RIP Jim Schultz, aka Tangier Island’s Santa Claus
It was only a month ago that we sat at the Cambridge Airport for over 6 hours, waiting for the fog to lift so we could fly to Tangier Island for the 44th annual Holly Run. Tracey Munson, Ed Nabb Jr, Schultzie (Santa), the “elf” Tony Cucchinella, and I.
We were supposed to be picked up by the Airline Owners and Pilots Association group and flown off to the Bay Bridge Airport. There, we’d get into some kind of formation, and fly as a group to Tangier Island, floating out in the middle of the lower Chesapeake Bay. Oh, how impressive it would have been – 51 planes flying together, descending on that tiny island with holly and cheer, bringing Christmas to the good people of Tangier.
But the fog kept us grounded, and in our own small huddle. The pilots dropped out one by one, and the group waiting at the Bay Bridge Airport began to shrink, as the day hurried by and the fog settled even deeper on the Shore. Pea soup, indeed.
So, instead of the big excitement of crowds and roaring engines, we had a small group kind of day, the five of us.
Sitting in the Cambridge airport, we just talked. Ed described his father’s vision and the tradition he started so many years ago. We learned about Tony’s friends at the Greene Turtle in Ocean City, who band together at every chance to help one of their own.
We heard about the blasted people in Ocean City who cut Santa out of that town’s Christmas parade many years ago, and shook Shultzie to the core in their effort to keep religion out of that town’s holiday celebration.
Law offices, and Maritime museums, backaches and bars owned years ago in Baltimore. Land use planning, online newspapers and politics. Beer and chicks and pickups.
In short, we shared ourselves, our own stories, for those 7 hours.
Early on, in the middle of a story about Cambridge’s politics, a thin voice called out from the corner “Don’t tell anyone about this…. really.” We all turned as Schultzie told us that he had some bad news, a bad diagnosis. “Not really sure exactly what it is until test results come back later next week, but please”, he asked, “don’t say anything.”
Hardly a secret, it was obvious that the man was not well. He could barely walk without holding on to something. Lurching from side to side down the hall to the bathroom, we exchanged worried glances. It was obvious that every ounce of this man’s energy was being used up just to sit there at the table, his elbows holding him up. Pale and sweating, sucking down coke after coke, it didn’t look like Santa was having a good day at all.
Except when he talked about the kids. He changed when he talked about kids and being Santa. It sounds silly to say that he got a twinkle in his eye, but…he did. And as he talked, and as we watched….the real story of Santa became obvious to us.
You know how when, sometimes, right in the middle of something, you realize that things are kind of backward, or opposite of what you thought?
It dawned on us, as we helped schlepp the gigantic bags of toys that Schultzie had purchased with his own money, broken candy canes and all, that this year’s holly run was more about Santa than about the recipients of his gifts. Getting this particular Santa to that particular island to do the deed he had done for a dozen years was the real meaning of Christmas, this year.
Eventually the fog lifted, and Santa made it out to the tarmac.
It took three men to shove Santa up into that airplane, and Tracey and I were honestly worried about how this was all going to work out. “Somebody better make sure there’s a doctor on that island”, I hissed to no one in particular, at one point.
We did manage to link up with some men on the island to help get Santa back up into the plane.
I’m certain that I wasn’t the only one trying to remember CPR techniques as we took off over Cambridge, swooping over the marshes, with presents and bags of holly pressed into every square inch of the plane.
But once we landed, everything changed. The kids and Moms were waiting, the golf cart whisked Santa off, and we all took a deep breath knowing that Christmas was happening exactly then, at that moment. Kids settled around him, Tony the elf passed the toys, and as he did, Santa sat taller, his focus shifted and he reached out. One by one, he listened, kids smiled and parents beamed.
Three hours later, as we settled in to watch the sun setting over the brilliant Chesapeake Bay, we sat silently and watched. Everyone was touched by what we saw – the connection Santa made with the kids, the relief on his face, the satisfaction of a job well done, another year of happiness brought to others.
Recalling the hours of conversation, the friendships made that morning, I think we all recognized that something very special happened inside of that fog on that long day, grounded as we were, together in that small room.
The meaning of Christmas was right there.
We each saw the real Santa Claus that day.
And after that, I’ll never NOT believe again.
Any time that any man or woman dons that red suit, the beard, the jingling hat – that IS Santa, I’m sure now. And the spirit of our friend Schultzie, who passed away yesterday, will always be part of that magic.
Thank you Shultzie. May you Rest In Peace.
Here’s a link to Tracey Munson’s photo collection from that special day.