Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Sleigh Trail

I first became a reluctant Santa in December 1969 while working for a Sears store in Fort Worth, Texas.  The store’s Santa had called in sick just a few minutes before time to appear, and the store manager pointed at me and said, “You’re the biggest guy in the store.  Get in the Santa suit.”  Thus I became Santa for the first time.  I donned the suit a few more times over the next two or three years, and while it was fun, it wasn’t my life’s passion.  Over the next 30 years, I put on the red suit only two or three more times, and it was always with great reluctance. 

In 1975 I grew my beard, but not to be Santa.  I just wanted to grow a beard.  Over time it began to turn gray, then white, and in 2002, I was standing in a grocery store line when a little girl peering over her father’s shoulder suddenly looked at me and shouted, “Santa!”  Well, it was December, so I went along with it and became Santa for her and other children in the store—and I liked it. 

A few months later, about April or so, I was in a Home Depot when a young boy ran up to me and grabbed hold of my leg shouting, “Thank you, Santa!  Thank you for my gift!”  The first thing I did was look around for a parent, then when I located his father grinning at the scene, I became Santa in the middle of the plumbing aisle.

In 2004, I heard on the news about a Santa organization having their annual meeting at a restaurant in Long Beach, CA, so I showed up.  Soon I was enrolled in a Santa School, and I’ve been Santa ever since. 

There is no end to the training and preparation to be a quality Santa.  I have a Master Santa Claus certificate from one the Santa schools, and I study being Santa on my own.  I look like Santa every day of the year, so I must always be prepared to be the best Santa I can be even when I think no one is looking, and in the middle of June.

This means grooming the hair and beard every day.  No drinking or smoking.  No bad breath or spicy foods.  Language must always be guarded.  The list is long, but I have to remember that no matter what I’m doing, people (especially children) always recognize me as Santa.

This also means there are places I cannot go.  Disneyland is such a place.  Anyone whose appearance is of Santa, or a pirate, or any other recognizable character whose look could possibly be confused with the Disney characters, will be barred from entering the park.  Also, I cannot go anywhere there is another working Santa, such as a mall, but this extends to many stores during November and December as well.  Children do not need the confusion of multiple Santa’s in one location.

I have to be current on games, toys, and anything else a child may be hoping to receive as a gift.  I also have to be prepared for those tough questions such as, “Why didn’t you come to my house last year?” or “Can you bring my Daddy home?” or “Why do my Mommy and Daddy fight?”  There are many tough questions, and it’s always hard to hear them from a child, but Santa has to be ready for them.

I am often online with other working Santa’s sharing our knowledge and experiences.  We learn from each other, and we help each other.  Several times I have had the opportunity to be a mentor to newer Santa’s, but the learning process always continues for every one of us.

I was recently the first Santa for a child barely 24 hours old.  His mother said she would have brought him to see me the day he was born, but they wouldn’t let her out of the hospital.

And I have had children approaching 100 years of age sit in my lap to make their Christmas requests.  For many of these older visitors it’s a very emotional experience to be sitting in Santa’s lap for the first time in their lives.  It’s surprising how many older persons have always longed for a chance to get that special hug and attention that Santa provides.

Every year the request list changes a little bit from the year before.  Recently the list has included Angry birds, Barbie (and everything that goes with Barbie), i-phones, i-pads, electronic pets, anything Elmo, bicycles, Legos, Harleys, Cameros, Weii, Xbox, PS3.  It’s an unending list with a lot of surprises.  Many two and three year old children just want toys—any toys.  World Peace comes up a lot. 
I have had requests for a turnip, a can of chicken noodle soup, a hippopotamus, and a big box (I hope she wanted a present inside of the big box).  One four year old wanted deodorant.

I have been privileged to appear at tree lightings for cities and resorts.  I have also been privileged to appear at nursing homes, car lots, garden nurseries, corporate events, and private homes.  I’ve even been seen on national television shows.

Many Santa’s belong to organizations and groups across America and around the world.  Some are local, some are national, and some are international, but all promote quality.  These organizations are helping families and businesses (really, anyone who hires a Santa) to realize the difference between the professional Santa with a real beard, real suit, real boots, and real belt, and a boxed kit Santa with pillow falling out from under his jacket and a beard at a strange angle. 

