S M Natale Writer & Novelist

Where Stories Begin

The Santa Suit

Written By: S. M. Natale

PART ONE

The week before Christmas in 1999 I had a great idea.SS1

Actually, really it wasn’t my idea at all. It was the resurrection of a very fond memory from my sixth Christmas. A Christmas too many decades ago for me to share just how many, but lets just say I have been fortunate enough to celebrate more than I am able to lament.

I was leaving the estimating office in our company headquarters heading back to my office, a path that forced me through the Safety Department, a place I try to scoot through pretty quickly because our Safety Director, who usually had a prepared scolding in wait for me, was always lurking about, ready to spring an ambush. Another detractor was the department’s particularly “friendly” secretarial staff. To put it mildly and apply some small modicum of tact, they were just a tad, (okay a great push), on the questionable side of an invitation to the debutante’s cotillion, nor were they within shouting distance of any description of what could be considered an attractive member of our female staff, worse was they all liked me. The cause and effect of business styled political correctness and all. Friggin manners can get you into trouble, but that’s another story.

Typically our SD would have been out on one of my jobsites and caught one of my superintendents not wearing a hard hat or something else dumb. For me this usually meant a chastising, that had to be followed with a demand to file a written report of why my guy didn’t have his “personal injury protection” gear on and how I “corrected” the situation.

And though I really liked our Safety Director, as a person and a very well qualified and helpful electrician, as a Safety Director we didn’t see eye to eye. Sometimes you just have to take the hard hat off, like when your turned upside down in a ditch trying to clear an obstruction from a conduit or sitting in your office writing safety reports. The SD didn’t exactly agree with my interpretation of the safety policy, I just figured if the ceiling fell, well, oops. But I was able to protect my guys, by deflecting their transgressions directly to me. You see, I never did the “paperwork”, well sometimes, but it was always late.

On purpose.

This was my defense strategy with this guy, he’d get more upset at me for not turning in the reports and forget about my guys. Worked well for me, because my boss was more concerned about my contribution margin, (which at that time was eleven points higher than anyone else in the company), than my safety investigation reports. The other functioning part of the strategy was that the SD when scolding me about some report I was to have turned in, never remembered who I was supposed to investigate. He knew I owed him a report, but in a company with over 1700 employees, me supervising over a hundred of those on ten different jobs he couldn’t remember which job the scoundrel was on. A fact I always found a tad more than humorous because the man could quote code and safety policy like he was reading it, but couldn’t remember what job he’d inspected the day before.

So my response was always, “Who was it again, or which job was that?”

Well, with that, no report due. But I digress.

As I was scurrying by the SD’s office I happened a glance in the doorway and there, laid over the scolding chair was the most beautiful Santa suit I had ever seen. Brilliant, heavy red velvet and bright white fur that felt like chinchilla but looked fox, this suit had to cost thousands. My company was not known for going cheap.

Well hold on, that’s what I thought at first, then that sixth Christmas popped into my head. I had seen this suit before. Well yeah, it was 1900 miles and many years removed, but in my six-year-old mind at the time, it was the same suit. Had to be. Then the idea hit me.

I strutted into the SD’s office, proudly proclaimed my weekly safety report was going to be late, as usual, (Fridays are bad days for report deadlines, Tuesdays are much better). I ignored his response and asked, “What’s with the suit?

The late reports bypassed, he told me about a fun filled black tie benefit the company had sponsored at one of the children’s’ hospitals where he was elected (ordered) to play Santa. I can only assume he was chosen because he could play the part without the normally required padding, however, it could also have been his jovial personality. I knew of the benefit, I had an invitation lying on my desk. I just hadn’t gone. Polite people call an excuse “other commitments,” I call it work.

I asked, “Can I borrow it?” and I received, to my surprise, an uncompromisingly cheerful yes.

Stealth Christmas Eve StyleSS2

With that yes, the memory of sneaking down the stairs, passing an empty Christmas tree and out the front door into the perfect snowfall of Christmas Eve, 1960 something came flooding in. Dressed in my Pj’s, I froze in stark shock two steps out the door. Santa Claus was rounding the corner and striding up the sidewalk outside the hedges guarding the front lawns of our row home. On either side of him, my Mom and Dad, walking arm in arm, singing a song I did not recognize as a Christmas Carol.

