I was well into adulthood by the time I realized my father was Santa Claus. I don’t mean the time in your life when you figure out it’s your parents, not that the sketchy guy wearing a red suit in the department store, who deposit valuable prizes in the living room. I was about six when I got that memo.
No, I mean finding out that your own father could indeed be the real thing. Let me explain:
A few years ago, I called Town Hall. At the time I lived in the town where I grew up, and having been a journalist and a former elected official, I daresay I was a familiar and perhaps even respected face around town.
“Oh, Mr. Phalon! I’ll put you right through!”
Yep, putting me right through. It’s good to be me around Town Hall.
The phone was answered. I was greeted with, “Hi! Is this Santa?!?”
Santa? Santa??? What the…?
They think it’s my father calling, that’s why I got through so fast.
“Uh, sorry. It’s the other one,” I said.
I heard a sigh on the other end of the line, the sound of undeniable disappointment that overcomes a person who thinks she is about to talk to Santa Claus only to have to listen to some mundane municipal issue.
Things used to be different. I wasn’t always “The Other One.” For years, I was the only Joe around town.
A couple years before my ego-shattering call to Town Hall, my father, Joe Sr., retired after 40 years as a railroad conductor. The job kept him away from the house for long hours, so he spent most of that time under the local radar, allowing me to bask in the glory being the Main Joe.
I should have seen it coming. His last train was a media event, he was so beloved by his passengers and co-workers. “Santa Claus without the red suit,” said one news article. “The nicest guy on the railroad,” blasted another headline in 48-point type.
His idea of retiring, though, was simply getting a part-time job or two to keep busy, which included driving the senior citizen van and working as a school crossing guard.
One day the police desk received a call from a portrait photographer desperate to get in touch with “that crossing guard who looks like Santa!” The studio wanted him to be its Santa Claus for the upcoming season. He told me how much they were going to pay him, and I thought, hey, I’ll grow a beard too!
But it takes more than a white beard to be Santa Claus. In fact, my father started his transition to Santa long before he had a beard of any color.
In the early 1980s, my father and several other fellow train conductors started tossing loose coins into an empty water jug at their train terminal in Hoboken. Before long they realized they had accumulated what looked to be several hundred dollars. It turned out to be a lot more. After some thought, they decided to use the money to buy Christmas gifts for a nearby school for handicapped children.
Then they took it a step further and persuaded New Jersey Transit to give them the use of an entire passenger train, and that year they brought several dozen kids on what would be the first of many rides to the “North Pole” and back.
With the volunteer help of lawyers, accountants and others who commuted on their trains, the efforts of my Dad and his two partners quickly evolved into a non-profit corporation called Railmen for Children.
Four decades later, Railmen for Children—staffed entirely by volunteers from N.J. Transit—has fulfilled Christmas wishes for tens of thousands of handicapped and disadvantaged children, with my dad playing the lead role, often as the Big Man himself. Many of those kids would not
have had a Christmas of any kind had it not been for the organization my dad and his two buddies started.
And as anyone in Town Hall will tell you, my father became legendary as Santa Claus for the Fire Department and town events. He has the look but more importantly, the kind and patient demeanor to be Santa. So much so that he’s often asked if he is the real thing, even by Santa-savvy kids.
Santa, er, I mean, Joe Sr., will turn 90 in January. And while he has mostly stepped back from active Kris Kringle duty, he remains Santa Emeritus and Ambassador of Good Tidings at N.J. Transit, where he continues to be the public jolly face of Railmen for Children. And he hasn’t missed a trip to the North Pole in 40 years, where children still ask if he’s the genuine article.
Yes, New Jersey, there is a Santa Claus. And he’s my kids’ Grandpa!