Does anybody remember the actual moment they found out Santa wasn’t real?
(I certainly hope I don’t have any 6-year-olds that read my column, and if so, I’m only kidding.)
In my case, it wasn’t so much learning that Santa wasn’t real, but learning that the MRPS Hall Santa was in fact Albert Fonseca, and it didn’t take long for this information to cause the entire Santa deck of cards to crumble before this young Mantecan.
The year was 1978, and I recall the glow from the Christmas tree atop the Spreckel Sugar’s tower being as bright as ever. That tree, or the towers themselves, had always been the one reaffirming beacon for me as a kid. We had moved out to “West Manteca” – Escalon, according to the address but my dad always made sure to remind me it was Manteca.
I was the only kid at Van Allen School wearing a green and white on jersey day. The gold and purple Cougar kids from Escalon hated it, but I remember Mrs. Wentworth having my back. “Kids, leave Chris alone. Besides, Manteca High would kick Escalon’s behind.”
From the front of our ranch on Avena Road you could just barely make out the Spreckel’s towers. The tree was always the one thing that made me feel like a Mantecan in those days, especially during December when I remember being able to pick up its faint glow from that distance. My jealousy ran deep, thinking how all the town kids got to bask in its glow. I imagined groups of people my age, hanging out at Ed’s Patio with their family after a fun night of shopping at Hardware Mart, with Mr. Bordenkircher handing out candy and speaking of these new things called microwave ovens.
It was the night of the MRPS Christmas Party, and that meant one thing – Tony Coit. I’m unsure how we became locked at the hip and to this day often want to find that matchmaker and punch him square in the nose. Even at the age of 6, a meeting with Tony had its pre-necessitated requirements. He would surely be there with a homemade switchblade fashioned out of baling wire and a steak knife, or possibly a smoke grenade – and I’m talking about a real one, Vietnam era type. (He smuggled three onto our flight to a 25th anniversary Woodstock Concert in New York in 1994. Pre-9/11, the airlines were apparently much more lax with their security.) In those days I couldn’t trump his ham-handed weaponry, but had my own specific gift I brought to our two-man A-Team – nudie mag pictures! During the summer of 1978, I had spotted a man dumping trash on our country road. It would become a day that would change my life forever. The bounty: two Hustler magazines, a pocket knife, and a half pack of White Owl cigarillos. I still consider that day to be in the Top-10 of my life.
We arrived at the MRPS, and as a 6-year-old I knew one thing: Get the present my parents had brought to the front of the tree. Even as a kid, my suspicious nature for some reason hadn’t stirred the question “Why are my parents bringing the present if Santa will be there?” And honestly, who cared? The packaged wrapped in yesterday’s Manteca Bulletin, oddly shaped like a Nerf football, was certain to end up on the roof of the hall by night’s end.
Arriving at the hall in those days meant one thing – sneak outside and hang out with the older kids in the alley by Hardware Mart. In those days a staircase leading to the top of the Bernacchi Building was open game. (A Bernacchi Building I still haven’t gained access to despite my earlier column beg.)
On this night, though, Tony had a peculiar look in his eye; one that would change my life forever. Never being a man of tact or grace, he got right to the point. “Santa is Albert Fonseca.” What? I’d learned most of the curse words I knew at that point in life from the boy, but this was going a little too far. “I’m serious. It’s Albert Fonseca.” He backed it with the fact his brother Paul had told him. Oh, well then that must make it fact (insert sarcasm here), after all this was the Paul who had made a career out of torturing the both of us via tying us to flag poles with twine or dunking us in the swimming ditch. I knew he was not a man we could trust. “That’s BS, you idiot!” (Yes, I’m not proud to say, that is exactly how a 6-year-old Chris Teicheira spoke.) How could it be true?! I could see Albert Fonseca standing at the bar with all the cool cats of that time – Manuel and Tony Teicheira, Tony Cardoza, and Frank Furtado. There was no way he could leave the spiked punch bowl to pull off this maneuver.
So we watched. We waited and waited. As the other juvenile schmucks were being entertained by a magician, Mr. Fonseca made his move. I saw him and my grandpa Manuel make a beeline for the upstairs. “They must be going to get more punch,” my then unaffected brain thought.
We stalked them. If what Paul had told us was true and we were able to catch it as it happened, we both knew one thing – we would for sure catch a beating. And if not, Mr. Fonseca and my grandpa would at least give us a sip of the “punch” they were fetching. (Hey, it was the 70s. Brandy for a 6-year-old was damn near accepted and made tackle football all the more fun.).
We waited outside the capella doors, sequestered from the crowd, as they made small talk on the other side. I remember being terrified, as I have been with most of the trouble Tony has gotten us into the last 35 years. The doors opened and there he was – Santa Claus!
It took us a second to regain our bearings. Check the capella! If Albert Fonseca wasn’t still in the capella, then our greatest hopes and worst fears would be ever-present. My grandpa snatched us both up before we could finish the mission. “You’re Albert Fonseca” Tony belted at Santa. These are the moments when boys become men. “Santa” knelt down. He didn’t use a Santa voice. It was 100 percent Albert Fonseca.
Those that remember him surely recall those distinctive eyes and that calm voice. One of my earliest memories as a young boy growing up in the countryside of Manteca was Mr. Fonseca. He would give me the change out of his pocket when I was 4, but only after I’d sing “How much is that doggie in the window.” I didn’t know the song the first time he made the deal with me, but made sure to learn it immediately. I consider it my first paying gig.
So there we were, two boys face to face with “Santa,” and on the other side of the door, 50 kids waiting patiently for him. “Boys, tonight I’m Santa. If you can keep the secret you can pass out the presents and be my elves.” We both nodded our head yes, knowing the first chance we got we were going to blow the whistle on this whole charade.
Unfortunately, Manuel Teicheira had seen this dynamic duo in action, and sensed this coming. He, unlike “Santa,” chose to use a, much firmer tone. “Listen here, if the two of you say a thing it is SHAME.” SHAME is the most feared word in a young Portuguese Catholic boy’s life. I’d have much rather taken the worst paddling of my life as a 6-year-old than be sent to my room under The Laws of Shame. And now I realized we had far overstepped our boundaries. We were in a dark hallway with two bosses – no longer Santa and my Avo – but two men that weren’t leaving that room unless they knew the sanctity of the MRPS Hall Santa was safe. They loomed over us like a couple of hit men. “We good?”
And just as quickly as we nodded yes, much like Ralphie in A Christmas Story acknowledging the football, Santa pushed open the main door to the hall and yelled out “Ho Ho Ho!”
That was 35 years ago. My Avo and Albert Fonseca have long passed away, but Tony and I carry on the tradition, with me being Santa and Tony acting as the Manuel Teicheira type hype man. Sure enough every year, as we lean against the bar sipping “punch,” a new MRPS kid will stare at us. Some of them have even had the guts to approach us. “We know that you guys are Santa.” We treat each kid differently. Most are dismissed with a “What?! You’re crazy, I’m not Santa.” But every few years, we catch a young Tony and Chris going the extra mile, watching and intending to stalk their Santa prey.
It is a rite of passage for the young kids at the hall – one that we love to see happen.
And we do just as Albert and Manuel did – only to the ones ready to hear the truth of course. And guess what? They respect it. And hopefully many years from now, two young boys will remember their encounter with the current Dynamic Duo in the hallway leading to the secret MRPS Santa – and put on the suit.
Happy holidays, Manteca!
“It’s not Where ya’ do, It’s What ya’ do”