I came, I saw, I ho-ho-hoed.
That was, after all, the least I could do for Santa Claus, who called me one morning a few years back, desperately looking for someone to cover him at a shopping mall while he made an emergency toy-parts run to Taiwan.
Like I said, he was desperate.
Actually, the first call Santa made was not to me, but my employer. The jolly old elf is apparently savvy enough with the media to know that, when one is in urgent need of a severely out-of-shape bearded guy, newspaper writers are the first group that should be checked out.
Generally speaking, employers summon their employees for only two reasons: to fire them or, worse, to ask them to do something for free in their spare time. Just my luck, this was summons Type Two.
"Hey, Burkett," my boss chirped. "We just got a phone call from Santa Claus. He needs someone to cover him at a shopping mall, and we've decided that you'd be absolutely perfect!"
Can you believe it? What nerve!
Perhaps when you're a hefty 75-year-old, feeling lonely and forgotten, it would be an honor to receive such a request. But when you're a svelte (OK, semi-svelte), youthful-looking fellow just barely into middle age (OK, semi-barely), it's like being asked to star in "Oliver Hardy: The Final Years."
"Wait a minute,""I grumbled. "Are you calling me OLD and FAT?"
"No, no, no, no," he replied, doing his best to convey utter sincerity but instead sounding oilier than Jerry Lewis' comb. "You'll need age make-up, of course. And lots of padding."
"Lots and lots of padding."
More dead silence.
"Actually, the only reason we thought of you is that you have a beard and, ahhh, you're . . . you're . . . you're so jolly!"
Insult had just been heaped upon injury. With a dump truck. To me, the word "fat" describes people of excess girth who at least THINK about dieting every now and then, and who might one day muster up the will power to actually do it. People who have broad faces and big round bellies that shake when they laugh like a bowlful of . . . you know.
Not a pretty pictureunless you're planning to enter a Shelley Winters look-alike contest or play Santa Claus at some cockamamie mall, neither of which I had any intention of doing.
My boss forged ahead with his pathetic sales pitch. "And you know, in addition to your hirsute jolliness, you ARE a father ..."
I had no idea what the man was getting at. Maybe his dad is a jolly, lonely old guy who likes to magnify his largeness by draping it in untold yards of electric red, and that's the image of fathers my boss carries with him. Or maybe he was assuming that, because I have two children, I've surely been driven insane and could therefore be talked into anything.
Sadly, that last theory appears to have been the case. I accepted the offer on the condition that I would be supplied with age make-up and lots of padding. Lots and lots.
I did not, however, enter into the plan without some concern. It seemed very possible that the sight of me maniacally Ho-Ho-Hoing in my Santa disguise could turn every child in Arizona against Christmas for life.
I mean, think about it. Even lots and lots of padding can only do so much.
Before Santa took off in his 1971 Dodge Dart (the sleigh, he explained, is only for use on Christmas Eve), he took me to the mall and introduced me to a woman who worked for an organization which arranges Santa's mall appearances all over the country.
For this engagement, she was a Santa's helper helper. And a wiseguy. As she handed me the various pieces of the Santa outfit, she left the fat-man padding on its hanger.
"I guess you won't be needing THAT," she quipped, quite amused by herself.
Ho ho ho.
Before I proceed, I should admit that I was not Santa for an entire day. I was Santa for about an hour and a half. But I swear, it felt like a whole day. In fact, it felt like one of those days you're fairly certain will end with major surgery and a tax audit. But it was no fault of the kids.
For those who have never been entombed in a Santa suit, I will now describe the experience in painstaking detail:
Imagine putting on every piece of clothing (including ski masks) that you possess, entering a sauna and setting the dial to "quick roast." At the same time, imagine a few thousand plastic nylon hairs literally spirit-gummed to your face (or, in my case, existing beard), where they proceed to climb up your nose and down your throat while wrapping themselves around your tongue, giving you a speech impediment that, to passersby, creates the audio illusion that Santa hit the gin cabinet before making his way to the mall.
