MY ADOLESCENT ENCOUNTER WITH THE REAL SANTA CLAUS


Last month, I recycled that fowl story of how my little burb in the mountains shot and killed Tom Gobbles, our beloved town turkey in celebration of Thanksgiving.  Well, it’s December, which means it is Christmastime, so if you would indulge me, I would like to recycle my real-life childhood story of when I met Santa Claus.  Before your imaginations run wild, he was not the rotund, pink-cheeked icon of Norman Rockwell and Coca-Cola fame; I am talking about the real honest-to-goodness, flesh-and-blood Santa dude.

I grew up in a not-so-well-off family.  My father was a career military intelligence officer who suffered (and eventually died) from a rare form of adult onset Muscular Dystrophy.  Translation: Our family lived on an enlisted man’s Air Force salary.  Because my parents thought it would be fun, they procreated and procreated until we had to buy a mismatched chair to seat all seven of us at the enameled dinette table with both extensions pulled.  We were certainly not the Rockefellers.  Hell, we weren’t the Rockefellers’ immigrant lawn care guy’s family.  We were a tad on the poor side.
Back in the days when I was still trying to figure out how a fat magical elf got down the chimney that did not exist on our 1200 square foot house.  (Yeah, I know, all those kids in such a vast and expansive space.  No matter how well-developed your imagination is, you still wouldn’t know the half of it.)  Okay, back to Christmas.  When that mythical criminal would break and enter into our house in the dead of the night, he would leave under the tree one real present for each of the Kent kids, plus a variety of gift wrapped packages of the ever so popular underwear and socks.  We did get to have our Christmas stockings “hung with care,” but on the headboards of our beds (no fireplace, no mantel), which surprisingly would be full of walnuts, apples, and an orange each and every year.  I doubt Charles Dickens could have written a grander Christmas than the one had in the Kent mansion.
As the herd of Kent clan grew and matured, the idea of a single Christmas present never diminished in importance or necessity.  I remember when I first got married and witnessed my wife buy dozens of gifts for her daughters; I thought that was like the oddest thing in the world, not to mention that it was my money buying all that stuff.  And to top that, none of it had come from W. T. Grants or F. W. Woolworths; she bought all of that crap from the mall.  But this story has nothing to do with me as a married man; it is about me as an awkward boy barely into his teenaged years.
Part of this may surprise you, but I was the consummate geek in those days.  I was into books, writing, science and knowledge of every mundane field I could find.  I did participate in the requisite male adolescent sports of baseball and football, I hunted and fished (we supplemented our groceries with subsistence meats), and had a moderate, albeit nerdish, social life, but most of my time was spent in the basement in my “lab.”  This was no ordinary child’s chemistry set type lab; I worked from college text books, scientific journals, used professional glassware; I had three fire stations for etnas and Bunsen burners, a cache of over 200 chemical compounds, four microscopes, medical quality dissection tools and all of the necessary safety equipment.  I had pilfered much of the stuff from an uncle who worked in some industrial laboratory and a cousin who was studying pharmacology, plus I saved every dime made on paper routes, mowing lawns, shoveling snow, and bagging groceries to buy from our Hobby Lobby store, and occasionally from an assortment mail-order distributors that could no longer exist in this new age of terrorism and meth labs.
In the February before I turned fourteen, my father died from his lifelong illness, and life around the Kent house got a little more difficult.  We had moved across town to a larger home before he died; Mom benefitted from his widow’s pension and some modest life insurance.  But as I was fourteen, my older brothers were eighteen and twenty.  They weren’t around much between jobs and girls, so I became the de facto male head of the household and left to deal with my mother’s worsening depression.
As we neared this first fatherless Christmas, I began my search for my single gift that would be both affordable to Mom and utile to me.  Earlier I mentioned the Hobby Lobby where I bought test-tubes, beakers, microscope slides and the like; the proprietor had long ago shared with me a catalogue from a scientific supply house.  Among the harder to acquire and obscure instruments and gadgetry, featured on the back cover was a chemical resistant laboratory table complete with a pegboard backstop with hangers designed to hold my precious vials, crucibles, condensers, burets and thistle tubes.  That professional quality table would be the perfect addition to my growing laboratory.  That was to be my Christmas.