All I could think in my terror was “caught.” I was too scared and not allowed to say, “Crap,” …….but I was thinking it.

I quickly slid to the right by the glider on our patio and I stood frozen; my slippers instantly iced into the snow. I couldn’t move, I shouldn’t move. Maybe they won’t see me, if I don’t move a muscle, maybe if I stand still enough, the snow will cover me and I’ll look like a snow boy. Pray. When you’re six, you can be invisible.

Well that plan didn’t work.

I apparently, didn’t take into account the rate of snowfall compared to their speed of approach. I must have missed a coefficient somewhere in my six-year-old calculations; these were the years before Texas Instruments. Well, way before. My ultimate conclusion glancing at my sleeve, as the three of them sidled up the walk was, it just isn’t snowing hard enough. So I went back to being invisible.

Plan B, as it appeared at the time, worked. (I found out later I was assisted by a dram or two of scotch), fore they staggered past me, right in the front door. I watched, still invisible, as they stomped snow off their boots in the vestibule then entered our front room.

Now what? And what are Mom and Dad doing wandering around with Santa anyway?th0BNE9278

Many questions flew into my little brain, the biggest one was how in the world was I going to get back into the house? Do you know it only snows went it’s cold? Are you also aware that Pajamas don’t really make great snow gear? Lessons learned at an early age, especially when accompanied with real experience, tend to stay with you. Again I am thankful for the scotch. Fortunately the bottles in our narrow row home were stored in the kitchen, which, thanks to what I perceived as good architectural planning was at the back of the house.

With all the still singing voices, off pitch I might add, coming from the kitchen I crept in the front door as quietly as a six-year-old commando can. Only the squeak of the storm door could give me away. But I dashed to the stairs before the sound reached the kitchen. Oops… trip… thump…there I was, splayed on the stair landing, a loose piece of ribbon tangled in my slippers, and a lump on my head from where I hit the coat closet door.

Did I happen to mention (include this in the lessons learned category) when utilizing stealth, always look before you leap. Another key component for a successful mission would be to leave clumsiness elsewhere.

Of course, with the now less than silent night, my parents came rushing towards the clatter to see what was the matter.

So there I am, laying in a heap at the base of the stairs, my mom kneeling to see if I’m still alive. When I see him again, Santa, standing there over my Mom, looking concerned.

I should have received an Oscar for my performance, you see, I heard a noise and woke up. As I went to capture the “burglars” I was sure to see stealing our Christmas presents, the pant leg of my Pj’s caught on something (my own two feet) at the top of the stairs and I went tumbling down.

I offered a rather large goose egg on my forehead, and a single tear, as proof.

(I didn’t get the award though, Dad happened to notice the melting snow on my sleeves. I heard about that the next day when I tried to parlay my grievous injury into getting out of taking out the trash before the company arrives.) Okay back to the story.

This is The Real Guy!SS3

“Stephen, are you okay little fella?” He spoke to me. Santa spoke to me. He knew my name, this has got to be the real guy. He sure doesn’t look like the one in Wannamaker’s with the cheesy suit and fake dirty gray beard. Maybe I’m not in trouble, maybe I’m still on the nice list, (though, I think Santa saw the snow too.)

I got up like all tough little boys do and stood at attention, “Yes sir I’m fine,” I said, rubbing my head. “If I ain’t bleedin’ it don’t hurt.”

My mother, of course, was obligated to utter the inevitable ‘we don’t say ain’t’ speech, “ain’t is not a word,” (well Mom, I’m here to tell ya, in good ole FLA it is, so is y’all, which is infinitely better the northeastern version, Youz Guysz)

Santa reaching into his bag said, “ I think you need one of these.” And handed me a wrapped gift.

As I went to open it, my Mom made me wait. She had to wake my little brother so he could see Santa too. Damn little brothers, who asked for him anyway? The wait was intolerable. With the tinkle of ice cubes my Dad brought Santa a large drink, something I had grown to learn was called a Highball. I’d seen them often, even made and tasted a few. Santa, as he accepted the glass caught my glance at the cookies and milk left by the tree and said, “Don’t worry son, I’ll have that when I come back after you’re asleep. But for now, it’s cold outside.”

