Santa in turnout gear: a Christmas memory of fire trucks, St. Nick, and of help and hope
Is it weird that I equate the best of the holiday season with firefighters and big red fire trucks?
OK, don’t answer that. Or at least hear me out before you do.
Context is everything, and to make sense of this seeming Yuletide fever dream, you’d need to mentally project yourself back seven decades into the northwesternmost incorporated town in Tennessee.
Dwight Eisenhower was president. Doctors (or actors portraying them) were telling us via our flickering black-and-white TVs that smoking Marlboros, Chesterfields and Lucky Strikes was not only damn cool but good for us, too. The United States was extricating itself from an undeclared war in Korea unaware that another one in an exotic former French colony — Vietnam —was just around the corner.
Grown women melted to Sinatra’s dulcet tones while an edgy Mississippian named Elvis enraptured their daughters. A brave Black woman named Rosa Parks had set the country on a long mission to redeem its soul by refusing to yield her seat to a White man on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
My story begins in a part of flyover country hard by the Mississippi River within a day’s walk of the Kentucky line in a time when cotton was still king and Memphis was the biggest city anyone we knew had ever seen.
As a small child, it was an idyllic time — a world where grandma’s perfume smelled just like the gardenias that proliferated in her back yard every summer, and each fall was redolent with the intermingled smoke of burning pecan leaves and cotton-gin hulls. We thought of it not as air pollution but the autumnal promise of prosperity.
Through the eyes of a Boomer born in Memphis in the same hospital where Elvis would be pronounced dead 21 years later, it was an enlightening time. Mechanization and chemical agriculture had not yet taken hold. Farms were still owned by families, not multinational corporations, and the countryside teemed with people of modest means who earned a modest but proud living tilling, growing, hoeing and picking cotton — people history dismisses with the one-dimensional shorthand “sharecroppers,” but who were the lifeblood of America’s farming communities in the early to mid-20th century.
The cotton harvest was the year’s seminal event. From dawn to twilight, human hands would pluck the white fiber from its dried, sharp-edged bolls tens of thousands of times a day and stuff it into long burlap bags, slung from their shoulders, that would drag behind them on the rich river-bottom soil, row after endless row beneath a blistering Southern sun. Before mechanized eight-row cotton-harvesting behemoths did the day’s work of 30 humans in less than an hour, it was common practice in Lake County, Tennessee’s only county without a hill, that schools observed a fall holiday in September and early October to allow the youth to know the labor and the profit of the cotton-harvest season.
By Thanksgiving, most everything was ginned (or siloed or shipped out on rail cars). In bountiful years when nature and commodity markets synched, the Church Street business corridor hummed. Retail merchants, restaurateurs, major appliance and car dealers, service stations and the Strand Theater (the “picture show” to us locals) shared in the bounty. “Merry Christmas” in those good years was as much an economic statement as a holiday greeting.
Christmas in that time and place was a thing of magic, regardless of balance sheets.
My grandmother and step-granddad owned a small women’s apparel store where, from the innumerable hours I would spend there, I could discern the great harvests from the not-so-great ones. Patrons would dicker over price regardless of the year, but they gave in more easily and paid cash up front — dispensing with layaway purchases — in flush seasons.
Regardless of the year, there was always Santa Claus, and he always arrived on the newest of the town’s two shiny, red fire trucks. Somewhere in the early 1960s, a group of civic-spirited townsfolk organized an annual Christmas parade along Church Street to kick off each holiday season, draw crowds downtown and prime the pump for a season of shopping in the town’s once-bustling mercantile district. There would be floats and high school marching bands and mighty farm implements belching acrid diesel smoke in the procession, but the undisputed star was the fire truck bearing Santa himself.
Western legend holds that the jolly old elf travels one night a year on a magical sleigh, freighted with tons of toys and pulled by teams of reindeer endowed with the gift of supersonic flight and answerable to no air traffic controller. But my earliest understanding of Santa was that he arrived each Christmas Eve on the back of a big red truck with flashing red lights and an ear-splitting siren.
Some of that has to do with the fact that my family was in the firefighting business. My father and his brother returned home from World War II to form a private, rural firefighting company. In those days, municipal fire departments answered calls only within the city limits and those in the vast countryside were on their own unless they subscribed to the Lewis brothers’ service. Eventually, the business dissolved, but their lives were entwined with firefighting. My dad, Bill, became a Tennessee arson investigator while my uncle, Emmett, was our hometown’s fire chief for decades.
Full disclosure: I see firefighters as life’s original heroes — the men and women who run toward the flames and unknown associated dangers that others are fleeing. The fact that they are like my father and my uncle — not invincible superheroes but altogether human and mortal — increases my respect for them. They satisfy the innate human need for hope and help in times of dire need. When that big red truck arrives, its lights pulsing and its crew working perfectly as a team, you know the worst is over.
So it was only natural, in my world view, that Santa should arrive standing triumphant on the back of the fire truck that Uncle Emmett drove on that special night, slowly and in all its glory, down the main drag of Tiptonville, Tennessee.
There it was — all red, white and chrome, all hope and help, promising better times — in the crisp, cool air of an early winter evening in a small Southern town long ago.
I haven’t seen Santa clinging to the aft of a parading fire truck for decades now. Yet there remains an abiding affinity between Santa, the very embodiment of childhood joy, and firefighters, whose lifesaving work sometimes leaves them to rescue and comfort children in their most terrified and vulnerable hours. Even in a grim pandemic year, the magical combination renews itself in cities large and small.
So when I hear a siren wail in the distance or see an engine round a corner racing to save lives, limbs or homes, I know to this day that hope and help — the essence of Santa Claus — resides upon that truck and every member of its crew.
Happy holidays, and a more hopeful new year.
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