'Excuse me, uh, Mr. Schulz?'

By , Drew)

Each year, when we visit relatives in northern California, my wife, son, and I swing by the Redwood Empire Ice Arena in Santa Rosa. It's a chalet-like facility built by cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. The son of a Minnesota barber, Mr. Schulz has always loved hockey and figure skating. The arena, in a sense, is his security blanket and the centerpiece of a small complex tucked into a modest, residential neighborhood. Schulz's studio is housed someplace on the premises, although it's not clear where.

For us, the real lure has always been the well-stocked Snoopy's Gallery & Gift Shop, where son Drew, a Peanuts fan, lingers an hour or more inspecting the array of licensed merchandise.

We've spent our share of money in the shop, too, but until two years ago we'd never seen the man whose cartoons generate an estimated $1.5 billion to $2 billion in worldwide retail sales each year.

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Where was Mr. Schulz? Did he ever come into the shop? We decided to ask.

"He walked through the parking lot not five minutes ago," the sales clerk informed us.

"Arrrghhhh!" we groaned.

But wait: All hope wasn't lost. Schulz, we learned, often eats breakfast next door, in the ice arena's coffee shop, "The Warm Puppy." Although he reportedly doesn't welcome interruptions, if he's done eating and isn't chatting with friends, he might be approachable.

Drew had just purchased a collection of Peanuts comics at a used-book shop in Petaluma, Calif, and the thought of getting Schulz to autograph it was too good to ignore. So we rose early the next day and drove cross-town in hopes of catching the world-famous cartoonist.

How difficult could it possibly be to approach a regular guy with a small request, especially with a young boy wearing a Snoopy baseball cap at one's side? To chronicle the hoped-for encounter, I carried a point-and-shoot camera.

As we approached the service counter, I noticed Schulz sitting alone, only crumbs left on his plate, reading the morning paper at a table with fresh flowers and a "Reserved" sign.

I tapped Drew on the shoulder and whispered, "There he is. Let's go before he leaves."

Sheepishly I began, "Um, excuse me Mr. Schulz, but, uh, this is my son and, um, he's a really big fan of yours, and he was wondering if, um, you could autograph his book."

Schulz lowered his paper and, looking less than thrilled, said, "OK," before asking us where we were from.

I fumbled for a pen as he opened the book.

"What's this?" he asked, pointing to a mysterious inscription, "To Helen from Charlie, Xmas 1968," scrawled across the page he was about to sign.

"Oh, we got it at a used-book store," I said, "but it's a first edition."

"Well, you could have gotten a new one," Schulz said, without smiling.

Unfortunately, our blue-ink pen was low on ink and the end page was blue, forcing Schulz to bear down mightily to add his own inscription: "For Drew, Best Wishes, Charles M. Schulz."

We thanked him, and then stepped to the counter to order breakfast.

Over pancakes, it dawned on me that I'd forgotten to ask Schulz if I could get his picture with Drew.

"I don't think we'd better interrupt him again," I told my 10-year-old apologetically.

We continued to eat when suddenly a voice from behind us said, "Pretty amazing, huh?

We turned around to discover Schulz standing at our table, looking out at the young figure skaters practicing.

I stood up and we chatted for several minutes about the skill of the skaters and the beauty of the arena. Schulz was comfortable until I said, "We forgot to ask earlier if we could get a picture."

"Good grief," his facial expression seemed to say. Nonetheless, after telling him he didn't have to move, I got the coveted photographic proof of our meeting, using the last exposure.

Or had I?

A week later, back home in Boston, we picked up our vacation pictures and - Yikes! - there was no shot of Schulz. The camera had malfunctioned.

Disappointment quickly yielded to amusement, though, when we realized that this was a Charlie Brown moment. Perfect.

*The last new Peanuts comic strip runs this Sunday, Feb. 13. After nearly 50 years, Charles Schulz is retiring. 'Reruns' of Peanuts comic strips will fill out the year in some of the 2,600 newspapers that carry the popular strip.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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