NOTE: To read Chuck Miller’s book “The Robins of Iverhill: A Minor League Fairy Tale,” as well as the short stories in the “Christmas in Iverhill” series, visit this link.
Saturday, December 15, 1973.
“They have to be where you last left them last,” Ann called out. “Did you check your dresser drawers?”
“No, they’re not there,” replied Gordon, frantically searching throughout the bedroom. “I can’t find them. This is terrible, and I need to get downtown before I’m completely late!”
Life in the Mitchell household – a childless elderly couple living in a small mobile home in the Pines of Iverhill Trailer Park – was normally quiet and sedate. But between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Gordon Mitchell – a robust millworker at Magedoma Lumber – became Iverhill’s unofficial Santa Claus. He arranged his vacation time to fall between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so that he could play Santa Claus at the ShopCo Shopping Center all month. And two weeks before Christmas, he would ride in the ShopCo Christmas Parade, and from the perch of a sleigh-shaped parade float, he would toss candies to the parade-watching kids along North Main Avenue.
For the past fifteen years, Gordon Mitchell enjoyed every moment of his holiday role. He and his wife Ann had no children of their own, so for Gordon, playing Father Christmas was his chance to share the joys of the holiday season with the younger generation of Otswego County.
And for that month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, these were the happiest moments of Gordon Mitchell’s life. He sat on the big chair at ShopCo’s makeshift Santa’s Workshop every day from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., with two coffee breaks and a half-hour lunch break – or, as the little sign alongside Santa’s Workshop would say, “Santa has to feed his reindeer, and will be back soon.”
Three high school students from Iverhill High School would dress up in Christmas finery – mostly red and green sweaters and elfen hats – and would guide kids toward Santa’s chair. George would ask how old each kid was, ask what they wanted for Christmas, ask if they’ve been good all year, and then sit while one of Santa’s helpers took the kid’s picture with Santa.
At the end of the day, one of the store managers would ask Gordon what the kids most wanted for Christmas that year. Gordon would reply that the boys wanted toy racecars or metal soldiers; the girls often chose fashion dolls or dollhouses. The manager would smile. So long as the families bought everything from ShopCo and not from the nearby Jamesway store, it would be a happy Christmas.
Gordon wore the same Santa Claus suit for the past fifteen years. His wife Ann tailored it every year – letting out some fabric when Gordon gained extra weight, tightened up the waist when Gordon felt it was getting too loose. Gordon always grew the white beard himself – he had heard the story of a kid who once tried to yank on Santa’s beard, only to actually pull Santa’s fake whiskers off. Gordon’s beard wasn’t as white as he would have liked, but it was neatly trimmed and made his “Santa” appearance friendly and welcoming.
But for some reason, the granny glasses that were part of the Santa costume were missing. At first, Gordon tried to play Santa at ShopCo with his prescription glasses – which were wire-rimmed and looked almost like granny-glasses – and everything seemed fine. But he wanted to wear the original granny glasses for the ShopCo Christmas Parade, as they looked more authentic.
“I can’t find them, Ann, where could they be?”
“I don’t know, Gordon, but we have to get downtown before they close the streets off for the parade. Can’t you wear your new prescription glasses? You’ve worn them all week at the store.”
“Oh well,” Gordon said. “I guess I have no choice. I’ll wear them.”
And with that, Iverhill’s Santa Claus – Gordon Mitchell dressed in a Santa suit – put on his prescription eyewear. Hopefully nobody would notice the difference.
“You want me to drive you downtown, honey?” Ann asked.
“That would be great,” Gordon said. “It’s hard to maneuver behind the steering wheel in this costume.”
Ann knew that Gordon’s ability to squeeze into the driver’s seat of their car wasn’t the real reason. She knew that this was the second pair of prescription glasses Gordon had purchased this year, and she also knew it would only be a short time before Gordon’s health conditions – obesity, diabetes, hypertension – would steal his sight forever. But she said nothing, knowing how much the holiday season meant to Gordon.
“Let’s go, honey,” she said. “The parade can’t start without Santa Claus.”
It was an unseasonably warm day in Iverhill – the temperature on the lightbulb-illuminated sign next to Iverhill Savings and Loan announced the temperature at 55 degrees. Too warm for a Christmas parade, Gordon thought. And too sunny. And too breezy. It’s almost like a summer parade.
But it didn’t matter. Gordon checked the parade float. Each satchel held dozens of wrapped candybags and ShopCo coupons. Good. More than enough sweets to feed the kids all along the North Main Avenue parade route.
“Are you ready, Santa Claus?” a man asked.
“Ho, ho, ho, yes I’m ready, let’s start this parade!” Gordon shouted, already in character as the jolly St. Nicholas. “On Dasher, On Dancer, on – what’s your name?”
