Postcard — May 31, 2018, 12:45 pm

The Wish List

A village in New York wants to bring Santa back to town.

Photograph by the author

“Santa Claus is buried here. Don’t tell the kids,” Liz Groat, a retired truck driver, told me from behind the counter of a vintage co-op on Main Street. History’s Nikolaos the Wonderworker—or Saint Nicholas—was a fourth-century Greek bishop who dispensed wheat during famines. But here, in Albion, New York, located in the fruit belt about an hour east of Buffalo, lies Charles W. Howard: a toy-making apple farmer who was once the modern-day Claus, and who dutifully coached others to be him, too. Locals say they can almost see him up on the roof, standing in full regalia by the chimney with a couple of his students, because he thought they should know what it felt like.

Last November, I visited Albion to meet with members of its Betterment Committee about the man with the bag. The dispirited village of about six thousand people has a median income of $29,392 and is the seat of rural Orleans County, where barns and silos are flanked by wheat and cornfields, apple orchards, and cabbage patches. Walking down North Main Street, I passed a bank, a liquor store, a courthouse, two coffee shops, and two churches, before arriving at a gap in the historic buildings. When one of the structures went to ruin and was demolished, its footprint was made into a micro park with a handful of trees and a few benches. The park is the promised future site of a bronze likeness of Charlie Santa. Many in town hope a monument will raise the stature of Howard—and with it, the fortunes of Albion itself.

The idea for a statue came about in 2015, after a group of over two hundred Santa Claus impersonators descended on Albion for a conference. Like pilgrims, the Santas came with bells and boots. They expected to see landmarks, relics, and tributes. But there was not much. They visited the farmhouse where Howard had started a school in the Thirties to train Santas. They went to the cemetery. They left. “We started to think maybe Charlie was due for a comeback,” Gary Kent, a retired social-studies teacher and one of the Albion Betterment Committee’s co-directors, told me.

1 In the northernmost part of the state, this phenomenon for goosing economically depressed communities dates back to Cooperstown, the town with the busted hops industry that built a National Baseball Hall of Fame, which is still reaping the benefits. Seneca Falls, where the women’s-rights movement was based, is now home to the National Women’s Hall of Fame, as well as an adored statue group that portrays Susan B. Anthony’s introduction to Elizabeth Cady Stanton via Amelia Bloomer.

“Look at Jamestown,” Tom Rivers, the founding editor of the country’s online newspaper, explained. He regards Jamestown—two hours from Albion—as a model for how to profit from a famous former resident. Lucille Ball, the star of I Love Lucy, was born there, a fact the struggling city parlayed into the National Comedy Center, a $50-million state-supported venture opening this August. The governor awarded Jamestown an additional $10 million in 2016 to revitalize its downtown. And next door, the village of Celoron, where Ball grew up, has two much-visited bronze portraits (dubbed “Scary Lucy” and “Lovely Lucy”) as well as a $33-million lake resort, which, when finished, will pay homage to the late comedienne. “If those places can do that based on Lucy, why can’t we with Santa?” Rivers asked. “Santa.”1

Still, the ABC is a ways from being able to afford the statue—a bronze can cost over a hundred thousand dollars. So far, the committee has raised $35,000. They had approached a network of Santas for donations, but “Santa Clauses do not have deep pockets,” Rivers said. “They’re all just goodhearted people, often retired volunteers themselves. I don’t know that a gazillionaire Santa exists.” Though Howard appeared as Santa in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for eighteen straight years, Macy’s has declined to gift funds. “Promises are dangerous things,” Howard once counseled his trainees, before telling the story of a boy who asked him for an elephant for Christmas: “This child came to me and said that, if he couldn’t have a live elephant, he did not want anything. It was a matter of great importance to him. I told him, ‘But you wouldn’t have any place to keep an elephant.’ He replied: ‘Oh, yes, I would—in my father’s garage.’ In cases like that you have to think quickly, and I said, ‘But how could I get an elephant into your stocking?’”

Before Howard became Santa, he farmed apples, crafted toys, and staged plays. As secretary of the Orleans County Fair, he had rallied locals and successfully baked the nation’s largest apple pie—twelve feet across and filled with a hundred bushels. At the time, just after the Depression, department-store Santas wore cheap red suits and frequently smoked and boozed on the job, and though Howard’s wife discouraged him from becoming too invested in a “once-a-year-splash,” children, he felt, deserved better Santas. He founded a school to turn out what he called “the right kind.” Those who wished to become such a Santa had to apply with three letters of recommendation from store officials and fifteen from customers, in addition to writing a 1,500-word thesis on “Interpreting the Character of Santa Claus.”

