The planning started perhaps three months or so beforehand. The idea may even have been
generated months earlier. I cannot say for certain, as it was my son’s inspiration.
We bought my wife Andrea’s new Dodge Grand Caravan minivan early in the year 2000. I had
started making an inordinate amount of money (for us) trading options in the stock market. It all
seemed like Monopoly money – there was so much of it, it was so new, and it was so easy to acquire.
Jump ahead nearly seventeen years. Overall, the minivan had been a reliable car for the
duration. It even hauled overly heavy loads of firewood nearly every fall or spring or whenever it was
that I had the opportunity to replenish logs for the wood-burning stove, which I would keep burning
continuously for two or three weeks at a time during cold spells. The car was not designed to carry a half
ton or more of – well, of anything. However, this Dodge minivan is our fourth one, beginning with our
first one in 1986. It will most likely be our last; I have friends (Bennett and Jim) with pickup trucks that I
can thank after the fact with a nice bottle of Silver Oak Napa Valley (yes, I know that a “nice bottle of
Silver Oak” is redundant) cabernet sauvignon or a bottle of Pete Monster Scotch. Not that I need to offer
them anything at all; in fact, it is difficult to even get them to accept my offer unless I agree to help with
the consumption of such over an afternoon of shooting pool.
Besides, we (meaning me, not my wife) had to use the minivan and/or friends’ pickup trucks for
the firewood, or 4’ by 8’ sheets of plywood, or 18’ decking planks. None of these would fit into the little
roadster that I drive; I can’t even get a set of golf clubs in the trunk. I have to put the clubs in the
passenger seat and floor space, and doing that is easier with the top down.
So – after nearly seventeen years of loyal service, the aging and often abused minivan was
getting past its useful prime. With over 220,000 miles on it, the car had become not quite so reliable for
trips out of the local area. It would have to be replaced before too many more months passed. Thus, one
day this past year Andrea mentioned in passing to our son Ian the possibility of buying his SUV whenever
he was ready to sell it.
That was probably the inspiration – either then or at some later time – for Ian. So much for
And so began the covert planning. About a month or so before Thanksgiving, Ian told me that he
wanted to give Mom (his mom; my wife) his car – a silver BMW X5 SUV (coincidentally the same color as
my roadster). He wanted to surprise her with the gift for her Christmas birthday. (Since it was a rather
considerable gift, she was getting only the one gift from him to serve for both Christmas and her
birthday. Completely understandable, in my humble opinion.) I had to swear to total secrecy about it.
“Don’t even tell Bennett.” Ian was really serious about wanting to keep the plan a total surprise for his
mom. I think we managed to thwart even the NSA and CIA from finding out – not that either of these
agencies were overly suspicious of nefarious activities on our part. He and I coordinated mostly by text
and occasionally by iPhone. As the System Director of Operations for the Sacred Heart Hospital System
in Pensacola and its surrounding area, he is responsible for five Directors under him and over three
hundred hourly employees. He is kept very busy, and texting is often the only way to reach him.
I hate texting. I know teenagers and other digitally dexterous denizens have no problem hitting
those tiny keys with supremely uncanny accuracy at blinding speed using only their thumbs. I guess that
is what separates us humans from swordfish and worms and other creatures not blessed with such
appendages. But then, since I have managed to occasionally conquer texting by using only my right
index finger, I suppose that puts me only one step or so above a swordfish when it comes to technology.
Maybe so, but a swordfish can’t tie its own shoes, so there. (Hmmm – bad example; I mostly wear
And then there is Autocorrect – what genius thought up that idea? Grrrr.
Moving right along: I told Ian I would go online and order one of those huge red bows one sees
on cars in car commercials, which I did. Some companies are really REALLY proud of their bows. When I
first began my search, I found some listed for well over $100, just for a measly (but admittedly large)
bow. Overcoming the initial shock, I finally found and ordered a rainproof red car ribbon (red ribbon,
that is; car color did not matter) for a reasonably reasonable price. Not wanting to create any undue
curiosity in Andrea, I asked Bennett if I could have a package shipped to his house. Not wanting to create
any undue curiosity in Bennett, I mentioned nothing about the why’s and wherefore’s of the package
and he had the good sense not to ask.
