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December 2000

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ZipUSA: North Pole, AK

By Glenn Hodges
J. T. Chambers doesn't fancy himself much of a Santa Claus. He's 14, just four feet eleven (1.2 meters) and 85 pounds (39 kilograms), and he finds North Pole boring. "All there is to do is eat and watch videos and go to the doctor's office," he says. "And go tanning."

Yet when last season's Santa letters poured into this small Alaska town from around the world, he and other North Pole middle and high school students had to step up, muster their best ho-hos, and write the kids back.

"I didn't like it," he says. He felt a little over his head answering one letter from a girl who wished her parents wouldn't fight so much.

"I said try to talk it out with your mom," J. T. says with a shrug. But even the standard wish lists bothered him. "It gave kids false hope about Santa Claus."

Nevertheless, that hope—false or otherwise—is the currency of North Pole. More than 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) from the actual Pole, this town of 1,600 is much closer to the North Pole of Santa Claus myth than most people will get. The children who get letters from Santa postmarked North Pole, Alaska, will never know they may have been written by kids not much older than themselves.

For the tourists who do make the trip here, North Pole's dichotomy is impossible to miss. Though the town bills itself as a place "where the spirit of Christmas lives year-round," gives its streets names like Snowman Lane and Saint Nicholas Drive, and dresses its lampposts like candy canes, its aesthetic is cheerlessly dominated by fast-food joints and strip malls. Stand where Richardson Highway crosses Santa Claus Lane and you can take in the heart of the town in an instant: McDonald's, Wendy's, Pizza Hut, Blockbuster.

The town's founders had higher hopes. According to local lore they named it North Pole in 1952 hoping that toy manufacturers would come for the "Made in North Pole" bragging rights, despite its inconvenience—121 miles (194 kilometers) from the Arctic Circle—as a manufacturing site. The town's third mayor doubled as St. Nick and built Santa Claus House, a Christmas knickknack shop with a part-time Santa, but that's about all North Pole has to show potential tourists. Instead the town serves largely as a bedroom community for Fairbanks, 14 miles (23 kilometers) up the highway, and for two nearby military bases.

Yet there's something here that people love beyond the Christmas gimmick. Charlie Livingston, like many in the area, came to Alaska with the military and never left. If he has his way, he never will. When I meet him at his taxidermy shop in a strip mall on the outskirts of town, he's frantically spraying pine scent to cover up the animal smells before "the lady," photographer Maria Stenzel, arrives. But he forgets to take down the Playboy calendar, and posters on the walls say things like "Never let go of your life preserver" set over an M16. There's no hiding who he is.

Charlie is a big guy, both in body and in spirit. When he gets together with his friends in the mornings at McDonald's, he tells the tallest tales, laughs the loudest laughs, and takes the most abuse. His buddies use him to size people ("that guy's at least as big as Charlie"), and they say to his face what a hack he is, how he couldn't stuff a pair of mittens. But behind his back they'll tell you, almost with tears in their eyes, how much they respect his work.

Hunting is a way of life here. When summer comes and the three-hour, 70-below-zero days of winter are but a distant memory, Alaskans come alive. The rivers beckon with salmon, the woods with moose and bear. And with their trophies in hand, men come to Charlie, because Charlie understands. "This land is in my soul," he says. "That's all there is to it."

It's a common refrain. Somehow this humble land—a flat expanse of evergreen, 75 miles (120 kilometers) from the nearest mountains—captures the spirit. Something happens. People find their place.

When I finally meet the man they call Kris Kringle at Santa Claus House, where he works weekends entertaining kids, I'm not expecting much. I've seen too many plastic Christmas decorations, and the way I look at it, you see one Santa, you've seen them all. But this Kris Kringel (spelled differently, he says, because "I don't want to take nothing away from him") has a story.

He used to be a truck driver in the lower forty-eight, an eighth-grade dropout with biker-bar nicknames like Wildman and Flying Dutchman. Then things started happening. An experience with Jesus turned his hair white, he says; friends asked him to be Santa for their kids; he found his joy—and he changed his name. And when he hurt his back and couldn't drive a truck anymore, he figured, where else would Kris Kringel live but North Pole? And so he came, eventually landing a job at Santa Claus House, and for a while delivering pizza on the side. Forty-seven years old, he scrapes to make ends meet.

"I'd like to be married and have a family, but I can barely afford what I got myself," he says. "It's lonely sometimes, but I went out and made a dent in this world, and look at the riches I've got now. The Bible says don't put your things up here on Earth but go and set 'em there in heaven."

It's all just words until a little girl sits on his lap. As she sits transfixed by his smiling eyes and silver beard, the souvenirs and T-shirts fade from view, and North Pole's Christmas spirit quietly sidles in.

"Do you like . . . pancakes or waffles?" Kringel asks in a gentle drawl. "Do you like . . . kittens or puppies?"

A good 20 minutes passes before her mother pries her away, and soon a four-year-old boy walks triumphantly toward Kringel's chair. His mom calls him Benjamin.

And as the boy sits on the lap of this man who has made himself Santa for a town that yearns to be special, he says, "No. My name is Batman!"


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