Friday, December 31, 2010

The Santa Scare - By Lee Y. Greene, Jr.

An installment story about my hometown in North Alabama.

Hartselle, Alabama is like most other places of 12,000 or fewer souls in the South. Most everyone is moderate to middle class, as the area prospered only when the Tennessee Valley Authority came in the 1930’s to change our area from an agrarian economy to a service economy. With the advent of the aerospace and defense industries in a nearby county, our hometown evolved into a bedroom community.

Folks live here, but work and spend their day elsewhere. Because of this suburban evolution, we have lost the days of porch sitting and story telling, now that we commute and no longer really know our next door neighbor. That doesn’t mean that funny things don’t happen here, but that fewer connections are available to tell them. This is a story from my hometown:

As the weather finally starts to turn cooler, a welcome respite from the brutal Southern heat of August and September every year, our thoughts turn to the upcoming holidays in Hartselle. In the early 1990’s after returning home from college, I was asked to join the Hartselle Jaycees. The Jaycees is a national organization that has chapters in almost every community in America. The Hartselle chapter was no different from any other, as we ran the annual Easter egg hunt in Sparkman Park, the Hartselle Christmas Parade and a Christmas party for the Lurleen Wallace Center special needs children, among other civic functions.

The Jaycees met in the basement of a local gas station, where we stored our devices for the annual events that we ran. Among the cigarette and coke advertisements, the big letters for the gas price sign, and the inventory of various fishing tackle for the upstairs business, we stored our Easter egg dye kits, our accumulation of toys for the Wallace Center kids, and our Santa suit for the Christmas events.

One November afternoon, a resident from the adjoining mobile home park, behind the gas station, had too much to drink, and decided to get on his motorcycle and ride around drunk. This went on throughout the trailer park for at least as long as it took the Hartselle Police Department to respond. To their credit, the HPD responded very quickly, and gave an “O.J. style” chase to our intoxicated fugitive around and around the trailer park. In a flash of brilliance, our future organ donor decided to evade the police cruiser by driving off road, between two trailers, through a patch of woods, and hide behind the gas station.

During the time he was hiding, the police were searching the roads around the area for him. While he hid, the now slightly intoxicated motorcyclist decided that there must be something of great value inside the basement of a gas station, probably the mother lode of cigarettes, so he broke in the back window and eased himself into the large storage room. Looking around, he must have been disappointed at the lack of contraband, so in his still slightly inebriated state, he decided to steal something to make this endeavor worth his while.

He took the Santa suit. Not only did he steal the Santa suit, I guess he thought that it would make the perfect disguise for a grand escape, because surely the HPD would never suspect Kris Kringle. On a motorcycle. In a Hartselle trailer park. That’s right, he put the complete suit on, hat, gloves, beard, the works….

A few minutes later, our drunk motorcyclist returned to the trailer park, and decided to drive around again like nothing had happened, in the Santa suit. Shortly thereafter, the HPD returned and gave chase again, and after several rotations around the park, the wayward motorist was apprehended. In our Santa suit.

The Jaycees president was notified that we could come pick up our suit from the Hartselle Jail and everyone was satisfied that the community was once again safe. Appropriate charges were filed, and our “loser Kinevel” was fated to spend the night and next day in the drunk tank at the Jail.

All was quiet until the HPD dispatcher radioed the arresting officer later in the afternoon about another problem at the trailer park. The officer happened to be at the gas station getting a report of the property damage, when the call came in. It seems that over two dozen children saw the afternoon activity and watched in horror as Santa Claus was jerked off his motorcycle and “cuffed, stuffed, and Mirandized” into the back seat of a Hartselle Police car. Parents were calling into the switchboard with inconsolable kids who were upset that no one in the world was getting toys this year because Santa was arrested in our town. Crying in the background of the calls upset the dispatcher and something needed to be done, immediately.

I’m pretty sure that police training does not cover this situation. I am also pretty sure no one ever considered this result. Parents were coping and consoling as best they could, but action was called for and right now.
The Mayor was summoned for an emergency appropriation for funds as well as donations from the Jaycees and all of the HPD officers on duty. The next day, thanks to the use of our donations and some unused D.A.R.E. funds, a special, albeit impromptu, Christmas party was held in the Paradise Pines Mobile Home Court complete with Santa explaining that he had gotten lost and the police were helping him the day before. Christmas would happen as planned and no one needed to worry. To prove that he was the real Santa, he brought a few toys to verify his credentials. A good time was had by all, disaster was averted, and Hartselle was once again back to normal.