My stint as Santa

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When someone tells you that a journalist will do anything to get a story, short of an ethics violation, there’s some truth to that. If you don’t believe me, read the following story, presented in the spirit of Christmas. It was originally published by The Honolulu Advertiser on Dec. 16, 2007 when I was a feature writer and columnist in the Island Life section. And here’s a little-known fact: This wasn’t the first time I was a Santa for a story, as you’ll see if you get to the bottom of this story.

By Mike Gordon, Advertiser Staff Writer

The first child looked up from her stroller, brown eyes growing wide, and promptly began to cry.

Ho, ho, ho, no. The “Merry Christmas” caught in my throat. Then she began to howl. Not a very good start, Santa.

Two minutes into my shift as a mall Santa, and my self-confidence was being tested. Was I doing this right? I was just walking toward the Santa chair, and things were going wrong already.

Maybe it was my furry red suit. Or the enormous white beard, which was fake. Maybe I should have had bells that jingled. The other Santas had bells.

When you put on a Santa suit, you have only one mission: Make everyone smile. Your whole job is to embody the soul of the season, to share the joy of Christmas and touch the hearts of those who believe.

It’s a tough gig. Failure translates to disappointment. If you can’t make someone’s wish come true, you have to at least leave them thinking it’s possible.

The spirit of Christmas can be elusive, as hard to grasp as chimney smoke. Some might even say it’s nothing more than pleasant nostalgia.

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But I can tell you otherwise. I found it the other day at the Kahala Mall.

Undaunted by a few tears, I kept on walking.

The next child I met looked at me with a face as bright as holiday lights. Kai was 2.

“What do you want for Christmas?”

“Babies.”

I blinked.

Turned out her mother is already pregnant. Close call, Santa.

“Merry Christmas,” I said to a pert salon worker watching this unfold. “Have you been good, or do I have to bring you coal?”

“Not that good,” she said. “Mostly good, but just a little naughty. Mostly good, though.”

“Santa understands,” I said. “Santa has been around a long time.”

Of course, the next encounter left a child in tears.

To prepare for my gig as the holiday’s biggest icon, I consulted a true master: Patrick Brown, a 56-year-old Kaimuki resident who has worked as a mall Santa for more than three decades.

Brown grows his own beard, which is bleached white for the holidays, and he doesn’t need a pillow in his pants.

He can make an entrance that’s all Christmas. He has bells on his belt, bells on his wrists and bells hanging from his cap. The slightest motion triggers a spasm of jingles.

“You gotta like kids,” he said. “That’s the most important thing. Sometimes you are getting the young kids. The younger ones are the fussy ones. You have to get their confidence so they’re not afraid.”

This guy knows from experience. In a single holiday season, Brown will listen to more than 5,000 fervent Christmas wishes, he said.

One year, a parent handed him her 3-day-old child. Another year, a 105-year-old woman was brought before him in a wheelchair.

“She said to her daughter, ‘I am going to get out of this wheelchair and walk up and sit on Santa’s lap,’ ” Brown said. “And that’s what she did.

“She just laughed and said, ‘God bless you, Santa,’ and gave me a big hug.”

A mall Santa is nothing without his suit.

It has power. It grants those who wear it a license to wave at strangers and to nudge them into a smile when you say “Merry Christmas.” Hey, you can even make them feel guilty if they don’t smile.

Strangers will take your photograph and pose with you. Of course, it isn’t you they’re posing with, it’s Santa.

But let me tell you a little secret: You aren’t you, either. You’re Santa.

Regan Yamashiro, manager of The Costume Closet, warned me when I picked up the suit that it would make me behave differently. This time of year, that happens a lot, he said. People step into the suit like Clark Kent steps into a phone booth.

“I see them prancing around all of a sudden, acting like Santa and practicing their ho, ho, ho,” Yamashiro said. “They may be hesitant at first, but once the suit is on, they are totally different.”

Trouble was, this Santa could use a few more pounds. Walking a mile in Santa’s shoes is easier than walking in his pants. When I stepped into them, I looked like one of those “after” photos from a weight-loss program.

Yamashiro included torso padding that looked like it did double duty on an umpire’s chest during baseball season. Steee-rike.

