12/24/10 — Helping Santa out

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Helping Santa out

By Steve Herring
Published in News on December 24, 2010 1:46 PM

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Jordyn Bharratsingh hugs Santa Claus while visiting Berkeley Mall on the eve of Christmas Eve.

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Jack Curl peeks through the curtain to say hello to the children at the Empty Stocking Fund Party.

News-Argus Staff Writers

Santa Claus not only needs to know how to pack a mean sleigh, he has to be able to think and act quickly on his feet -- one of the skills he expects his many helpers, like Mark Best of Mount Olive and Jack Curl of Goldsboro, to master if they ever dream of holding the reins.

Splitting time between his North Pole toy shop and all of the appearances he is expected to make is impossible even for Santa, so he relies on helpers. However, the helpers warn that even then, you never know if you are talking to one of them or to the big man, rather elf, himself.

Best recalls one stop where he met a young boy who did not believe in Santa. The youth went outside, where he stayed for a while before coming back in,

"He came back in and said, 'You are a cool Santa. You drive a Jeep,'" Best said.

Apparently the child knew all of the people at the event and had gone outside to see if there were any vehicles that he did not recognize. He then pulled out a catalog full of items that had been circled and proceeded to tell Best what he wanted.

"Last year during the Goldsboro Christmas tree lighting, there was a little girl and there must have been potty training at home," Best said. "She bounced into my lap and the first thing she said was, 'I have not peed in my pants all day.' I said, 'Santa Claus is proud of you.'"

That, Best said, is why a Santa helper needs to be able to think quickly.

"There has been more beard yanking than usual this year," he said. "Most want to see if it is real. The parents say if it's a real beard, he must be the real thing. They play with the beard more than they pull it. There was a small child, between and infant and a toddler, who had been doing fine until the mom took his hand and placed it on my beard. As soon as they felt the beard, they just squealed."

Best also has noticed that a lot more kids this year are asking only for one big item.

The children must have heard their parents talking at home about the economy and that Santa has had to trim back a little bit this year, he said.

For the most part the one big items include Xbox 360s and PSP game systems.

"One or two have asked for big flat screen TV's to play their games one," he said.

However, the kids are still excited, he said. And Best said he still runs across adults who want to sit in Santa's lap.

"It seems sometimes they get more of a kick out of it than the children. It seems that regardless of age, Santa puts a sparkle in a person."

And Santa's helpers also hear plenty of heart warming stories, too.

Best has not been on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base this year, but in years past has heard want lists that "will pull out your heart," he said. The children there normally want their father or mother to be home for Christmas.

"There was a little girl last year at the library who had a classmate in school who was sick," he said. "What she wanted was for him to be better so that he could go back to school."

Sometimes children are a bit leery of Santa and want to hang back, he said. In some of those case the parents actually make the situation worse by pushing the child to sit in Santa's lap, he said.

First-graders believe. Second-graders cling to the belief and third-graders still want to believe, he said.

Some children bring reindeer feed and want to know where the reindeer and sleigh are.

"I tell them the reindeer have to stay at the North Pole and rest up for the trip and that the sleigh is being loaded up with presents," he said. "My ending line is leave the milk and cookies out -- that keeps old Santa Claus coming back."

Jack Curl, 84, another one of Santa's official helpers, has had plenty of experience in the red suit. He has been listening to children's holiday wishes since the late 1960s -- when his now-grown children were in elementary school.

Over the years, Curl has had some "crazy" questions from children, but he said the most unusual was a child who asked him to prove he was the real Santa -- by producing his sleigh and reindeer.

Being one of Santa's helpers at the Empty Stocking Fund Party, Curl knew exactly how to answer that question.

"That's when the party used to be at the old theater," Curl said. "I told him that when I flew over, the parking lot was so crowded and there was not enough room to land there so I landed at the base and the good airmen were looking after the reindeer and would have them ready for me to leave."

Another time a youngster looked Santa's helper straight in the eye and told him in a serious tone that he wasn't the real Santa; he was a fake.

"I said, 'You really think so?" Curl said.

The boy answered yes.

"I told him Santa knows where everybody lives and I know where your house is and this year I'll just skip yours. He looked at me and said, 'Then again, maybe you are real."

Curl said Christmas is his favorite time of year and he gets a kick out of being Santa's helper.

Curl finds that most children do believe in the jolly old elf. And sometimes he takes the youngsters by surprise.

He was dressed in his Santa suit one year -- and driving his demolition derby car.

When he stopped at the light, he looked over and saw a couple of wide-eyed children.

"I told them Santa traded in his sleigh for a new car this year," Curl said.

But not every child is ready to accept Santa at face value. Some are cautious.

"This year there was one child who would stand there and wave to me," he said. "He'd get about three feet away from me and put the brakes on. His daddy had to get hold of him and take him around me. They couldn't convince him nohow to stop and see me."

Of course, children are not the only ones who want to tell Santa's helper what they want for Christmas.

One year, some of the students from Wayne Community College who were helping out at the Empty Stocking Fund party as translators came and sat on each knee and gathered all around Curl to have their photo taken with him.

Then there was the woman from the Continental Society who sat on his knee just to chat for a few minutes.

Curl's wife keeps telling him he's getting older now and should consider retiring as Santa's helper.

But as long as he can do it, he will help Santa out at Christmastime.