Semper fi Santa

COSTA MESA — The Grinch doesn't stand a chance against this Santa Claus, a Harley-riding veteran.

Bob Torres, 69, who served in the Marines the 1960s and '70s, has been one of St. Nick's jolly red-cloaked helpers for 26 years. He has nine consecutive seasons, including this one, under his ample belt as one of South Coast Plaza's two Santas.

In all those years, Torres, whose twinkling eyes are surrounded by all-natural white brows and a full beard, has been privy to thousands of surprising secrets.

Just this week Torres helped Jonathan Nguyen propose to his college sweetheart — a moment that brought tears to Jenny Hoang's eyes (she told Santa that she'd been a very good girl this year) and cheers from a crowd of onlookers.

"It made me feel tremendously good to be a part of that," Torres said in an interview. "They'll remember that for the rest of their lives, and so will I. And of course, they have the photos to go along with it."

But not all moments are as filled with joy, Torres said.

Last year, a young boy sat on his lap and asked if Santa could help make his grandmother well again.

"I thought to myself, 'Jeez, how do I respond to that?'" Torres said. "I told him that things have a way of working themselves out."

While he wasn't quite able to explain it — perhaps it was the magic of the holiday season or his Catholic faith — Torres felt deep inside that what he told the boy was true.

A few months later, Torres ran into the same family at a charity function. When the mother caught sight of him, she came running in his direction.

"I thought she was going to attack me," Torres said with a chuckle. "But, she threw her arms around me and gave me a great big, bear hug."

The boy's grandmother had made it, but to this day, Torres can't explain what was behind that gut feeling telling him to talk to the boy.

That story was a one of a kind for Torres, he said.

All of the other requests he gets from children are usually for today's hottest electronic goods: XBOXs, iPhones and iPads.

Two decades ago, children had wanted dolls, wooden trucks and wind-up cars.

"Hey, if the parents can afford to buy that for them, all the more power to them," said Torres, who had grown up the son of a carpenter in Monterey. "But I can tell you that it's not happening in my household."

His humble upbringing is one of the reasons why he most loves to dress as Santa every year, he said.

"I want kids to be happy when they leave my lap," Torres said, and explained that while he had everything he needed as a child, he didn't have the opportunity to have many "wants."

And that moment of pure happiness when a child sits on Santa's lap is exactly the reason why so many mallgoers take their children to see Santa each year.

"He's this magical person," Brittany Thompson of Newport Beach said as she waited in line with her two little girls, Nadia, 8, and Mia, 5. "He teaches them the value of giving and if they're not good, they know he won't come next year … It's a great incentive."

So, for as long as he is able, Torres is going to continue suiting up in red velvet six weeks a year.

While the beard gets shaved off each March, and begins growing out again in June, Torres monitors his health year-round with annual physicals.

Thanks to a daily regimen of leg-strengthening exercises, Torres can support up to 300 pounds on each thigh — pretty important when children of all sizes and even ages look forward to giving Santa their "wish list" each year.

And the other 46 weeks of the year when he's not acting as St. Nick, Torres has his own family to see happy — a wife of 45 years, four children, five grandchildren and another grandchild on the way.

Plus, there's one more reason to defy critic's opinions of Santa's "belly full of jelly."

"I'm going to be riding my Harley for a long time," Torres said. "I have to keep my legs strong to keep that 800-pound beast up."

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