I know what that means now, but back then, I just took Santa’s word for it.

By Santa’s second warming, my little brother, after some fancy coaxing (we call it something else now) finally came down stairs. And by Santa’s third blast we could open our present.

What I got was an army man, complete with working parachute. I can still see it as if it was sitting here on my desk. That soldier made thousands of sorties that year from my third story bedroom window. He survived the wars, but somehow he got lost during deployment to a new bivouac.

That night as Santa left, waving Merry Christmas and bouncing off the doorjamb a new tradition for our family was born. On Christmas Eve each family member is allowed to open one gift. That night also planted the seed for a gift I would receive decades later.

And the reason I asked to borrow the Santa Suit.

PART TWOThe Santa Suit

Christmas 1999 was a breakout holiday for me. Though I had my troubles to deal with throughout the year, this was the first Christmas in more than quite a few I was looking forward too. I didn’t realize how much at the time, because so many Holidays up until then had been filled with depression and an unwillingness to participate because of it. But this year, mainly due to my beautiful wife, I really was looking forward to the Christmas Season with hope and joy rather than dread.

Enter the Santa Suit and the memory of my sixth Christmas. On the drive home from work after asking to borrow the suit I was almost giddy formulating my plan for Santa’s visit to our neighborhood. Now giddy is a description of me not often used, hell something even close to it is barely considered, but in this case it’s about the only term that applies.

Laying Out the Plan

That evening I brought the suit in the house to a rather curious perusal from my wife. Spreading the Santa Suit on the bed I laid my plan out to my wife who promptly claimed I was nuts and I might be taking this new Christmas enthusiasm just a bit too far.

It was a simple plan. Coerce my best friend Lonnie, who also didn’t need the padding, to be Santa, keep it a secret from the kids, all six of them plus Lonnie’s grandchildren, and then wander around the neighborhood on Christmas Eve knocking on doors spreading Christmas cheer, and perhaps receiving some in return. But the cheer part we would not leave to chance.

I learned many years later the true story behind Santa’s visit my sixth Christmas, I’ll not go into it here, but let us just say there is a reason I like scotch. As many of you know, I partake in a fashion on par with some of the great writers’ of our day. I may not be able to conjure their literary abilities, but I can achieve “avec l’excellence’” as any of them with the spirit.

With said plan now set in motion, all the plan’s participants gleefully, (alright maybe not gleefully, but as good friends do, dutifully), willingly, we prepared for Christmas Eve. My wife went out, purchased and wrapped gifts for Santa’s Bag. She baked cookies and prepared holiday treat platters for Santa to give to our elderly neighbors. The plan was perfect, once I obtained the suit, my friend and my wife did all the work. I was assigned only one job in the plan, simple for me, (hell, it was my plan), right in the old wheelhouse so to speak, particularly suited for my holiday talents, stock the bar.

And I must say, I performed admirably.

Someone Alters The PlanSS5

But then someone, my beautiful and adoring wife, altered the plan.

On Christmas Eve as we are getting ready to for the plan to unfold, my wife, decided Santa needed a helper. Lovely, talented and intelligent as she may be, my wife just seems to have missed out on the visual definition of an elf. As she is standing in front of our Christmas tree telling me of her lightning strike of an idea, she is holding a silly Santa style hat with pointed ears and looking directly at me.

Now, have you ever seen a two hundred pound, six foot elf?

Me neither….………….. Until a half hour later, when I looked in the mirror.

I think Will Farrell and Jon Favreau owe me some royalty money from their movie Elf, produced in 2003.

There I was, (and you’ll have to imagine this as best you can, because I will not post the pictures), heavy red hunting shirt, green sweat pants tucked into high top work boots, a leather carpenter’s tool belt and that silly hat with the pointed ears.

You have never seen, or even nightmared a scarier “elf”, or a more stupid looking one. Apparently this little change in the plan had been in the works for days, ever since she spotted that hat.

Damn Wal-Mart anyway.

The Helper Has A PurposeSS6

I must say, the tool belt was a nice touch. Do you know that you can fit three beers in each pouch and not have them detected by anyone under the age of 12? Came in handy because we couldn’t carry the big cooler around with us, the wagon had a broken wheel,(keep that in mind Santa). Those pouches saved us from making too many trips back to the North Pole to restock.