It took a bit of creativity to secure the padding. The whole time, I was one broken safety pin away from disaster. (Ho, ho, HO, my goodness — Santa moons mall!)

And not that you’ve ever pondered this, but mall Santas suffer for their craft. Those suits are hot.

Under the wig, I was a sheep dog with reading glasses. The beard tickled. I had hair in my teeth.

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As I sat in the Santa chair, it was all I could do to be patient. Trust me, five minutes alone on the big guy’s throne can make you feel like the loneliest Santa in the world.

So I waved at people.

“Hi, how are you? Do you want to come say hello to Santa? No? Oh, that’s OK, when Santa was little, he was shy, too. But not for very long.”

I was pathetic.

Then I met Logan Bennett, a 3-year-old from ‘Alewa Heights.

“Do you want to tell me what you want for Christmas?” I said.

“I want my own black Nintendo.”

“I have to ask you: Have you been good? You have? Actually I knew that because I’m watching. So I’m glad you’re good.”

“Are you, like, all over, looking?”

“Well, Santa knows things. Santa finds out. It’s like Santa radar.”

Long moments passed after Logan left, and I managed to scare another child to tears before the Nishihira twins from Mo’ili’ili rescued my confidence. They’re 4.

“Hi, Santa,” Micah Nishihira yelled from across the mall in a tiny voice. “We love you.”

He introduced me to his sister, Mia, and pointed to his mother.

“Now we have to go.”

When I waved at Jason Schriber, a 4-year-old Hawai’i Kai boy, his brow wrinkled.

“I saw you two times already, yeah? I saw you two times.”

But he wouldn’t say no to a third visit with Santa.

“You want a candy cane?” I said. “C’mon. There you go. Hey, what do you want for Christmas?”

“Didn’t I just tell you?”

“Will you leave me out a cookie on Christmas Eve?”

“I might.”

“You might?”

“My mommy always does it.”

“You know, I’ve been good enough for a cookie.”

Nothing lasts forever, and some fantasies end just as you discover that they are both wonderful and fleeting.

When it was time to leave the mall, I walked slowly. In a few minutes, I would have to relinquish the suit, the itchy beard and the power to say that dreams come true, even when they can’t.

I waved at everyone. I wished shoppers a Merry Christmas. I stopped for a father who wanted to know if Santa had time for one more child.

The power to make someone happy is not something one takes lightly.

In the parking lot outside the mall, the Santa suit safely folded and put away, the world looked ordinary. Shoppers walked with purpose. Drivers stalked parking stalls.

“Ho, ho, ho,” I said. “Merry Christmas.”

No one noticed.

Reach Mike Gordon at mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com

*****

Santa’s first gig

My first gig as a mall Santa was in 1988 when I was a Honolulu Star-Bulletin feature writer in the Today section. 

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She was a Harvey Girl at heart

I haven’t written in weeks. It’s the longest period of my professional career that I’ve gone without writing. That isn’t a complaint, just an observation. But in its place, and until I get myself going again here, I’ve had fun with some old stories from my personal archives. This story was originally published in January 1992 when I wrote a weekly people column for The Sun in San Bernardino. It’s one of my favorites.

Mike Gordon’s People: Woman tracks the early days

SAN BERNARDINO – Flo Strano stood at the edge of the steel rails and hoped for a ride back in time.

Strano didn’t have a ticket. Just a prayer.

She wore the white dress of her youth. Ankle length with black stockings and black shoes. A black bow on her chest, a white headband around her white hair.

She wasn’t 16 anymore, and this wasn’t Barstow. She was 88, a great, great, great grandmother from San Bernardino.

But she was still a Harvey Girl at heart.

“I’m the oldest one alive,” she said. “I started in July 1919.”

Friday, at the San Bernardino depot, Strano was a living piece of history waiting for another living piece of history.

Somewhere down the line was Santa Fe Engine 3751, a restored steam locomotive on a special excursion to Bakersfield via Barstow.

Strano wanted to catch a ride on a four-day trip that will bring the engine back to San Bernardino at about 11 a.m. today.

Even though she didn’t have the $1,100 for a ticket, organizers told Strano that she could board the train. But no one sent her a ticket.