Hospitals do not close. Ian could have either Thanksgiving or Christmas off, but not both. He
chose to come home (he still thinks of our house as home; yea! Good kid!) for Thanksgiving. In the
meantime, he did some looking for another vehicle for himself. He had his heart set on a Range Rover;
he said he always liked the body style. Go figure. He emailed me links to six Range Rovers for sale in the
Marietta area, as there was a paucity of them to be found in Pensacola. I first checked them out online,
compared them in Kelly Blue Book and the Dealer Black Book, prioritized them in the order that I
thought he should consider them, considering the parameters he had given me, and forwarded my
information back to him. I then test drove one, a couple of others were already sold, a couple of others
were not really convenient to go look at, and the last one was a bit too overpriced. The plan at this point
was that he would buy a Range Rover in Marietta with me clandestinely doing the footwork. I would
park it somewhere that would not raise any suspicions.
He planned to drive the BMW to Marietta, then have it detailed after he got here. I located a
place to do the detailing for him. The plan was for me to get the bow from Bennett and Ian was going to
put it on the clean, shiny car. After Thanksgiving dinner, we traditionally “begin” the Christmas season
by giving small gifts that can be used during the season, gifts such as red socks with Christmas trees on
them, for example. For many years I have given Andrea some sort of Santa or set of Santas. She has so
many now that it is almost becoming a chore to get them out and later put them away. Ian was going to
go outside on the driveway, put the bow on the car, and have his mom come outside. He was then going
to spring the surprise when he handed Andrea the keys and title to his BMW. We would then get his
Range Rover from wherever I had found to keep it and he would drive it back to Florida when the
weekend was over.
That was the first iteration of “the plan.”
Flexibility being the key to any surreptitious operation, a good plan tries to anticipate and
account for possible contingencies. The first obstacle presented was the failure to find and buy a Range
Rover for Ian to drive back. Plan B: Ian still came up for Thanksgiving. For him not to have done so would
have raised unwanted questions and the commensurate offering of alternative suggestions, which we
would have had to explain away. Such situations could definitely have been awkward and not conducive
to maintaining the crucial ultimate element of surprise. He drove up (look on a map – Marietta is “up”
from Pensacola) as expected and back to Florida in his BMW, also as expected. While he was here I got
the box with the bow from Bennett and put it in the back of Ian’s car so that Andrea would not notice.
So many little details to have to consider. Plan B evolved into us driving down to spend Christmas with
Ian so he would not be alone. He would make his special presentation there. Advantage: he would have
more time to find himself a Range Rover. Obstacle: Andrea and I would be stuck having to drive two
vehicles 5 ½ hours back home.
Time for my inspiration: Andrea and I would rent a car one way for the drive down to Pensacola
so we would only have to drive her gift back home. Two obstacles immediately presented themselves: 1
– How was I going to convince my wife that we should rent a car for the trip, and 2 – How was I going to
hide from her that it would be a one-way rental. Talk about raising suspicions!
After we had decided to go to Pensacola for Christmas, I approached Obstacle 1 by employing
irrefutable logic. I suggested to her that since her minivan had over 220,000 miles on it and had already
had an annoying mechanical problem on our last trip, and since my little roadster probably would not
hold presents and stuff and would not be as comfortable on that long of a trip, perhaps we should rent a
car to Florida. Surprisingly, she agreed without any need for further discussion. Whew! That was too
I handled Obstacle 2 by saying that I would make the rental car arrangements, which I did the
next day while she was out running errands and not likely to overhear the conversation. I also thought
to call the car rental company from my iPhone in case they called back for some reason; we are one of
the last couples in Georgia to still have a land line at home. (Sometimes I surprise myself with my own
cleverness. (I had to take a pain pill for my shoulder from the strain I gave myself patting myself on the
back.)) I related these details of Plan B to Ian so we could coordinate further details. He did have
Christmas day off so we planned to drive down the day before Christmas.
As we all know, no good plan goes unpunished. Andrea, who is the Secretary of the Diaconate at
our church, informed me that months before (when Ian and I were still in Plan A mode) that she had
volunteered for deacon duties at the 11p.m. Christmas Eve service. Bah, humbug, says I. We were going
to be moving forward with the just-developed Plan C. We would not be able to leave for Pensacola until
after midnight. In an unfamiliar rental car. Along the backroads of bumpkinland south Alabama and the
Florida panhandle. At oh-dark- thirty on Christmas morning. The dark side of the morning. When nothing
at all could be expected to be open. Especially gas stations.
