I haul this story out every few years because it’s the ultimate Christmas story as well as being entirely true.
The mascot of Mesa High School in Arizona is the jackrabbit. Back at the start of time, I spent my senior year half-heartedly cheering on the Mighty Jackrabbits, but no matter how ferociously we yelled, ‘jackrabbit’ it just didn’t resonate like our rivals’ mascots that were all Cougars, Lions and Warriors.
The Mesa Chamber of Commerce threw an extravagant Christmas party in those days. It was held in Pioneer Park, a large downtown park on Main Street, right across from the Mormon Temple. The park is dedicated to the early Latter Day Saints that settled that desert valley oasis. My parents had shackled me to my two younger siblings for the day.
The party always started with hot dogs and root beer and ended with a visit from Santa, handing out toys and candies for the kids. No boring sleigh bells for this Santa, he bailed out of an airplane, parachuting into a cleared circle in the middle of the park. Then he’d wiggle out of his harness, straighten his beard and with a jolly “Ho, Ho, Ho”, pass out heaps of toys and candies before getting whisked away by his extraction team. He usually left a slugfest in his wake, as feral packs of tough little Mormon farm kids battled over the goodies.
All eyes were upon the skies as we waited impatiently for Santa’s red-nosed airplane to deliver the goods. The anointed 2 p.m. came and went and the mood of the crowd, the average age of which was just under 6, went from anxious, to unruly, quickly slipping into surly. Just before things turned really ugly, the whine of a low-flying plane saved the day. Look! Up in the sky! Wave to Santa, kids! Hey! Look! And everyone looked, only to see a couple of guys tossing Santa out of the plane. And he began to fall.
His red suit blurred into a tightening spiral, faster and faster he plummeted downward like a rocket, no hint of a parachute. People began to scream, he’s way off course, he’s gonna land in the street, look out, oh, oh, Oh My G. . .
Santa hit the pavement with a sickening thud just off the curb of Main Street, bursting into a splatter of flying red parts. His head bounced like a slasher movie through horror-struck preschoolers. Gape-mouthed drivers swerved to miss red-suited limbs. For several seconds there was utter, stunned silence before a tiny wail of woe grew to a deafening howl of anguish from the throats and hearts of dozens of 5-year-olds. Santa wasn’t coming back from this one.
The moment defined pandemonium. Santa, poor Santa, lay in tattered pieces strewn over half a block; his suit horribly split open spewing out . . . sawdust and crumpled up newspapers?
The explanation had to wait until the next morning on the front page of the Mesa Tribune. Parachuting Santa had shown up for work too drunk to walk. The Mesa Chamber of Commerce, having no readily available executive director to throw out of a plane, hastily, perhaps in too much haste, concocted a plan. They stuffed a Santa suit with sawdust and newspapers topped with a duct-taped mannequin head. They were going to toss the dummy out a couple of blocks off course, pulling the ripcord as it left the plane.
Live Santa would be driven to a spot near the intended landing and the dummy would be quickly dispatched into the trunk. Live Santa would then run towards the park with all Godspeed and good cheer. It was a good plan, perhaps a great plan, but improperly buckled, Santa’s whole parachute came off as he left the plane, leaving him to fall to his untimely demise before a tender and impressionable audience.
Happy Holidays. Buckle up. Don’t you be the dummy this year.