Meeting the Real Santa

No child enjoys being scolded, especially by a beloved adult, but being personally reprimanded by Santa Claus is a special burden.

It was 1966 or ’67. I was of an age when I not only accepted the existence of Santa Claus as unassailable truth, but could also readily believe my dad when he told me we were going to visit him one summer day at Santa’s boatyard in San Pedro.

I had already seen Santa Claus at least once in his official capacity. I remember being astounded when he called children he had never met before by name to come up out of a crowd somewhere — Sears, perhaps? — to give them a toy he somehow knew they wanted, including me. It was a green Matchbox race car I’d longed for, and still possess.

I was also no stranger to boats or boatyards by then. My parents had been toting me along on sailing trips since I was an infant. One of my earliest memories is just a flash of a glance through the green netting of the cargo hammock where I was stowed, strung up like a sack of potatoes between portholes. I was well acquainted with boatyards too since my parents and their friends, I learned later, had been scouting for a boat to buy in partnership. It was perfectly normal to me that Santa would spend time at such a place — didn’t everyone?

I must even have wondered or asked what he might give me on this occasion because I remember imagining the obvious answer: a toy boat.

It was a hot, dusty gravel lot lined with crooked rows of boats in various states of repair or decay, some surrounded with dubious scaffolding. There was a long open building, just a roof really, sheltering massive saws and piles of cast-off engine parts, anchors, and giant collapsing coils of stinking rope.

Santa did not look well. He was thin and gray, with a long red beak of a nose and a scraggly beard he stroked with one hand while his other held a cigarette. I have no memory of being introduced, but he and my dad joked about his having to put on weight and grow the beard out soon. Stray dogs roamed the boatyard and occasionally Santa would pick up a rock to throw at one.

“Meeting Santa” had been a lazy ruse to get me into the car and out of my mother’s hair probably, but I didn’t think that way then.

We examined one particularly enormous hulk, brownish and sunbaked. The two men stepped around the scaffolding and boat stands, examining the fabric bulging out of the seams of the hull. I, being whatever age I was, naturally began climbing the scaffolding like monkey bars until I was high enough to look inside. There was no deck, just a maze of crooked bulkheads surrounding a giant, rusted corpse of an engine.

“Hey Jungle Jim, don’t climb all over that!” yelled Santa. When I was back on the ground, he added, “You can’t just climb everywhere, we don’t have enough coffins!”

He did not give me a toy boat.

It was months later, maybe even a year, when we were at another boatyard. This time my mom came along, and we met our sailing friends there. This yard was at a marina in Redondo Beach that had a giant rolling box hoist with slings in the middle, for launching boats.

A large truck appeared towing a 40-foot ketch standing tall on her full keel, glistening in new black paint, dwarfing everything around her. 

Santa Claus was driving the truck. I cringed.

My parents and their friends had purchased the hull we examined in San Pedro and brought it back to life, building a new deck and scavenging two massive crane booms off a Navy cargo lighter to serve as her twin masts. The adults crowded around the boat like it was a dream come true. Because it was.

They were all starting their families and careers. Some, like my dad, had been home for just over a decade from Korea; now he and his friends were on standby to go to Vietnam. They grinned and laughed like children while my mother and the other wives solemnly ran their hands over the hull seams she and the others had re-caulked, either imparting or asking for a blessing. 

That hull was already 30 years old then but she was our first boat, well-found, sullen and sluggish in anything but a small gale and, as we repeatedly learned, unbreakable. Re-christened “Phoenix,” she changed the trajectory of our lives by changing the people who sailed her through long, wet passages, seafood feasts and marathon poker games; adventures, dangers and moments preserved now only in me and other aging children. 

Someone rolled a standing ladder up against the boat and the adults clambered aboard. I followed.

“Hey, Jungle Jim.” I climbed down and walked over to that old gray man with the thin red nose, but kept my eyes on the ground. “Here,” he said. I looked up. He handed me a small candy cane wrapped in cellophane, and winked.

Award-winning journalist Ted Olinger lives in Vaughn.

Another Last Word
Another Last Word