You may be wondering why beer instead of scotch on a cold snowy Christmas Eve. Remember I said in part one I was 1900 miles away from that memory. Well that Christmas Eve it was 82 degrees when we left the North Pole, Southern Distribution District of Florida. Hence, the beer, you can get pretty parched trudging from house to house down here.

So Santa all decked out for the Halls, bag full, faithful, (but dopey looking), Elf by his side, off we went into the frozen, (oops Strike that,) Balmy Eve. Twinkle lights in every direction, three dozen candy canes lining the outside of my tool belt we headed to the first neighbor.

It might be a good time to let you know that we hadn’t lived in this particular neighborhood very long.

Rough StartSS7

Well we knock on the door of the first house, once, then twice, okay the lights are on and we can hear the TV. After the third knock, under taken only because my wife chided us for trying to leave, a little old lady opens the door. Well cracks the door, the security chain will only let it go so far.

“Merry Christmas” we say…….to a blank and unresponsive glare.

Apparently Santa and his elf looked like home invaders. After a minute or two of explaining that we were indeed her neighbors this sweet little old lady begrudgingly accepted my wife’s cookies and slammed the door. I’m sure the Holiday treat plate made it straight to the kitchen….trash can.

We were off to a soaring great start. Some plan. I look like a home invader and Santa wasn’t welcome, my wife is an apparent poisoner. Time for the first beer, take stock, recalibrate, and push on. Welcome to Y2K.thU22NONTA

So we did. Onward we go blazing through the bitter wind (oops Strike that), warm breeze to the next house on Santa’s list. Hush tones of a wizened voice are heard following our knock, “who could that be at this hour on Christmas Eve?”

“Martha, you gotta come see this!”

Yes! A plan has come together. House after house we visited, Santa distributing gifts providing lots of smiles for the children. All the things I had envisioned in trying to recreate my sixth Christmas for others.

Oh yeah and all of the neighbors laughing at me.

Santa Was My Friend

Besides the wonder of our own children and Lonnie’s grandchildren that we were able to recreate from my sixth Christmas there were two visits we made that were particularly special, and moments, like my sixth Christmas, I will never forget. But unlike that sixth Christmas, the Christmas trip of 1999 I will never be able to resurrect.

You see I lost my Santa this past year. But let me tell you about him. For these two moments, as Santa, define the type of person my friend was.

Magic Of A Real Santa

At house number 15 or so the door was answered and thrown wide open for all gathered inside to see who came to visit. The children all jumped all yelled with joy seeing Lonnie standing there, filling the double doors with twinkling eyes and wide smile under that itchy beard.

“HO HO HO,” he bellowed, to squeals of laughter and surprise. All but from one little girl of about 4 years old, she pulled herself tight to her mother’s leg, hiding from Santa, afraid. Santa was told this little girl, for whatever reason was scared of Santa. She wouldn’t go near him at the stores or in the mall. Her parents had tried to explain Santa’s benevolence, but she refused to sit on Santa’s lap. She wouldn’t even go near a replica decoration of Ole Saint Nick.MondrianLittleGirlS

Until Lonnie talked to her, in soft and caring way that only the real Santa can. I wish I could have heard the words. After a few minutes of conversation with Lonnie all of her fears melted away. Where her voice was stilled, he brought forth laughter. When her body was frozen in place at her mother’s side, she climbed gleefully onto Lonnie’s lap. And where her lips were curled in a shy frown, a smile erupted like the sun coming out from behind a cloud, brighter than all the flashes from the cameras. You see she finally had her picture with Santa Claus. But more so, Lonnie with just a few words instilled the happiness of a child’s wonder of Christmas spirit in her little fearful soul.

That was my friend, laughing, waving a good bye as we left, happily calling for another beer in the still 80 plus degree evening and cheerfully asking if there were anymore. He had to be sweltering in that suit as we moved on to the last house we knew had some kids.

Wonder Over Despairlittle-sad-boy

At the last house our knock was met with astonishment and tears. Tears we would all soon share. The home we were visiting, unbeknownst to us, was a home for foster children. We had noticed over time, kids, usually teenagers going in and out so we knew there were kids there. What we didn’t know was their story or how many, but we had decided to go do the HO HO HO’s anyway, give out a few candy canes and call it a successful night.