The single present tradition defeated the necessity of secrecy, surprise, and Santa myths, so I had shared my idea with Mom months in advance so that she could budget and timely order this rare find.  When the time arrived, I accompanied Mom down to Hobby Lobby to place the special order.  The proprietor had us wait so that he could call the distributor and be sure there were no price changes or similar problems.  There was one big problem; my catalogue was out-of-date, and my coveted laboratory table was no longer available.  Apparently it had been discontinued due to the shrinking population of at-home laboratories and bookish geeks like me.  My meticulously researched and carefully selected present wasn’t manufactured anymore, and given the late date, I was hopelessly uncertain as to how to go about choosing something else.
Mom immediately started discussing alternatives of which there were none in my mind.  Eventually she posited the idea that we “make our own” lab table.  This was in the days before Home Depot and Lowes, so we headed out to the Fair Grounds Plaza and the Channel Lumber Store.  We checked in every department, but found no kits, no plans, and no pre-fabs, nothing that, even with my ample imagination, and modest skill with power tools, could suffice for a suitable laboratory workspace.
Dejected and defeated, we started back across town with empty hopes of discovering some way to salvage the holiday for me.  Mom took an alternate route back to the house; she drove down Levis Drive a/k/a Holbien Hill, through my middle school’s parking lot, and winding out through the neighborhood onto Mill Street where she spontaneously pulled into French’s Lumber, our local contractor’s supply.  This was not a large store, nor was it really “public friendly,” but Mom jumped out of the car and I shuffled along to listen to the expected discouraging words of hopeless dreams.
Inside, the leather-aproned clerk was attentive if not friendly, but he had no more workable ideas or ingenious solutions than the nicer people out on the highway.  There was simply nothing to buy, nothing to build, nothing to hope for, or dream about.
And that’s when I met him.
He was tall and clean shaven, with a small round Budweiser belly.  He was dirty with dried sweat, his clothes soiled from saw dust, and from the smell of things, he apparently was estranged from his can of Right Guard.  This was not the kind of stranger that children would clamor to sit on his lap and squeal their insatiable wishes to, but then again, he really was Santa Claus.
See, he had been listening to our frustrated conversation with the store attendant and stepped in to interrupt.  It seems that the persona that Santa had adopted on that December afternoon was that of a hygiene-challenged contractor engaged in the construction of the new Vo-Tech high school out in Burlington Township.  In his unique and magical tradition of making Christmas happen for everyone, everywhere on Earth, my Santa claimedthat “his company” had recently finished building the science department at the new school and that he had just enough materials left over to make one very special lab table.
He had me sketch a facsimile of what the obsolete catalogue showed as the exemplar table, and then he skillfully added the new features of a built-in light fixture and grounded electrical outlet; he increased the dimensions of the table top and the pegboard storage area, and finally inquired about the price the supply company had been asking for the now defunct table.  He agreed to build my table for half the cost of the catalogue price.
My point is simple, as you muddle through this season, and all of the seasons that follow, don’t be afraid to show a random act of kindness.  Sometimes the simplest favor can result in a life changing feat.  That Christmas was never intended to be a merry holiday; Dad had gone home to Heaven, Mom was an emotional mess, my older brothers were orbiting the family nucleus in ever expanding apogees, my face was beginning to erupt in the blemishes that would plague the rest of my teen years, and my little brother and sister were more orphaned than you would logically expect.  No one expected a grand holiday, but then the Spirit of Christmas arrived and changed everything.  As Francis Church said in 1897 as part of his iconic editorial addressed to the 8-year-old daughter of Dr. Philip O’Hanlon:
“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.  He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.  Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus.”
You see Santa exists in me, and in you, and in everyone; not only in the weeks before the Winter Solstice, but he is alive every day of the year.  The mythical, magical Santa is that ethereal feeling that drives charity, goodwill and generosity.  If you feel his magical spirit start to invade your psyche, and you are even tempted to touch someone’s life with what might seem to be the most insignificant favor, yield to him, because for that moment, you become Santa Claus.  Besides you never know when your simple deed might make some old writer and editor look back on his youth with nostalgia for the day he met you in French’s Lumber.
As we say in my Faith and in our tradition, Merry Christmas, but feel free to edit my words to whatever saying might best convey my sincere wishes for joy and happiness, today and everyday.
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