She waited at the depot, suitcase in hand and $75 in her pocket.

She’d dance for meals if she had to. She just had to get on that train.

“Because it’s history,” she said, tapping her toe. “I feel like I’m an antique. And I feel like I’m representing Fred Harvey himself.”

From the 1880s through the 1930s, Harvey House restaurants flourished along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.

Weary travelers were greeted by the Harvey Girls, who served hot meals, sandwiches and coffee in San Bernardino, Needles, Bagdad and Barstow.

It was a wild west adventure at $40 a month, room and board included.

“No cursing,” she said. “No drinking. Well, it was dry back then anyway. We had to be in our room by 9 p.m. — 11 p.m. on dance nights.”

Strano pulled a photo from her purse — a snapshot of a dark-haired girl, four days by train from Leavenworth, Kan., in a town she’d never heard of before.

She met her first husband in Barstow.

“A fry cook, wouldn’t you know,” she said

He played an ukulele but didn’t know how to sing.

“We used to go out in the desert and light bonfires and sing songs,” she said. “That’s how we entertained ourselves.”

As the depot crowd swelled, the old-timers spotted Strano first.

Some stared as if she were a ghost. Many took her picture.

Strano was their ticket to days gone by, to memories worth remembering.

“I was a hard-working gal then,” she said. “I hope they let me on that train.”

Then a whistle blew in the distance, and the rails began to hum under tons of history.

Engine 3751 had arrived, a hulking, steam-spewing memory come to life.

Now it was Strano’s turn to see a ghost.

She smiled anyway and clutched the elbow of crewmember Jeff Johannsen, who vowed he would get her on that train. And he did.

He took her to the door of a Pennsylvania Steamliner, helped her up the steps.

Strano had had a ticket all along. Her dress. Her Harvey Girl smile. Her memories.

She waved goodbye and for one brief moment, it seemed that Strano had stepped into a faded black-and-white photograph.

Into history.

 

The other Arizona

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Claire Hetrick beside the rusted remnants of the battleship USS Arizona in 2006.

The term “last hurrah” is used so often, that a skeptic could say it has no meaning.

But this week, when some of this nation’s oldest living veterans — men in their 90s — gather in Hawaii to mark the 75th anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, no one will deny that undeniable truth.

One of the veterans who had planned to attend was Clare Hetrick, a survivor of the USS Arizona. But he died in Las Vegas in April at the age of 92. His family plans to have his ashes interred with his fellow shipmates.

I interviewed Hetrick in December 2006 when the Navy escorted him and his family to a little-known section of the battleship that was salvaged after the war and stored on a shady stretch of Pearl Harbor shoreline.

Over the years as a reporter with The Honolulu Advertiser, I wrote a lot of stories about the anniversary and covered it several times. Every one of them was special and a tale I relished telling. But this is my favorite. It was an emotional experience for everyone there. Here is the story as originally published on Dec. 7, 2006.

 

THE OTHER ARIZONA

By Mike Gordon, Advertiser Staff Writer

Clare Hetrick leaned on his two replacement knees and a wooden cane, an arm’s length away from a piece of his distant past. Then, the 83-year-old former mess cook on the USS Arizona swept a mottled hand across the rusted skin of his old battleship.

“This is the sight of my life,” he said. “I never dreamed that I’d see it again.”

It was the rarest of reunions.

Most of the battleship lies at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, a sacred memorial to those killed during the Dec. 7, 1941 attack. But a section of the ship remains safely hidden on Waipi’o Peninsula — several tons of steel cut from the Arizona wreckage in 1962.

Hetrick, a Pearl Harbor survivor from Bullhead City, Ariz., told the Navy that this would likely be his last trip of any kind. On Tuesday, the Navy granted Hetrick’s request for a visit. He brought his entire family — his wife, three sons, their wives and his three grandchildren.

“We didn’t believe we’d ever get to do it,” said Jeanne, his wife of 61 years. “He doesn’t show emotions but his whole insides is shakin’. When we get this over with, it will be a big sigh of relief. We got to see it.”

Clare Hetrick — Clare is short for Clarendon — joined the Navy because he got tired of going to high school in Lemon Grove, Calif. It was either that or get a job, he said.

