FIFTY YEARS ago, bell bottoms were cool. The Flip Wilson Show was cool. George Carlin … cool. What was not quite cool, though—what had not yet grown into the trendy town it is today—was Midway, Kentucky.
While not exactly cool, Midway was still a warm and wonderful village in 1971. And the town always came alive at Christmastime, especially on Santa Saturday, when the man in red showed up to take Christmas requests from the children.
On that particular Santa Saturday, December 11th, Midway’s weather was mild with above-normal temperatures. Somehow, though, the day turned out less than normal.
Scores of children and their parents started gathering on Railroad Street, the town’s retail and restaurant district, two hours before Santa was scheduled to appear. Back in those days, Santa didn’t arrive on a gleaming red train like he does today. No, he would typically pull up in a station wagon and hop out of the passenger seat to assume his duties inside a downtown storefront that happened to be empty that year.
But in 1971, Emma May Taygo, chair of the Santa Celebration Committee for the Midway Woman’s Club, wanted to do something special for the children of Midway.
“Midway is smack in the middle of thoroughbred country,” Emma May said at an October committee meeting. “We should have Santa arrive by a sleigh … pulled by handsome race horses!”
The committee members loved the idea, although Jenella Johnson pointed out that thoroughbreds don’t typically pull sleighs.
“Fair enough,” said Emma May. “I expect we can still find eight handsome horses of some type, though.”
But that was easier said than done. From mid-October through the first week of December, Emma May called no fewer than twenty-three horse farm owners or managers in the Midway area, and despite her appeals “for the children,” not a one would consent to loaning out a horse to populate a team of sleigh draggers.
With a week to go, Emma May’s only offer came from Elliott Mercer, the owner of Fisher’s Mill Farm, a small operation that hadn’t yet found the formula for success. Elliott said the Woman’s Club could borrow Sammy, his teaser stallion who had recently lost interest in the farm’s mares. When Emma May said she needed at least one more horse to make a team, Elliott said he could also let her borrow Pill Box, a 21-year-old long-retired hunter/jumper. Fifty dollars for both.
“Fifty dollars? But it’s for the children,” Emma May whined.
“That’s right: my children,” the horseman answered. “My children’s Christmas.”
WHEN THE big day came, Elliott was behind the Midway Fire Station, with Sammy and Pill Box. That spot was only a block away from Railroad Street, plus there happened to be some dusty collars and harnesses there, left over from the fire department’s early days, and Elliott fastened his horses to what Emma May called their “sleigh for a day.”
The best sleigh that Emma May’s committee could come up with was not an old-timey, jingle-belly sleigh, but one that Jake Capshaw built as a Christmas decoration for his front porch some twenty years before. Jake said this year his wife was using a group of plastic Christmas carolers for the focal point of their decorations, so the sleigh was strictly surplus.
It was made of plywood and two-by-fours, with a seat from Jake’s old Ford F-1 pickup. For runners, Jake had used some old water skis. The whole thing was painted red and green, and though it was a bit faded, the sleigh was still festive enough on that Santa Saturday.
Of course, the water skis wouldn’t work in town even if Midway’s streets were covered with snow, which they weren’t. The committee, then, had followed Jenella’s suggestion and rounded up four kiddie wagons—three Radio Flyers and one Western Flyer. They lashed the sleigh’s water skis to the wagons, and Janella figured out how to connect the handles of the two front wagons with a metal bar so the driver could have at least some ability to steer the contraption. The ladies used white sheets to try to hide the wagons from view, and when stuffed with crumpled newspaper, the corners of the fitted sheets looked almost like snow drifts.
Veronza Stephens volunteered to be the driver, but only if somebody could come up with a top hat for her to wear. A committee member found one in her attic.
Veronza had also volunteered to line up a Santa Claus, assuring the committee that her brother Wayne owned an “ultra-nice” Santa suit and would be happy to serve the city of Midway and play Santa. Unfortunately, on Santa Saturday Eve, Wayne discovered he was too fat to fit into his prized suit.
“I blame the Corner Grocery for this,” he told Veronza when he called with the bad news. “They’ve been putting out whole pies right by the cash register, where you almost have to buy one.”
