The legend of Needle-nose
Like most young children, I always looked forward to the month of December and the anticipated arrival of everyone's favorite big man in red, Santa Claus. Along with my little sister, I counted down the days leading up to Christmas, all the while soaking in the holiday blitz of television specials, music, and events within our small town which signified that jolly old Saint Nick would soon be on his way. We also made it a point to be on our best behavior, lest Santa's number one elf, Needle-nose, condemn us to the dreaded "naughty" list.
Just prior to Christmas the one and only local television station added fuel to the fires of childhood anticipation by turning the evening cartoon program into a show featuring Santa Claus. It was a childhood requirement that we watch this show daily, in the hopes that Santa would read our letter. Should this happen, it was a sure sign that we would receive the toys we longingly looked at in the annual Sears toy catalog.
In our house one rule stood steadfast when it came to watching the Danny Burgess Show featuring Santa Claus—we had to finish dinner, or we could not watch the program. On most nights this was not a problem. But on one memorable evening it became a situation that would forever change my views of Santa Claus and the old clichés about his ability to know who was being "bad or good" like the famous song suggests.
The problem on this particular evening stemmed from my inability to consume my share of the vegetable of the day: beets. Try as I might, I could not eat them. Dinner had long since ended for the rest of the family, and they were positioned in the living room watching the opening minutes of Santa's nightly visit into our home. Instead of joining them, I was living the miserable life of the exile. Crying had not helped, nor had a feigned attack of nausea. My options were placed squarely in front of me—finish the beets and watch Santa Claus, or stay at the table, presumably forever. Since the only thing worse than beets are ice-cold beets that have been pushed around a plate for hours, the prospects of no Santa Claus and vegetables for breakfast were beginning to loom larger by the moment.
But desperate times call for desperate measures, and an evening without Santa Claus was too much for this first grader to bear. As my younger sister made a point of taunting me from the living room to express her delight at my predicament, I quickly hatched a plan that would put me in front of the television set in no time.
James Bond would have been proud of the way that I snuck over to the garbage can and deposited the remaining beets deep into the refuse. The empty beets can became the depository for my dreaded dinner, and I was soon allowed passage into the living room. It's important to note here that this was long before the modern practice of recycling, hence the tin can in the trash can,
My sanctuary and bliss proved to be short lived, however, when my parents called me into the kitchen and miraculously produced the can I had so carefully hidden. Exhibit A, the uneaten beets, were placed before me, confirming my guilt beyond the shadow of reasonable doubt. I had committed the cardinal sin of the holiday season, and I was about to pay the price for it—lying. As unlikely as it seemed, Needle-nose had witnessed the entire clandestine operation through the lone kitchen window. As was his duty, he immediately called my mother on the phone and turned me in.
Along with the immediate punishment of finishing the beets for telling a lie, I spent two nerve-wracking weeks wondering whether Santa Claus would even come to the house of a boy who had fibbed to his parents. So it was with a great sense of relief that I ran down the stairs on Christmas morning to find that the man in red had somehow been able to forgive and forget, and that there were presents for me under the tree after all.
Following the episode with Needle-nose and the beets, I did not doubt the existence of elves who kept track of bad boys and girls, and I was always on my best behavior when the holidays came around. The mystery of Santa's top elf and the hidden beets was not solved until many years later when my mother told me the true story of that long passed evening of shame. There was, in fact, no Needle-nose—just a nosey neighbor who believed it was his duty to tell my parents what he had witnessed from one kitchen window to another.
(A drawing of Needle-nose, as imagined by my sister, Darlene Lopez)