the boat secured, electronics stored, and the motor drained and covered, I rolled up my waders and put them into their storage bag. I learned long ago that the way to extend the life of breathable waders is to keep them in a heavy-duty duffle and hang them to dry as soon as possible.

After taking a minute to calm down and say a prayer of thanksgiving for the “great boat ride”—and the fact that no one had seen how it ended—I walked around the rig again to make sure everything was fastened securely and the trailer lights were working. Good to go.

At the door of the Jeep, I ran through the holy quintet once again.

Phone? Yep.

Car keys? Yep.

Toilet paper? Oh! That’s what that mushy wad is in my pants pocket!

Cheaters? Yep, in my jacket.

Wallet? Wallet … wait … wallet?

Oh, it must be in my jacket, too. No, not there. I must have thrown it on the passenger seat. No. In the glove box? Nope. Shoot! It must be in the grass where I laid down that pile of stuff.

I went back and searched. “Oh, no!” Not there, either.

As fast as you can recite “phone, car keys, glasses, wallet,” the ecstasy of an otherwise miraculous morning on the lake was gone. What did I do with my wallet? I was certain I’d patted all my pockets at least twice before the plunge, so I knew I’d taken it out. And I knew there was no way I could have put it back in the boat or the Jeep. It had to be on or around the dock or on the grass … or, in my haste to retrieve the boat, could I have jumped in with it still in my pocket and lost it on the swim?

“Arghhhhhh!” (and other words I shouldn’t ever utter, especially not on Christmas Eve.)

I ran from dock to grass to Jeep—over and over again—so mad at myself that I was practically crying. As I did, I started to think about that guy who had come in off the lake. “Did he find my wallet on the dock? Could he have picked it up and taken it to his truck? On bleeping Christmas Eve?”

I didn’t want to believe it, but as I kept searching, it became all I could believe.

In a final, desperate effort, I pulled all my gear out of the back of the Jeep and the boat and looked through jackets, a toolbox, blind bag, electronics box, wader bag … every place I could conceivably think of.

Still no wallet.

It eventually became apparent that the searching was fruitless, and I was even more convinced that I’d seen the incarnation of the Grinch drive away towing a bass boat with my wallet in his truck. If that were the case, I needed to get home as fast as I could to start cancelling credit cards.

At home, I flung the back door open, paused to pull off my still-sopping socks and provided my wife a hasty explanation of what was going on as I sat down at my desk in still-wet pants to log on and get to work.

Thankfully, cancelling the cards took less than an hour. In the meantime, my spouse—who bestows on me much more patience than I deserve—convinced me that we should go back to the landing and look again together.

As angry and disheartened as I was, I agreed. (Reflecting back on our nearly 40 years together, I realize she’s almost always right, her eagle eyes and far more rational approach usually succeeding where mine have failed.)

When we got to the lot, we found that the beautiful weather had inspired even more people out into the chapel of creation on this Christmas Eve.

I parked in the corner and slunk around, explaining to my wife what happened and where. I didn’t want anyone to know what we were doing, but it quickly became obvious to the two teenagers fishing at the dock and an elderly couple soaking up the view that we were looking for something. When they asked, I sheepishly confessed.

Proving there are still good people in this world, each offered to help us look. For more than 20 minutes, the six of us combed the parking lot, grass, and as much of the shallow water around the dock as we could—even the older gentleman with the help of a cane. He did his best to keep my spirits up with his drawled assurances that this had happened to him, too, and that as long as I’d closed the credit cards, I hadn’t lost too much.

My wife and I thanked them all and wished them Merry Christmas. As our optimism waned, we encouraged them to continue enjoying the day. One by one, they gave up and drifted off. Finally, we gave up, too.

In the car, she reassured me this wasn’t the end of the world—and that we shouldn’t let it ruin an otherwise great, God-given day. After all, so many people have it so much worse.

When we arrived home, it was late enough that we needed to start getting ready for Christmas Eve services. She went in the house to begin cleaning up, and I let the dog out to run around while I put the boat in the garage and stowed my gear.

I pushed the boat into place and folded the tongue, relocated the toolbox to its place on the work bench, and lowered the motor. Then I put my blind bag and jacket with my other hunting gear and unzipped the duffle to retrieve the waders and hang them to dry. As they unrolled and I pushed the heels into the bracket mounted on the wall, I felt a Christmas Eve miracle hit the toe of my shoe.

There was my wallet, lying partially open—credit cards, driver’s license and cash all intact. Dry as a bone. Apparently, in my rush to hit the water, the wallet had landed squarely in the leg opening of my waders and had dropped all the way into the boot.

Had I not hung them up, I never would have found it until the next time I wore those waders for the next hunt. Far worse, I would have gone to church that night harboring a deep resentment and hatred of the undeserving Grinch.

Recovering the wallet—a miracle? Yes.

Restoring my faith in my fellow outdoor folk on Christmas Eve? Absolutely!

Delta’s communications director, Bill Miller wishes you peace on earth and good will toward all this holiday season.

A wallet has miraculously appeared, falling from a pair of waders onto the foot of the author. A black, leather wallet can be seen, with a few dollars inside of it, partially open on the hunting shoe of the author as he looks down, all at once bewildered and relieved to have found the missing item.