“Fred, sir. I work at the loading dock at Magedoma Lumber.”
“Okay, Fred. Let’s start this parade. Ho ho ho!!”
With that, Fred climbed into the front seat of a Magedoma Lumber Peterbilt truck – the kind that would normally haul log-filled trailers from the timber sites to the mill – and slowly drove forward as the rest of the parade went down North Main Avenue.
“Santa, Santa!!” kids shouted from the sidewalks. Gordon tossed fistfuls of candy to the kids, and shouted “Merry Christmas, kids! Merry Christmas, Ho Ho Ho!!!”
The parade continued. It was still warmer than normal in Iverhill, and the Santa suit, which normally kept Gordon nice and toasty warm on chilly parade days, was like a sauna on this festive day. But this was the Christmas holiday, and Santa Claus was not going to disappoint anybody. Not today. Not ever.
Gordon waved at everyone as the Santa Claus float inched down North Main Avenue. “Happy Christmas, everybody! Happy Christmas!!”
“Are you going back to the North Pole?” one boy shouted.
Gordon looked toward where he heard the shout. “Yes, little boy, I’ll be in Iverhill for one more week, and then I’ll be back at the North Pole to bring all the gifts my elves have made back here to you and to all your friends!”
“Thank you, Santa!” the boy called out.
The rest of the parade continued on.
“Hey Santa, you look real cool!” one teenager called.
“Ho ho ho,” George replied. “It’s a hot day, but here’s some cool candy!”
“Thanks Santa,” the teenager replied, as some bags of wrapped candy landed in his outstretched hands. “I never knew Santa was so cool! I dig the look!!”
“I wish it was cool,” George called back. “Mrs. Claus should get me some ice when we get to the end of the parade!”
“You okay up there Santa?” Fred called back from the cab of his truck.
“Keep driving,” shouted Santa. “I’ve done this through three blizzards and that Nor’easter in 1970. A little heat wave won’t keep St. Nicholas from bringing holiday cheer to the kids. Ho ho ho!!!!”
Other than the warm weather, it was a perfect parade day. While Gordon traveled down North Main Avenue on the parade float, Ann Mitchell took a short cut through the back streets of Iverhill to meet up with Gordon at the end of the parade route.
“How was the parade, honey?” Ann asked.
“As fun as always,” Gordon smiled as he climbed down from the parade float. “But I need to get home and take a shower. Next year we have to get a Santa suit that allows me to breathe on hot days. Ho ho ho!”
Sunday morning. The newspaper delivery boy brought the Sunday edition of the Iverhill paper through the Pines of Iverhill trailer park, leaving copies at every subscriber’s door.
Ann Mitchell picked up her Sunday edition of the newspaper, and brought it to the kitchen table.
“So did I make the front page again this year?” Gordon laughed. “It’d be a slow news day in Iverhill if I did.”
Ann unfolded the paper. “You’re on the front page, Gordon – oh my.”
Gordon knew what that “oh my” meant. He heard it several times in his marriage, and those two words – along with the concern in Ann’s voice – was seldom positive. “You need to see your picture in the newspaper.” She handed him the front section.
And when Gordon saw the image of Santa Claus – his heart skipped a beat.
“Oh, what will they say at ShopCo when they see this?”
“Maybe they won’t notice,” Ann mused.
“ShopCo? Not notice? This?”
Gordon pointed at the picture in the photograph. In his haste to complete his costume for Saturday morning, he grabbed his prescription eyeglasses instead of the clear-lensed “granny glasses” of the Santa costume. And rather than buy a separate pair of prescription sunglasses, Gordon asked his ophthalmologist to give him one of the new-fangled “photo-chromic” glasses, in that exposure to sunshine or wind caused the lenses to darken. So while Gordon Mitchell clearly saw the happy kids along the parade route for the first time in ages, a photographer from the newspaper saw Santa Claus wearing a pair of shades – and photographed Santa for the Sunday edition.
“Mr. Terreault at ShopCo is going to be so angry… Santa Claus shouldn’t be wearing sunglasses, oh my God he’ll think he hired one of those hippies to be Santa!”
“Oh George, don’t worry – ”
“Worry? I can’t help but worry. Christmas is a time for tradition and memory. Santa Claus wears a costume. He wears a beard. And a stocking cap. And a black belt and black boots. He does not wear sunglasses. What’s next, should I show up next year with my sleeves rolled up and anchor-tattoos on my arms like I’m Santa Popeye?”
“George, your blood pressure… please don’t worry about this. It’s all a simple mistake, nobody will notice.”
