Conundrum at the North Pole

The elves were having an awful time of it! The conveyor belt carrying the Teddy bears, model cars, train sets, smart phones, dolls, doll houses and wind-up toys had jammed no less than three times already this morning and it was only ten o’clock! Now it jammed again. This, of all things, at the busiest time of the year! There remained only days before Christmas Eve, even fewer because they couldn’t really count Christmas Eve itself. Everything had to be packed and onto Santa’s shiny crimson sleigh no later than noon on Christmas Eve if he were to make his worldwide rounds in time. To complicate matters further Santa had lately put on a bit of weight which was having the disadvantage of stealing precious moments in his descent down the chimneys (except of course those in which slick metal liners had been installed although they sometimes propelled Santa with near disastrous results).

Jingle and Garlofski, two of the elder elves who knew their way around machinery, had doffed their woolen hats and little red coats and crawled under the rolling conveyor belt to examine what may have caused the disruption. Shortly a shout of glee from one of them arose from beneath the rail announcing that the source of the dilemma had been located. Within seconds, however, the elation faded to a groan. Things once again returned to despondency. The problem was more than mere slippage; it was a broken cog, the repair of which could mean hours or even days before the belt was made reliable again. As well-made as it was the machinery at the North Pole had been in service for a very, very long time. What with the bitter cold and the infrequent use of the machinery for several months of the year (when for example the elves went on fishing trips for a much needed vacation) the more delicate features of the equipment occasionally broke or just fell apart. Most often the damage was little more than an inconvenience but occasionally – such as now – the problem necessitated extra attention. It had been years since the elves had encountered a delay of this scope, and they made a collective sigh in recognition of the fact that they knew they were about due!

Garlofski didn’t like to have to do it, but he quickly made up his mind that he would have to speak to Santa Claus himself. This was a serious matter and the boss had to be consulted. Putting back on his little red coat (for Garlofski was of the old school of propriety) and after having rearranged his wiry white hair as best he could without the benefit of a looking glass, Garlofski set off across the factory floor in the direction of Santa’s office in the far corner. There he could see Santa poring over his vast list of children’s names, checking it once again before his scheduled departure. Santa was busy! But it had to be done.

Garlofski achieved the office door and timidly stretched his nose around the door frame into Santa’s sanctuary. “Excuse me, Santa”, he said , “but I need to talk to you about No. 5. It’s been acting up and we may have trouble getting the toys into the hands of the packers before noon tomorrow.”

Santa, bulging in his large wooden chair where he sat in his white long-sleeved fleece with his wide suspenders pulled about his chest, looked up slowly from his paperwork. Over the top of his small round spectacles, Santa blinked and eyed the elf. “What was that?”, Santa asked. “What about No. 5?”

“It’s No. 5″, replied Garlofski., “On the fritz it seems”.

Santa gulped. He glanced quickly at the large cuckoo clock on the wall and saw that it was getting on (Santa’s clock, by the way, is in days, not hours). December 23rd. Time was running out. This was not good news.

“Can you fix it?”, asked Santa, though he knew by the mere fact that Garlofski was at his door that there was more to this than had been related.

“No”, said Garlofski. “I’ll need to go to the Village to order a replacement part, and one of the reindeer may have to fly to the South to collect it.”, he added. Then he paused. He knew that Santa would require time to absorb the breadth of the dilemma. The mere thought of commandeering one of the reindeer to perform an extra duty at this late stage of the proceedings was asking a great deal. Besides the reindeer were more than accustomed to being left quietly idle before Christmas Eve in preparation for the arduous journey that was to come. They required their “down time” so to speak, the opportunity to build their strength in anticipation of what awaited them. There were even whispers abroad that there might be a number of snowstorms from the far North which of course would only further hinder them.

Santa let drop his fountain pen onto the desk and stretched back into his wooden chair, creaking its parts, letting go an exhausted puff. He would have to think about this. Without removing his fixed gaze upon the pile of papers on the worn pine desk before him, Santa said to Garlofski in a low but measured voice, “Come in and close the door behind you, Garlofski.” As Garlofski did so, ever so cautiously (for he could sense from Santa’s voice that something was amiss), Santa added, “We have a problem!”

Over the next several minutes Santa explained that there had recently been a bit of a stir among the reindeer arising from all the attention Rudolf had garnered for having led the team through a particularly inclement night a number of years ago. Rudolf’s celebrity was world-wide. He had even been memorialized in song. Now the possible combination of further bad weather and the pressing need to rejuvenate the factory machinery would provide incredible serendipity for further notoriety if Rudolf were again asked to save the day. Santa could already hear the muted protests from Donner and Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, among others! Santa would naturally have preferred to imagine that everything was cozy among the reindeer, but sensitivities had to be acknowledged. They were after all only reindeer and it was not beneath them to harbour a modicum of jealousy.

As he began to reflect more deeply upon the problem, Santa reminded himself that before determining the answer, he needed to know the question. Looking directly as Garlofski, Santa asked, “Tell me exactly what is wrong with the conveyor belt.”

