hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

December 5, 2013

Fantasy world leads to Gazette Santa

Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — Ever since I was old enough to know better, I lived inside a fantasy world.

There was the time my dad took me to a Red Sox game and I got to see Ted Williams belt a homer at Fenway Park.

Why couldn’t I grow up to be like the Splendid Splinter? He must have started out like me — a lad with perceptive vision, high hopes and a compelling work ethic. That mirage petered out when the only flies I was chasing in the outfield were the real ones.

Then came the astronaut phase. With all this business about landing on the moon and exploring outer space, I wanted to grow up and become a space traveler like Alan Shepard.

I never got the chance to go above ground until my very first flight as a married man. The movie star I had envisioned never came to pass, nor did my urge to become a scientist. The chemist in me blew up a lab one day in high school and detonated a new pursuit.

So I became a journalist — and a Santa Claus! Yes, everything I had hoped to be was loosely woven inside a red suit and black boots. Nothing that a little padding and big stomach couldn’t remedy.

The role found me quite by accident. I was covering the sports beat for this paper when the editor approached my desk with a stack of letters in hand.

“You’re going to be the Gazette Santa this season,” he urged. “The way it works around here is that everyone takes a turn. Use the letters and let’s crank out a daily plea to our readers for support.”

“But I’m covering basketball,” I retorted, hoping to weasel out of the assignment.

“Maybe if you do a good job, Santa will bring the Hillies a winning season,” he shot back. “Maybe you may grow to like it.”

One year led to two and another after that, until it became a regular beat. The ball had bounced my way and I was dribbling with it.

The Santa’s cap eventually led to a full-fledged suit as I appeared at Christmas festivals and parades, soliciting money from donors. I’d make my regular trips to schools, encourage charity and wade through businesses like a prospector mining for gold.

Then one day, I got another urge. How did I know the letters were real? Anybody could sit down and write a letter to the Gazette Santa. How did I know they weren’t preying on the system? Was there any veracity to these messages?

“Go see for yourself,” a colleague suggested. “Visit the homes of these destitute and observe their poverty. Interview the needy folks of our community.”

How did I know they would let me past the door unless I tried? So I began my quest. The whole nature of my terms of endearment began to change. The letters suddenly bore credence.

I’ll never forget my first visit. A woman answered the door. She had been expecting me and was at wit’s end with her life. Two children were playing on the floor where they slept on mattresses. Except for a table and a couple chairs in the kitchen, furnishings were at a premium.

Inside her refrigerator were a few eggs, a carton of milk and some spoiled fruit. Jars of peanut butter and jelly were on the counter, along with cereal boxes. The bare necessaries were growing extinct.

“My husband left me,” she said, wiping away a tear. “All I want is a little food and maybe a gift or two for my children. I don’t have a tree. My welfare check goes for rent and provisions. We don’t have enough for extras.”

The power of the written word — and the Gazette Santa — took right over. The article was so legitimate and convincing, it practically wrote itself. Within days, the response was overwhelming. Not only was she entitled to all the benefits that originated from this relief effort, but the extras she had mentioned suddenly appeared.

The community rallied around this family. A bank decided to act as the woman’s sponsor after reading the article about her plight. Employees showed up at her home with a Christmas tree and decorations.

They brought forth a turkey with all the fixins’, presents you wouldn’t imagine for the kids, and gift certificates to a local store for clothing. It was as if a Christmas miracle had found its destination.

I remember my last story, too.

A woman walked into the Gazette with an envelope in her hand, filled with money. She got her life back together and wanted to repay Gazette Santa for the help she once received.

Thank you, Gazette Santa!

Writer and photographer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.