In peacetime, as much as possible, the Air Force takes a few days off for Christmas. There are always exceptions: Aircrew, maintenance troops, and loads of other supporting personnel are on alert or fulfilling other duties around the world and these commitments recognize no holidays.
Nevertheless, most Air Force folks, like their civilian counterparts have a little break to celebrate this most joyous of holidays (2020 is an obvious exception, but I really don’t want to go there.)
Christmas, as we know, is for the kids and, as I’ve mentioned in previous anecdotes, the Air Force puts a lot of stock in the welfare of its families. Virtually every unit will have some level of festivity for its members’ offspring and others.
So, it came to pass, when I was a Captain, toiling as an F-4 instructor pilot at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida, I was singled out because of a particular and conspicuous endowment: “Ladd’s pretty plump,” My Squadron Ops Officer Duke Terry observed, “he’s just right for this assignment.” No one argued with 6’ 4,” 230-pound Duke Terry, so I was undeniably “it.”
“It” as it turned out, was donning a heavy, bright red suit, fake whiskers and a cute little cap in South Florida’s 80 degree December temperature to play Old St Nick for more kids than I care to remember—not only were we hosting our own squadron rug rats (including a sizeable maintenance and support contingent) but the Old Man had invited an entire brigade of mainly Latino migrant worker’s kids to join the fun—and fun it was. I had a little help from my bright yellow friend in the background and my wife, Elaine, who was to graduate to full Elf status in due course (more later). The squadron crumb-snatchers had the time of their young lives, but the most moving feature of the day was the reaction of the Latino kids, who obviously hadn’t had a Santa Claus experience for a long time, if ever. They clung to Santa’s now-sweaty suit and accepted the trinkets he handed out with an enthusiasm not seen before or since by this apprentice Kriss Kringle.
As the years went on, I re-enacted my portrayal numerous times at a number of locations and formally enlisted Elaine as Elf in Germany, where one of the unit wives, Rosie Tatman fashioned a suitable costume for her. She proved to be a valuable addition to the performance in various venues–seated on a very cold wing as Santa was towed in (F-4) with sacks of goodies hanging from the bomb racks or taxied in (A-10) with the same configuration. At Nörvenich, where there were no prying senior eyes, we actually considered a fly-in, but thought the better of it.
Regardless of the delivery vehicle, the kids always got the best of Santa’s visit (although some of the male adults tried it on by sitting on the Elf’s lap instead of Santa’s—see the accompanying photo. Santa appears slightly miffed, no?). He got the Elf in the end, though.
Christmas may be a bit underwhelming for many of you this year, but search your memory, as I have here, and you’ll probably come up with something to lift your spirits.
Merry Christmas to you from Santa and Elf.