These organizations also have created a network of many hundreds of professional Santa’s who are in contact throughout the year helping each other improve through training and advice.

In mentioning the Santa organizations, I have to recognize Santa Tim Connaghan.  Through his efforts, many of today’s groups have come into being, and several have reached national and international recognition.  Also, Santa Tim produces one of the most notable Santa schools in America.  Anyone seeking more information about his schools can reach him at .

Today’s American Santa is the result of an evolution that only since WWII has become somewhat standardized.  In the late 1700’s the Dutch of New York celebrated December 6 (St. Nicholas Day) with the character Sinterklass who was included in Washington Irving’s 1809 comic History of New York.  Later Clement Moore gave him a more current description in his poem A Visit from St. Nicholas also known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.  During the post-Civil War era, Thomas Nast continued the development of the appearance of Santa Claus through many illustrations for Harper’s Weekly, but nothing was consistent in the overall appearance of the person.

Santa Claus often appeared jolly and plump, as in Clement Moore’s poem, but just as often he was very thin.  His clothing was more often blue, or brown, or green rather than red.  And he often wore the long robes of the Dutch Sinterklass or other European versions of St. Nicholas.  It wasn’t until Haddon Sundblom began painting Santa for Coca-Cola advertisements in 1931 that the modern image of the jolly old elf began to take shape.  America was just beginning to accept this image of Santa when WWII began, so it was only after the war that the current Santa Claus really exploded with the post war prosperity.

Now this image of the American Santa Claus is spreading around the world.  Countries with a tradition based on St. Nicholas are not unaware of the American Santa even though they still keep their own customs and practices.  But in countries where there is no such tradition, the American Santa is becoming very popular.

Each year several hotels, malls, and large businesses in places such as Tokyo and Hong Kong import American Santas to visit with everyone.  These Santas are treated almost like movie stars as the people celebrate the season (even if they don’t know what the season is about).  Everyone enjoys having a photo made with Santa.

It is believed that the first printed use of the name Santa Claus is found in Rivington’s Gazette (New York City), December 23, 1773.

A Philadelphia merchant J.W. Parkinson may have been the first person to have a store Santa when in 1841 he hired a man to dress up as Kris Kringle and climb the chimney of his department store.

And “Jingle Bells” was originally written as a song for Thanksgiving.

A little more about me can be found at .