After we made these latest Christmas plans she tried, to no avail, to find a substitute for herself
for the late service. Without any alternatives at this point, I reluctantly agreed to go to the late service
with her, but by golly we were going to have the rental car packed and ready to leave from the church
right after the service.
I have a 5-gallon gas can which I planned to fill up and take along. After all, the rental car wasn’t
our car. “You are not taking any gas can in the car!” (She had a very good reason for being so vociferous
about the issue, but that is another story for another time.)
Since she sounded rather adamantly unequivocal about that idea and, discretion being the
better part of valor, I relented. I wasn’t happy about it, but I relented. “But you will be the one who will
have to push the car when we run out of gas,” I let her know. For some female reason, she seemed
I was telling my aforementioned friend Jim about it over pool one afternoon not long thereafter.
Lo and behold, the next thing I knew, Jim, a deacon himself, had insisted on taking Andrea’s place at the
11 p.m. Christmas Eve service. We tried to dissuade him, but he convinced us when he said that he had
to be there anyway to take down candles and other accoutrements. We were both very thankful.
Now relieved of having to get a very late night start, I did not feel so bad about not taking the 5-
gallon gas can. Andrea and I are both in the choir, which was to sing at the 7 p.m. Christmas Eve service.
She sings soprano. No one ever accused me of singing; I participate. However, since there are other
sopranos and basses, Plan B was back in action. We would pick up the rental car the morning of 24
December and, after we stopped by the house to load presents and clothes, be on our way. There was
as yet another potential hazard to the plan. Since I had so cleverly made the one-way car rental
reservations myself, I had to continue keeping Andrea from finding out about that little tell-tale detail.
The Christmas Fates finally shined on Ian and me when she did not want to go inside at the car rental
store. I was concerned that had she come in the rental agent could have unwittingly let it slip about the
one-way part. She dropped me off, I concluded arrangements, and there was not even a paper contract
to catch the attention of unintended eyes. The agent emailed it to me.
In the meantime, Ian and I texted and iPhoned about the latest changed changes to the changes
to the most recent changed changes. I almost blew it once when I thought I was texting Ian but in fact it
was to Ian and Andrea and I did not catch it until after I hit Send. Fortunately, my error was only a reference
to a prior text and was apparently sufficiently innocuous so as to not draw Andrea’s attention.
Ian sent me links to three more Range Rovers in Marietta, but none were especially satisfactory.
Since the latest iteration of Plan B called for Andrea and me to drive a rental car to Pensacola, buying a
Range Rover in Marietta as a part of a former iteration would have created other concerns which
neither Ian nor I were up to dealing with. Specifically, getting said Range Rover to Ian.
In spite of several opportunities for failure during the approximately three months of planning,
the basic Master Goal of making the gift a surprise was getting close to fruition. Change 17 to Plan B,
which was starting to look like it could actually be successfully accomplished, was that we would arrive
at the Lee House, a very nice (and expensive) B&B less than two minutes from Ian’s house around 4 p.m.
his time (Central time). We would call him with an E.T.A when we got close. After Andrea and I
freshened up and changed clothes for the Christmas Eve service at the Pensacola church that Ian
attends, We called Ian to tell him to come on over to get us. Ian and I even had this last part
We met him in the lobby. I went outside first to get in position and ready with the camera
function of my iPhone. Ian brought his mom outside and said to her, “Let’s take your car.” She said OK
and took one step toward the rental when he stopped her, held out (his) BMW X5 key to her, and said,
“Your car is across the street.” She turned and saw the silver SUV with the huge red bow on the hood.
I think these three photos complete the story better than any words ever could: Epilogue 1:
Several mothers that we have told about the gift have requested that Ian adopt them…
Ian told us not to be concerned about him not having a car. “I’ll manage.” Apparently he is
managing. In the meantime, Andrea and I have located, test driven, and put a deposit on a Range Rover
in Marietta for him. Since the used car dealer we bought the car from does not take personal checks or
plastic, three days ago Ian sent a cashier’s check to us via UPS Express Overnight Early Delivery. UPS said
it will be delivered tomorrow because they had “a mechanical failure” and the check is in Louisville, KY.
Ian could have driven the check up here in 5 ½ hours, spent the weekend with us, and driven his Range
Rover back home in time for work before the check actually arrives tomorrow (barring any other
“mechanical failures”). He will fly to Atlanta in a couple of weeks to get his car from us.
Thank you for sharing this touching story Chick!!