by Irv Pliskin
The black Salvation Army kettle, hung under the metal tripod, was less than half full of money. This was one of the busiest corners in the city, with department stores on both sides of the street, and the kettle should have been brimming with change and dollar bills.
Pappy Paulson, the somewhat scraggly Santa Claus, with the fake beard that tickled him a lot, thought that he wasn’t doing very well. He rang his bell vigorously, but it didn't seem to attract many people.
Pappy, like the kettle, was down on his luck.
He was cold, hungry and he looked at this job of being a Santa Claus as one of those things that might put some holiday food in his belly and make him feel better.
Clang, clang, clang went his bell and he chortled, as they had told him to, “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas,” but not with much vigor. Across the street, and one block over he could see the four piece Salvation Army Band. He could hear them too: loud and out of tune playing “Oh little Bells” and other Christmas standards. He hoped that
this was not a competition: as to who could get more money in the kettle, he or them. How could he, with his hand held bell, compete with the volume of a Trombone, a Trumpet, A glockenspiel and a Drum? Besides, two of the players were female, busty females and Pappy thought that made a difference.
“Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas. Thanks very much, thanks very much.”
Oh brother! It was beginning to snow. it might just be a white Christmas after all, but it wouldn’t make things much easier for Pappy.
He stood there, swinging his bell, reciting the Holiday mantra and thinking of his past. How things had been on other Christmases long ago.
He remembered the Christmas in Belgium, in l944 just outside of Aachen when the freakin' Germans had begun the Bulge. He was in uniform then, too, but they didn’t call him Pappy then.
Couldn’t. He was just a few steps from being a virgin, a nineteen year old infantry GI and nobody would call such a fellow Pappy.
They called him Pauly, or Pally or Hey Kid, but he didn’t mind. He and his platoon were dug in there, in the blustering snow and fighting for their lives. It was as clear as day to him, that memory. They had a big iron pot someone had liberated somewhere cooking over a large fire, boiling soup. The pot looked just like the Salvation Army caldron, and it must have triggered the memory. He could almost feel the heat from the camp-fire...he could use a little heat now, he thought.
He swung the bell vigorously. “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas,” he intoned. Let’s see, he muttered to himself, doing the math. That was l944, this is 2004 Six years to l950 and then fifty four more years to now. Sixty years ago. Sixty years ago I was tough, and wily and full of P and V.
And now, now I’m reduced to swinging this freakin' bell and yelling Merrrrrry Christmas to the skinflints passing by. Well, if you figure the odds, the fact that I’m still around makes it pretty Merry, I guess. I could be with the fellows we left there in the ground, or in Arlington or some potter’s field here in the City. Oh well.’
“Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas,” and the bell clanged.
Thinking his own thoughts, Pappy didn’t notice the beat up old car loaded with kids pull up to the corner bus stop in front of him.The car screeched to a stop, and three kids jumped out. Pappy still didn't notice, until he felt an arm around his neck, pulling him backwards to the ground. Startled, he felt himself go back, and then he responded,
instinctively, the way he had been taught to respond so many years ago. He stomped down with his foot on the foot behind him, swung his body to the left and hit out with the bell still in his hand. He heard it connect against a head, and the grip on his throat relaxed.
He looked around to see two of the kids attempting to move the heavy kettle into the car and take off with it. Instinctively, he swung again with his bell, and hit another of the kids on the shoulder. The kid dropped the kettle and turned to confront the mad man in the Santa Claus suit. But, by this time it was too late for the kids.
The cop on the corner was aware of the action, as were some of the passersby. The cop had the driver's door of the car open, and had his gun out and pointing. Passersby had grabbed the three kids and were holding them for the police.
Pappy was dizzy and exhausted. He found a place to sit on the back seat of the car. The kids had left the doors open, planning to make a quick getaway.
Pappy breathed in and out, heavily. He put his head between his knees to regain his composure. His head began to clear.
“Are you alright old man?” a voice said.
“Are you okay Santa?”
Pappy shook his head yes, but not very convincingly.
“Take it easy, old man. I saw what happened, you know, you deserve a medal. You really do. I don’t know where you got the energy or the courage to do what you did, but it was impressive.”
“I already have a medal,” Pappy muttered.
“I bet you do. Sit here while we get you some help.”
Help came, along with a reporter and a photographer.
Pappy Paulson, the World War 11 veteran who'd thwarted a string of Salvation Army kettle thefts became a hero. For a little while, at least.
But it all worked out okay. Donations from impressed citizens paid for a room in a residential hotel, much nicer than the ‘flop’ house he had been sleeping in. Enough money came in, designated for him, and him alone, to keep him comfortable for quite a while, especially if he was careful.
The Salvation Army was very grateful.
They even promised him a job next Christmas, at the best corner in the city.
Irv Pliskin is a retired advertising agency owner. He is a combat veteran of World War II and an Ex Prisoner of War of the Germans. Married, with three kids, and four grandchildren he devotes his time to writing flash fiction. He hopes, that someday, he may become the Grandma Moses of flash fiction. He lives with his wife of 57 years in Cherry Hill,NJ. Contact Irv.