The Big Christmas Payoff, Jean Shepherd Style
The date was December 13, 2008. It was the day after I disembarked from a puddle-jumper at Lafayette Regional Airport to enjoy a three-week vacation in the warmth of south-central Louisiana. After going to Mass and eating with my grandparents, I followed my mom to Acadiana Mall. Since she wanted to check her schedule at her place of employment in said mall, I figured we would be there for only five minutes. My guess was off by about 120 minutes. After I realized we’d be there for the long haul, I wandered off into depths of the shopping center, grazing territory I had not seen since before Hurricane Gustav hit the area that past September. I sauntered through the corridors, and, after a couple minutes, approached the mall’s center court, where one of the time-honored traditions of the Christmas season was right before my eyes—mall Santa Claus.
As I strolled up to his perch, I could tell that rent-a-Santa was having a rough day. Who wouldn’t after having to hold and talk to children between the ages of two and twelve with a twenty-minute lunch break at around 2:00 in the afternoon? After getting rid of one kid, Santa’s elves placed two more children—these looked to be between the ages of two and five—on his lap. The younger one was scared beyond all belief and wailed during his entire visit with St. Nick. I calmly approached the side gate and shouted, “Hey, kid! He’s not real! Honest!” As soon as I saw the heads of angry parents turn in my direction, I bolted away from Santa’s makeshift factory to find safer ground.
Shortly thereafter, the thoughts of Jean Shepherd and his movie popped into my head. After taking fifteen minutes to allow the fallout from ruining many children’s Christmas dreams to clear, I returned to Santa’s Acadiana home office and got in line to visit the man himself. Some parents directed strange looks towards me, but I wasn’t phased. After twenty-five minutes of following the queue, I arrived at Santa’s personal TSA agent—the head elf, better known as the guy that takes your money when you want to take a picture with the jolly old soul. The elf didn’t give me a second thought, as he thought I was with the young mother and toddler standing in line behind me. The fun was about to begin.
After thirty-two minutes of waiting in line, I finally got to see Santa Claus in person. He was a bit bewildered to see a five-foot-ten, two-hundred-some-odd-pound guy standing before him. After giving me a quizzical look, he asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?” I replied in the affirmative, and he asked what he could do. “I really want one thing for Christmas, Santa,” I intoned in my deepest-possible voice. “What’s that, kid?” he asked. Without missing a beat, I answered with the following:
“I want a carbine-action Red-Rider BB gun with a scope, a compass, and a thing that tells time on it!”
Santa was stunned. He gave me a baffled stare as I managed to hold a wide grin on my face. After five seconds of silence, Santa gave me the payoff line:
“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid . . . NOW GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!”
I immediately obliged his request and ran away from Kris Kringle’s abode, and made my way back towards my point of origin. My night was complete.
I guess there is a little bit of Ralphie in all of us. I think Jean Shepherd realized that when he wrote his semi-autobiographical story back in 1966. I don’t think he ever could have envisioned someone taking one of the most indelible scenes in Christmas pop culture history and bringing it to life—albeit with a slightly modified version of Ralphie’s famous line. May that childlike innocence and ambition that Ralphie has live on in all of us, and may all of you have a Merry Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or any other holiday I might have forgotten to list.
Author’s Note: This was originally written on December 28, 2008. I ran across it the other day while deleting files off of my computer. Since it’s that time of the year, I figured I’d share it with you. This was written while I was at home for Christmas break during my junior year of college. And yes, this REALLY did happen. Merry Christmas!