by Melissa LaScaleia
“I was born in Spartanburg, SC in 1948. After high school I attended community college, but I was tired of school. I had always wanted to be in the Marine Corps because I had an uncle who was a Marine during the WWII era. He always referenced those days and told me that I couldn’t make it; I wanted to prove him wrong.
I joined in 1967. Vietnam was ongoing, and I assumed I’d be going too. I went to Parris Island, SC for boot camp and from there was sent to Vietnam. I was stationed outside of Danang, Vietnam, south of the DMZ for eighteen months. I was assigned to work with a bulk fuel supply company as their armorer. It was my job to handle all of their weapons.
One day, the ammunition dump, the place where we stored all the ammunition, caught on fire and we had to evacuate the entire compound. Whether it was attacked by the enemy or an accident, we never could figure out, but it was a dangerous situation because it was burning for several days and then exploded.
At a certain point, some of us went back to retrieve a few things. We were able to salvage some of the alcohol from the officer’s club and took it with us to our new temporary compound. That was a blessing.
When I was in Vietnam, I was young and I didn’t know what was going on in the states in terms of demonstrations and protests. I just wanted to be in the Marines. It was just a job for me that I took one day at a time, and I didn’t have any reservations about being there. In ‘Nam I was exposed to Agent Orange; I did have some health repercussions in the early 2000s.
After my tour abroad, I received orders to return to Parris Island as a drill instructor, where I spent the next three and a half years. Parris Island is the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot for the East Coast. Initially I was rather nervous about the position since I had only been in the Marine Corps for two years.
Then I changed my job to the counterintelligence field with the Marines. From there I had assignments with the Naval Investigative Service (NIS); today it’s NCIS. Then I was assigned to Marine Headquarters near the Pentagon, in Arlington, Virginia. After that, I worked in the Pentagon for the Air Force Office of Investigations (OSI). I met my wife Trish in 1978 when I was stationed in Arlington.
I never meant to stay in the marines past four years. But I had a good experience as a drill sergeant on the field, and I enjoyed my time in Vietnam. In counterintelligence, I was assigned to Japan and the Philippines.
Out of everything I did throughout my career, my most memorable experience was being on the drill field as a drill instructor. It was a totally different type of assignment; it was very independent. I had multiple platoons of sixty troops each that I was teaching and training to be Marines. I got to lead classes and teach about weapons. There were many things I had never done before, and I learned a lot.
I retired from the Marine Corps in 1990, and took a job as an investigator working for the federal government with the Office of Special Counsel. In 2008 I retired from the federal government.
In 1995, our youngest daughter was in the first grade. And the elementary school asked if I would consider playing Santa for their Breakfast With Santa event in December. They asked because I had been doing some volunteer work and they thought I’d be good interacting with children.
My initial reaction was, “Hell no! I’m not some little old fat elf, I’m a Marine!” But I thought about it, and then came around to thinking that maybe I could. But I told them that I wouldn’t be Santa unless my wife, Trish, was there as Mrs. Claus to back me up. Unfortunately their old Santa suit didn’t fit me. And the Mrs. Claus dress didn’t fit my wife. So Trish sewed us both costumes at night after our daughter went to bed. And I went to a costume shop and bought a wig and a beard.
We had never met another Santa, and I had no idea how to be one beyond ho, ho, ho. So I had to figure out how to do it. It was really comical. We laughed a long time as I stood in front of a mirror trying to act like Santa. Then we did the event for the school, and that was it.
But then, when the next year rolled around, the school principal called again, and asked if we’d mind visiting some people’s houses as Santa. So we did a few of those that year. And each year, more and more people were asking us to come and visit them for their party. We would go and were just winging it, doing it as we went.
My suit for the first ten years as Santa was the suit Trish made. My boots were snow boots from Walmart. In 2004, Trish met a Santa in our area in Virginia. Up until that point, we had never met another Santa.
He told her that there was a Santa event in NYC that was all paid for but he couldn’t attend and offered me his spot. But the criteria for attending was you had to have a real full beard. I always used a costume wig and beard. When Trish told him I had a shadow beard, he said, ‘No that won’t qualify.’
So Trish came home and said, ‘Throw that razor away, there’s a Santa event you can go to.’ And that was the last year I ever shaved.
In 2005, while I was still working for the government, I saw on the internet that there was going to be a Santa convention in July 2006 in Branson, Missouri. It was the first Santa convention held in the U.S. We signed up, packed up, and drove out.
The convention was like a family reunion. There were Santas there from other countries. There were hundreds of Santas and Mrs. Clauses. They had vendors selling boots, and Santa suits, and gloves, and everything a Santa might use.
There were dozens of classes you could take on how to talk to children, how to do your hair, how to sing Christmas carols. We had Santas who were real beard Santas and those who weren’t. There was info on where and how to get a good wig, and how to make business cards and advertise yourself.
We learned a lot about how to do this professionally and take it to the next level. It was a real eye-opener for us and a chance to meet other Santas too. Right after we came back, we learned about other Santa schools we could attend. So then we went to the Charles W. Howard Santa School in Michigan. It’s the longest running professional Santa School in the U.S.
There’s a long history about this man, Charles Howard, who was a very effective Santa. We attended their 5-day program that included classes, networking, socializing, and role play. The whole purpose was to get feedback from your peers and learn more.
Then we heard that there was a group of sixty people or so from the Santa community who were all going on a cruise to Alaska. We signed up. And when we reached Alaska, we all took a train to go visit the North Pole, Alaska. It’s a neat little town.
We were very busy in Virginia as Santa and Mrs. Claus. In 2008, I started collecting names of Santas in the state and established a networking and socializing group called the Virginia Santas. We would have group dinners and gatherings, or a weekend event where we’d have classes. We had a lot of fun with this. By the time we moved to Myrtle Beach in 2015, we had about 200 Santas on the list.
We moved because our youngest daughter and her new husband decided to stay in South Carolina; they met while she was attending Coastal Carolina University. Our other daughter was already living in Charlotte, so there was nothing to keep us in Virginia.
The following year, in 2016, there was a ten year reunion for the Santa Convention being held in Branson, which we attended. Then we started our business all over again down here. We helped jump-start the Palmetto Santas, a social networking group for Santas in the area. And now there’s over 100 on our list.
We have four grandchildren, and the two who are 9 and 6 years old still consider me to be Santa Claus. They will show me a magazine with things circled in it that they want for Christmas. I’m Santa but I’m Papa too.”