Dazed, Garlofski swallowed hard. He thought he had already told Santa what was the problem. “Well”, he began hesitantly, “one of the main gears of the conveyor belt is severely damaged; it can’t be repaired; we need a new one to replace it. Without it, we can’t get all the toys from the store room to your sleigh for packing. And for delivery to the children.”

Santa mused upon this intelligence. Then he said, “So! You’re telling me the problem isn’t so much the conveyor belt as getting the toys onto the sleigh. And the sleigh is of course outside the north end of the factory awaiting to be loaded. Is that correct?”

“Yes”, replied Garlofski timidly, not knowing where this was leading. “Yes I suppose that is correct, Santa.”

“Well then”, rejoined Santa, “we’ll just have to ignore the conveyor belt and find another way of getting the toys onto the sleigh.” He paused for a moment to allow Garlofski time to pick up the thread. “And”, Santa continued, “if we can’t get the toys to the sleigh, we’ll have to get the sleigh to the toys!”

Garlofski still hadn’t grasped Santa’s meaning. Indeed Garlofski’s first instinct was to imagine that Santa was suffering from the strain of the time of year, that he required some sleep to clear his head. Nonetheless Garlofski was generous enough to give Santa the benefit of the doubt. “Yes”, replied Garlofski, “we have to get the sleigh to the toys!” (though honestly he viewed his own comment as merely a distinction without a difference).

Santa could of course see that Garlofski was still at sea on the matter, so he explained further. “Surely we have enough time – at least more than we would if we were to send someone to the South for a new part – to construct a platform at the back of the store room upon which to park the sleigh, and we could then load the sleigh directly from the store room?”

Garlofski considered this carefully. He was beginning to detect the sense of Santa’s theory. What was, however, the obvious stumbling block was – as Santa knew full well himself – that the store room where the toys had been built and awaited removal was at the very edge of a precipitous mountain edge. Originally the store room had been built there to allow the elves a delightful southern view over the magnificent valley below while they worked their long hours on the fabrications. Garlofski was hard pressed to imagine how anyone could possibly construct a platform at the back of the store room, hanging over the edge of the cliff.

Seeing his difficulty, Santa went on to enlarge upon his plan. “We will construct a chute, our own creation of a conveyor belt, capitalizing upon gravity without the necessity of cogs and wheels!”, he exclaimed with obvious delight.

Absorbing this additional information, Garlofski was still having difficulty imagining how exactly the chute was to be constructed. Nonetheless Garlofski uttered a respectful, “Oh, I see” though of course he didn’t.

“Yes”, said Santa, continuing, “we’ll build a slide from the store room to one of the mountain terraces below. Come with me”, he added. “We’re going to have a look and we’ve got no time to lose!”

So together Santa and Garlofski exited the corner office and headed across the factory floor to the store room at the back of the building. All the other elves, upon seeing Santa and Garlofski so clearly intent upon a mission, momentarily arrested there diligent efforts to see what was about. But naturally they had no idea. The elves looked at one another quizzically, shrugging and turning down the sides of their mouths as evidence of their incoherence. What could they be up to, they thought?

Once they gained the store room, Santa made straight-way for the large window at the back of the room from which he could see the brilliant winter moon already rising in the southwestern sky, illuminating the snowbound valley below. Pressing his nose against the window pane, Santa did his best to peer at the side of the mountain which receded immediately below where he now stood. “There!”, he almost shouted. “There is the answer to our problems!”, and he pointed a stubby finger downwards in the direction of a plateau which projected from the side of the mountain some fifty feet below. I’ll fly my sleigh around to that plateau, and then we can position the chute from here to there. No problem! Simple as that!” And with that, Santa turned and headed directly back to his office to recommence review of his list. There were things to be done.

Garlofski on the other hand stood frozen in his steps, mouth open, wide-eyed, staring first at the valley then at Santa’s withdrawing figure. It became immediately clear to Garlofski that it was he who would have to engineer the chute of which Santa had spoken so favourably. And this right some quick! as the elves were wont to exclaim when under particular pressure.

With uncommon agility Garlofski bounced back into the factory, directing himself to the centre of the factory floor where he began commanding everyone within earshot to give him attention. The machinery of the room (what there was of the machinery which was yet functional) ground to a halt. Only the whirring of the overhead fans could now be heard. Garlofski stood with his hands on his hips, waiting for all to gather round. Then, taking a deep breath, he began his cryptic explanation of the plan to load Santa’s sleigh by noon on Christmas Eve. As you might imagine, there were many in attendance who thought, as Garlofski had previously thought of Santa, that there was no sense in the proposal, but when the alternatives were quickly reviewed it was self-evident that there was but one course of action.

