by Jim Park
Dave Marson likes to be right in the thick of things. At 45 years of age, his career has taken him places many would fear to tread, like a bus full of little old ladies or a room full of caterwauling kids. He's waded into the thick of the debate on hours-of-service reform in Canada, testifying at several Transport Canada task force hearings, and he spent his share of time at the front line of the owner-operator protests back in the early 1990s. Marson's name is probably better known in the circle of trucking officialdom than it is in the truckstops, but he's a trucker through and through.
Monday through Friday, he trucks. He's an owner-operator with two trucks working locally in the Calgary area. On weekends he dons a pair of big goofy shoes, an orange wig, a pretty atrocious suit, and white-face clown make-up and then hits the trail as Pokey the Clown. He does kids' birthday parties, parades, and a few corporate gigs as well, but his favorite place to play is a hospital where sick and ailing children welcome the sight of someone wearing something other than operating-room green.
Marson got his start in the clown fraternity when he joined the Calgary lodge of the Shriners, fresh out of the army. He started playing drums in a marching band. He then joined the Shiner's Mounted Patrol, doing choreographed equestrian exercises in parades, similar to the RCMP's musical ride. "A low-budget version of the Musical Ride," Marson stresses. "We were into it more for the fun than the glory."
With the regimented lifestyle of the military still in his blood, he wanted to shake off the spit and polish for something a little less formal. He was invited to a clown seminar at a lodge meeting in Lake Louise one weekend, and he's never looked back.
His clown character, Pokey, comes from an ancient and respected clowning tradition, and Marson chose to develop that style of clown over several others because he felt the white-face clown, typically the funny, slapstick sort of character best suited his own personality.
"The character traits come from inside yourself," Marson says. "Pokey is an extension of my own personality, and when I'm in make-up, I can really have a lot of fun with the people I'm playing to."
He's tossed a pie or two into a few well-heeled faces, and once he nailed the fellow who drives one of his trucks, on his wedding day. Usually, though, the extent of Pokey's shenanigans is limited to a little sleight-of-hand magic, juggling, or creating balloon animals at children's parties.
"My grandmother started calling me Pokey when I was five, because I was always poking into places I wasn't supposed to be," Marson recalls. "Poking the knife into the toaster, once, pretty well cemented the name and I guess it just stuck."
Dave Marson is one of those multi-faceted people who have a broad and seemingly unrelated set of skills and interests that make for interesting conversation. He's an avid fan of the Canadian Football League, a crusader for truckers and owner-operators in particular, and quite a horseman in his own right. He's taken a few falls from his mounts over the years, including one that laid him up for nearly two years. During that time, he was busy with one or more western Canadian owner-operator associations, including a stint as the Canadian representative for the powerful American Owner Operator and Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA). He even served a term as a vice president of the Alberta Trucking Industry Safety Association (ATISA). And still there's more to Mr. Marson.
Recognize the guy behind the white beard in the photograph above? Santa Marson is one of the most sought-after Santas in the Calgary area, with a steady and repeat performance at the Calgary Zoo for as long as he wants the job. He started by filling in for a friend who couldn't make a particular appearance once, and admits he was more than a little nervous the first time out.
"I had no idea what to expect from the children," he says. "But I just applied the clown code of ethics and let the kids take the conversation where they wanted it to go."
He's been asked plenty of zingers in his time in the red suit, including requests to help Mommy and Daddy get back together and to cure one little girl's brother's cancer.
"It's all part of the role," Marson says. "I never lie to them or give them false hope. I just try to give them a positive outlook on their situation. Santa is a wonderful guy, but he can't do everything."
It takes a very brave fellow to go out on a limb like that just because he loves children and loves to make then smile. And there's not a whole lot of money in it either.
The way he sees it, being Santa for about six weeks every year covers the cost of Christmas, and pays for the upkeep of the costume. He re-soles his boots every year, has his wig and beard professionally styled and trimmed, and spruces up the red velvet.
Whatever it costs to be Santa, can there be anything worth the privilege of having a child explain that she'd like to rename one of the reindeer Peppermint because she can never remember all the right names?
The key to the role is to remember what toys are hot and which are not each year, and never to promise the kids anything Santa can't deliver.
It's a big role for a big guy, or a least a guy with a big heart. Whether it's owner-operators, crippled and burned children, or wide-eyed youngsters with an insatiable curiosity, Marson's in there like a dirty shirt. He's a giver who keeps on giving, and he's up for a little more giving with his current role as a director of the on-again, off-again owner-operator association called NTAC. Let's hope Santa Marson can find a little something in his sack for Canada's owner-operators this year.