NEW PORT RICHEY — Dan Callaghan, a local historian and seller of rare books, spent last Christmas in jail.
His time in the A-600 pod was not a particularly painful one — the worst thing anyone called him was "Fresh meat!" — and the experience brought just enough dark humor, only-in-the-lockup incongruities and sentimental moments that Callaghan could write a short essay about it.
Which he did. He has read it at two churches and, on Thursday, at a West Pasco Historical Society potluck dinner.
"I'm going to be a one-sermon person," joked Callaghan, 68.
He was dining with about 15 other society members in the small museum in downtown New Port Richey, feasting at card tables on ham, deviled eggs, red velvet cake and congealed salad.
He wore pleated slacks and a tie, and after the meal, he rose to speak in the back of the room, near a quilt display. He had two readings. The second one was his retelling of O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi, and "the first concerns events that happened a year ago."
That's when he reported to the jail in early December to serve a 30-day sentence for disrupting the 2004 Chasco Fiesta parade.
Back then, he had chained himself to the road to protest a float filled with white people dressed as American Indians, then struggled with law enforcement officers trying to remove him. Four years of appeals won him no reprieve. Hence, jail.
"With Christmas approaching, I suggest a Christmas Eve service and am told by the old-timers: 'Nope, never done, won't be permitted, the inmates won't just refuse to participate, they'll throw things,' " he began. "So I prepare a plan for what I called the 'First Annual A-600 Pod Holiday Christmas Celebration."
First step? Recruiting a choir. The jail chaplain agrees to make copies of three songs; the inmates choose Silent Night, We Wish You a Merry Christmas and Joy to the World.
"To supplement the five copies, I recruit two young gangsters to help me in making enough copies in longhand so that we can give them to anybody who wants to sing along with the professional choir — several young men and a couple of others give us six — though Leo is again locked down and will have to sing through his bars," he said.
A few of the society members chuckled.
Callaghan told about receiving 65 Christmas cards from his church with his name written in pencil so that he could erase his name and redistribute the cards to his podmates.
"At about 9:30 p.m., with the TV crowd involved in a show and a bunch of the guys playing an animated card game that involves flinging the cards down from a great height, the first annual A-600 holiday Christmas celebration gets under way and with the first stanza of Silent Night, the TV is turned down and the cards get a rest," he said. "The choir stands in a semicircle near the bottom tier of cells and they put their hearts into it, as Leo in lockdown adds his voice from his dark cell."
Callaghan said he gave a sermon, well-received by the inmates who gave him "hugs in lieu of the macho fist bumps."
"I tell them that next year's second annual Christmas celebration promises to be even better," he said. "Everyone declines to attend, including me."
Callaghan was released the day after Christmas and, as he described it, his departure was a cinematic one.
"The cheering and shouts of well-wishing begin, and I hear men calling out to me as I carry my gray tub with bedding on top down the metal stairs and the men, my brothers, are standing at the bars of their ever-lighted cells and they are clapping and cheering and I say to them from the pod floor as I salute, 'It's been a pleasure serving with you. Take care of each other. Take care of yourselves.' "
Callaghan finished up his jail sermon and moved onto his retelling of O. Henry's famous short story. When he finished, society members clapped and he nodded and smiled as the whir of power generators outside the museum — they were running the carnival rides for this weekend's Main Street Holidays event — hummed along.
"Very nice," one woman said as everyone cleared the plates off the tables.
One last thing: Didn't Callaghan's jail story end a little early? That is, didn't he leave before his 30-day sentence was up?
Yes, he said: "I got five days for good behavior."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.