Note from Rich: Today’s post is written by my good friend and fellow blogger Bryan Catherman. Bryan is a very talented writer and a fun guy to hang out with. Be sure to check out his blog, The Hopeless Writer.
by Bryan Catherman
I’ve witnessed many spectacular things—NORAD, secret detainee holding camps, and other highly classified places—but nothing compares to where I went, and what I saw last month with my good friend, Rich Legg.
About six months ago, Rich Legg was contacted about doing a photo shoot. That in itself was nothing out of the ordinary given the popularity of his website and the broad range of his work. However, the subject matter and the stipulations were nothing he’d ever dealt with before. He was allowed to select one assistant, and after considering my background, he selected me over many of his talented photographer friends.
From there, we completed the necessary paperwork, provided blood samples, and underwent a detailed background check. Rich’s immunization record wasn’t as up to date as mine, so Rich also received a Polio vaccination, as well as the six-shot series for Anthrax. Then we waited. We were on the short list, being reviewed for the job.
Rich didn’t let himself get too excited. He’d been through this before when he was being considered to photograph Suri Cruise. “Don’t get your hopes up,” he’d say, “that way you won’t feel let down when we don’t get it. Trust me; I learned my lesson when I didn’t get the Cruise gig.”
But I couldn’t stop thinking about Ralph Plaisted. Plaisted was the last American to visit the most secret place on earth with his unauthorized entry on April 19, 1968; a day that changed is life.
On October 7th, we were selected for the job and on October 19th, we arrived at the private jet terminal of the Salt Lake City International Airport. Before us was a small, overpowered jet painted stark white. The windows were limo tinted and the aircraft was free of any other markings. No tail number, no warning or caution markers near the engines, nothing.
A brutish man with a stock face took our gear. He informed us that from this point, we were allowed no photography equipment, no recording devices, no GPS tracking systems, no paper, and no writing instruments. He confiscated our cell phones and for some reason, he took the electric keyfob from my key ring. “You’ll be given back your camera at the photo shoot,” he said to Rich. Something in his voice intimated me. I’ve looked into the faces of some evil men, terrorists and killers, but this man—a man who couldn’t possibly stand taller than five feet—scared the hell out of me.
I quickly realized that the terrifying little man that took our stuff was also our flight attendant. He served us a plate of cookie snacks. I had coffee and Rich had milk, and then the man disappeared. We never saw the pilots and the area of the plane where we were seated had no windows. As I listened to the engines roar, I started to wonder what I had let Rich get me into.
When the door of the jet opened, the cold blast instantly snapped at my face. It must have been 50 degrees below zero.
Then two young girls boarded the plane. Or I thought they were young girls; my mind was hazy at this point. They each carried a parka, a hat, and sun goggles. “You’ll need this stuff if you’re de-boarding the aircraft,” one of them said to me.
Stepping off the jet, I looked to the right and left. In all directions was nothing but snow and ice like a great white ocean. Looking behind me, I could barely see the plane except for the tinted windows.
Moments later, a toboggan being pulled by two caribou arrived. “Welcome to the North Pole,” said its driver, a three and a half foot cheerful man. He explained that we’d have to wear blindfolds until we entered the compound and we agreed.
As the sled came to a stop, I could hear signing and laughing. The sounds were confirmed when the man removed our blindfolds. Neither Rich or I could form words, but the reflection in our eyes said it all.
Before us was the biggest, brightest factory I’ve ever seen. Little people moved about like bees in a hive. Large gears turned and steam spewed from tall pipes. Conveyer belts moved toy after toy past us. The factory that surrounded us was alive.
“Come this way,” said the driver. “He wants the photos taken in his private residence.”
“This is amazing,” said Rich.
“Oh, this, right,” said the man. “I guess working here day in and day out you tend to forget. We don’t get many guests up here. Come on. This way, please.”
I had no idea how to address the big man, but when he firmly shook my hand, he said, “Hi, I’m Santa Clause, but some people call me Kris Kringle or St. Nicholas. What ever you’re comfortable with is fine by me.” He nodded. “This is my wife, Mrs. Clause.” His voice was like warm syrup and his smile like a child’s innocent giggle.
Handcrafted furniture filled his living room as the wood-burning stove packed the space with warmth. On a desk in the corner were little flags—the flags of the entire world. A large King James Bible rested on his coffee table. One end of the couch was near a small end table, and on the table were a candle lamp, some knitting needles, yarn, and a Beverly Lewis book with a red bookmark. I think it was The Brethren, but I couldn’t be sure. Three books sat on the other end table: Blue Like Jazz, The Kite Runner, and a title written in French.
Rich and Santa chatted about the photo shoot for a moment and then Rich instructed me to unpack the gear. (The equipment arrived unnoticed while I was meeting Santa and his wife.) We didn’t know what the photos were for and nobody ever told us, but for the next twenty minutes, Rich snapped photo after photo. I held a big disk and reflected light. At one point I held two flash mechanisms and pointed them as Rich showed me. Snap, flash, snap. I think Rich must have captured 400 photos.
Then, as we were packing up, Mrs. Clause served us sweet sugar cookies and hot chocolate. Santa retreated into his study and emerged with two wrapped gifts and a copy of Letters From the Front Lines. “Bryan,” he said to me, “war is the devil’s play and I’m sorry you had to visit his playground. Please thank every veteran you know, for me.” Then he handed me the book. “If it’s not too much trouble, would you mind signing it for me?”
“Brave Rifles, Santa. Brave Rifles!”
And as fast as we had arrived, we were escorted out. I don’t remember the flight home, other than the time I spent staring at the small Christmas gift Santa gave me. The box was wrapped in gold paper and a small hand-tied bow stuck up from the top. “Don’t open this until Christmas Morn’,” he said. At one point, I looked to Rich, who was staring at his gift, larger than the one Santa gave to me.
“Rich,” I asked, “how will anybody believe we were really there?”
His reply: “Don’t worry, I’ve got the photos to prove it.”