The Boeing 757 thundered down a Metro Airport runway today, soared to an ultra-high altitude reserved for supersonic travel and touched down at the North Pole all in just about one hour.
You have to believe, you see. The elves on board did. The clowns who made the balloon hats were all-in. Even the Delta flight attendants, for whom air travel must understandably become a grind, seemed pumped up. The captain, who was making a trip to the farthest north he had ever flown, twice reminded his special passengers not to peek through the window shades, for the secret route could never be revealed.
When the roar of the engines died and the jet rolled to a stop, the door flung open to the terminal, where he waited inside.
He knelt on one knee, cheeks in high bloom, right there in the concourse. The man with the resplendent white beard and red suit opened his arms to the disembarking children, who greeted him one by one outside Gate A38. Some kids had fresh faces and quick legs that brought them to him in a hurry. Others had weary eyes or sunken cheeks or thinning hair, or all of these. Many have life-threatening illnesses such as leukemia, which can dim the light of childhood and, sometimes, snuff it out. Some of the kids are in remission. Some are struggling.
On this day, though, after a remarkably smooth flight from metro Detroit, the children were at the North Pole. They believed.
A group of retired flight attendants called the Silverliners, with the help of Delta Air Lines, invited 47 young children to today's trip, as the group has done for more than a quarter-century. The kids come through hospitals in southeast Michigan. Most were accompanied by their parents. A few couldn't make it, including one whose family was stalled on the way by a flat tire.
At Gate A38, right across from McDonald's, harried travelers paused to see what was going on. When they found out what was, they smiled and stared.
Santa delivered. One boy bounded up, showing off a bag he'd received from an elf, filled with goodies. "Look it!" the boy shouted to Santa, exchanging a fist bump. The old elf then asked an older girl if she could dance, and she obliged with a shimmy. Another child approached, incredulous, mouth hung open.
As another, and another, and then another child approached him, Santa greeted them like he knew them: "Oh, my goodness, look who's here."
They ran to him or toddled up warily, most accepting his embrace. A man carried one young girl up in his arms and then helped her stand next to the man in the red suit. Treatment, presumably, had taken her hair, and her earrings sparkled as she stood on thin, trembling legs. Santa spoke to her softly.
He almost always elicited beaming smiles. There were some tears, but not for the reason you may guess at least for one child.
Two-year-old Vincent Jackson, who has lymphoma, wasn't frightened. One visit with Santa just wasn't enough for Vincent. He walked up and sat on Santa's knee right away. After a time, Vincent ran up for a second visit. On the third try, Vincent charged toward Claus, but his mother snagged the tiny boy's shirt, holding him back so another child could go.
Vincent cried and cried.
"I think he wanted to take Santa home," his mother, Candice Anderson of Detroit, said later.
After the greetings, Santa, the elves, the clowns and a bunch of other volunteers took the children to a large room, where they posed for photographs and ate fudge. A magician worked tricks with a snow-white bunny. Each child left with a large bag heavy with stuffed animals, board games and more.
Owen Smith, 6, couldn't decide whether to ask Santa Claus to deliver him Legos, video games, coloring books or a laptop computer on Christmas morning. In the end, he settled on Legos.
Owen's family found out two days after last Christmas that he has leukemia. After nearly a year of treatments and hospitalizations, his mother said he is doing well.
"This will be a much better holiday for us," said Paula Smith, who lives in Rochester Hills. She heard about the North Pole trip through Beaumont Hospital.
"I think it's wonderful that they do this," she said. "Ever since he's been diagnosed, we've had nothing but great support."
Earlier that day, while still aboard the jet bound for the North Pole, Owen and the other children sang a rousing "Jingle Bells" at the captain's urging. When the song was finished, Owen kept singing, softly, from his window seat. He said he knew all the words.
His mom, sitting in the middle seat, looked down at him, and the two held hands.
"I'm so excited to be going here with you," she said. Then she lowered her cheek to his shoulder.
Detroit Free Press