Hetrick was an 18-year-old seaman first class on the Arizona the day it was sunk. He was shaving in the forward head when the attack began and immediately ran to his battle station several decks below in the aft magazine for the 5-inch anti-aircraft guns. He was dressed only in his skivvies.

“When we took the big hit, we lost all power,” he said. “It knocked us all off our feet. There were five of us in there.”

The men scrambled up a ladder to escape. But Hetrick found another sailor stuck in a hatch above him. Hetrick didn’t know it then, but the man had broken both his hips when the blast threw him around. He pushed the sailor through the hatch and they somehow made it over the side.

“If I had been almost anywhere else, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I didn’t get so much as a scratch.”

HUMBLING EXPERIENCE

Hetrick spent most of the war aboard the USS Saratoga, fighting in campaigns that included the battle of Iwo Jima, for which he earned a Purple Heart. One night, he and his ship survived five kamikaze attacks.

After the war, he joined the Air Force, where he served for 20 years. He retired as a master sergeant and moved his family to central California, where he became a farm labor contractor.

His children knew their father was an Arizona survivor, but the depth of responsibility that came with that was something they didn’t quite understand, said youngest son Bob Hetrick, a 43-year-old butcher-turned-information technology student from Las Vegas.

“My whole life I grew up being the son of an Arizona survivor and for a lot of years, I didn’t know what it meant,” he said. “We went to parades, but I didn’t understand what it meant until my 20s, that surviving the Arizona was a big deal.”

The Arizona crew suffered 1,177 casualties in the attack, including an estimated 900 men who still are entombed in the hull. It is something none of the survivors can forget, a responsibility that brings them back.

But the salvaged section of the battleship — a length of sagging steel not much longer than a city bus — isn’t part of any Pearl Harbor tour. And it isn’t a memorial, either. It’s stored at the end of a dirt road on a restricted section of Navy property. It’s only real purpose is to provide pieces of memorabilia for small memorials across the country.

The Hetricks had heard stories of its existence, but not how to secure a visit. Last December, however, they were told to call the Navy, which arranged for access.

For nearly a year, the trip was a source of excitement. Family members were prepared to quit their jobs if they were denied time off.

So when they found themselves actually standing before it, their feet crunching on rusted flakes around them, the Hetrick clan was humbled.

‘I’LL NEVER FORGET IT’

When he first saw it, Ben Hetrick swirled with emotion. A Vietnam War veteran who can’t bring himself to visit that war’s memorial, the oldest of the Hetrick sons viewed the salvaged Arizona section with a touch of fear.

It took his breath away.

“I don’t know how to explain my feelings,” said Ben Hetrick, a 59-year-old tax consultant from Modesto, Calif. “When I first saw it, it sent chills down my spine. Now that I’m closer, it’s almost friendly.”

After a few minutes, tears slid down Bob Hetrick’s cheeks.

“It’s incredible that it’s still here,” he said. “It’s a piece of history and I’ll never forget it and I don’t think my family ever will.”

He had been to the memorial with his father, but to touch the ship himself — even a section as ordinary as the boat deck and the galley — was entirely different.

“The memorial is a place of remembrance and to pay homage to those who did lose their lives,” he said. “To me, this is more of something to celebrate the survivors. This is the original Arizona survivor. I liken this to my dad and the rest of the survivors.”

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“This is the sight of my life. I never dreamed I’d see it again.” — Clare Hetrick when he saw remnants of the battleship USS Arizona in 2006. 

Throughout the visit, Clare Hetrick was stoic. He’d viewed this as a homecoming of sorts, but what he saw was disturbing.

“Is this what you thought?” said Jeanne, his 78-year-old wife.

“No,” he said.

Nothing was recognizable anymore. What was left of the ship was falling apart — just like the old survivors, he said.

But the steel embraced him nonetheless, took him back to a time when its interior was slathered in white paint and he was agile enough to race to his battle station on two good knees.

“I didn’t realize it is as tore up as it is,” he said. “Otherwise, I’m not disappointed. I’m proud to be here. It gives you a pit in your stomach.”

Reach Mike Gordon at 525-8012 or mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com.