Except for a large stuffed crow overlooking a handwritten warning about possible fines and imprisonment for folks allowing children to misuse loaded firearms, there are few "things" in the store other than guns. But, this being the season for giving, the tiny shop is crowded with customers. The man behind the counter blithely regards the Santa crew and tries to fill their order.
"I only have one box of 30-caliber rifle cartridges and one of the .30-06 Springfields left, and I'm all out of earplugs," says the man apologetically. "It's strange. There's been a rush on these. Holidays, I guess." The Santas buy what they can, loading up on alternates, and head north.
It's easy for a city kid in a Santa suit to get lost, even just a few short miles from home. Eight miles can seem like 20 when familiar markers like corner bars, thrift stores, and legible street signs give way to unvarying green hills, dozing dairy cows, and the occasional llama.
We had been up and down the same narrow stretch of winding road six times, and the desired address, which should have existed somewhere between the cobweb-covered 1500 and the subsequent gate irrationally marked 2360, had eluded both logic and technology. Finally, spotting a dairy farmer in knee-high rubber boots and overalls, we obtain the only answer possible: "You can't miss it: Just go a little ways and, at the top of the hill, turn right."
Up a tree-lined road, not corresponding with the street address given us earlier, we come upon a small shed built under a large wooden sunshade. The constant rumbling report of gunfire echoes off the surrounding green hills, making the air vibrate and my neck twitch involuntarily. The shooting range (which chooses to remain nameless out of fear of overcrowding) offers 20 shooting benches with six banks of targets (at distances of 25 to 300 yards) and a trap range for shotguns. Already, barrel-chested shooters with cigars clenched in their teeth occupy most of the benches, and their children, more interested in range etiquette and firing accuracy, hardly give our merry band of armed St. Nicks a second glance. The range master, a 17-year veteran of this firing range with a Glock strapped to his hip, allows himself one good-natured smirk before taking our money and turning his attention to the other shooters, most of whom know his name. He's slightly more impressed when more carloads of Santas arrive, including the highly spangled Santa Deluxe and the jolly bearded Santa Rob, swelling our numbers to 15. Some of the regular shooters step back from their benches to eye us through the smoke of their smoldering cigars as more authoritative Santas offer novices firearm instruction. Humpy Claus and Santa Savalas make it look easy -- feet apart, grip loose, head cocked, shoulders straight -- effortlessly hitting their targets. On the rifle range, at 100 yards, I can barely make out which target is mine, much less tell if my bullets are coming close to hitting the page. The range master chuckles as I watch one of his regular shooters nailing clay pigeons that look like orange match heads at 300 yards.
"We don't let you shoot at 200 or 300 yards unless you can sight in at 100 yards," says the range master, holding up a target with bullet holes less than an inch apart. I smile and nod from under my overlarge, shiny red hat.
I feel more confident on the handgun range, enjoying the genteel pluck of a .22 six-shooter, but the recoil from the .45 finishes me off. Santarilla shows me a scar left by a hot casing that flew down her shirt the last time she tried to shoot a semiautomatic weapon. Humpy Claus talks about repacking his own ammo. The range master calls a cease-fire, and the owner's kid hurries down the firing line to check that the guns are unloaded and the actions are open. I watch the other Santas proficiently handling their weapons, looking like holiday vigilantes at a pop-art boot camp. I'm glad they're on my side. By the time I leave, the locals are lending us equipment and posing for pictures.
"You guys are the best-behaved Santa crew I've ever seen here," says the range master. Holiday cheer all around.
Back in the city, I climb into a cab driven by St. Nick. Real beard, real blue eyes, well-worn hat. I wonder if he's packing. He talks about really needing coffee, about the stress of driving this time of year, about his addiction and headaches. Somehow, I don't doubt he knows his way around a handgun.
At the Edinburgh Castle, I settle in for a re-enactment of the Nativity scene. Bar manager and playwright Alan Black's familiar voice comes over the PA: "In the beginning there was the word ... Here's a pub. I need a drink. The Virgin was filled with child ... Virgin, your egg is fertilized by me ... Plop the child on a platter of sausage, beans, and chips. Joseph, knock and ask the innkeeper if you can deliver the divine egg to humanity's plate."
Frank McGuire as Joseph yells, "Is there room for me and the trouble and the strife?"
"There is no room at the inn," cries Tay Kim. And the Lord is fucking gutted.
"What a dump," sayeth the Lord. "We'll never drink here again." Joseph is instructed to take the Virgin, author Anne Marino, to deliver the savior of man in the alley, being careful to avoid the urine, crack pipes, and dung. The Three Wise Men, played by Luke James, come bearing the gifts of this land -- booze and drugs -- saying, "Thou shalt amount to nothing, you Jesus twonk." When King Herod hears of the child's birth, we are told he sends social services, which does nothing. Angered, the Lord sends a plague, but the rich develop antibiotics for themselves to defeat it. And the Lord is again fucking gutted.
"So be it," sayeth the Lord.
"A-men. Bastards the lot of them," says Black.
"It's good to be with friends this time of year," muses a gal at the bar.
Holiday traditions and friends, you can't beat them, I agree.