Associated Press

December 2003: No sleigh required: This Santa prefers a helicopter


December 13, 2003, Saturday, BC cycle

No sleigh required: This Santa prefers a helicopter

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., Associated Press Writer

SECTION: State and Regional

LENGTH: 942 words


Head elf John Carter sits up front, a green flight headset wrapped around his red Santa hat. Elementary school principal Sheila McCollum, in her first propeller-driven excursion, is buckled in behind the pilot.

Mr. and Mrs. Claus, along with Frosty, Rudolph and a couple of elves, are in the chopper behind this one.

Nearly 500 feet below, 600 children fill the parking lot at Rann Elementary in the small North Texas town of Decatur, eagerly awaiting Santa’s arrival.

Men in yellow “Santa Landing Crew” vests direct the helicopters to a field across from the school. Carter grabs a megaphone and prepares to herald the big guy’s arrival.

“What I usually do is, I get the kids all riled up and then Santa gets out,” said Carter, a grandfatherly sort who sports fuzzy green knickers and red-and-white striped socks.

This school 40 miles north of Fort Worth is just the first stop in a busy day that will take Santa and his flying entourage – along with two dozen volunteers traveling in vans – to two schools, two nursing homes, a children’s hospital and a Ronald McDonald House.

Santa U.S.A., based in Bedford, Texas, is a labor of love started 27 years ago by David L. Moon, who no longer wears the red suit but still dedicates 365 days a year to this goodwill mission.

“David Moon is Santa Claus. If I had to say who represents the spirit of giving and caring for others, it’s him,” said Laura Lane, a 39-year-old teacher and mother of two who has dressed up as Frosty for seven years. “David works tirelessly all year around, and he’s a volunteer. The rest of us kind of pop in for the fun part.”

Moon, a 63-year-old insurance agent, started Santa U.S.A. in the back of a pickup.

The first year, he delivered candy and “little goodies” to a handful of nursing homes and senior citizen centers.

“It was a one-man operation,” he said. “But we got other people to start joining us and helping us.”

By the third year, Moon decided Santa could visit more places – and make a bigger impact – in a helicopter. By year five, sponsors started donating money.

In the two decades since, Santa U.S.A. has grown to more than 500 volunteers and 130 stops throughout North Texas between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Santa generally delivers candy and coloring books, not costly gifts. The main expense is helicopter rentals, at roughly $500 an hour.

“Let’s hear it for Santa!” Carter yells into the megaphone, his voice competing with the whop of the helicopter blades.

“Santa! Santa! Santa!” the children chant as the man in red approaches.

Seven-year-old Holt Garner flashes a wide smile as he shakes Santa’s hand.

“It’s really cool,” the first-grader said. “Last time, he just sat in a chair. And he came in a sleigh or something.”

Two stops later, men and women with wheelchairs and walkers greet Santa and the gang outside Sunny Hills Nursing Home in Decatur.

Frosty leans over and hugs 61-year-old Scott Kallio, who is shivering despite his flannel shirt.

“That’s the warmest I’ve felt since I left the building,” Kallio tells Frosty.

On the outside, Frosty just keeps smiling. Inside the white snowman suit, it’s a different story.

“I’m so happy to be Frosty because sometimes, inside that head, I can be in tears and they’ll never know it,” Lane said. “It’s not tears of sadness. It’s tears of joy.”

Inside the nursing home, Moon pats an older woman on the shoulder.

“You been a good girl?” he asks. “We’ve been getting a lot of reports on you. Some of them ain’t been good.”

The woman beams, as Frosty, Rudolph and the elves proceed to the cafeteria. A resident plays the piano as everyone sings “Jingle Bells,” “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “Silent Night.”

After lunch, the volunteers head – by air and land – to Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, where they visit every room.

Four-year-old Daniel McGough, hooked up to a rolling IV machine, asks his mom repeatedly: “Is it 2 yet? Is it 2 yet?”

When the time finally comes, he watches Santa’s arrival from the hospital’s front sidewalk.

“Momma, where’s the reindeer?” he says, referring to Rudolph.

“He’s going to come for Christmas,” Pat McGough tells her son, who just underwent surgery for a rare bowel disorder that generally has no long-term complications.

“Actually, Rudolph is here,” one of Santa’s elves points out to Daniel’s delight.

A week before this visit, Moon had been in the hospital himself.

Heart problems and blood clots in his left lung had temporarily sidelined him. But he was released just in time for the holiday season.

His doctors were as happy as anybody about that.

“My main doctor said, ‘Man, if we had to keep you around here at Christmas time, we’d have to hogtie you,”‘ Moon said, laughing. “I said, ‘Let me be out with my crew.”‘

Until about five years ago, Moon portrayed Santa himself. However, the physical strain of getting in and out of the helicopters became too much.

Now, he carries a walkie-talkie, rides shotgun in the lead volunteer van and manages the operation from the ground.

During the “off season,” Moon organizes spring and fall fishing trips for terminally ill children and orphans as part of Santa U.S.A. Moon is also raising money to build a “Santa House” where terminally ill children could celebrate Christmas any time.

Moon says he enjoys helping people and he will continue to do it as long as his body lets him.

“I just hope when the Lord takes me one of these days … he’ll either let me be out there fishing somewhere or getting them ready to go on a helicopter somewhere,” he said.

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