When your father is Santa Claus, your future career options are somewhat limited. Such was the case with my friend Dennis Ball, who when only a teenager had to fill those boots and spread Christmas cheer to good little boys and girls. And to a few bad little boys and girls, too.
I knew him first only as the guy at the end of the block who practiced archery. He’d be out in his front yard with his bow and arrows, dressed in camo no matter the season, a squat, burly man with a chubby baby face and a half-smile playing on his lips, as if he knew something about you that might come in handy sometime. I’d wave, he’d wave, each acknowledging the essence of the other. Such is the cornerstone of rural friendships.
“I hear you’re interested in birds,” he said when we finally met. His voice was gravelly and possessive of an almost-Southern drawl. When I admitted I was, he asked if I’d noticed various species of mammals and birds lying dead on the roads. I had. Growing serious, he lowered his voice and leaned closer.
“You never see a dead crow,” he whispered. “Know why?”
I shook my head.
“Because one always keeps watch,” he said. “And when a car comes along, it yells ‘Kawr, Kawr, Kawr!’”
After that, I was always “Bird Man” to him.
Dennis was famous for his jokes. Nearly all of them were corny, and if the unfortunate recipient couldn’t summon a laugh, Dennis would gladly provide it. Even as his lungs failed, he greeted me with a mindless jest that made me groan, and him cackle.
He was an unlikely source to teach a budding reporter the importance of anonymity. I was a first-year journalist covering the local Christmas parade and felt duty-bound to identify each person in the photographs I took. When it came to Santa, upon whose knees many a child had posed, wariness greeted my request.
“Oh, no,” he said slowly. “You can’t say who Santa is. Santa is Santa.”
After watching him interact with both children and adults, I understood this was no ordinary red-suited imposter. If such a thing as a real Santa Claus exists on this earth, Dennis was his embodiment. Later, when he told me his story, I realized why.
His father, Eugene Ball, had been Santa before him. One Christmas Eve Eugene woke with the flu. He was expected that evening at several houses but knew he couldn’t make it. “You’re going to play Santa Claus tonight,” he told Dennis.
“I’m not big enough to play Santa Claus,” Dennis replied.
“Santa Claus is an elf, you know. He’s little, and tubby.”
Decades later, Dennis remembers wondering if he was little and tubby in his father’s opinion. But no matter: the show must go on. With ample padding Dennis was sent into the night. He was thirteen.
He was a natural. Working fast, getting in and out, was the key. “You come in loud, boisterous, you startle them,” Dennis said. “Don’t let them ask too many questions. Fire one back, give them a moment, fire another. If not, they’ll study everything on you. They’ll sit back before they get in your lap and they’ll study you and study you.”
His most important piece of advice to faux-Santas was this: “You got to know your reindeer.”
His secret identity was closely guarded, even to his own children. It was another lesson he had learned when a niece identified his father from his neatly-trimmed fingernails—which she had manicured the night before.
“They just naturally thought dad had the worst luck because when Santa Claus came, dad was out running an errand,” he said. “When I came home, they’d say, ‘Dad, you missed him again!’ And then one day I was getting dressed and one of them came into the bedroom. I’m telling you, we had to have cardiac, CPR, the whole bit. I just told them, you can’t say nothing. And they’ve all been real good.”
He had the gift of making children and adults feel special—and maybe, in the case of women, a little wicked. One Christmas he made a special trip to the nursing home. One woman who knew Santa’s real identity had promised to make him blush. “She gave Santa Claus a French kiss,” Dennis said. “Santa Claus was very shocked. I was beet red, only nobody could tell.”
He always wanted to show me where he found a woodcock across the levee in a tangle of downed timber, spongy soil and deep grass curling around a wet slough. I’d never found a woodcock and looked forward to going out with him. We’d make plans and then I’d break them, always too busy to go.
Dennis was laid to rest last week. He was 55 years old, one year older than me.
I’m beginning to realize that growing older leads to an accrual of regrets. Our sins of omissions pile up like cars in a California fog and leave as much wreckage. If I had another chance to sit on Santa’s knee, I’d ask for the one thing that keeps eluding me: the wisdom to know when to work and when to share what little time we are allotted.
He told me once that kids kept him young. Unfortunately, they could do nothing for his lungs. But if there is a fitting epitaph for Santa as we knew him, it would be this—that when we were in his presence we were all little kids, and the wonder of the season was the truest thing of all.