A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Remembering Santa

(Above: Dennis with Herb Caen)
With Christmas fast approaching, my thoughts turn, as they do every Holiday season, to Dennis Cavagnaro.
He was the only person I knew who worked as a free-lance Santa Claus. (His business card read, "Have sleigh, will travel.")
Each December, he'd take his red Santa suit out of the closet and go forth to spread the Christmas spirit. He traveled to his gigs in full costume on public transportation.
"It's hard to drive with that big stomach (actually, a pillow) in the way," he explained.
And he always stayed in character, waving and shouting "Merry Christmas" to everyone he met.
"Once you put on that red suit, you're on," he said. "It doesn't matter whether you're getting paid or not."
In return, he'd get big grins from the adults and adoring smiles from the children. When he rode the cable cars in San Francisco, the gripmen would salute him by playing Christmas carols on their bells.
"Santa gets back a lot more than he gives, believe me," he said.
His love for little kids was boundless. He made a point to learn each one's name beforehand, and he listened patiently until he was sure they were really finished.
But he never said, "Ho, ho, ho!"
 "It scares little kids, he explained.
Dennis grew up in Oakland, where one of his childhood playmates was future 49er quarterback John Brodie.
"I probably caught more passes from him than Gene Washington," he'd say.
He was also a batboy for the Oakland Oaks, starring Billy Martin and managed by Casey Stengel.
He was a humble man, but he was very proud of being an Oaklander – just as he was proud of being Italian, a member of the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club (Badge #9014), and a Cal grad, Class of 1958. (The class motto: "None so great as '58").
Most of all, he was proud of being a Marine. He spent 20 years in the Corps, retiring in 1979 with the rank of Major. He was a Marine aviator who flew A-4 Skyhawk fighters on more than 100 combat missions.
He was also my best source, hands down. I can't count the number of great stories he turned me on to, including my favorite story of all, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Japanese-American World War II unit that was awarded more medals, man for man, than any other unit in American history.
He always had a big smile on his face, which belied a tragedy that haunted him all his adult life. He once had a daughter of his own, an adorable little girl named Lea, but she died when she was only 13 months old.
And that's why I think he was so great with children. He saw a little bit of Lea in every kid he met. By being kind to them, he was being kind to the daughter he never had a chance to watch growing up.
Six years ago Dennis suddenly fell ill and was rushed to the hospital, where the doctors discovered an advanced stage of cancer. He sank rapidly, and within a week he was gone. I never had a chance to say goodbye. Or thanks.
So let me do it now. Semper Fi, Dennis. Go Bears! Oakland rules! And, of course, Buon Natale.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Dear Santa

"Dear Santa, I know that you're probably very busy right now, but I would just like to tell you what I want for Christmas. I would like an iPhone 4 because it's not the most advanced thing out there but it has all the functions I would like. Please do not get me one with a lot of gigabytes because I know that costs more. I don't want to make you spend a lot of money. Maybe you could add it to my family's phone plan to save $. Best wishes, Cole. P.S. Ho, ho, ho."

"Dear Santa, I know you are bisy and I know I didn't behave good. But I love you so much. Sansirly, Angel."

"Dear Santa Clause, My name is Azeneth and I am 9 years old. My sister is 7 years old and my brother is 4 years old, and they are really sad because my dad and my mom are not working. I wish you could give them some presents. Merry Christmas, Azeneth."

Once upon a time, letters like this wound up in the dead letter office, where they eventually were thrown away.

But for the last 25 years postmasters from all over northern California have been sending them to the Oakland Post Office, which has invited the public to answer them.

Some are hilarious; others are heartbreaking. But they all demonstrate a touching faith in Santa and his ability to make everything all right, if only for one night, that they are an inspiration for us grownups, too.

You, too, can be a Santa's helper and answer some of these letters. JUST Call the Post Office at 510-874-8737 between 7:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., and they'll set you up.

"You don't necessarily have to send a present," says Consumer & Industry Manager Marygrace Cruz, who directs the Santa's Mailroom program. "They're so grateful just knowing that somebody out there cares."

But, of course, if you're moved to enclose a gift, nobody's going to stop you.

And now, without further ado, here's what our kids want for Christmas:

"Dear Santa, I definitely will never forget the true meaning of Christmas. This year, I've been asking all my relatives for money so I can buy myself an iPad. I want to know if I could have $150 in iTunes from you so once I buy my iPad I can buy music, apps, and other cool items. If you could do that for me it would make me super happy. Thank you. Sincerely, Matt."

