A Christmas Story
(Disclaimer: Rotary Santas are always sober, appropriately dressed and deliver gifts correctly)
My wife Susan and I had just moved to Coronado island with our little children Will and Lauren… As it was for most new comers, this was a dream come true: great schools, close to my work in the harbor and full of kind but still interesting people. The only downside was that we didn’t know any of them.
That would change in a hurry as we barged in and reached out to make friends and connect.
Susan joined the Coronado Jr. Woman’s Club and Bible Study brigade and volunteered at the schools. I infiltrated the Rotary, Island Beer and Coronado Yacht Clubs. While I just found lovable old guys so rich or sick that they refreshingly removed all social filters while they spoke, Susan found a cool eclectic pile of attractive married couples in our phase of life with kids, debts, alpha male aggression and plenty of friend potential…
The unofficial leaders of this group were Joe and Maggie Dowler. If they accepted you, well, you were “in”. Joe was a popular former Navy pilot who loved triathlons and coached all the sports… Tall, strong and pleasantly intimidating in a way, Joe was a conservative minded family man who would kill anyone who messed with his family. He actually told me that once. Those exact words…“Bill, I would kill anyone who messed with my family”…
The invites started pouring in as we skipped the minors and were drafted straight onto the “A” team on island… Maggie Dowler and Susan were young mother buddies and we were digging our new island lifestyle.
Our son Will, and the Dowler’s son Josh were both 10 years old and in-separable. They were on the video games, burning bugs in the backyard… their skies had no limit. Remember those days?
Christmas was coming. A magical time in Coronado… The parade and the tree… The Del all lit to Victorian perfection… Susan and I were so excited about our first Christmas on Coronado… I volunteered to be a Rotary Santa and deliver presents to houses on Christmas Eve… And Susan was bringing the kids to Joe and Maggie Fowler’s big party that night… but every once in a while she’d give me this look…like, “Please don’t screw this up”… And I was like, “What’s with the look”?
It was around 3pm Christmas Eve and I was driving home from Vons with Will in the back of our bright red VW Camper van when he leaned forward from the back seat… and solemnly said, “Dad… you gotta tell me the truth… Is Santa Claus real”?
I pulled over to the side of the road and gathered my thoughts… He was hovering at that in-between stage where the innocence lost is still stronger than the gravity of reality. That our children still “believed” actually comforted us… as we vicariously lived inside them… Truth be told, I wasn’t ready to stop myself from believing.
I said, “Will… of course Santa is real, son.” Then Will, with his huge brown eyes said, “Josh Dowler’s parents told him that Santa isn’t real and that THEY put all his presents under the tree after he goes to sleep Christmas Eve. Please Dad, tell me the truth…”
I had to think of something… I didn’t plan to say this… It just came out:
“Son… Josh is right… His parents do have to put his presents under the tree for him… See Josh is the only kid in Coronado on Santa’s Naughty List”.
And I didn’t stop there… I elbowed the dominos further with; “Fact is… Mr. and Mrs. Dowler are ashamed and don’t want Josh to find out about it”.
Will’s face showed his little mind working through the gears of logic… then I finished with a flourish as graceful as a weight lifter’s first drum lesson; “But you HAVE to keep this just between you and me… You can’t tell Josh. His poor family has been through enough trying to hide it from him.”
Will leaned back in his seat and took a deep long draw from his juice box then said… “OK”.
I dropped Will off at home and I went straight to the firehouse to get my Rotary Santa costume on with the other 14 Rotary Santas and be assigned our houses for present delivery. The firemen told us of how this merry tradition started back during WWII when so many fathers were away at war that the firemen themselves crafted this plan to help the families left behind. Eventually their union shut it down or something and the Coronado Rotary Club stepped up to do the Santa work.
As a rookie Rotary Santa I bashfully entered the firehouse cave to find a storybook setting of happy Rotary elves busy about the details of Santa creation and toy delivery logistics!
