Flying Santa 

One helicopter, 30 years, 48,000 sticks of lip balm \nand 37,500 chocolates: Behind the scenes with Missoula’s only

I started believing in Santa Claus again last year after I bumped into him at the VFW Club in downtown Missoula. He was sitting at the bar. He had a date and a beer. His silver hair curled up and away from his forehead like the bar’s smoke, which he didn’t seem to mind. He cupped his beer with both hands, looked me dead in the eye, and told me it was that time of year again. He was busy recruiting an elf. He keeps the elf ears in his closet back at home. His date confirmed this with a smile (she could have been Mrs. Claus herself) and needled him to dance. He gave me his number and told me I should stop by his house one of these days, sit out on his new porch where the deer come to eat fallen apples, and drink orange juice with him. He winked and told me he’s been Santa since 1974.

That was the year Norm Laughlin was declared the man for the job. In a makeshift headquarters above the bar at Harold’s Club in Milltown, his VFW buddies agreed he was best suited to represent their new Bonner post as Santa. Among the group’s top priorities that first winter was to give something back to the community—only most things had already been given. Canned Foods. Winter coats. Sleigh rides. And there were other Santas out there, too, appearing in shops and at the mall in the weeks before Christmas. But none of those Santas was Norm. And while he might say he was picked for the role because his night-shift job then (driving tankers for Amoco) left his days free, the truth is this: Norm Laughlin is Santa because he has a twinkle and a heart that define the Christmas spirit year-round. Even during the 11 months his Santa suit stays in his closet, Norm inspires warmth and integrity wherever he goes. I don’t think he can help it—and believe me, I know. I looked him up again this year at the VFW, and we went for lunch at the 4B’s North, then back to his place to see that porch.

“We don’t believe in miracles,” reads a magnet on Norm’s refrigerator. “We rely on them.” And when you’re in Norm Laughlin’s presence, you start to roll with that idea. You get that little-kid feeling that in this big, busy world there’s still someone to tussle your hair and listen. You watch Norm Laughlin pick up his phone, dial Minute Man Aviation and say, “Hello, this is Santa,” and you realize what you’ve got here is no average St. Nick.

In fact, what we’ve got here in Missoula is a Santa who travels by helicopter. Thirty years ago, Norm and his VFW pals called Minute Man Aviation to see what it would cost to fly Santa and one helper elf, on the Friday before schools let out for Christmas vacation, to six elementary schools outside Missoula, spreading Christmas cheer along with chocolate-covered Russell Stover Santas (he’s ordered 1,250 this year) and last year’s lip balm, donated by an Avon rep in Billings. In 1974, their new post raised about $1,400 to cover the cost of fuel, chopper, costume and candy. Since then, Norm has had several Santa suits handmade by a local seamstress, and has ordered a custom beard every eight years or so from a wig lady in Denver. In three decades of strapping on that beard, he has led two generations of Montana schoolchildren to believe that Santa is guided by a pilot, not Rudolph.

This week, Norm is gearing up for his 30th season. “There’s a lot of children out there that don’t get to see Santa Claus,” he says. “Especially the ones that live out 10-miles-from-the-nearest-tree type of existence. We are still a rural state no matter how far our city limits have grown, and to have the chance to do this for them, that means a lot to me. It is very rewarding.” And so on Friday, Dec. 19, at 8:30 a.m., Norm Laughlin, as Helicopter Santa, will lift off over the hills of Missoula to deliver Christmas to the hinterlands.

“I’ll start at Mt. Jumbo [School] in East Missoula,” he explains, “and then from there I go to Bonner, then to Clinton, and then over the hill to Potomac, then over the other hill to Greenough, then over the big hill and then back in to De Smet.” He estimates he’ll visit about 750 K–4th graders this year. They’ll be waiting for him on their playgrounds when he arrives, waving and shrieking and fighting to keep their limbs steady against their excitement and the helicopter’s wind. “What happens, for instance,” says Norm, “is that when I leave Mt. Jumbo, they’ll call Bonner School and tell them I’m on my way, and that gives the kids time to get outside and watch me come in for a landing. And then we circle once or twice, and then we land. And the kids stay away from the chopper, and then as I walk up to them, then the donnybrook starts. ‘Santa Claus!’ they yell. ‘Santa!’ And then they escort me in the building.”

Inside those buildings, Norm has listened to over 20,000 wishes. “Think about it,” he says of the first children he visited in 1974. “They’d be 38-years-old now, so…I’m seeing the second generation of children per family. Sometimes the parents come out,” he says, and sometimes they bring him pies and cakes. “And what’s really funny,” says Norm, “is that sometimes I’ll have a mother, and I’ll pull her over and I’ll set her down on my lap, and then in front of the children I can start a conversation: ‘Do you remember when you were a little girl, because my grandpa told me you were a very nice little girl.’ And so here…you can build this conversation, you can build an atmosphere, and that’s what’s important for the kids.”