"Dear Santa, My name is Bryan. I am 9 years old. I am learning my multiplication and division. I live with my mommy and my brother Santiago. I love playing ball with him. But I'm kind of sad because my mommy said we are not getting any Christmas presents this year because we don't have enough money. I wish you can make Christmas special for me and my family. Thank you very much for taking the time to read this letter. Hope your Christmas is magical. Love, Bryan."

"Dear Santa, Some of my friends don't believe in you, but I do. Santa, how old are you? I think you do about 70 Christmases, and then your son takes over for you. Love, Aiden."

"Dear Santa, I had trouble last year in school. I was bullyed after school started. I am 13 years old and 5'9". All the shorter boys and some girls always call me Giant Gertie and Bigfoot every day. I hate this. After my mother found out why I was holding my head down and pursued this, but the principal did nothing. I was labeled a snitch, and the children trashed my backpack and stoled my eyeglasses. All summer I stayed in my room, but my mother has done so much to make me know how lucky I am to be tall. Santa, my phone was broken by the kids when they threw my backpack in the dumpster. All I want is another smart phone. I would be so very happy. Thank you, Brittney."

"Dear Santa, I know you're up there! So here's my Christmas list! Can I please have a 2012 Holiday Barbie Doll, a golden retriever puppy, a Justin Bieber signed poster, cash, gift cards, and one more thing: Please donate $50 to a family in need that survived Hurricane Sandy. Love, Paige."

"Dear Santa, Hello! My name is Esbin, and I'm 10 years old. I think this Christmas I'm going to be sad because my mother is not gonna be able to make my wishes come true. She is not working because she takes care of my little brother. If you could make my wish come true I would be really thankful, and it's also gonna be the most unforgettable Christmas! Thank you. I really appreciate it. Love, Esbin."

"Dear Santa, This year for Christmas I would like to make others happy. I want you to give Bella some cute earrings that won't make her react. I want to get my dad a photo that isn't in stores. I want my mom to get something she really wants. I want to make you a gift, and I want to show others that you really exist and you're not a fake. I would also like a cute camera to take pictures with and show my artistic talents! I hope you liekd your present last year, and you will LOVE your present this year. Love, Gina. P.S. The highlighted letters mean nothing. I just felt like making this letter colorful!"

"Dear Santa, I would like peanut butter flavored treats. Well, that's all because I am a dog. Have a woofing day! From Lefty."

"Dear Santa, My name is Rose and I am eleven years old. Even though kids that are my age stop believing in you, but I still do. I moved school two times and I don't have that many friends. This year was a hard year because my auntie died and I got surgery on my knee. All I am asking for is for you to try to give me a present this year. Love, Rose."

"Dear Santa, For Christmas I would really like my dog Tina back because she means everything to me and I love her very much. Love, Jack. P.S. Please write back."

"Dear Santa, I want something special for my mom. She is the best mom, but she's been sick all year and never had dinner with the whole family because she's been busy being sick. All I want is dinner for my mom and sister. Please help me if you can. Thank you very much, Jacqueline."

"Dear Santa, If I am on the 'nice' list, then I would like the following: vanity, iPhone5, makeup, bracele, clothes, puppy, Aeropostale perfume, and Seventeen magazine and Ugg slippers. Love, Madeline."

 "Dear Santa, I am 8 years old, and I have been a good girl. Love, Sunnie. P.S. I left you some cookies and milk!"

"Dear Santa, I want my cousin Ashleigh back. She died last year. Mom says I can't. Thank you, Santa. Andrew."

"Dear Santa, For Christmas I would like Legos and Pokemon cards. I would also like a Playstation 3, but I know that is expensive so I understand if you can't. Thank you, Raymond."

 "Dear Santa, For Christmas I would like a nerf gun and remote control airplane. My mom and dad would love the PG&E and water back on. They can't afford stuff like that because my mom goes to school and my dad is disabled. My mom tries to get jobs. They can't every buy a car to take us to school or clothes to wear. If you could help them I would love you Santa forever. Thank you, Noah."

"Dear Santa Claus, I'm a senior in high school applying to colleges at the moment. I don't know if I'm too old to ask for a gift, but I really want this. My family has always been low income, and my dad lost his job last year. He is a painter, and the rainy season has just started, so the situation is getting worse. I really want a Mac laptop so I can do all my classwork, especially now that I'm moving on to college. I'm the first child in my family on track and motivated to go to college. Thank you for doing this and taking time to read my letter. Sincerely and with much love, Makia."