for snipesearchers with thimbles, care, forks and hope

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Yes Virginia, there is still a Santa Claus

Dear Virginia,

I am writing you now in response to your recent email inquiring as to whether or not there is still a Santa Claus. By way of answering you, I'd like to tell you a little story.

My father is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Idolizing him as I did as a child, it was natural that I also idolized his home town sports teams. I was passionate about the Steel Curtain Steelers of Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Franco Harris, Mean Joe Greene and Jack Lambert. But it was a toss up if I loved them more or the "We Are Family" old-timey outfitted Pirates of Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Kent Tekulve, Ed Ott, Omar Moreno, Phil Garner and all the rest. I'm still a Steelers fan, but the Pirates lost my undying allegiance one day, twenty-seven years ago at Three Rivers Stadium. That day, standing in the first row near third base during batting practice as a fresh-faced ten year old, was the day Willie Stargell tossed a souvenir baseball not to me, but to that sickeningly cute seven year old kid standing next to me.

Interestingly enough, I think that moment bothered me more than -- sorry to blow the lid on this Virginia -- finding out my parents were Santa Claus four years previous. On some level I already knew Santa was a fraud even before Brian Kux, my red-haired neighbor two doors down back in Washington D.C., cemented into eternity my collapsed North Pole house of card illusions one Christmas Day. Playing outside together with our new toys, he told me with an almost conspiratorial glee that he had seen his parents putting presents under the Christmas tree the night before. It didn't come as much of a surprise and, although he was a full year older than me, I didn't need his wizened input to immediately understand the exact implications of what that meant. The writing had already been on the wall for some time now.

After all, Santa looked different every time we met at the shopping mall and sometimes he was in two places at once; I would see him again on the way home from the mall collecting money for the Salvation Army on a street corner, the helicopter he'd come to the mall in nowhere in sight. And didn't Santa use a sleigh anyway? I knew there was something fishy going on by the time I was four.

But Willie? He was my hero and he was still as real and certain to me at ten years old as my conviction was at three that one day I would be older than my six year old sister. I'd seen him hit towering home runs over the fence in center field for crying out loud! You couldn't fake that! I'd seen him swing the bat with such vigor that his body had windmilled around to a point where his knees buckled and he collapsed to the ground in an over-sized brown, black and gold heap. And when he got up, his sheepish grin was visible even to me 20 rows back in shallow left field. To this day I know Willie Stargell bats lefty, if only because I can still play that swing back in my head as easily as one might hit the review button on a DVD player .

Then came that fateful day at the stadium in 1978. Willie had been warming up over by third base, playing catch with some other long forgotten player, and I was there cheering his every throw and catch along with about 10 other wild-eyed, adoring fans. But then it was getting close to game time and so it was time to head over to the dugout. Willie caught the ball one last time and gave his mitt a ritual slap of finality. Then, glove in hand, ball in mitt, he half-ambled, half-trotted toward us. Twenty feet away. Fifteen feet. Ten. Five feet away! I had never been this close to him!

Effortlessly and almost lackadaisically, he scooped the ball from the mitt. We all knew exactly why. Ten high-pitched voices were screaming at him in cacophonic unison to "throw me! me! throw it to me!" the ball. But I knew I loved him more than anyone else. I was sure he would be able to see that. How could he not? Our eyes made brief, fleeting, contact. How could he not see such devotion? How could he not see I didn't live in Pittsburgh and this might be his only chance ever to give me such a coveted trophy? At that moment I was sure, I was utterly positive, that Willie would toss that ball to me.

And then he paused. He hesitated. For about a half second his eyes darted hoppingly from one kid to the next. And then he flipped the ball. He flipped it. Right to that kid, that seven year old kid standing next to me; that kid, who, even if he loved Willie as intensely as I did, could not possibly have loved him more, if only because I had loved him longer.

I was devastated.

It was the first time a hero of mine ever let me down. I was still a Pirates fan after that and sang We Are Family as loudly as anyone else the next year when the Pirates won the World Series against my almost-home-town Baltimore Orioles. All the same, something had been lost. Now it was only winning that mattered, not believing. To be certain, I still played at believing, just as up to the age of eleven or so I still sometimes fancied hearing Santa's sleigh bells tintinabulating across distant rooftops in those anxious moments before sleep on Christmas Eve. But it just wasn't the same. I've never been much of a Pirates, or Willie Stargell, fan since.

Oddly enough, there's a coda to that story. About five years ago, just after my grandfather died, I was in Pittsburgh and told that story to my great uncle Bill. As it turned out, he had some connection to the Pirates and, although I laughed at the offer, he went ahead anyway and put in a request with the organization to get me that ball twenty three years later. This time, though, autographed. Autographed by none other than Willie Stargell himself.

The organization said no.

I know that Willie himself probably never even saw the request, nor would that baseball mean as much to me now as it would have then, so I didn't even think twice about it. Still, as I reflect back on that episode five years ago, I am struck by a nagging sense of melancholy surrounding it. I don't know which is sadder, that that baseball was denied me yet again, or that this time it didn't bother me.

The moral to this story? Perhaps it's just that we shouldn't place too much stock in childhood illusion. Or maybe the story simply highlights in a pointed manner the unfair pressure we put on our heroes to live up to a different , more perfect, standard than the rest of us. Or perhaps, maybe, just maybe, the lesson is a bit darker, nothing more than a cruel recognition that no matter how much you love, it might never be enough, and it might never be returned, or returned only for a time. With that recognition comes what might just be my least favorite part of growing up, knowing enough to expect so little that disappointments cease to disappoint.

If nothing else, Virginia, I wish I had been a little older before learning that lesson. If nothing else, I realize that Im disappointed after all that the Pirates said no to my Uncle Bill. Not because I particularly want that ball any more, but because I would love to be able to tell some ten year old kid somewhere this same story and have the ending be a hopeful, happy one.

I am sorely disappointed that I can't. But the very fact of that disappointment also makes me hopeful. Hopeful if for no other reason than because enough childhood illusion remains within that I can yet experience such disappointment.

Which brings us full circle back to your inquiry regarding Santa Claus. Does he still exist? My answer to you, Brian Kux be damned, is that, yes, Virginia, Santa still exists. He exists at least as much as he existed when first you asked that question of the New York Sun a little more than a hundred years ago. He doesnt live on the North Pole, though. I was right about that. No, Virginia, he lives in your heart, in mine, in all of ours. He was in my parents hearts when they put those presents under the tree each year. He was in the hearts of all those fraud Santas flying about in helicopters and standing on street corners. And he was even in Willie Stargell's heart that day so long ago when, unknowingly, he broke my heart, but gave to the least amongst us, that seven year old kid, a thrill and a souvenir he probably still treasures to this day.

And how do I know that? I know it always by the childlike faith I cling to that yet makes tolerable this existence, and by the intensity of the disappointment I still feel when that faith is injured. For me at least, Santa Claus exists not just as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, but perhaps even more so. In fact, it may just be that Santa and the childlike faith he gives us are exactly what make love, generosity and devotion possible in the first place.

I hope this answers your question, Virginia. And I hope you have a very Merry Christmas, and an even happier New Year.

Sincerely Yours,
Raphie Frank

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