This story was published in the Daily Register 11/27/2010.
“What year is this plane?” Santa Claus asked, cramming himself and his big red coat in the single propeller aircraft at the front of the runway.
“Seventy-eight … ’79 … whatever,” said Tim Dahnke, this year’s pilot of the Santa Express, the plane that flies St. Nick into Portage the day after Thanksgiving every year. “It’s kind of new compared to some planes.”
Santa calmly took off his red stocking hat. Like a seasoned pro, he arranged a pilot’s headset around his hair and bushy white beard.
“All right, here we go,” Dahnke said, and then the Cessna Skyhawk sped forward and lurched into the blustery Friday morning sky.
Santa Claus was on his way to Portage.
Every year, on the Friday following Thanksgiving, Santa Claus takes off from the North Pole to visit Where the North Begins. With financial aid from the Portage Area Chamber of Commerce, he contracts a local pilot to touch him down at Portage Municipal Airport, the starting point of a daylong mission to spread cheer across town.
Dahnke, a 22-year veteran in the Air National Guard, made the 45-minute trip a breeze. Mostly.
“I’m going to teach you a little physics lesson,” he said.
“This is a positive G,” he said, pulling back on the controls and sending the plane soaring upward.
Then, quickly pushing the controls forward, sending the plane into a slight dive: “This is a negative G.”
Even from hundreds of feet in the air, people waiting for Santa Claus were visible on the Portage Municipal Airport tarmac.
“Santa Express coming in,” Dahnke said over his headset. Then he smoothly guided the Cessna down to Earth and to the runway’s end, where dozens of people waited for the man in red.
Almost as soon as Portage firefighters Terry Knoll and Craig Ratz helped him from the plane, Santa was swallowed by the arms of waiting children.
“Ho, ho, ho!” and “Merry Christmas,” rang out as Santa made his way through the crowd, handing out candy canes, hugs and beardy smiles.
As a family was walking out of the throng, a dad asked his son if the encounter was going to change his behavior.
“Did Santa say anything about being good?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said the child.
“I don’t know about that. We’d better watch the (video) tape,” said his mother.
The crowd thinned quickly in the cold morning air, and after the last posed photo and wish-list consultation, Santa got into his makeshift sleigh, a Portage Fire Department fire engine.
St. Nick sat shotgun, and the truck left the airport with a final “Ho, ho, ho!”
Grocery shoppers at Pierce’s Marketplace in Portage walked home with a little something extra in their carts Friday. That is, if they didn’t eat their candy canes before they got out of the store.
“Merry Christmas,” Santa Claus shouted, announcing his presence in the store’s fresh produce section, frightening a man and nearly making him drop a cucumber. Santa shook his hand and gave him some candy.
Shoppers, toddlers, workers – no one was excluded from the tiny peppermint treats or the smiles they brought.
“You work hard,” Santa shouted to a woman behind the meat counter before giving her a candy cane. “I have a good one for you.”
“I don’t think people realize that people are working to let them have a good time,” Santa said later in a phone conversation. “We don’t stop to think that everything that we enjoy, there’s somebody working to make that happen.”
Santa handed another candy cane to a bagger in the checkout line.
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Santa Claus,” said the bagger.
The firetruck’s next trips were to stop in on the Black Friday super shoppers at Kmart and Walmart.
Santa passed a man pushing a cart full of presents and wrapping paper in the Kmart outerwear section. The man was wearing a winter coat and shorts.
“This guy doesn’t know it’s November,” Santa said.
In the Kmart toy section, Santa kneeled down by a little boy.
“Have you been good this year?” he asked while giving the boy a candy cane.
“I will be now,” the boy said. He later tracked down Santa for another candy cane.
In Walmart, children honed in on Santa from all directions.
A little girl near a freezer filled with pizzas asked where the reindeer were.
“Today I came in on an airplane. Reindeer only fly on Christmas Eve,” Santa said.
Another customer grilled Ratz, who was wearing a red Santa hat and fireman’s turnout jacket.
“Hey, Ratz, why are you pretending that you’re Santa?” she asked.
“No, I’m an elf,” said Ratz, who stands half a foot taller than Santa.
Another female customer pointed at Knoll and Ratz and said, “Cute. I’ll take 10 of them!”
In the electronics department, several kids had their eyes glued to a Nintendo Wii video game when Santa walked by.
“I played bowling on that thing last night,” he said. “I beat all of my elves. Ho, ho!”
As Santa was leaving Walmart, heading off to spread cheer at McDonald’s and Portage Theaters, a man with candy cane in hand laughed and shook his head.
“You guys have way too much fun,” he said to Santa and his two helpers.
But Santa later said that fun, and a compelling swell of positivity, are what make the holidays so special.
“You don’t forget a little kid holding your leg,” he said. “You think, jeez, my left leg got heavy, and you look down an there’s a little girl on it.”
As for unbelievers, Santa only received one “bah humbug” during his travels Friday.
“Little kids come over and they hug you. You’re the guy that they know,” he said.
To the unbelievers: “I could be Santa Claus,” he said. “You’re not for sure, but I could be Santa Claus.”