But what’s even more important than talking, to Norm, is listening. “What I really and truly think about,” he says, “is that I let the children carry the conversation, and then I try to work it into a humorous thing, and it means so much to let them have the conversation. They [already] know what I am, who I am, and why I am. So, OK, then let me give them a chance to find out who they are.” And what Norm has found is that kids these days talk more openly to him than the kids back in the ’70s. Now their wishes go deeper than dolls and toy dump trucks. “Could you get dad to come back and have Christmas with me?” Norm remembers one child’s wish. “Or, can you let mom come home more often…Or, can you get a new car for my dad, or my mom…because she don’t believe in you anymore. “A lot of it is sad,” he says. But when the children ask for a gift he can’t place in their palm, Norm tells it like it is: “I tell them usually I can’t. I don’t give them false hopes. I tell them I can’t, but maybe I can try, and we’ll see what happens…then when they go home and tell mama what they said, and what I said, it’s up to mama to say, well, no, they can’t let me have the day off, or something to this effect. I don’t try to keep anything from mom and dad, or grandma and grandpa. No way.”

And the beauty of his role, Norm says, is that all the kids believe him. He recalls being challenged just once, by a fifth-grade boy who wanted to know if Norm was real. Norm answered that he was Kris Kringle the Seventh, and the boy clammed up. That boy must have seen a glimmer of what I see in Norm: a straight-shooter who wouldn’t bother covering so much ground if he didn’t believe he could help bring a wish to life. Even when a third or fourth grader remembers what she asked Norm for last year and wants to know why he didn’t bring it to her, Norm is quick with a good-humored answer. “I just have to tell them that I didn’t have room on my sleigh for it,” he says, “and let it go at that.” When some kids poke his flat stomach and ask why he doesn’t have a round belly (Norm doesn’t stuff his Santa suit), he says, “I can look them in the eye…and say, well, Mrs. Claus told me I had to go on a diet. I got too fat.”

Properly plump or not, Norm Laughlin embodies Santa’s character, whatever his costume. Sitting at a booth in the 4B’s North, wearing a purple jacket he’s had embroidered with an American flag and the words, “God’s, Ours and Mine,” he waves hello to all the staff and patrons. When a friend walks by, about to eat by himself, Norm calls out, “Hey, Sleepy, you alone? You want to sit with us? If you want, come on in.” We make room for the man, a friend of Norm’s from the Elks Club, where Norm played Santa one year. “They set me out in the middle of the floor and had the kids come in,” he remembers as his friend slides in and cheers:

“You know who’s moving to Turah? Monica Lewinsky!” The man beams. “She wants to be near Clinton.” He laughs his head off. “That’ll be a nickel!”

But we don’t go digging for spare change—another thing Norm doesn’t believe in is charging for his services. “This is all free,” he says of his Santa appearances. “I don’t charge for any of this,” he insists, even of the half-dozen house calls he makes to families on Christmas Eve. “I come to their home Christmas Eve night, and I can tease them. ‘Why aren’t you in bed?...You’re supposed to be in bed, and they say…‘Well, Santa, we wanted to see you.’” He also tried being a mall Santa once, stationed outside J.C. Penney’s in the Southgate Mall. “The only thing there,” he says of the experience, “is that you don’t go to the kids…if Santa goes to the children, then that makes the difference…I’ll have children [at the schools] who will be tense, but not near like it was that one year at the mall. They’re more relaxed because I came to them.”

He turns to his friend beside him in the booth and tries to remember if he’s ever given him a chocolate-covered Santa in the past. “I think I have,” he starts. “Have I?” he asks as his friend fires away:

“You know who else is thinking of moving to Montana? O.J. Simpson! He heard we release cutthroats here. That’ll be a nickel!” Another howl of laughter.

From the crowd at the VFW to the customers of the 4B’s, people around Norm seem to smile a lot. I tell him he must have a knack for making people happy, and he says it’s a quality he thinks about often. He eyes me intently and says: “I’ve got an interesting question. My pastor one time asked me, Norm, what would you do if that person you met on the street was the last person you were going to see while you were alive? And oh, this is a hundred years ago he asked me, and I got to thinking, you know, come on, what’s wrong with having a smile on your face? What’s wrong with saying ‘good morning’? And what’s wrong with saying, ‘have a nice day’? And primarily, I have wanted that to be my life, all my life, you know, and I believe in that. I really and truly do. I’d much rather leave a person with a smile on their face than a disgruntled look.”

If you look back on Norm’s life, you’ll see that he’s always practiced what he’s preached—even when he wasn’t exactly, um, a saint. What his K-4th graders don’t know when Norm lands on their playgrounds is that their Santa used to be a Sinner. In the early ’50s, long before he was concerned with who was being bad or good, Norm Laughlin was riding a Triumph through downtown L.A., wearing a sweatshirt with The Sinners’ emblem: a naked lady sitting in a champagne glass. He and his fellow shaggers at the L.A. Examiner started the

motorcycle group in the early ’50s after buying bikes for their jobs shuttling ad copy to and from clients.

