A black and white photo reveals a side view of a four year old boy clad in a winter coat, mittens dangling at the ends of his sleeves, hands grasping a railing at his back like a fighter on the ropes. The scene takes place in a small area at the rear of a department store where the noisy atmosphere is festive and the line is long.
The boy’s gaze of hopeful terror is directed at a large man with a white beard seated in a relaxed and receptive pose, black boots under white cuffs, huge white-gloved hands gesturing to come closer. The boy does not approach. In fact, he is stunned motionless and speechless, having forgotten the entirety of his carefully prepared script.
“Go ahead,” says his mother, “Tell Santa what you want.”
Silence. Time is frozen like the cottony scene in which the big man sits. The boy wants to run away. Moments later, he does.
“What is your name young man? What would you like for Christmas?”
“Just tell him, ‘Whatever you want to bring me, Santa’” whispers Mom, unseen and disturbingly distant to the rear.
An impatient photographer snaps the precious photo, disappointing the mother and irritating Santa.
It feels like yesterday.
# # # # #
Fifty years later, the boy still has heroes, but has learned that it is often best not to meet them. They are often disappointing or not what you would expect. I am the boy, and now a fan of Garrison Keillor, host of the popular weekly radio program A Prairie Home Companion. He has been called a modern day Mark Twain, a humorist who tells rambling tales of a fictional town in Minnesota called Lake Wobegon.
I generally do not get involved with “fan” things, so it was with uncharacteristic enthusiasm several years ago that I headed to a book signing at the Michigan Avenue Borders store to buy Keillor’s new book and have it signed.
Borders had a small room with folding chairs off to the street side of the store. The area held perhaps fifty people. We were instructed to buy books prior to the event if we wanted them signed. Each book-holder was given a piece of paper on which the intended recipient’s name was to be printed so that the spelling would be accurate. I assumed that Keillor would sit in the front of the room at a table that provided comfortable separation between him and his adoring fans. The reality turned out to be much more intimate and personal.
Garrison launched into an off-the-cuff presentation, telling a tale from his new book, along with much related information. He spoke for almost an hour, a private Wobegon segment for an audience of fifty. It was generous beyond belief, and a fan’s dream come true.
After the monologue, a line culminating at Keillor himself formed in the front of the room. He stood there unguarded and larger than life. At six foot four he strikes an imposing presence, his reputation and personality making him seem even larger. At six foot one I still felt tiny by comparison when my turn came to step up for an autograph.
Keillor opened the inside cover of my book and located the piece of paper with my name. In under a minute he asked me a couple of key questions in order to extract some small essence of who I was, then captured his findings with a short personalized sentence and a quick signature.
I was nervous, stricken silent and stammering as I stood next to him. This is not like me at all, I thought, but then recalled the event fifty years earlier that rendered me similarly inept in the presence of a legendary figure.
I looked up at Garrison and said, “I haven’t felt like this since I was four years old and ran away from Santa Claus.”
I guess my comment resonated with him, for he tilted his head back, mouth to the ceiling and emitted a belly laugh so loud and long that I new it was genuine. I had made Garrison Keillor laugh. I felt as if I had thrown a strike ball in a major league baseball game.
Pictures were allowed, but being alone I had to hand my camera to a stranger who struggled to operate my small digital device. I stood beside Keillor, who posed with an offer of his hand to shake. I guess he preferred this to hanging our arms around each others’ shoulders.
We stood clasping hands, smiling and facing forward. The photographer struggled with the camera. He couldn’t seem to coordinate placing his finger over the shutter release button while looking at the LCD viewfinder. Garrison and I continued to smile. We continued to clasp hands. The photographer looked up and down several times, muttering something unintelligible. We still stood, hand in hand.
At this point, our smiles became forced and uncomfortably long in duration. Still the camera did not flash. Our attention shifted from smiles to hands.
A typical handshake lasts about two seconds. Anything beyond that feels eternal.
Garrison pumped my hand once as if to indicate, no, we are not holding hands, we are shaking like a couple of guys would shake.
The fumbling photographer once again muttered something under his breath. Keillor and I alternately flexed and relaxed our grips, not unlike the dance people do when approaching each other in a hallway head-on, deciding who will be the one to yield the pathway to the other.
“Next,” came a prompt from behind. The impatient photographer snapped a somewhat blurry photo, disappointing me and visibly irritating Keillor.
I grabbed my camera and walked away. The big man greeted the next fan.
It feels like yesterday.