Christmas in July

Is that Santa, in shorts, with a hose?

Is that Santa, in shorts, with a hose?

Have you ever stopped to consider which holiday is Santa Claus’ favorite? It’s not Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Christmas. He’s working flat-out during those holidays, trying to meet unreasonable deadlines and deal with unruly parents and ill-behaved children. On New Year’s Eve, he still has his feet up, recovering. Easter’s not a favorite, either. That bunny is just too competitive.

This past weekend, I learned from Santa what his favorite holiday is, and why.

I was at a party in Port Orchard, Washington. The venue was breathtaking, a gorgeous house on a bluff, overlooking Bremerton, Sinclair Inlet, and the Olympic mountains.

There were numerous barbecue grills, a groaning table of summer salads, and a homemade peach-and-plum cobbler, along with ice-cold lemonade and root beer. There was a live band, and a red, white, and blue photo booth with cute props. The yard was surrounded by a riot of colorful flowers, and white-crowned sparrows cavorted on top of the fence. It was sunny and hot.

It was Santa’s favorite holiday, the Fourth of July.

Santa kicked back in the shade with Mrs. Claus and some friends who looked strangely like him. He ate and drank, listened to music, and played some cards. He didn’t eat a single Christmas cookie, and the band didn’t play a single Christmas carol. He posed for a photo or two, but nobody sat in his lap.

It was when it started to get dark that it became apparent, Santa has a secret: He’s passionate about fireworks.

“There’s only one holiday when I spend money — the Fourth of July. I’m too busy at Christmas,” he told me, as he carefully hosed down the grass. He wan’t preparing to shoot off a small handful of fireworks. He had a wheelbarrow full of them.

I asked another Santa — there were many at the event — if that was unusual, and he said no. “See this? he said, reaching into his bag and showing me a yellow cardboard box. “I have 60 more of these to set off tonight.” He chuckled gleefully as we settled into our chairs to watch the show.

I could see nonstop fireworks for miles around Port Orchard and Bremerton, but the ones in Santa’s yard were the best. They were big and bright, exploding directly overhead in great big balls of stars and streamers. I’ve never seen roman candles so bright, or so close. Even Santa’s sparklers were four times as big as any I’ve seen. Everything was bright and colorful, blue and yellow and white and purple and pink. There weren’t many red or green ones, and I didn’t ask why.

The next time you attend a fireworks celebration, keep an eye out for Santa on his favorite holiday. It’s hard to spot him in the dark. He’ll probably be wearing shorts and a t-shirt, not sweltering in a red-and-white suit. He can’t stay anonymous, though; there’s a dead giveaway that he’s in the neighborhood. That’s when “BOOM!” is followed by “HO, HO, HO!”

To learn more about Santa Dennis Simpson, visit his webpage.


Every day, there’s someone new to meet! Here are a few of my favorite new friends.


Donna, who hates having her picture taken

Donna, who runs the Coca-Cola Museum in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Donna hates having her picture taken, so her family has very few photos of her. But tourists in the museum ask for her photo regularly, and she can’t say no. So there are thousands of photos of her extant, just not in her family! She loved the idea of hiding behind a copy of Strangers Have the Best Candy.


Johnny shows me how a calendar clock works

Johnny Ingram, who started The Museum of Measurement and Time with his wife. I accidentally stumbled upon this private museum in Jefferson, Texas. Johnny and his wife created it to showcase their collection of clocks, salt-and-pepper shakers, adding machines, and surveying instruments. It’s an incredible collection, beautifully displayed, but the real find is Johnny. He knows everything there is to know about clocks and traditional systems of measurement.

Carolyn, Rich, and Ian

The Nomadic Response Team

Carolyn, Rich, and Ian Sasek, nomads currently living in Melissa, Texas. This is my new nomadic family — we met on Facebook, through Carolyn’s Nomadic Mama group, and we knew we were kindred spirits. We met at a restaurant in Sherman, Texas for breakfast and practically stayed until dinnertime.

Danny Torrez

The proprietor of the Villanueva General Store

Danny Torrez, who runs the general store in Villanueva, New Mexico, with his mother, Josie. This was one of my favorite encounters — I could just hang out in that store all day. Danny greets everyone by name, and makes them feel welcome. Josie’s great-grandmother started the store, so it’s been in the family for five generations.

Although the store is not a restaurant, it is set up to do some cooking. I had the best breakfast of my trip, well-seasoned with love.


Does the bear have a name?

