Friday, August 12, 2022 Aug 12, 2022
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By Les Seymour |

In December of 1961, at the age of 15,I became a professional Santa Claus. I was an eager recruit, if totally unqualified. My previous job experience consisted of one job I had held for three weeks a couple of months earlier. I had followed a wagon through miles of fields, tossing hay bales onto the bed of the wagon for 50 cents an hour. Work there had started at daybreak, usually at about 7, and had lasted until dark, around 8:30 or 9. After that there was an agonizing hour at home picking the stinger-sized pieces of straw out of my arms, neck and chest. It was not the kind of job one went looking for, and a stint as a Santa, although just as seasonal as hay loading, sounded almost as good as my adolescent dream job: selling women’s shoes. And the Santa offer came with a promise of a dollar an hour.

My financial situation was tight; I had no money at all. Every afternoon, I was slipping out my old man’s ’53 flatbed V-8 Ford while he was at work, and I had seen the last of the hay-loading money disappear into the tank. My “allowance” of $2.50 a week had ended with the school holiday break (the allowance consisted of 50 cents each day for lunch). So when Mr. Dickens, owner of Dickens’ Five and Dime, stopped me after church one Sunday morning and made his offer-he wanted me to start the next day-I was actually enthusiastic, practicing my ho, ho, hos all the way home.

Mr. Dickens’ Five and Dime was more of a general store than a dime store. We lived in an outlying suburb of a small city-outlying enough so that Henderlight’s Feed Store, our largest commercial concern, did a booming business with area truck farmers. What Henderlight didn’t carry, Dickens did, from millinery to brogans and hoes to hot plates.

The community, despite its proximity to the larger town, existed to serve the farmers. It was an area of many marginal, small spreads, where most of the growers bought what they couldn’t raise with whatever they could make off their surplus produce. Saturday mornings were busy, with old pickups crowding the streets and the employees at Henderlight’s pushing two-wheelers loaded with 100-pound sacks of feed or fertilizer, then loading it into the backs of the trucks. The more prosperous farmers crowded the three barber shops, waiting for haircuts and reports on what was going on. For some, there would be a stop at Calloway-Farmer’s Hardware, where new automatic washing machines were for sale.

The women and children would spend time and maybe a little money at Heape’s, looking at new coats and then buying thread to sew up old ones. The Christmas crowd usually included more than a fair share of threadbare farm families, and their purchases tended to be the cheaper items from the counters at Dickens’. Frequently, these were people who couldn’t even afford to drive downtown to Miller’s and Georges Rich’s, the real department stores.

I arrived at the Five and Dime at 8:30 on Monday, half an hour early. I was ushered in by Mrs. Dickens, a large woman given to frequent gushing (my grandmother always referred to her as “that old fuss”). She led me to the back of the store and showed me my suit. As I put it on, she stood on the other side of the partition and explained why she wasn’t going to be Santa Claus this year, although she thought she had made a “simply lovely” Santa the year before. It seems that last year’s business had suffered somewhat without her presence out front, helping the customers with their questions and gift selections.

“Some of our customers just don’t understand Mr. Dickens, and I think it’s better that he stay in the back, taking care of the books. He doesn’t mean any harm, but he doesn’t understand children and he always gets upset when they handle the merchandise, and, well, it will just be better with him in the back.”

I let an occasional “uh-huh” hold up my end of the conversation. I wasn’t about to agree with her or tell her what most people thought about her husband. He was, as my old man would say, a hard man to deal with-cold, imperious, without humor.

After I was outfitted, Mrs. Dickens marched me back to her husband’s office. There, Mr. Dickens told me about the deal he had worked out with Mr. Marley across the street. Mr. Marley owned the grocery store, and Mr. Marley and Mr. Dickens were old acquaintances. Both taught Sunday school in the same Baptist church; both had a good nose for a nickel. But they differed greatly in their approaches to business- indeed, to life. Mr. Marley’s approach was low-key and friendly, even casual. He was known to “carry” customers when circumstances warranted. At holiday time, when the church put together baskets for the poor, Mr. Marley always furnished the turkeys and made up whatever else was needed at delivery time, including the use of one of his trucks. Mrs. Dickens had furnished the baskets for a few years, until her husband discovered her generosity. Now they only supplied a few pieces of hard candy for each recipient.

My job was to spend the day sitting on a “throne” in the middle of the store, at the end of the notions counter, taking kids on my knee, cajoling them into telling me what they wanted from old Santa and giving them a piece of hard candy (“just one,” Mr. Dick-ens emphasized) and just generally being jolly. Twice a day, at midmorning and mid-afternoon I was to take my sack of candy and cross the street to Mr. Marley’s, wander the aisles until all the kids had a piece of candy, then return to my perch at Dickens’. I was sure I could handle it.

I spent the first hour sharpening my ho-ho-ho and lap skills. The kids proved cooperative, if somewhat unrealistic (“a real-life alligator with big teeth”); the mothers, indulgent, if somewhat unrealistic (“Tell Santa your mom wants Elvis Presley”). Then business slacked off, and it was time to take my show across the street.

In my easy-job euphoria I had not given any thought to the reactions of my friends. As soon as I walked outside, I spotted Jimmy and Danny heading my way. They hadn’t seen me yet, but where do you hide when you’re Santa Claus? I could only hope they wouldn’t recognize me.