I did find it a little odd that all the volunteer Santas were butt naked going into their costumes… They said it was because after putting on the padding, the heavy pants, the vest, the shirt, the heavy coat, the big belt, the bells, the wig, mustache, the beard, glasses and the hat… it gets really, really hot inside the outfit… One former SEAL said it was hotter than climbing a hill in Afghanistan in August.
I chose modesty and wore jeans and a long sleeve tee-shirt under mine…
My red VW van absolutely looked the part as a Santa’s sleigh… It was packed high with gifts that the parents dropped off at the firehouse ahead of time. Each gift was wrapped and labeled with the child’s name. I was glad that I was assigned a route that culminated at where my family would be… The red carpet house party hosted by socialites Joe and Maggie Dolwer. I was hoping that a memorable evening was ahead of me… And I was correct.
I drove off at 5 PM and started making my fascinating stops usually at wonderful grandmotherly homes with all the trimmings as the well dressed grown children and the grandchildren were dazzled and in awe of the Rotary Santa coming into their intimate evening. I’d always strategically sit at the best background for photos and I’d shout out the name of each child and they’d sit on my lap and I’d tell them how good they were this year and to remember to thank Mom and Dad for all they do for them. Some cute kids would tell me what they want, others would be so shy… One little girl, who would grow up to date my son’s best friend in high school, pulled me aside to a quiet corner of her living room where her brother and parents couldn’t hear her and whispered, “Santa, I like the presents but I don’t need them, you can keep them”. And with the saddest hopeful eyes she said, “What I really need are friends, I wish I had more friends”. I hugged her and dropped a handful of tears under my fake beard as my voice wavered and told her more friends were definitely on the way… These were Hallmark moments that both broke me down and built me back up emotionally and I felt honored to be a part of it all.
After several houses it became apparent why the other Santa’s were going commando under their costumes… Mine was like a crock pot. I was absolutely slow cooking my ass… and in all the excitement I forgot to bring anything to eat or drink. This Santa was running on nothing but holiday spirit…
The next stop was a tiny apartment on Orange Ave where a Navy Ensign was keeping his wife and new born baby safe while he was deployed to Iraq. The Ensign somehow got gifts for his sweet young bride and baby to the firehouse in time and it was my job to deliver them as Santa… I was not going to let him down.
The baby girl was two months old. The wife was adorable. Had the whole place in order and I was humbled at her sacrifice. No help from her mother, sisters, in-laws… She was completely on her own, thousands of miles from where she grew up, creating her own family and sending emotional support to her husband in a far away war.
I stayed in character (although it seemed odd) and placed the baby’s present under the little tree on the table… Then I gave Brooke (the mother) her present from her husband. Unlike at the other homes, Brooke chose not to open it in front of me… and in my head I thought of the romantic efforts of the Ensign and that after the baby is asleep and all is quiet, maybe she’d cozy up in bed with a glass of wine and open her gift in private. Maybe it’s something to remind her of how he feels about her… not only as the mother of his child but as the beautiful attractive woman he successfully courted and married… maybe something sexy… maybe she’d blush, then dream of the day they would be reunited.
By the time I got to the Stanley’s house on Sixth I was dehydrated and sweating profusely. My Santa glasses were beginning to fog and my mouth was hanging agape… Willie Stanley, a firefighter in town, recognized me and got me a Coor’s Light. Dear Lord how that went down righteously! So did a second can. The Silver Bullet train from those commercials was cooling my soggy bottom and replenishing my electrolytes so well I must have swigged 5 cans of beer as I told his frightened kids that I knew everything about them (I did) and that they need to be nicer to their Mother if they expect me to come back later that evening and pour a boatload of presents under their tree.
Last stop was Joe and Maggie Dolwer’s house on Alameda Blvd. Feeling no pain I burst into the place with a swaggering “Ho, ho ho”! … Ringing my bells and giggling… My poor wife Susan took one look at me and involuntarily spasmed from her festive “Bill Didn’t Ruin Christmas” to her “Oh, No” face… like the wives who have suffered before her … Alice in the Honeymooners… Debra in Everybody Loves Raymond… Wilma in the Flintstones… she channeled them for immediate support.