This past Sunday, my friend, Jeanie, and I were sitting at a picnic table, enjoying beautiful weather and laughing a lot. We were in Young’s Park, a riverfront park in Vero Beach, Florida.

Sonya with Love Live bear

Sonya with the LOVE LIFE bear, at Steve Fugate’s starting point

She had the view of the water: “Ooh! Look! A dolphin!” I turned around to see.

I had the view of the parking lot: “Ooh! Look! A giant teddy bear!” She turned around to see.

A woman strode across the grass, carrying a 3-foot tall teddy bear. He wore glasses and a hat, a t-shirt with a slogan, and a Hawaiian shirt. Like most bears, he wasn’t wearing pants.

She set him down next to a tree and went back to her car. She and a second woman put a sign that said “LOVE LIFE” next to the bear. They started taking photographs of each other with the bear.

“That reminds me of the Happy Spot sign,” I told Jeanie. “What do you suppose it’s about?”

“I’m waiting for you to go over there and find out,” said Jeanie.

“Me? Why me?” She smirked, and that started me laughing again.

They’d moved the bear closer to the river, and now other people were stopping to ask curious questions.

I took my time, finishing my sandwich, and when I got up, Jeannie muttered, “Finally.” We walked over, and I asked, “Does the bear have a name?”

“He’s the Love Life bear,” they told us. Then they told us about Steve Fugate.

Two years ago, Steve left this very spot in Young’s Park in Vero Beach, Florida, walking a zig-zag route around the US with a sign on his head reading “LOVE LIFE.”

It was not the first time Steve walked across the country, raising awareness about suicide. It was the seventh.

Steve lost his son, Stevie, to suicide, and his daughter Shelly, a few years later. His website says that he is inspired to share the love he would otherwise be sharing with his children with the people he meets. To do this, he has walked 34,000 miles, giving love and encouragement to the people he meets along the way.

To say that Steve Fugate is an expert in talking to strangers would be an understatement. Steve Fugate has literally saved the lives of countless strangers.

Sonya and Carol

Sonya and Carol, sitting on Dad’s park bench

But this post isn’t really about Steve. It’s about Sonya and Carol, his extraordinary friends.

Ardent supporters of Steve’s mission, the two of them do all kinds of behind-the-scenes work. Fundraising, social media, encouragement, sending care packages — they are two of many people who make LOVE LIFE possible. The previous day, they helped put on the second annual Love Life Walk Celebration. Dozens of people gathered, wearing LOVE LIFE t-shirts and carrying signs. Pointing to the 65-foot Barber Bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, Carol said, “We walked over the bridge together.”

When we met them, they were celebrating Steve’s second anniversary on the road with pictures of the LOVE LIFE bear, in his Hawaiian shirt, at Steve’s starting point. It’s a reminder of the point where he will eventually return, and the fact that his LOVE LIFE family is there.

Meps with the LOVE LIFE bear

Meps with the LOVE LIFE bear

By strange coincidence, that spot  is significant to me. In 2011, after my brother, also named Stevie, died in a tragic incident, my husband and I stayed in Vero Beach as long as we could. Finally, we set sail northbound on Flutterby. The morning we left, my Dad stood at the precise spot in Young’s Park where the LOVE LIFE bear did. He waved until we were out of sight, unable to see the tears streaming down my face. My Dad always loves life and inspires me to do the same.

Steve Fugate’s valuable LOVE LIFE message is heard much farther afield than his two feet will carry him. Sonya and Carol — and you and I — are making sure of that.
You can read more about LOVE LIFE on Facebook and on the web. There’s a short documentary film on Vimeo.

A good guy, always happy

Linda and Robert, mother and son, were the first to arrive, just after 5 am. They set up their chairs outside the door of Mr. Smoke’s Contemporary Department Store on Saturday morning and waited patiently for Mike Williams to open the doors at 9.

2015-03-21_0510-d90-2756They were accompanied by Robert’s daughter, Zoie, 6. Like many other children attending, Zoie was happy, outgoing, and had a balloon.

By 7:30, the diverse line stretched to the end of the block. People of all ages, colors, and ethnic groups were waiting together, chatting and greeting each other. The early arrivals had chairs; later groups stood.

It was a lot of effort for a free t-shirt.

Mike has been celebrating his store’s anniversary every year, because for the first several decades, he struggled to keep his doors open. It wasn’t for lack of customers. Vero Beach didn’t want a so-called “head shop” in town, especially across the street from the police station.