Friday, November 16, 2012


The Matilija is a small stream.  Very small.  I believe I’ve caused more erosion than the Matilija just by spilling a glass of water.  But it is local.  And by local I’m referring to anything south of the Tejon or Cajon passes in Southern California, as well as anything between Santa Barbara and Palm Springs.
Clark took me up there on my first outing with a fly rod.  It was a two-hour drive, but since he was driving, I didn’t care.  I don’t get to be a passenger very often, and it was rather nice for a change.  We stopped at a market near Ojai and grabbed some things to chew on later, and then we drove the final few miles to the end of the road where we could park.  Actually it wasn’t the end of the road, but a gate prevented us from driving any farther.  At this place we put on the waders, assembled the rods, gathered up the chewables, and began the walk to the Matilija. 
I am a bit older than Clark.  Well, maybe I am a lot older than Clark.  He is compact.  I’ve grown sideways.  He is a fit outdoorsman.  I am an unfit indoorsman.  His boots are broken in.  My boots are new.  And the trail was either short or long, depending on who is recalling the hike.  But I had fun.
I caught my first trout on a fly on the Matilija that day.  It was a small wild rainbow that was all of five inches long, and it took me several hours to catch it.  The fly that did it was a gold ribbed hare’s ear in a size 16.  I was happy.
The Matilija allowed me to try out my new waders and boots.  I think the last time I wore waders was some forty years ago on a duck-hunting trip.  They were basically plastic coated canvas and were designed very well for letting the water leak in quickly and for chafing along the seams.  Oh, the chafing.  But it didn’t happen with these new breathable waders.  I did get a little damp, but not wet.  And the seams didn’t leak or chafe.  When I got home I turned them inside out and filled them with water to look for leaks, but no leaks, so I guess the dampness was self-induced.
As for the new boots, they could not have been better.  My last pair of hiking boots weighed in at about 15 pounds each, and took more than a year of heavy use to break in, and by then I needed new ones.  These wading boots are much better built than my old hiking boots, much lighter (although still about 4 pounds total), and I was able to have the insides rebuilt to fit my crooked feet exactly.  With these boots on I don’t need to wear the cumbersome brace I wear with my daily footwear.  I’m actually thinking about wearing them every day.  Maybe I’ll just wear the waders also—and keep a fly rod handy.
The walk to the Matilija was really a stroll by any standards, but I hadn’t been outdoors like this in many years and I am quite simply out of shape.  From the gate across the road we were able to cross through an access portal to follow the road over private property to the river.  While other hikers were trying to hop across on a few scattered rocks, Clark and I just waded through. 
We left the road to follow the trail alongside the river and again had a wade-through crossing.  After about ¾ of a mile, we came to another crossing, but this time we decided to wet our lines.  My 9-foot 5-weight rod was definitely overkill, but at the time it was all the fly rod I owned, so I used it.  I looked at the width of the river at this point and guessed that by extending my arm a bit I could simply drop a fly on the surface of the water by the bank across from me, and avoid casting altogether.  But then I looked upstream.  Beautiful.  And I could cast to the riffles from where I stood.
Nothing in my casting lessons at the Long Beach Casting Club prepared me for tree branches.  I raised my rod for a cast and hit a branch.  I tried side-arm and hit a tree.  I tried everything I could think of to cast that fly, but there just wasn’t enough room for my limited experience.  Then Clark mentioned the “bow and arrow” shot.  I have to admit that I felt somewhat stupid trying this method since it just didn’t match anything I knew about fishing—but it worked.  I got that fly exactly where I wanted it.  And a fish rose up to look at it.
I think the #16 mosquito I had tied on was about the same size as the fish that was looking at it.  The fish in this drainage are just not very big, and that was okay with me for this trip.  I considered the importance of this trip to be the experience of being outdoors again coupled with learning the real world use of my equipment.  Even I knew there would be a big difference between the casting pond and the river.  However, a 2-inch fish…
I “bow and arrowed” for a while, and discovered a 3-inch fish was also in the area.  Clark was downstream from me a ways, and when he reappeared he had caught and released a 4-inch trout.  I was jealous.  I wanted a trout, too.  But instead, we had lunch.
After our meal, I crossed the river and headed upriver about a quarter mile, past a camp with loud noise (I won’t say what kind of noise) coming from the couple in the tent, and on to a likely looking place.  The trail was about twenty feet or so above the water, but it was simple to pick my way down the slope to the falls with the pool below it.  I replaced my current fly with a gold ribbed hare’s ear and tossed my line into the froth at the bottom of the 8-foot falls.  I watched the drift, and I watched something rise up to look at it.
Four or five more attempts in different parts of the pool and a trout actually took the fly.  The 5-weight rod was way too big for this 5-inch fish, but I managed to get it to hand without ripping its lip apart.  It was just plain beautiful.  It was a small wild rainbow with a slight golden hue.  Wow.  My first trout on a fly rod.  Now for another.
I switched to a small pheasant tail and continued to work the corners of the pool and the edge of the froth under the falls.  And a second trout fell to my prowess.  This one was just 4 inches long, but just as wonderful to look at as the first.  I left the pheasant tail in place for a few more casts, then switched back to a mosquito. 
The mosquito was not effective except to catch tree branches and ultimately I left it in a branch.  I probably could have retrieved it, but I just left it there.  I went back to the gold ribbed hare’s ear and worked the pool for a while longer, but to no avail.
I gathered my things and climbed back up the slope where Clark was waiting for me.  He handed me a mosquito fly and said he had retrieved it for me.  He had been standing above me at the falls watching for a while.  I certainly didn’t see him, but it was a mosquito he handed me, and he knew I had lost it.
Such adventures come to an end.  We hiked back to the car where we shed the waders and replaced the boots with shoes.  Then we (he) drove back to Long Beach.  Clark did me a great favor that day.  He got me out of the house.  It’s something I had been threatening to do for a long time, but he knew just what to say to me that would get me moving—“Let’s go fishing.”