But George kept staring at the newspaper. All through breakfast. He had been so careful, so reverent with the Santa Claus costume. What if Mr. Terreault saw what had happened? There was no guarantee that George would be re-hired as Santa for next year… they could bring in a younger man for 1974.
The emotional weight hung over George’s head like the Sword of Damocles. And he knew that he would have to go to ShopCo later that day, and it could be his last shift ever as Santa – his last opportunity of happiness.
Gordon Mitchell arrived early at ShopCo for his Santa Claus Sunday stint. He finally found his granny-glasses; they were tucked in the left top dresser drawer, not the right top dresser drawer where they were usually kept. He took his place at the faux Santa’s Workshop in ShopCo, and waited for the kids to arrive.
But before his shift could start, he heard his name on the ShopCo loudspeaker. “Gordon Mitchell, please report to the main office.”
Gordon worried. He hoped that the manager had not seen the Sunday newspaper. But if Gordon was being called to the main office, he knew the manager had not only seen the Sunday newspaper, but probably went over the reasons why that picture – and its contents – ended up in print.
“It’s okay, Santa,” said one of the ShopCo employees, as the children lined up to wait for their turn to tell Santa what they wanted for Christmas. “Take your time and feed the reindeer. We’ll take care of things until you get back.”
Gordon slowly walked to the ShopCo front offices. They were on the second floor of the store, a walled enclosure for secretaries and accountants and the store manager.
“Sit down, Gordon.”
Across the desk from Gordon Mitchell was the manager of ShopCo, a small, thin man named Samuel Terreault. Despite his small stature, Terreault had a piercing gaze that could make innocent men confess to criminal acts.
“Gordon, you’ve been our Santa Claus at ShopCo for how long now?”
“Well, I was wondering that, because – well, I need you to take a look at this.”
Terreault pushed a copy of Sunday’s local newspaper in front of Gordon. Gordon pulled out his prescription glasses, placed them on his nose, and read the article. “ShopCo Christmas Parade a huge success. Looks like we did a great job.”
“Take a look at the picture.”
Gordon squinted. “Yes sir, that’s me all right, Santa Claus on the sleigh, tossing candy wrapped with ShopCo coupons to everyone.”
“You’re not wearing the official Santa Claus suit.”
“Yes I am,” Gordon said, pointing at the picture. “Red furry suit, stocking cap, maybe my whiskers are a bit shorter this year and I have lost some weight lately, but a couple of pillows and I’m just as big a Santa as I ever was.”
“So why is the Santa Claus that represents ShopCo wearing sunglasses?”
“Mr. Terreault, I’m sorry, I lost my glasses for this suit and I needed to wear my prescription glasses, and they’re that new type of glasses that turn into sunglasses in bright sunlight. I had no idea it would be so warm and suny in the parade, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to embarrass ShopCo, I just love playing Santa Claus and I didn’t want to disappoint all the kids who came to the parade, don’t fire me, please – ”
“George, relax. I’m not going to fire you.”
Terreault smiled. It may have been the first smile George Mitchell – or, in fact, anyone at ShopCo – ever saw from the diminutive store manager. “No, I’m not going to fire you. In fact, I want you to wear those sunglasses for the rest of the week, including today.”
“They’re prescription glasses, sir, they won’t become sunglasses when I’m indoors.”
“Don’t worry about that,” said Terreault. “We’ll get you a pair of Foster Grants from our sunglasses rack. Do you know how many people called the store yesterday? Most of them were younger people – teenagers – who want to bring their little brothers and sisters to ShopCo and meet the cool Santa Claus, the one with the big belly and the shades. ‘Santa Claus is Cool,’ a couple of them said. ‘It’s cool to believe in Santa Claus.'”
George smiled. “I had no idea, sir.”
“Just as long as you’re not going to grow your hair long or get a tattoo like one of those long-haired hippie freaks, I’m okay with Santa Claus wearing sunglasses. In fact, tomorrow we’re going to take some pictures of you with these sunglasses on. We’ll need them for the newspapers. And next week, when we have our last-minute Christmas sale at ShopCo, we’re have our own very cool Santa Claus – not some stodgy old guy in a Santa Claus suit – sharing our Christmas spirit with the Otswego County community. I’d sure like to see Jamesway compete with us for that. Did you know their Santa Claus got mad at some kid in line?”
“Yeah. Something about the kid pulling on Santa’s fake beard and pulling it off his chin… and their Santa getting angry and pushing the kid off his lap. No. Our Santa Claus is cool. That’s fine by me.”
And with that, Samuel Terreault walked around the wooden desk to where George Mitchell was sitting. The two men shook hands.
“George,” he said, “this may be our best Christmas ever.”
George smiled. In his heart, he realized that even if his health issues forced him to retire the Santa Claus suit after this holiday season… at least this would be his most memorable year with the costume.