de Vos: Gifts from above
Everyone loves a good Christmas story. But no story compares to the Greatest Story Ever Told.
No, no, not the 1965 George Stevens movie, I’m talking about the 1932 horror when Santa Claus was tossed out of an airplane over downtown Mesa, Arizona. Hundreds of gape-mouthed preschoolers watched as Santa tumbled through the air, falling, falling, and right before their beady little eyes, slammed into the pavement and splattered his guts all over Main Street.
Now that’s a Christmas story! And true, as reported in the December 17th 1932 Mesa Journal-Tribune.
Like most towns that sprang up from Mormon settlements, Mesa is blessed with wide streets and spacious, verdant parks. Pioneer Park, at nearly 20 acres, is downtown, just across from the large reflecting pool that mirrors the stately Mesa Arizona Temple, an anchor to Mesa’s Mormon heritage.
1932, you may not recall, was right in the middle of the Great Depression and Mesa was not immune to the worldwide woes. Christmas was coming and the town merchants faced another bleak holiday. What to do?
The long-time Tribune editor, John McPhee, had an idea. Barnstorming, wing-walking and parachuting were still novel spectacles that drew big crowds. Why not put on a Christmas picnic where Santa would parachute from a plane down into the park with a bag of candy and toys? It would be a nice draw to both kids and parents; parents with purses and wallets.
The merchants were wildly enthusiastic and planned the affair with minute detail. They advertised on the front page of the Tribune, hired the plane, and even located an enthusiastic volunteer who couldn’t wait for the opportunity to jump out of an airplane to impress his girl. What could go wrong?
Well, Santa could get cold feet. Turns out he’d volunteered without letting on that he’d never been in an airplane and was terrified of heights. But after several jolts of whiskey, his courage returned and he climbed aboard.
Well, no, actually he just tried to climb aboard, but was way too drunk to negotiate the little ladder up the side. After a hurried conference, the town fathers decided drunken Santa was much too high to fly and time was running out.
Back at the park, parachuting Santa was already late. About ten percent of the town had gathered and by now they were all staring impatiently skyward. The pilot was ready, the engine was running, but nobody dared to don Santa’s gay apparel and jump out of the plane. What to do?
Someone must’ve raised their hand at this point and said, “I’ve got it!” and they hastily strapped a parachute around a Santa suit crammed full of newspapers. The pilot would do a few loops around the park to build the anticipation before shoving Santa out of the plane. He was supposed to time it so that newspaper Santa would drift behind the buildings on Fourth Street where editor McPhee, dressed as Santa and seated on the hood of a police car, would drive slowly back to all the overjoyed little kids at the picnic.
Overall, it was a good plan but one that went awry when untested Santa proved to be too light to deploy the chute. The kindly old gentleman plummeted straight down, driving headfirst into the pavement of the busiest intersection in town, directly in front of horrified traffic and hundreds of forever, psychologically-scarred children.
Better watch out, Santa could be on his way!
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