Authors: Gary Paulsen
OTHER YEARLING BOOKS YOU WILL ENJOY:
OTHER BELLS FOR US TO RING
THE CANADA GEESE QUILT
WHEN HITLER STOLE PINK RABBIT
THE MORNING GLORY WAR
THE CASTLE IN THE ATTIC
THE BATTLE FOR THE CASTLE
YEARLING BOOKS/YOUNG YEARLINGS/YEARLING CLASSICS
are designed especially to entertain and enlighten young people. Patricia Reilly Giff, consultant to this series, received her bachelor’s degree from Marymount College and a master’s degree in history from St. John’s University. She holds a Professional Diploma in Reading and a Doctorate of Human Letters from Hofstra University. She was a teacher and reading consultant for many years, and is the author of numerous books for young readers.
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Text copyright © 1992 by Gary Paulsen
Illustrations copyright © 1992 by Leslie Bowman
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For my mother’s laughter
t comes on everybody at a certain time in their life to not believe in Santa Claus.
For me it came during the war, the Second World War, and my father was fighting in Europe. We lived in a large, poor apartment in Minneapolis for a time then, and my mother worked in a laundry during the day and could not always be with me.
Different people on our floor took care of me at different times, or were supposed
to, but often I just had the run of the floor. I was probably a nuisance and yet most people were more than nice to me. I would sometimes spend whole days in different apartments, eating cookies and listening to the radio or playing war with a small wooden gun that I had and everybody seemed to tolerate me.
But there was one old man named Henderson, who lived with his wife at the end of our floor, who did not like children. He did not like me in particular, but I thought he must not like any children and a week before Christmas in 1943 I was playing in the hall, running back and forth, when I passed Henderson’s apartment and saw something that stopped me cold.
Mr. Henderson was standing by the kitchen table with his wife. On the table was a glass jar of red wine. I knew about red wine because one of my baby-sitters was an old woman who drank red wine from a jar.
Mr. Henderson had some wine in a jelly glass and just as I ran past he was taking a drink.
He was dressed in a Santa Claus suit.
There were too many things to take in, too many stunning things. I had complete, utter belief in Santa Claus. I had seen him in a store sitting on a raised platform, had been terrified by his power over me. I tried to be good; and when it didn’t work and I was bad I hoped that he would not hear of it, and when I sat in his lap to tell him what I wanted I nearly peed in fear. He meant Christmas and toys and more to me and I had seen his work. The year before I had asked for an army rifle with a wooden bullet that moved back and forth with the bolt and Santa did not find out that I had played with matches and I found the rifle beneath the tree on Christmas morning.
And now I found that Santa Claus was Mr. Henderson. An old man who drank red
wine and scratched and spit and swore at me, and who I had heard my mother say to a neighbor woman couldn’t hold a job—that was Santa Claus.
I could not believe it and so I stood in his open door and looked up at him and asked him:
“Are you Santa Claus?”
He looked down at me and took a drink of wine and nodded. “Sure, kid. I’m Santa Claus.”
I believed him. He had no reason to lie to me and he was standing there in the suit with the hat on and his wife was holding his beard. How could he not be Santa Claus?
I ran back to our apartment and cried some. When mother came home from work she had a can of Spam, which we ate at dinner with fried potatoes, but even that was not good enough to cheer me and I told her.
“Mr. Henderson is Santa Claus.”
Mother stopped chewing. “What do you mean?”
“I saw him today. He was dressed in his suit and I asked him if he was Santa Claus and he said he was.”
She didn’t say anything.
“I thought Santa Claus lived at the North Pole and had reindeer, and now Mr. Henderson says he’s him. Is that right?”
“Not really, punkin. Sometimes stores will hire somebody at Christmas to pretend he is Santa Claus so that children can talk to him—”
“But there is only supposed to be one Santa Claus, isn’t there?”
“Yes, but …”
And of course it didn’t matter after that, didn’t matter what she said. It was done. Santa Claus was ruined, was gone, and I knew he didn’t exist and that I had been lied to and there had never been a Santa Claus.
I cried some and Mother sat with me for a time on the couch that felt like a carpet and had flowers on it, and she said some things about Mr. Henderson that weren’t very nice. But it didn’t change what I had seen or knew and I would probably have spent the rest of my childhood and perhaps my whole life not believing in Santa Claus.
But the next day mother came home from work and sat at the kitchen table. She put me in her lap and opened an envelope.
“We got a letter today from Marilyn. She wants us to come up and spend Christmas with them at the store in Winnipah. You’ll get to see Matthew and everything. Won’t that be fun?”
I had mixed feelings about going north. My uncle Ben and aunt Marilyn owned a store in the town of Winnipah. The store was right on the lake, with a dock that went out over the water. I had only been there in the summer, when we lay on
the dock and watched the large green fish swim down in the cool shadows.
I had never seen it in the winter and didn’t think it would be as much fun as it had been in the summer.
And Matthew was a problem as well. He had something wrong with him so that everybody said he was dying. I wasn’t supposed to know it, but I had heard the grown-ups talking about it more than once, sitting and crying and talking about it. Dying didn’t mean the things to me then that it did later. All I really knew was that Matthew had to stay in a bed in the back room of the store and was all puffy and yellow-looking. Dying to me meant what Mother worried about all the time—that Father would die in Europe and not come home. I did not think of it as an end so much as somebody just not coming home, and had not worked out how Matthew could die when he was already home.
And then there was Santa Claus. When you are young it is necessary to be more practical than it is when the years have you. I was convinced that there was not a Santa Claus, but what if I was wrong? Would he be able to find us if we were not home?
This was, of course, a crucial issue, as well as the fact that if indeed Santa Claus
Mr. Henderson, I only had about a week to be nice to him and get him to like me. Judging by the way he treated me it would be a difficult job, and so when Mother said how much fun it would be to visit Uncle Ben for Christmas there were too many factors involved to give a quick answer.
I thought about it and thought about it and was still thinking about it when Mother dressed me in my coat and snowsuit so I looked like a blue marshmallow, and we rode the bus down to the train station two days later.
I loved trains. They were like huge, friendly monsters, and in the station Mother took me close to the engine so I could look at it. The wheels seemed to reach to the ceiling, and even though there was an engineer up in the little cabin, I did not think trains were run by people. I thought they were alive somehow and carried us because they liked us and were just resting in the station, letting out puffs of steam and rumbling, and that the engineers were just there to take care of things and feed the engine.
It was morning when we left, and the car was warm and had soft seats. Mother took off all my winter clothes and put them in the racks over the seats and let me sit next to the window.
The glass had frost all around but was clear in the middle, and it was like looking through a telescope at the world. People came and went, and on another platform I
saw a soldier come off a train and run to meet a woman who almost jumped on him and hugged him. When I turned to Mother, she had seen it as well and was crying.
“Aren’t they lucky to be together for Christmas?” She wiped her eyes and pushed my hair out of my face. “I miss your father, punkin. So much.”
I was going to tell her that it wouldn’t be so bad because we were going to the store, and she liked to be with Aunt Marilyn because they laughed together all the time, but before I could speak the train jerked.