I splashed down in a tall chair beside the grand Christmas tree… I had about 15 gifts to hand out to the seven or so “A” list families before me… About half way through the children, it was time for my own son and daughter to get up on my lap… They didn’t know that this Santa was their very own father and I couldn’t wait to see their eyes light up with the gift I put a lot of time into planning. Susan warned against it but I knew my kids. They weren’t interested in some cheap Chinese crap that blinked and beeped until batteries ran out, not my Will and Lauren. They had a larger understanding of the world and I was ready to bask in admiration of the other parents who would go home saying “Man, that family sure has it all together”.
I handed my children what looked like a half wrapped basketball rim with net… Silence. It was like they lost all concept of accepting a gift… Lauren embarrassingly tore the paper off it to unveil a beautiful hoop-net lobster trap I put together at the fish and tackle shop on Rosecrans. Still silence. Lauren had just watched me give all of her best friends Barbie dolls and shiny fun costume jewelry. And as I excitedly told her how the trap works, “You put a dead fish head and a weight in the net then lower it to the bottom of the bay for twenty minutes around 5am” … She began to truly hate me. That focus on her face… She was almost shaking. As I glanced over to her mother’s “I told you so” face…I actually wished I had dementia right then and there. Then I looked at my son. It was the Game Boy and Pokemon era… I must have given out 20 of them that evening… but not to Will. He got lead sinkers and bait to go in the lobster trap. I will never forget his expression. I saw in his face my own exact look I give him when he’s done something really stupid… It made me wonder if I got that face from my own father the same way… A long generational line of us doing stupid stuff… Then I thought of Will’s future son… would he carry the torch forward?
Lastly, it was Joe and Maggie’s eighteen year old daughter Brooke’s turn… This was a bit awkward. Her Dad Joe shot me a look. I was immensely relieved to be the only Santa NOT free-balling on island right then. Sitting on my lap Brooke is all woman now… She is tall, beautiful and very “developed”… A soccer star at the high school who had puzzled her family during Thanksgiving when she asked for a week at a nutrition/workout/weight loss camp for her Christmas present this year so she could improve her speed and stamina for college recruiting purposes.
Just as Brooke opens the top of the box I’m holding for her, I shout out to Joe, “Buddy, I’m so glad I am the guy to give it to her”… then she lifts out a bright red and white Victoria’s Secret naughty elf neglige… possibly crotch-less… and although my Santa glasses were steamed over by now I could make out the words “Santa’s Baby” written in sparkles across the top…
Time perched still for a moment… Every heart in the house stopped… Then I saw Joe stand and take in a huge breath like it was fueling an upcoming violent explosion… Just the breath in was terrifying and it completely ruined the buzz I’d been riding since the Stanley’s house…
Just before Joe could take his first step toward me his little son Josh absolutely bulldozes into the room smashing anything in his way and squares off with his Dad and screams, “Why Dad? Why did you lie to me?.. Will’s Dad told him the truth… That you and Mom put my presents under the tree because Santa hates me and you’re ashamed”.
Then Josh apologizes to ME and starts crying so loud it sounded like mid-evil child abuse… It was like a fire alarm, everyone quickly wished one another a Merry Christmas and ran for the exits…
It was a quiet 3 minute drive home… Susan carried an expression of stunned resignation… our kids Will and Lauren looked like they just found out they have to move far away and change their last names again. I felt like one starving Santa Claus who really had to pee… Then it dawned on me… Back in that little apartment, the Ensign’s wife… The other Brooke was opening up her romantic gift that I tried so hard to make magical. Then I pondered how the Ensign was going to explain his gift of a trip to weight loss camp to his lonely insecure wife just two months after giving birth…
Oh, and regarding little Josh Dowler, he was able to recover and go back to school after “Santa” gave him that therapy dog. To his parents chagrin Josh insisted they name the puppy “Santa”…