Santa Wore A Cowboy Hat

After waiting in line for almost a half hour, I was still at least a dozen positions from the airline counter. It was two days before Christmas in the late 1970s, and I was among the horde of holiday travelers at Denver’s Stapleton Airport. Suddenly our wait was extended.

A woman stood at the counter bewildered and frightened. Earlier in the day she and her three children began their journey from Grand Junction, Colorado, to Detroit. One child was no more than age seven; another at her knee was less than age three, and another was cradled in her arms. The airline agent in Grand Junction gave her boarding passes and some additional instructions. Her understanding of those instructions and what the agent intended were at variance. The critical misunderstanding was that the fare she paid in Grand Junction only brought her to Denver, were she would have to purchase another ticket to Detroit. When the agent in Denver asked for her fare, she did not have the money. She drew her children to her side and just stated into space. Her reaction sent a signal that radiated through long lines at two different airlines. 

As the rest of us looked around for some other scene to divert our immediate attention from her dilemma, I saw a tall cowboy whose very big hat was almost too small for his big head. We made eye contact and simply exchanged nods, and, as if on cue, we moved in different directions. I went to the counter and assured the woman that she was not alone and escorted the family to seats. Meanwhile, the cowboy had put a few dollars in his hat and was slowly walking through the crowd accepting additional contributions. I took a basket from the counter that held ID tags for luggage and made my way to customers who raised their hands to offer contributions. One young man, who appeared to have just walked out of central casting as a 60s hippie, dropped two crisp $100 bills in the basket. It was an impromptu display of generosity of strangers who deduced that if a woman with three small children didn’t have plane fare to get home for Christmas, it was also unlikely that Santa Claus would know where to find the children.

When the cowboy and I returned to the counter with a collection more than sufficient for the fare, a supervisor had arrived at the counter to take charge. She processed the new tickets and gave us a large envelope for the surplus collection of more than $400. The supervisor also boarded the family on her cart and drove them to the gate. In that few seconds of time as they rode away, there was no gate announcement or other distractions over the airport speakers; all we heard was applause.
Meanwhile, the cowboy and I had lost our places in line, so we just gave each other another nod and went to the rear.

This story was first published in Hilton Head Island: Time and Tide, an Island Writers’ Network Anthology, and is available at

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