I first met that jolly old elf at the old Cinderella City mall in Englewood, Colo., where he occupied a gawdy throne and stat stoically and patiently, awaiting the requests of what I assumed at the time to be thousands of kids, myself and my brothers included. That was the G.I. Joe Christmas. Or maybe it was the hamster Christmas. I can't remember... It must have been 1974, give or take a year. I'm pretty sure it wasn't 1976--that was the bike Christmas. That I'll never forget.
But I do recall that odd mix of excitement and fear in my bones as I inched closer to this jolly fat man, dressed in a bright red velvet suit, trimmed in what I assumed at the time to be white fur procured from naughty polar bears, and sporting a beard so white and fluffy that I wondered if it could possibly be real.
It might have been my first-ever true experience with anxiety, not that I'm a frequent sufferer. There have been other moments in my life when I can recall that deep-in-my-soul feeling of gut-wrenching anticipation, but they've been few enough to where I can recall most of them. There was that definitive moment in sixth grade, when I finally mustered the courage to ask Chris Hawthorne to "go" with me--why she took so long to answer, I'll never know (but I do know that was 1981, not long after the Atari 2600 Christmas). She was gorgeous. Simply beautiful. From the time I handed the note to my friend Richard for delivery, to the time I got it back, complete with the "yes" box checked in purple ink seemed a miserable eternity. I remember, when I finally opened the note in sixth-hour social studies, how relieved--and then terrified--I was. It didn't take me long to realize that I was no longer single, no longer "on the market." At 11, I was spoken for. Talk about buyer's remorse.
Then there was my senior year in high school, a center on the varsity basketball team and on the free-throw line with the score tied against fourth-ranked Carthage. Seconds remained on the clock ... I've never been so nervous. Until the day I told my then-fiancee to "shut up," and that "I'd marry you today if I could."
Turns out, with 20 bucks, a witness and a county judge, you can actually make that arrangement happen faster than you might think.
Then there is the arrival of both my children--one horribly stressful and the other meticulously planned. Both were terribly frightening, and I can only imagine what their mother endured.
But that first visit with Santa... that might just take the cake. As the line moved, and my turn atop the old man's lap approached, I don't think I'd ever been that uptight.
As the years have passed, my relationship with Santa has gotten a bit less tense. He's been good to me over the years, and for that I'm grateful. I'm in his debt for that first "big boy" fishing rod, a white fiberglass pole equipped with a thumb-release reel and what must have been 20-pound-test mono. It yanked many a fat carp from the bottom of Stern Park Lake, and one fat rainbow trout from that little urban reservoir that stretched the tape to 18 inches.
And I thank Santa for my first fly tying kit, the introduction to a minor obsession. I found that package wrapped and under the tree in 1994.
But mostly, I want to thank Santa for the visions of wonder and expressions of awe that he's put on the faces of my children. For years, as they followed Santa's annual journey around the globe thanks to NORAD and the wonders of the Internet, they believed. They believed that a squatty old elf from way up north could touch their lives and and their hearts, sometimes to excess. They believed that goodness existed on this earth and that it started and ended with a bearded sleigh driver being toted about by eight magical reindeer--nine when the weather was particularly nasty.
And, through their unquestioning love for this man they met once a year in a place not unlike the old Cinderalla City Mall, I, too, began to believe again. Thanks for that, too, Santa.
Merry Christmas to all... and on with the questions:
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Ice-cold whole milk and warm chocolate chip cookies. Honestly... is there anything else you'd rather enjoy on a lengthy road trip?
What is your greatest fear?
The loss of our imagination. Without it, I'm just a guy in a red suit workin' for the man.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Fred Andrew Seaton, the Secretary of the Interior under Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was his order that created the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That's the reason Exxon-Mobil isn't drilling for oil in my backyard.
Dave Whitlock ... he kinda looks like me, without the beard, and he's a heck of an artist.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
It's possible that I eat a bit much during the Holidays...
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
The need in some to be prematurely honest to children. Let them believe as long as they can.
What is your favorite journey?
There's something about cruising down out of Siberia and onto the Mongolian steppe country that just takes my breath away. It's the highlight of my annual journey, and I always slow down to look at the rivers running through that country. Some day, I'm going to fly fish for grayling in those rivers...
On what occasion do you lie?
Usually, when I get home in the wee hours of Christmas Day. I tell Mrs. Claus that everything went as planned, there were no problems, and that I gave most of the cookies to the reindeer. The latter is sometimes true--Blitzen gets a little grumpy if I don't share some of the cookies. And he likes oat meal cookies, which makes it easier to share. They make me bloat.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Ho. I use that word repeatedly this time of year. It gets a little old, and somebody's always offended.
What is your greatest regret?
Not being able to convince everyone ... breaks my heart.
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
The smiles on children's faces when they see me for the first time in a year. It warms my heart and makes me work harder for them.
Well, with some pretty cool talents already, I think I'd be gluttonous to ask for much more. I mean, do you know anybody else who can deliver 4 billion presents around the world in one night, squeeze down a billion chimneys and pilot a sleigh driven by flying caribou? I'm good, thanks.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Convincing regular folks like you to "adopt" a child for Christmas. Without you, there's no me.
If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
That's silly. I'll never die. If I do, the world has more important things to worry about.
What is your most treasured possession?
My sleigh. It's the same one I've used for centuries, albeit with a few updates here and there. They just don't make them like that any more.
Where would you like to live?
Christmas Island is a nice place to spend a few month unwinding after the holidays. Great bonefishing, skimpy bathing suits and drinks with umbrellas in them. But, I'll always live at the North Pole. It's kind of contractual, you know?
Who are your favorite writers?
Clement Clarke Moore. Not many people know this, but that famous poem of his? Non-fiction. I remember it as if it were yesterday. And Frank Capra. He rewrote the role of George Bailey to suit Jimmy Stewart.
What’s on your iPod?
John Denver, Neil Diamond, Tina Turner and The Chipmunks.
What’s the title of your autobiography?
"When You Believe..."
What word do you have to look up in order to know you spelled it correctly?
"Aclatter." I don't even know if it's really a word.
BONUS QUESTION: If there’s a Heaven, and you’re lucky enough to make the cut, what would you like to hear God say to you upon arrival?
"I knew it was a good idea to make you a saint."