Scenes from Silver Creek: The Santa Factor
In the wonderful world before mega malls and Walmarts, towns like Silver Creek had one-off so-called department stores where most people did their shopping. Ours was called Brightman’s and, yes, it was owned by a family of that name.
On the day after Thanksgiving Brightman’s would always open their Winter Wonderland. This spectacle, rivaled only by the Rockettes, consisted of a badly-painted North Pole backdrop and a moth-eaten red throne where Santa would sit while legions of Silver Creek’s kids poured out their desires for Red Flyer wagons and Malibu Barbies.
In my senior year of high school I applied at Brightman’s for the Christmas rush. I really wanted to work in the gift wrap department. What I got was elf duty. Oh god, no. Appearing before all my friends in a red and green elf costume, complete with turned-up shoes, was a trauma from which I thought I’d never recover. But I needed the money and I had just enough of a weird sense of humor to see the lunacy in it all. So I took the job.
Santa was played by Major Thackerman. Retired Marine. He didn’t so much ho-ho-ho as order kids to tell them what they wanted and then get the heck off his lap. He asked “have you been a good little boy?” in such a way that the child felt a “no” would result in having to drop and give him 50 pushups.
My fellow Catholic sufferers from OLA always had a bit of confusion going on about Santa and the confessional. So when Santa would ask about our naughty or niceness, we’d take it as instructions to get our sins off our chest, not a yes or no question. And any kid who felt honest enough to fess up to tiny infractions like “I suppose I could have been nicer to my mom and cleaned up my room before she asked” received a stern lecture on obedience to authority that would lead the child to feel so unworthy of receiving Christmas gifts as to render the very act of asking Santa irrelevant. Usually we’d slink off with our tiny cellophane-wrapped candy cane with a firm determination to be a better person and to suck it up on Christmas morning when all we got was new socks.
But I was a teenager then and no longer afraid of Santa, though I was still kinda freaked out by Major Thackerman. On those days when the Major was off, he was replaced by Waldo Hicks. Mr. Hicks ate more candy canes that he gave away because he mistakenly thought they masked the intense scent of scotch that emanated from him. Waldo was, of course, an alcoholic. But back then we would just say he drank. He was a happy drunk, not a maudlin one, so his ho-ho-ho was genuine. As was his red nose. And, unlike our retired Marine, Waldo needed no padding.
Children weren’t afraid of Waldo the way they were with the Major. And the Waldo Santa as fun. He told silly knock-knock jokes and bad riddles and laughed a lot. Sure he once got in trouble for telling Billy Morrison that he deserved the 10-speed bike he wanted because Billy’s mom was a fine-looking woman. But hey, the kids liked him and he fit the suit.
So there I was, mostly mortified by the costume. Working with General Patton and Foster Brooks. It was my job to stand by Santa’s throne and help the kids on and off his lap, helping to position them correctly so that Sandy (photography elf) could get the requisite shot of terrified kid meeting Saint Nick. Oh yes, and I handed out candy canes.
It was quite an education, I must say. Mostly cementing my conviction that I had no maternal instincts and never, ever, ever wanted to have kids. All that screaming and crying. The ear-splitting shrill cries that only kids can achieve.
But there was one perk to the job and that was working the Brightman’s employee Christmas party.
The best thing about it was being in on it when the employees, exhausted by a long season of long hours and crazy customers, got looped on the contents of an open bar and spilled their secrets to our crazy Santas.
For that party, Waldo was always in the chair because (between you and me) the Brightman’s were just as terrified of the Major as the kids were. (Antlhough the major was always invited.) But the combination of drunken Santa and drunken adults telling him their wishes was ripe for blackmail material. Too bad I didn’t take notes.
There was Mrs. Linker, who managed the cosmetics department, asking for a date with James Garner. (Who knew she had a thing for Rockford?) And Mr. Leary of the sporting goods floor who said he wanted season’s tickets to the 49ers and a date with Mrs. Linker. (Sadly, Mr. Leary looked nothing like James Garner.)
Marian Franklin, sister of my Chemistry teacher, asked Santa for naughty underwear in a voice that made poor Waldo blush under his beard. (I later learned that Miss Franklin and Waldo had a thing going on.)
In between tipsy wishes, Waldo refreshed himself from his thermos of “coffee,” which amused me because there was an open bar and he was still hiding his liquor. And since I didn’t have to do much that night but stand around in that stupid elf suit, I was able to raid the dessert table for chocolate éclairs and buttery Christmas cookies.
My friend Sean was working that year in the men’s department and aside from deriving years of inside jokes about how I look in red and green felt with a pointy hat, having him at the party was golden. The rent-a-bartender was pretty lax about IDs so Sean and I got pretty hammered as well. And with free food, a DJ, and endless freedom to mock all the people we’d had to put up with over the past two months, the night was pretty damned fun.
Until Major Santa realized we’d been hitting the free booze. Unsurprisingly, a hard-assed retired Marine had little patience for underage drinking. “I want your names,” he commanded in tones that booked no question. But hey, I never was good with authority.
“You jerk,” I said, “I’ve been working next to you for two months now and you don’t even know my name?”
And then Sean, never one to leave well enough alone, felt compelled to add. “I think you mean Major Jerk.”
At which point, we both ran.
The next day I burned the elf costume. When I had recovered from my hangover, that is.