A Picture is worth…

Pulled from the musty and cluttered Marchives; a favorite Christmas tale I told last year to good response. I hope you enjoy it – again, or for the first time.

About 15 years ago, I decided to pick up a few extra holiday dollars by taking a part-time job as a shopping mall Santa. As I was neither the natural size nor age (nor naturally hirsute enough) for the role, I wore a roll of foam rubber beneath my suit, scratchy, silver nylon beard on my chin, and ended up working mostly the mall’s lower-traffic hours.

On a very quiet Wednesday afternoon in early December, I was sitting there in my big Santa chair chatting with my college-student, elf-for-the-day Susie, and grad-school photographer, Jen. We hadn’t taken a picture in an hour or so. As we chatted about school stuff, I looked down the nearly deserted mall and saw a tall, young U.S. Marine, in full dress blues; along side of him was a petite, middle-aged woman; unique, but certainly not the most unusual sight at Brookdale Mall during the holidays.

Until it was obvious they were headed straight to us.

Elf Susie walked cheerfully back to the gate of Santa Land to greet the pair, and I straightened up in my throne and smoothed out my beard – although I wasn’t sure why as I didn’t see any kids with the woman and the Marine. I watched as the boyish Leatherneck glanced around nervously, while the woman spoke to Susie.

I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I was thinking…

“O.K. Santa! This young man is next!” chirpped Susie merrily, as she swung open the little white picket gate for the youthful Jarhead to pass, while Jen took her spot behind the camera. The Marine walked up to me and I greeted him with my usual “Ho-ho-ho” shtick, to which he replied quickly, awkwardly, coming to crisp, serious attention, “Merry Christmas, sir.”

Their story was short, sweet, uncomplicated…unless, I suppose,  you’re a self-conscious,  twenty-year old Marine.

The young man was an only child, U.S.M.C. Corporal home on leave; his widowed mother was very proud of his recent accomplishments, which included a marksmanship award, three ribbons and a training award. Having her son home for the holidays was a huge thrill, and there was only one other thing in the world she wanted for Christmas: pictures of her son in full dress blues…

with Santa Claus.

He had no idea why this particular setting was so important to her, but it was. So there we were on a suddenly interesting Wednesday afternoon: Santa and the Marine.

Keep in mind that this was in the days before digital photography; our pictures were the time-consuming, one-shot-at-a time, Polaroid-you-wait-to-develop-then-stick-in-a-cardboard-frame variety – and the young man’s mother wanted nine of them to send out to relatives all over the country.

The Marine and I had some time to get acquainted.

My arm around his waist, the young Marine sat uncomfortably but patiently at attention on the arm of Santa’s throne, glancing around nervously. After the first picture was snapped, he staged whispered to me, sitting ram-rod straight while staring directly at the camera, “I’m really sorry about this, sir.” I smiled, as much as being referred to by a Marine as ‘Sir’ as the situation itself, and quietly chuckled “ho-ho-ho” as Jen readied the next shot.

“Sorry about what?” I asked, as sympathetically Santa-like as I could.

“About doing this, sir. It’s my mother’s idea. I’m a little…uncomfortable.”

“Ho-ho-ho!” I bellowed. I didn’t much look the part without help, but I could sure play it. “Don’t be.”

The scene continued to play out, the Marine finally getting comfortable enough to relax and lean into my shoulder a little bit, as Jen continued to focus and shoot, reminding us repeatedly to smile – which the Marine did only slightly less uncomfortably with each shot.  We sat there, his mother beaming with pride while chatting with Susie the Elf, me ho-ho-ho-ing it up and trying to help the guy out a little.

After a few shots, I whispered to the young Marine, “O.K., I know this feels silly, but it’s making your mom really happy.” I nodded forward while Jen readied another shot. My favorite Jarhead  glanced at his mother, smiled slightly. “Yes, sir.” he replied, a hint of nervousness in his voice.

He was loosening up a bit, though that was countered as by now as a small crowd was gathering, eyes wide, buzzing with curiosity.  I guess it’s not every day you see a Marine in full dress blues sitting on Santa’s lap. The Marine smiled self-consciously. I made more Santa-and-client small-talk while Jen snapped away. “Grow up around here? Afraid you’re going to see somebody you know?” I inquired.

“Yes, sir,’ he said evenly, staying focused on the camera, “I graduated from Park Center.”(a high school within walking distance of the mall.)

I nodded acknowledgement of his predicament, ho-ho-hoed some more, asked him a few more questions, reminded him a couple more times about how his mother was smiling, talked Vikings football with the young man, tried not to chuckle at the situation, while Jen finished getting all of the pictures to the mom’s satisfaction.

It took us fourteen shots to get the nine pictures the Marine’s mom wanted (I saved a couple of the botched extras; they were wonderful.)  As his mom was paying Jen for the pictures, and newly Marine-smitten Susie finished sliding each picture into its candy-cane-and-reindeer-motif cardboard frame, the young Marine stood up, turned toward me, started to salute but then stuck out his hand to shake mine. “Thank you, Santa…sir.” he said in what I think was proper-holiday-protocol-Marine-speak.

He wore a proud, Marine-on-duty, restrained smile.

Then, bag of Santa pictures in hand, proud mother and dutiful, loving son walked off, arm-in-arm back down the mall, as the smiling crowd parted, then quickly dispersed.

In the years since, I’ve gotten the opportunity to tell this story to a few Marines. Younger Jarheads tend to look at me quizzically, apparently pondering the obvious ‘what ifs.’ Older Corpsmen mostly nod, smiling proudly. A few have welled up hearing the story.

Most have agreed it’s a pretty good, unique take on ‘Semper Fi’.

As for me, every year around this time I read newspaper or magazine articles, or the question comes up in conversation: ‘what’s the best Christmas present you ever got?’ That question is not nearly so memorable to me as the story I can tell about one of the best Christmas presents I ever had a (small) part in giving.

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