by Brett Harrison
From September, 1988 to February, 1995 I worked at the Regional Office and Insurance Center of what is now called The Department of Veteran Affairs. It was the Veteran’s Administration when I first got hired but changed a month later. I initially was hired as a clerk in the incoming mail room, and during the course of a day I would drive a Cushman, one of those little carts you see at airports, all over the building. I eventually was transferred to the publications department, where I still used a Cushman, primarily to deliver forms to the different departments in the building.
During the 6½ years that I worked there, I met a lot of nice people and some not-so-nice people. The story that I am about to tell you involves both types and is 100 percent true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. Mainly me.
Most corporations have their traditions, some stupid and some pretty cool. One of the coolest traditions at the VA Regional Office (which will hereafter just be referred to as the VA) was the annual Santa Claus Contest. Every year the VA invited children from several nearby orphanages to a Christmas party during which they would eat tons of food, be entertained and end their idyllic afternoon with a present from St. Nick himself.
It was a noble cause and was mostly paid for by donations from the employees. Although there were donation jars all over the building, most of the money came from the Santa Claus contest. Basically, whoever collected the most money from his or her co-workers got to be Santa Claus both at the Orphans’ Christmas Party and the day that every office and section had their respective Christmas parties. In the latter situation, Santa would just hop on a Cushman with a boatload of candy canes, and it was “Ho Ho Ho” until the last party let out. Not bad work if you can get it.
Since I am Jewish, Santa Claus was never on my short list of career goals, but when Bob Stevens approached me about “running for Santa,” I was intrigued. Bob was an intelligent, amiable and often very funny African American Vietnam vet with a wooden leg and a sense of mischief the size of Montana. When he added that he wanted to be my campaign manager, so to speak, I was all in.
With Bob in my corner, I hit the ground running. I used to want to be a cartoonist when I was a kid, and I drew a black and white Santa that looked suspiciously like me. Although I drew just for fun, Bob loved it and immediately made a boatload of copies, suggesting I plaster them all over the building, including every soda and snack machine I could find.
My cartoon Santas were an instant hit and I started getting donations the next day wherever I dropped off mail and often en route. There was a chart posted in various places of the building monitoring the progress of the contest. I was ahead. I know it was relatively early but it was nice to be ahead in something.
It went this way for a week, and it began to look like I was going to run away with the whole thing. The next closest hopeful Santa was Ed Shaugnessy, a gruff looking vice-president of something or other who looked like Fred Flintstone and seemed to be friendly with everyone but me. Whenever I said hi to him in the hallway, his response was always a forced, barely audible “Howya doin’?” as if he’d rather get root canal with a rusty nail than say hi to me.
Then it happened.
My supervisor Mike McNasty, a surly Vietnam vet from a dingy little coal town in the Poconos, came up to me and said I wasn’t allowed to take my donations jar out during mail runs. I at first ignored him, but soon it looked like I might get written up, so I stopped. But it was too late. There was already so much momentum that I was still ahead going into the week before Christmas.
And it didn’t hurt that I used my breaks and lunch hour to get donations. I wanted to win, and I wanted to win bad. As it happened, Mike was good friends with Ed, but I never suspected anything more than Mike being his usually “congenial” self.
There were several other candidates, but it was pretty much Ed and me down the stretch. The third closest candidate dropped out a day or two before the votes were tallied. I didn’t think about it too much at the time, but it turned out to be very significant.
Finally, on the last day of the contest the money was counted. Ed had won by a nose. Although it bothered me, I tried to be a good sport and even congratulated Ed when I saw him. Naturally, he grunted “Uh….thanks.” Then I forgot about it.
Several hours after Ed won, I was told that Morrie Green, another vice-president and a fellow Jew, wanted to talk to me. I figured he just wanted to wish me a Happy Chanukah, and I took my Cushman over to his office. Morrie chuckled as he told me that he discovered that the person who was in third place had combined his money with Ed’s money so that Ed could beat me.
As it turned out, our cute little Santa Contest wasn’t quite Kosher. Morrie chuckled probably because he was proud in a strange way that a fellow Jew was in the middle of all this. Then he stopped chuckling. He was not happy about what had happened, and he was going to do something about it.
I believe he had something to do with the committee, but I couldn’t swear it. He said he’d be having a “talk” with some people,including Ed, and the decision might be overturned. Towards the end of the day, as I was dropping off some express packages in Morrie’s section, he beckoned to me with his hand, the way they do in the movies.
As it turned out, a compromise had been agreed upon. There was no way that Ed was going to admit to any wrongdoing and no way would he agree to anybody else getting in trouble. After all, wasn’t this about the kids and not about some chubby guy in a Santa suit? It was decided that Ed and I would split Santa duties. I would be Santa at the Orphans’ Christmas party, and he would drive around and greet employees as Santa.
Although to this day I scratch my head as to why they even did what they did, I think I got the better end of the deal. I’ve had some nice moments in my life, but I can’t think of anything that surpasses the pure warmth that I felt when I visited the daycare center as the little children were just waking up from their nap only to see Santa Clause about the give them presents.
It was quite an experience as they woke up and started to yell “Santa, Santa!” I am smiling a little kid smile as I write this. As far as any dilemma about being Jewish and playing Santa Claus or any residual bad feelings about the skullduggery that accompanied the experience, I’ve forgotten about it. I learned a valuable lesson about office politics and made some little children happy.
That’s a win-win.