“A motorcycle group?” His friend in the 4B’s booth can’t get enough. “You know the difference between a motorcycle and a vacuum cleaner? There’s a lot bigger dirtbag on the motorcycle!” The man whoops it up, but Norm keeps a straight face. “We were legitimate,” he makes clear. “There was no hanky panky. I made my living on one of those bikes.” The group took young kids for rides on the bikes, too, and played games like trying to take a bite out of a dangling apple while riding under the tree from which it hung. Norm has a black-and-white photo of that scene back at is house; in it, he’s stretched out on the tree limb, clenching the apple’s string in his teeth and looking down on the crowd of bikers whose faces are lit up, heads thrown back, mid-laugh.

Norm moved from California to Missoula in 1967 and has lived in the same house—where he built the new front porch last year—since 1971. Today, he’s got about 1,600 sticks of lip balm stored there, too, along with three cartons of Mr. Goodbars stacked next to a height chart of his grandchildren scrawled onto the kitchen wall. Sitting on a couch in his living room, Norm catalogs all the jobs and hobbies he’s had in Missoula in the past 36 years, and what becomes clear is that Norm’s choices have consistently reflected commitment to community and family. After his position with the trucking division of the Northern Pacific Railroad dissolved in 1974, he took the night job driving tankers for Amoco so he could have his days free to spend with his three children. “A hundred years ago,” he ran for Justice of the Peace. “I put myself through two years of training for the position at my expense. I did not want to go up in front of John Doe citizen and not know what I was doing.” When that position didn’t materialize, he became a bailiff at the Missoula County Courthouse, where his job was to “escort the prisoners through the jail…and maintain peacefulness, you know.”

These days he’s also a photographer (“I’ll do outdoor stuff, I’ll do meetings, and I do weddings. But I don’t do risqué types of pictures. I won’t do them,” he says) and an avid bowler—his league is the Swingin’ Seniors, and on a recent afternoon I find him at Liberty Lanes, where he and 20 seniors teams have the place buzzing. “Lord, it’s hard to be humble,” Norm sings with a click of his heels after each of three effortless, consecutive strikes. I tell him I’m impressed. “I bowl five times a week,” he says with a dismissive wave. He estimates he owns eight or nine bowling balls, one of which he’s engraved with the name “Nauty.”

Away from the lanes, Norm still plays pinochle with his church group on occasion—“If they can’t find a sub, they’ll call Norm,” he says—and is an active member of the VFW’s Honor Guard. In past years he’s also volunteered as the clown at Park & Rec’s annual haunted house, handing out candy and suckers at the exit. Last Saturday he put on his Santa suit and helped Girl Scouts decorate a Christmas tree at the courthouse. Asked how long he’ll keep playing Santa, he says, “I have no plans of quitting. I never realized I’d make 30 years.”

Judging by Norm’s spunk and wit (the best joke of the day comes when I, driving across Van Buren traffic say, “Don’t worry, I won’t get us killed,” to which Norm quips back, “OK, George”), he won’t be easing up his busy schedule any time soon. “I get up about 5:30 every morning,” he says of his daily routine. “Why lie in bed?” The way he sees it, “If our lives are not geared toward other people, you know, what have we got?” And by that definition, Norm Laughlin has got a lot. He’s got 750 kids waiting for him this Friday. He’s got restaurants and bowling alleys-full of acquaintances who brighten when they see him coming. In a world where it isn’t always easy to figure out what matters, Norm makes it clear: “Even if there’s nothing that matters, so what, as long as you’ve left a smile on your face for somebody, or for you. You bet. So I didn’t make $1,000 today. So what? I’m still here. That’s a way of life with me.”

From what I’ve seen of Norm in the past year, I believe him. That first night I met him last fall, he’d just finished up his season at the haunted house. The clown costume was hanging beside the Santa suits in his closet, and he was down at the VFW taking a break. As he talked about his upcoming Santa season, I said I might like to be his elf some year. He told me he generally hires a granddaughter of one of his friends—someone small enough to fit in the chopper—and gets her dressed in elf ears and a little green jacket. He wasn’t so sure about me, and didn’t give me an answer right away. Instead he bought me a beer, elbowed up to the bar, and said, “I’ll tell you one thing. You want to keep busy, but not too busy.” Then his date nudged him again to dance, and he said ‘in a minute.’ He said the Christmas season can get tiring, not because he’s gotten older, but because his job has grown bigger. He doesn’t just visit the schools anymore. Now he takes his lip balms and chocolates to Liberty Lanes, West Side Bowling, the 4B’s North and The Rocky Mountain Grill Casino, too. The waitresses are waiting for him. The guys at the slots have wishes, too. In a way, Norm’s as busy with the grown-ups these days as he is with the kids. He shook his head at that simple truth, though it does make sense: age 10 or 70, we all need someone to believe in. Before we said goodbye, Norm sized me up and said it was a shame I was too tall to be an elf. I shrunk down on my stool and told him I owed Santa a beer. He said, OK, but he’s got bowling on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and twice on Fridays. Then he led his date across the room and danced.

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