The tears at the door caught us all by surprise, as we were invited in to a chorus of,

“See honey, we told you!”

All directed at a small boy sitting on the floor near the corner of the room. Among all the teenagers milling about this little guy just didn’t quite seem to fit. Ordinarily, we were informed later, he would not have been placed in this home at all since this house specialized in teens, but it was also the only one available that had space for this poor little guy.

This little boy turned his head to look towards the commotion in the foyer where we were now standing. As he saw Lonnie (Santa) a look of disbelief overcame the forlorn expression on his face. But he did not move one inch. By this time the entire household was around us, all with tears in their eyes, even the older boys were red eyed. In a flash this little guy jumped up and flew into Lonnie’s arms. Lonnie just reached out and scooped him up as if he were one of his own grandchildren.

All I could hear, was a muffled whisper, “I was so afraid you couldn’t find me.”

I don’t know what Lonnie said in response, but the little boy gave Santa a huge hug as Lonnie set him back down on his feet. With a little tug on the sleeve my wife handed Santa a package, which he then gave to this small boy, the boy’s once sullen eyes now shining as he appreciatively accepted Santa’s gift and ran to place it under the Christmas tree.

Santa gave all the rest of the kids candy canes from the goofy elf’s tool belt, Ho Ho’d some more and out the door we went, followed out by the foster mother who was asking, “Who are you people?”

We explained that we were neighbors from down the street and we had seen the kids down here and just were out spreading a bit of Christmas cheer.

Through her tears she told us “you don’t know what a Godsend you all are. We just brought little Joey here the other day. He came to us through the court from a very, very bad situation. Besides his other troubles with being taken from his parents, especially at this time of year, he was convinced Santa Claus won’t know where to go or how to find him. He is certain, now that he has been removed from his home, Santa will just forget about him. We have tried and tried to reassure him but to no avail. Nothing we could say has been able dissuade him. This poor little boy has been so hurt and his sadness is so deep we didn’t know what we were going to do.”

Looking directly at Lonnie now she said, “ Until you knocked on the door. I don’t know how you knew to come here, but I thank God you did. I don’t know what you said to him but when you set him back down, it’s the first time we have ever seen Joey smile. You see Joey hasn’t smiled or had any happiness for a long time.”

She hugged us and thanked us profusely, by this time we all had tears in our eyes for little Joey and what he had been through. She went back in her house as we stood there for a moment almost dumbfounded at the experience.

I looked at Lonnie and I asked him “What did you say to that little guy?”images29VVGVY1

He just shrugged, grabbed a beer from my belt, opened it took a long pull and said “Merry Christmas,” and headed home.

I have no idea what Lonnie could have said to that little boy. But the change in him was dramatic. That Christmas was ten years ago now. I lost my best friend over the summer and as I reflect this year, I know the man may be gone, but the wonder he brought that night isn’t, as long as I hold him close in my heart and memory.

This Memory Is But One

Silently as my wife and I started back towards the house, pulling my sleeve across my eyes I asked my wife, “where did that last gift come from?’’

You see when my wife went out shopping she had gotten gifts for all the kids we knew we would see, plus a few extras just in case there were some visiting children. My wife is just smart like that, I’d have never thought of it. The thing is, as I was handing Santa gifts from the bag to give out back at the little girl’s house I was sure the bag was emptied. I remember making a mental comment about it being lucky the number of gifts came out exactly right, and thinking to myself how the hell did she know how to buy just the right amount.

My wife called me a stupid looking elf that can’t count, but you know, when the bag is empty, the bag is empty. Besides I never counted anything, all I did was pull gifts out one at a time, one for each child.

Stupid looking, in the elf costume maybe, but I can count. Empty equals zero, zip, nada, nothing to count.

So, I ask the question again. I have every year since.

I can only come up with one answer, The Magic and Wonder of The Real Santa Claus.

 

My Best Friend, A Very Good Man

My Best Friend, A Very Good Man

 

Dedicated to the life and memory of my friend, Lonnie Scaglia.

Lonnie’s absence from our lives began in the Summer of 2009,

But his kindness and spirit shall always be with us

And will constantly be remembered.

 

 

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