Thursday, December 6, 2012

Christmas Eve and the TV Santa


Christmas Eve and the TV Santa
by Greg Larson

             Mom stuck her head in the rec-room during the afternoon of Christmas Eve in the early ‘60s and announced, “You boys need to shut off that TV and put on your coats. We’re going to take your baby sister to see her godmother who is in an old folk’s home.  This will be our Christmas present to her.  When we get back, your dad should be home from the office party, and your brother will be home from his friend’s house.”

My younger brother, Timmy, and I looked at each other in panic.  We had just settled in with the couch pillows on the tile floor and had cozied up to the black and white television set.  The Looney Tune cartoons were on, and it would soon be time for our favorite afternoon show with Santa on KAKE-TV, channel ten.

“But Mom,” I replied, “It’s Christmas Eve.  We’ll miss the most important show of the year.  Santa Claus and KAKE-man are going to load the sleigh and they’ll be taking off at the end of the show to fly around the world.” 

At the age of twelve, I was tired of pretending to believe in Santa.  He was nothing more than a big benevolent clown who enjoyed Coca-cola . . .but the Santa and KAKE-man show was tradition.  Besides, I didn’t want to see Timmy’s Christmas Eve get spoiled.  I couldn’t believe it.  This was like shutting off a World Series game to go to the grocery store.

Timmy whimpered but it did no good.  Mom was on a mission.  Nothing was going to stop her from parading us and our eight-month-old baby sister in front of her old friend.  She pulled our red parkas out of the closet and handed them to us in the living room while she tucked little Amy Jo into the baby carrier.

I looked at the white-flocked Douglas fir full of glass ornaments, and tried to visualize Christmas morning.  Dad always turned on the flood lights attached to the 8mm movie camera, and we had to wipe the sleep out of our eyes and squint to see what Santa brought us.  I pictured a fantasyland of electric trains and toy trucks.  This day came just once a year.  It had better be good.

Mom loaded us into the baby-blue Plymouth and began the drive to the other side of the city.  Other than an occasional Christmas tree lot and some decorations in a few store windows, it seemed just like another gray winter day . . . really gray. 

Our little sister’s godmother was someone Mom had met and admired in Mother’s Club.  In fact, Mom had named Amy Jo after the elderly Amy.  I had no clue what all those women did at the club meetings, but Mom went to it every month.  On those evenings, Dad made his famous grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for us.  After we dined on the sandwiches, he made popcorn in the big skillet with a lid, and we all settled in to watch the cowboy shows on TV.

The gray streets of Wichita continued to slide past as Timmy and I sat in silence, looking out the car windows.  We didn’t care if some old woman was a righteous role model.  We wanted cartoons.  We wanted Santa Claus, the star of the show, and KAKE-man, his little puppet-sidekick.

It was getting dark outside as Mom pulled the car up to the curb and stopped in front of an old mansion that housed several elderly people.  Timmy and I begrudgingly followed Mom as she carried Amy Jo.  We trailed behind during the walk up to the house.  I could picture Casper the Friendly Ghost hiding in the bushes, or Vic Morrow from the show Combat setting up a command post inside the big house.  I braced myself for a boring eternity inside a place full of old people.

As we entered the mansion, a wave of heat came over us.  I began to sweat in my parka.  The place had a musty smell and was full of big furniture, dark carpets and thick varnished woodwork.  There were a few stained glass windows in the living room and hallways.  It seemed more like Halloween than Christmas Eve. 

Mom introduced us to the elderly Amy in a wide hallway with an old sofa and some side chairs.  We smiled while the gray-haired woman patted our heads with her bony hand encased in wrinkled skin and said, “You have such wonderful looking children.”  Then she sat down to converse in mom-talk and look at our little sister.

Timmy tugged at my coat sleeve and pointed to the corner of the hallway.  Just a few feet away stood a TV cabinet with rabbit ears on top.  We stared at the dark screen. 

He walked over to Mom and tapped her on the shoulder.  “Mom, can we watch TV?”

“Oh boys, not now,” she said as she turned and continued talking to her friend. 

He was persistent and tried again, “Mom, we want to watch KAKE-man.”

She caved in and sighed, “I suppose it’s okay if you keep the sound turned down.”

We hopped over to the set, clicked on the volume and turned the knob to channel ten.  The reception was snowy, so I grabbed the rabbit-ear antennae and moved them around.  Slowly, a fuzzy looking Santa came into view. He was loading the plywood sleigh with bags of packages.

“Ho, ho, ho, KAKE-man. Do you think we have enough toys for all the good little girls and boys this Christmas?  We’d better finish filling the sleigh so we won’t be late.  It takes a long time fly all the way from the North Pole to all the cities and towns around the world.  Ho, ho, ho!”

I had studied the North Pole in my grade school geography book.  It didn’t say anything about a Santa village with elves.  The omission of Santa in the book sealed his fate for me.  I knew it was a big fraud, but a lucrative one for sure, as long as we played the game along with our parents.

Even with the raspy sound coming from the speaker in the TV set, we sat mesmerized by the screen for the next few minutes.  Santa checked his list, and KAKE-man jumped around inside the sleigh.  The excitement was building.  This happened only once a year.

KAKE-man’s voice squeaked, “These packages are heavy, Santa, and it’s so-o c-c-cold up here.”  It was hard to tell the difference between the fake snow on the show and the fuzzy snow on the TV screen.

“It’s time to go boys,” said Mom as she shut off the TV and said her “good-byes” to the old friend.

Timmy and I were horrified, but we held our emotions in check while still inside the mansion.  Once outside, my little brother began to sniffle and smear tears on his cheeks.

I grabbed his shoulder, “Hey, maybe he’s up there in the clouds somewhere.  You never know, you might see him if you look close enough.”  I knew there wasn’t any sleigh up there, but I had to give him some hope.  Besides, he might mistake a blinking light on a small plane for Rudolph. 

          Little Amy Jo cried and Timmy pouted on the way home.  I looked out into the darkness and noticed that most of the businesses had closed early and turned out the lights.

I thought of the evening ahead.  It was a night for singing Christmas Carols at the piano and reading the scripture of the real Christmas story from the Bible.  I sensed that spending time together that evening was really important to Mom.  She seemed happiest when we were doing things as a family.   When it was time for bed, we set out a glass of milk and some of the decorated sugar cookies on a plate for Santa.

The TV screen was dark that evening.