So while he fought the legal battles, he celebrated every year he managed to keep his unique store in business. Once a year, he designed a t-shirt to celebrate the milestone. He only printed 100 of each design, making them collectors’ items.

“We came to the first anniversary celebration,” said Linda, from her #2 place in line. She and Robert were both wearing shirts from previous years.

Not everyone wore their Mr. Smoke’s shirts. A man named Larry, who arrived in line at 7:30, said he had about 25 of them, but he never wore them. “I keep it in the bag. I collect t-shirts. I have over a thousand, concert shirts and stuff.”

Woody came out with two shirts

Woody came out with two shirts

Woody, who drove to Vero Beach from Cape Coral, lives aboard a sailboat. He has been coming to the event for 15 years and has 15 shirts. If you’ve ever lived aboard a boat, you know that’s a big storage space commitment.

“I’ve got every one. I’ve got one drawer in my dresser that’s nothing but his shirts,” said one of Mike’s friends, who was helping in the store. “I tell Mike, it’s my retirement package. When I get to number 50, I’ll put them on eBay.”

The store’s future is secure, with customers like Dace, Kristen, and Tay in line. They’re 21 and have been coming to the anniversaries for four years. “This store has history, and we know how much Mike went through for us,” said Kristen.

2015-03-21_0613-d90-2798Across from the waiting queue was a giant inflatable “bouncy house” for the kids. Girl Scouts were selling cookies, and a band called Station was doing sound-checks beside a tent where 99.7 Jack FM radio was broadcasting. Popcorn and balloons were everywhere.

At 9:00, Mike released a bunch of balloons, then unlocked the door. Everyone cheered.

“I’m taking the day off work for this,” said a woman named Kris. The man with her, Chris, said “I asked for the day off three weeks in advance. This is one day when you get to see people you don’t normally see.”

Thomas, in the middle, stayed up all night

Thomas, in the middle, stayed up all night

“I stayed up all night for this,” said Thomas, a daily customer of the store. “I couldn’t sleep!” It was his first year attending the anniversary celebration. Another enthusiast, Kenny, said. “It’s like Christmas!”

Zoie’s mother was about 15 places back from her ex-husband. She’d driven a couple of hours from Okeechobee for the event. “If I ever leave Florida, this will be the once-a-year event I’ll come back for.”

That level of enthusiasm is really about Mike. All morning long, people enthused about him. “A good guy, always happy.” “A good man.” “A sweetheart.” ‘An awesome person.” “He’s good to talk to about stuff.” “He gives back to the community.” “Why do I come? Pretty much, Mike.”

2015-03-21_0509-d90-2754Over and over, people used words like “welcoming” and “family” to describe Mike’s relationship with his customers. Linda said, “He treats everybody like family. We call him Uncle Mike.” Her son nodded, and a woman named Chasya chimed in, “You’re supporting a locally owned and operated store by someone who treats you like family. There’s nothing like this anywhere.”

2015-03-21_0633-d90-2813“It seems like I’ve known Mike all my life. When my friends come from out of town, I take them to see him. They just love him to death,” said Marsha. “I told him he ought to do this twice a year.”

Daniel, who lives a block from the store, said, “You never just go in and out. Sometimes, when I’m bored, I just come in and kick it with Mike. If they sold food, this would be my favorite store.”

At 9:14, a woman named Karen, who had never missed an anniversary, came out with her 34th t-shirt. “I don’t wear them, I hang them. I don’t want them to get dirty.”

2015-03-21_0659-d90-2831I finally went inside to see what was happening. Even though Mike had recently expanded, it’s not a big store. The customers were orderly and polite, the children well-behaved, as they browsed among the ultra-bright t-shirts.

Behind the counter, Mike handled sales, accompanied by his beaming sister, Vicky. The conscientious storekeeper wrapped fragile items and carefully made change as he talked and joked with his customers. The life of the party, he was doing 50 things at once without breaking a sweat.

“I want a hug,” he said to one woman. “That’s what it’s all about!” He shook hands with a tall man, then turned to his teenaged daughter, asking her, “How’s school, anyway? Getting good grades?” One customer asked him to autograph his t-shirt.


Mike Williams signs a t-shirt in Mr. Smoke’s

Mike told me that he gets emotional when he sees how many people support him. “This morning, I just had to cry before we opened the doors,” he admitted.

Watching Mike, it’s obvious why he has as many followers as the Dalai Lama. He loves people, and he is not afraid to let them know that.

“You guys make me so proud!” he announced. “Everybody should be Mr. Smoke one day in their life.”