No such luck. I was “made” immediately.

“Hey Danny, take a look at Santa.” I increased my speed trying to make the light. No luck. They nailed me at curbside.

“Santa looks like a phony to me, Jimmy. Whaddya think?” A hand pulled my beard down and released it to snap back against my chin. Then, help came from an unexpected quarter.

“You boys leave Santa alone.” A grandmotherly type waiting at the light was giving my “friends” a cold stare.

The light changed, and I quickly crossed the street and went into Marley’s. I was safe for now, but I knew they would be back. And once they had spread the word, there would be others.

A couple of days later, as I dispensed my candy and my cheer from the throne at Dickens’ during a particularly busy afternoon, I glanced at the line of children and spotted a familiar face at the end. Dorislee. She gave me a malicious smile and a little wave. And she stayed in line, oblivious to the spectacle that a 15-year-old girl makes standing in line for Santa Claus. Several yards away, behind the toy counter, I saw Jimmy, Danny, Bounds and several other acquaintances. They, too, waved.

I tried to ignore Dorislee, listening attentively as a kid explained; how he hadn’t meant to kill the goldfish; he had only wanted to give it some air. Every time I glanced at Dorislee, she just smiled and gave a little wave. She ignored the dirty looks from the moms. The only thing I could do was brazen it out.

Dorislee sort of bounced down on my knee when her turn came.

I asked her if she had been a good girl.

She said yes.

“That’s not what the football players tell me,” I said.

She frowned. “And what do the football players tell you?” she wanted to know.

“They say you’ve been a real bad girl,” I said.

“Which ones are saying that?” she asked.

“I’m not telling you,” I said, “but one of their initials is Danny.”

Dorislee turned around and looked back at Danny. Then she was off my knee, heading angrily in his direction. After the initial attack, Jimmy, Bounds and the others melted out the door. Then, Mrs. Dickens, drawn by their un-Christmasy exchange, asked Dorislee and Danny to please carry on their conversation someplace else. I didn’t see either of them again until school started again in January.

After that, my Santa Clausing settled into a routine. Most of the kids were okay. Only one wet on me. Most of the parents were okay. One obnoxious mother grabbed a handful of candy out of my bag, explaining that she wanted it for the children at home, but a sweet little girl of about 4 stopped her with a well-timed “Piggy! Piggy! Piggy!”

One afternoon at Marley’s, a mother who was having a particularly difficult time with a 3-year-old boy told her charge that if he didn’t behave, Santa Claus was going to get him. When the child turned and saw me, he did what I would have done in the same circumstances: He started bawling. Finally, I quieted him with a handful of candy, but not before I was asked what I had done to that poor little child.

The two weeks passed, and finally it was Christmas Eve. I had gone through a record three bags of candy when a lull came about 5 p.m. Mr. Dickens called me into his office and handed me my check. Even a 15-year-old can add, and I saw immediately that the amount was not as much as it was supposed to be.

I looked across at Mr. Dickens. He was busying himself with some papers. I cleared my throat. He looked up.

“I thought I was getting a dollar an hour,” I mumbled through my beard.

“No, no. You must have misunderstood,” he said. “I said I would pay you 75 cents an hour.”

Feeling ridiculous in my Santa Claus suit and not knowing what else to say, I pocketed the check and walked back out to my throne. I thought about turning in my suit and leaving, but a couple of kids who wanted to talk to Santa brought an end to that idea.

I was too angry for heartfelt ho-ho-hos, but I tried to keep up a front as a steady stream of kids paraded across my knee. Finally, about 30 minutes before closing time, I found myself alone with my sack of candy. Just as I got ready to get up, the front door opened and a farm couple with seven or eight kids came in.

I waited, but the kids scattered around the store, paying no attention to me. Then I noticed the smallest one, a boy about 4, peering at me over the far end of the notions counter. I could only see his eyes and the top of his head. I gave out one of my better “Merry Christmas” ’s and motioned for him to come see me. He ducked out of sight.

After a brief pause, his head appeared again, then his eyes. When he saw me looking back, he quickly ducked again. He was going to be a hard case.

When I could hold his sight long enough, I held up a piece of candy. His eyes grew wider. I motioned for him to come see me, and this time he didn’t disappear. He shyly worked his way around the corner of the counter, glancing my way but trying to appear interested in a display of hairbrushes. He was wearing ragged pants that would have wrapped above the tops of his socks if he’d had any on, a pair of heavy boots that were at least two sizes too large and a sweatshirt with a kangaroo pouch that had obviously seen service on three or four of his older siblings before it had become his.

I kept up my coaxing, and he kept inching his way down the counter toward me, glancing at me and my candy, feigning interest in bobby pins, curling irons and hair straight-eners, never saying anything. Finally, he was within reaching distance of my offering. I cautiously stuck out my hand.

“Do you want a piece of candy?”

He nodded and took the candy cane.

“Want another piece?”

Again he nodded. I gave him a few more pieces.

By now, he was right next to me, so I started to fill the kangaroo pouch of his sweatshirt with candy. His eyes widened. Then I filled up his pants pockets. When I had finished, I looked up into the puzzled face of his mother.

“Merry Christmas,” I said.

She smiled a thank you and took heryoungster by the hand. They followed therest of the family out of Dickens’.

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