What, however, had yet to be explained was precisely how they were to construct a chute. While the idea of a chute had its appeal, the implementation of the idea was less convincing. A heated conversation then arose among the elves as almost each of them began tossing his or her particular suggestions into the collective ring for consideration. Some of the proposals were good, others not so. None of them however answered all possible objections. At last Garlofski had to call a stop to the debate and demand that action be taken. This determinative approach unfortunately did little more than retard the consummation of the transaction. They still hadn’t a clue how to proceed.

On the side of the factory floor, listening intently to what transpired, were two young elves, Nicholas and Sven, who hadn’t yet qualified themselves as expert toy-makers and who were in effect apprentices to the task. Their pointed ears were however finely tuned to the dilemma. Almost in unison they turned to look at one another and nodded. They had an notion. Nicholas and Sven often spent their afternoons after instruction in the spacious fireplace room of the Elf House. There they diverted themselves from the rigours of their training by rolling themselves into the huge Persian rug which spread upon the floor of the Great Hall in front of the large stone fireplace. Never had then been discovered in this mischievous preoccupation and their repeated endeavours had afforded them an expertise which was quite incredible. With repeated practice they had learned to roll the carpet from one end to the other, then one of them would climb inside the tube of wool, and the other would speedily unroll the carpet to the delight of the interior hitch-hiker. They repeated the exercise over and over again for their mutual benefit, alternately taking turns in or out of the rolled carpet. For the purposes of the matter at hand, the important lesson was that they knew how to create the sturdy tube which was required.

Reluctantly amid the turmoil of the other elves in the centre of the factory floor, Nicholas and Sven sheepishly shuffled towards the crowd in an effort to make themselves noticed. But the elder elves were initially too embroiled in their own debate to take notice. Finally however Garlofski, who himself had been temporarily set adrift by the others, saw Nicholas and Sven approach and he could tell they wanted to say something. Partly in order to quell the rising tumult of the crowd, and partly to enable the younger elves to contribute, Garlofski whistled a high-pitched note and shouted the gathering down. Dazed, the others stopped their running commentaries and pointed their noses in the direction of Garlofski. Garlofski then said in a loud voice (for he hadn’t yet adjusted to the reduced volume), “I believe Nicholas and Sven have something to add”. Whereupon Nicholas and Sven, feeling unusually important though very self-conscious, bumbled into one another and pushed themselves closer to Garlofski in preparation for making their point. They stared first at Garlofski, then at the crowd. “Ahem”, said Nicholas at last, clearing his throat, “we can use the rug in the Elf House”. The others looked blankly at Nicholas and Sven. They hadn’t a clue what the two young elves had in mind.

With the exercise of some patient cajoling and some quiet encouragement, Garlofski was able to extract from Nicholas and Sven the proposal they had. Slowly the other elves warmed to the idea even though the mere simplicity of it rather challenged its credibility.

Santa Claus of course had been watching all these proceedings from his corner office. Once he was awakened to the possibility, it was but a moment’s delay before he was himself convinced. Booming from his office, Santa bellowed that it was an excellent proposal and told everyone to get onto it immediately. The elves then shifted into gear like a large clockwork, each of them adopting a hierarchy of strategy to fulfill their united purpose. They instantly repaired to the Elf House, rolled the Persian rug as Nicholas and Sven directed, then marshaled their combined forces to remove the carpet from Elf House to the back of the store room where they suspended it out the large window, securing it with ropes and nails, and effectively created the tunnel required to remove the toys from the store room to the mountainous ledge below. Other elves had already harnessed certain of the reindeer to fly Santa’s sleigh to its new launch pad. Soon all the elves had regrouped in the store room and had created a line of elves who were passing the toys from one to the other to the carpet tube, down which the toys were ejected onto Santa’s awaiting sleigh below.

It was a sizeable project under any circumstances, but as the hours wore on more and more was accomplished. At last even the coloured candy canes were added to complete the decoration of the sleigh.

The reindeer were naturally curious about all the commotion. As in matters of curiosity generally, the reindeer abandoned their customary personal preoccupations and instead turned their attention to the hurly burly which abounded in the store room. Several of the reindeer who had agreed to fly Santa’s sleigh to the mountain plateau had since returned and were full of news. Never before had there been such a disturbance of routine in preparation for the voyage on Christmas Eve! Because none of the reindeer had had anything in particular to do with the modification of delivery plans, the welcome effect of the transformation was the return of equality to the status of the reindeer. Even Rudolf was extraordinarily modest about his upcoming role in the proceedings. By contrast, Nicholas and Sven were enjoying new-found celebrity. They had been elevated to a position of supervisor in overseeing the management of the rolled carpet, occasionally offering further discriminate hints for the improvement of the makeshift device.

For his part, Santa was relieved beyond words that the elves had contrived something to meet the urgent need. Thanks to the improvised conveyor belt Santa would be able to set about his duties on Christmas Eve and no one would be aware of anything to the contrary. All was in order and it now remained only for Santa to have his dinner with Mrs. Claus before preparing himself for Christmas Eve. The stars hung like jewels in the frozen Arctic sky. The moon was as bright as a silver dollar. Soon it would be Christmas Eve!