There. You've got the picture. But you don't have the smell and, for that, you should count yourself lucky.
Adventure in red
After only a few minutes on the job, I learned that, in order to successfully pass yourself off as Santa Claus, you only need three things.
1. The body (I think we've already covered this, thank you).
2. A deep voice and a relatively sincere-sounding "ho, ho, ho.
3. The ability to nod your head and pretend you know what in blazes your little knee-sitters are talking about as they're telling you what they want for Christmas.
The most common want-list sounds something like this:
"I wanna barzel fleeb hurmel anna greechy spote anna trummy hoodle."
Never EVER ask them to repeat their fondest wishes, becauseevery single timethey will eyeball you as if you were the village idiot while proclaiming, "I WANNA BARZEL FLEEB HURMEL ANNA GREECHY SPOTE ANNA TRUMMY HOODLE!"
The budding Stanley Kowalskis I encountered were much more comforted when I'd simply reply, "Ho, ho, ho. I love playing with those toys, too!" Not counting those who quickly informed me that they had just asked for articles of clothing.
It wasn't long before I could easily predict how each encounter was going to go before the child even sat on my knee. Each child's approach to Santa's chair told me everything I needed to know.
For example, if the kid is screaming his head off while being dragged toward you by a parent who is saying, "Don't worry, Tyler, he's not going to BITE you," the visit is probably not going to go well at all.
If the child is between the ages of three and five, you're usually in like Flynn. These children believe in you wholeheartedly, they love you, they know you are their friend, and they come up to you with open arms ready for a hug, even before you promise to lard them with gifts on Christmas.
However, if the young'un is between six and nine, he or she will approach you much like Sherlock Holmes might approach a crime scene, looking for any and all clues that you are a phony, a fake, a faux Santa perpetrating a cruel hoax. Because my beard came unglued and shifted up over my nose about five minutes into the gig, I don't think too many members of this age group were fooled.
Kids any older than 10 will strut right up with an "I'm onto your game, fat man" look in their eyes. When these borderline delinquents sit on Santa's knee, you don't have to be the Amazing Kreskin to divine their thoughts: "Hmmm. What would happen if I pulled his beard off? Where's the nearest escape route? What's the worst that could happen? They're not gonna send a 10-year-old to Sing Sing. Yeah. I'll do it ... "
And if Santa's visitor is an infant that's been quickly thrown into your lap by a jogging mother, chances are good that Mom ran out of diapers about six hours ago and is thrilled to find someone else who'll hold the wet, stinky, bellowing kid for a few blessed minutes.
Just as my Santa shift came to a merciful end, a young womanabout 18 or 19 with a pierced nose and tongueasked if she could sit on Santa's lap. Certain I was looking at another teenage wiseacre, but still aware of the responsibilities of the uniform, I said, "Ho, ho, ho. Certainly, young lady!"
As she sat down, tears came to her eyes.
"And what do you want for Christmas?" I asked.
She couldn't look at me. She looked at the ceiling.
"My daughter," she said softly."
Long, silent pause.
"Well," I said, "Unfortunately, there are some things that even Santa Claus can't promise. But I really hope you get your Christmas wish."
"Thank you, Santa," she said, squeezing my hand, still looking at the ceiling.
At that moment, my own Christmas wish was to be the real Santa Claus.
But that's not where this story ends.
I'd like to conclude with a personal note for Tyson, the 10-year-old boy who terminated our visit by pulling my Santa beard so hard that the elastic snapped back with a force equal to that required by the space shuttle to exit Earth's gravitational pull.
Tyson, even though you're about 13 now and, with luck, have gained a little maturity, I've got bad news for you. Not only am I making a list and checking it twice, I'M PRINTING IT IN THE NEWSPAPER. Enjoy your lump of coal.
You see, the greatest thing about being Santa is you always get the last ho, ho, ho.