Howard taught them about the mythology around the figure, the best ways to apply makeup (“Don’t use false eyebrows—let your own grow”) and act (including how to squint into a twinkle and ho-ho-ho from the gut), and good lap manner, such as how to handle shin-kickers and skeptics (“I tell them I have a chimney-extender in my pocket”). To ensure that these student Santas looked the part, he roped in the town’s seamstress to make, repair, and clean suits by the hundreds, with strict instructions that there be no “sleazy velvet” and no measly “cotton batting trims.” Howard prescribed woolen apple-colored outfits lined in satin and generously trimmed with white rabbit fur—the costume used today. For the beards, he chose Chinese yak hair, which was costly and straight (it had to be crimped by wearers with irons into marcel waves) but gave the impression of having been rinsed in buttermilk and coiffed by tree-topper angels.

By 1956, Howard had graduated more than five hundred Santas, working in department stores across the country from Macy’s in Kansas City to D. H. Holmes in New Orleans. On his fifty-acre farm just west of Albion, he opened a Christmas-themed amusement park, encircled by a miniature railroad, and home to pigs, cows, and a team of reindeer. “But he wasn’t a good businessman,” said Cheryl Mowatt, a local librarian. Howard would wave poorer families through the gates, sometimes allowing entry to six kids when they had only three tickets. Eventually, he could not pay a bill for toys, and a court put the school, suit business, and park up on the auction block in 1965.

Howard also consulted for Miracle on 34th Street, and, until a fatal heart attack in 1966, played Santa around the country. At the time, he was known as the “Nation’s No. 1 Santa Claus,” according to his obituary in the New York Times. Arguably no one did more to standardize professional Santa Clausing. “Charlie shaped Santa hugely,” said Rivers. “And then he died, and we all sort of forgot.”

At Watt Farms Country Market, after raiding her bins of five or six or seven varieties of apples, I asked Karen Watt about the ABC’s ambition to resurrect Santa Claus. She snorted. “That’s a pull,” the blue-eyed, blonde farmer said. “There have been many betterment committees over the years—usually old men who get a bug up their ass,” Watt went on. She had moved to Albion in 1967, the same year Howard died. “Main Street was beautiful. Practically everybody had a job,” she recalled. “I’m more of a realist about how our Santa could have an effect now.” But Watt, who handed me a to-go cup of cider, is no stock grinch. “Maybe,” she allowed.

And there are other plans to restore Howard’s legacy in Albion. The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School—the oldest of its kind—is still operating as a successful nonprofit in Michigan, where it was relocated by some of Howard’s students. When the couple who have been running it for decades retires, there is a growing desire in Albion that a local Santa impersonator named Ken McPherson will take the school over and bring it home.

I met McPherson at a Ladies’ Auxiliary event one morning. “You must be Ken,” I said, squeezing the hand of a middle-aged man with long frosty whiskers, appareled in red overalls—his “casual Santa” look. “Ken McPherson . . . well, I knew him when he was a boy, of course,” he said. Over coffee and donuts the next day, McPherson, a jolly hulking brunet in jeans, sneakers, and a fly-fishing hat, unboxed some of the Charlie Howard ephemera that he has pulled together over the years. He recounted how he had gone to Howard’s Santa school after graduating high school and then ordered a suit from Howard’s former seamstress, who allowed him to pay it off as he washed cars and mowed lawns. The acolyte pulled out a great, heavy, empty, beautiful bag embroidered with the initials “S.C.” “This was his,” McPherson said. “I think we missed it. I think Charlie had something.”

McPherson thumbed toward the old inn. A couple of years ago, as one of its first tributes to Charlie Santa, the committee repainted a faded four-by-ten-foot sign that hangs high on the side of the building with red and green cursive. You see the sign when you drive down Main Street. It spells “Believe.”

“Believe in what?” Kent had asked. “It’s open to interpretation.”

“Believe in yourself,” Gary Derwick, a retired math teacher and another of the ABC’s co-founders, offered.

A member named Valerie jumped in: “Believe in your town’s future. . . . Believe in Santa.”

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Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
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Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

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