Monday, November 5, 2012

Uncle Joe's Place

I have memories of eating at my “Uncle” Joe’s place, but they are vague memories from the early years of my life.  My grandfather would sometimes take me to visit “Uncle” Joe, and we would always talk with him and “Aunt” Jessie while we ate spicy smoked beef and cheese enchiladas.  Then “Uncle” Joe went away.  My 4-year-old mind didn’t understand this, and it took me a number of years before I understood that he had died.  But we still went back from time to time to visit “Aunt” Jessie and her children.
“Uncle” Joe’s place was a restaurant.  I believe it was also their home, but I was never certain about it.  The building leaned according to the direction of the wind, and there was no, uh, d├ęcor to it.  It was simply a place to eat.  But it was a very, very good place to eat.
“Aunt” Jessie was also known as Mamasus to almost everyone else.  She and her children continued to feed anyone who walked in the door and through the kitchen to the room where only a few tables and chairs were set up.  And for years I continued to eat there, first with my family, and then as I grew up, on my own. 
When I was about 20 years old, some friends invited me to join them for dinner at Joe T. Garcia’s restaurant for some Mexican food.  I didn’t know where this was, and they were shocked.  Anyone from Fort Worth should know this.  But they gave me some familiar sounding directions, and I drove there.  It was “Uncle” Joe’s place.  I had been eating there all my life, and I didn’t know this tiny ramshackle house was well known and well respected among the Texas restaurants.
One of the Garcia children, Hope, greeted us on the way in and seated us at one of the two larger tables.  Without asking what we wanted, dinner was served.  As always the food was brought to the table family style, and everyone helped themselves to a portion from the serving dishes.  And as always it was very, very good. 
I made it back to the restaurant many more times over the next 5 or 6 years before I moved away from Fort Worth, and I began to notice a third generation of children making their appearance as helpers, servers, and cooks.  But the old restaurant always looked the same.  It was always leaning as though it was going to fall over, but it was always clean and freshly painted.  And busy.  I guess my visitations were timed about right, because I never waited for more than a few minutes for a place to sit down and eat, but I started noticing when I left, a long line of people were standing outside the door.
That was nearly 40 years ago.  I checked out the restaurant on-line recently and it is nothing like my memories.  There is a sprawling building with many spacious outdoor patios for the guests.  Ambience is the extreme opposite of the original building, and there is now a menu.  I hope to get back to visit some day and see if the food brings back memories of “Uncle” Joe’s place.
I can’t remember the exact flavors of the barbeque Joe T. served when I was a kid, but I do remember the uniqueness of the taste.  It was a flavorful, slightly spicy, smoked beef, and I am reminded more of chuck than brisket by the texture.  I don’t remember it being served after his passing, and it could have been something not normally available anyway.  Knowing my grandfather, he may well have special ordered it ahead of time.  But here is the version I created just to satisfy my own hunger.  Warning!  Don’t be in a hurry.
Spicy Smoked Beef
Serves 6.
    1 (10-ounce) can chipotle chilies in adobo
    ½ stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled
    1 (3 to 3 ½) pound chuck-eye roast.  Choose one that is well marbled.  (Even better, make a second roast at the same time.  There is never too much of this stuff.)
    Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Set the roast(s) on a counter, covered, for about 30 to 45 minutes while preparing a smoker for low heat with oak and pecan wood as the smoke source.  The heat should never exceed 225F, and 210F to 215F is ideal.
Remove any stems from the chipotle chilies and place the chilies with all of the adobo sauce in a blender.  Pour in the butter and blend until smooth.
Rub the outside of the roast all over with the mixture, and then pierce deeply with a sharp fork to force some of the sauce into the meat (an injector also works).  Rub the meat again to evenly coat the meat.  Sprinkle salt and pepper over the top.
Wrap the meat in foil and place in a smoker for about 1 hour.  Open the foil wrapper so the meat and juices are still contained, but the meat is fully exposed to the smoke.  Smoke for three additional hours at 215F, and then allow the temperature to slowly reduce to about 190F to 195F over 1 or 2 more hours.  The internal temperature of the roast should also be about 190F to 195F.
Remove the roast from the smoker and wrap in several new layers of heavy foil.  Wrap the foil in several layers of towels, place in a small empty ice chest (not Styrofoam), and close the lid for 2 to 3 hours to finish.  This “sweating” time allows the fats in the meat to continue to melt and distribute through the meat.
Remove from the foil, slice and serve with a couple of big cheese enchiladas.