Waleska's Fred McDougal has returned from a lengthy stay on Long Island, N.Y., after helping Santa at one of the largest malls in the country. It was quite an adventure.
Soon after arriving, Santa Fred was dressed in Santa's Victorian designer suit and seated on a beautiful sofa on the Santa set with children in his lap.
About 98 percent of the time, a picture was made. But it was not only children who sat in Santa Fred's lap. Men and women wanted their picture with Santa, too. He was amazed at how much the people of New York love Santa. He was treated like royalty wherever he went.
Over and over, children told Santa they wanted him to bring them a Nintendo DSI. And over and over, Santa Fred told them he would if he could. He reminded them that he delivers toys to children all over the world. Sometimes the Elves may not have made enough of a certain toy for everyone. Parents appreciated his telling them that.
Some children asked for animals. Santa told them that animals might scare the reindeer. Plus, it is best for children and parents to select pets together. Then they are sure to get the pet that is best for the family. Parents appreciated that, too. It was a huge surprise when parents tipped him after he talked with their children.
Now you and I regularly tip waitresses and others who do things to help us, but have you ever tipped Santa? Not me. The most I have done is to leave milk and cookies under the tree.
Many made comments to Fred about his Southern accent. He explained that he flies out of the South Pole. He met several other Santa helpers with Southern accents. While there are more than enough Santa helpers in Atlanta, there must be a shortage in New York.
One of his favorite things was talking with grandmothers waiting nearby. After talking with their grandchildren, he would get up, walk over to grandmother and say, "I knew you when you were a little girl."
Many think of big cities as dangerous places. During his month-long stay in New York, Santa Fred found himself in only one scary situation. That was in a supermarket. It was filled with ladies who seemed determined to get the best turkey. He stayed out of their way as best as he could.
He found driving in New York different, too. His word for New York drivers is "aggressive." Fred says they do not wait to blend in with traffic. They just barge in. New York had a record-breaking snow - 27 inches - while he and his wife, Barbara, were there. During the blizzard, the roads stayed open. The mall opened at its usual time. Fred describes New York as "snow friendly."
Each day, he worked for five hours or less. One of the highlights of the adventure was being recognized as Santa wherever he went although he was not dressed in one of his Santa suits. Santa Fred is a real-bearded Santa. One morning when he and Barbara were eating breakfast, a man from Texas asked to have his picture taken with him. The man wanted to show his grandson that he had had breakfast with Santa Claus.
Something he will never forget is when a woman approached him and asked if he was Kris Kringle. She then asked if her daughter, about 20 years old, could feel his beard. The girl was blind. Fred was wearing a cowboy hat at the time. He took it off so she could run her fingers through his hair, too. Fred's eyes were filled with tears the entire time.
While Santa Fred was working, Barbara was seeing New York. A self-proclaimed country girl, she was amazing at how well she learned to get around. Like New Yorkers do, she learned how to "hail" a cab.
One of her biggest achievements was learning to ride the train by herself. One day, when she was aboard the Long Island Railroad, she called her sister, Joan Pritchett. They discussed how Barbara might be like the man in the song "Charlie on the MTA Song" sung by the Kingston Trio. Charlie got on a city train, but could not get off, so he spent the rest of his life on the train.
Helping Santa in New York had some downsides, too. Santa Fred and Barbara missed being with their children and grandchildren during the holidays. A grandson, Jackson Higgins, was born while Fred was away. Barbara did not go to New York until after the baby was born. It helped that some members of their family went to New York to see them while Fred and Barbara were there.
I asked Santa Fred if he would go to New York to help Santa again next year. He would. If he goes, Barbara plans to go, too. But both hope he will be able to help Santa somewhere nearer by next year.
Happy New Year to Santa and all of his helpers. Get plenty of rest, and we will see you again next year.
Marguerite Cline is the former mayor of Waleska and a former county school superintendent.