Veronza picked up Wayne’s suit but had no idea who else could fill it. So starting at 9:30 Friday evening, Emma May started calling friends in Versailles, Georgetown, and Lexington, looking for an experienced Santa Claus. It wasn’t until after midnight that a Felix B. Satterly called Emma May, offering to step in the next morning … for two hundred dollars.
“Two hundred dollars? But it’s for the children,” Emma May whined.
“And it’s also for three hours,” Felix B. Satterly replied. “For an actor of my repute, you’re getting a grand bargain.”
Emma May hesitated. “What have you appeared in—oh, never mind. It’s a deal. Be at the Midway Fire Station no later than 10 a.m.”
When Felix B. Satterly arrived on Saturday morning, the Woman’s Club women who were preparing the sleigh were less than impressed. Mr. Satterly looked to be the right age—60 or so—but nothing else looked right with the stand-in Santa. Rather than rotund and jolly, Mr. Satterly was skinny and sallow. He did have a bit of a pooch in the midsection—what Emma May called a bacon belly—but bony knees protruded from his polyester pants legs.
“Here I am to ho, ho ho,” he announced in a booming stage voice.
The Woman’s Club women stared, wordless. Elliott looked up from the harnesses and gawked. TeeTee Martinez finally broke the silence.
“Welcome to Midway, Mr. Satterly. Let’s get you on the far side of the fire trucks, and you can change into this fantastic Santa suit.” As she led the unlikely Santa into the firehouse, she spoke over her shoulder to Emma May. “Gather up any leftover newspaper balls, honey. We’re gonna have to stuff this guy.”
Felix took only a few minutes to hop into Wayne’s Santa suit. As a veteran of many low-budget theater productions, he was used to handling quick costume changes on his own. TeeTee tossed newspaper balls over the fire truck to where Felix was changing, and she heard them crackle as he crammed them into the front of his pants and coat. When he emerged in the red suit made of heavy velour and trimmed with rich, white fur, Felix actually looked the part.
“It’s show time,” he said, joining Veronza at the side of the sleigh. Using a wooden box as a step, they both climbed aboard.
“Are you sure this is gonna work?” Veronza said when she perched on the stool Jake had attached to the front of the sleigh. “Why can’t I ride on the truck seat with Santa?”
“For goodness sakes, Veronza, Santa’s a celebrity, and he has to be chauffeured, don’t you know?” Emma May said with a trace of dread, knowing where the conversation was heading.
Veronza, wearing her prom dress from 1955 for the occasion, puffed herself and her ruffly front up. “Well, I’m somewhat of a celebrity, too, you know,” she said.
Almost in unison, the women tending to the sleigh—and Elliott, too—rolled their eyes. They knew what was coming. Janella even turned aside and mouthed along with Veronza as she spoke.
“After all, I’m a descendant of the famed Mister Stephens, the most important director on the board of the L&O Railroad Company, which founded the town of Midway and named the most prominent street after him.”
“Is that Railroad Street?” Elliott asked with a perfectly straight face.
“No!” Veronza answered icily. “Stephens Street.”
No one in Midway could verify Veronza’s lineage. Nor could anybody say why she didn’t know the first name of her often-heralded forefather. Then again, nobody could guess why she was wearing a daffodil prom dress with a top hat for her role in Santa Saturday.
Finally, Santa himself spoke.
“I think, for the entire time that Santa is being transported, the driver is the most important part of the operation,” Felix B. Satterly said. “Santa Claus is a mere passenger, and a seat at the front of the sleigh pays well-deserved tribute to the skilled reinsman … or in this case, reinswoman.”
The blush of Veronza’s cheek was made more vivid by the bright yellow in the high neck of her prom dress. “Why, Mr. Satterly, you do have a way with words,” she purred, all traces of ice melted from her voice. “But you are the man of the hour.”
AT THREE minutes before 11 a.m., the appointed hour for Santa’s arrival, Railroad Street was loud. Christmas tunes were pumping through a big speaker placed in front of Midway Drug, and most of the children in attendance were shouting above Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” to ask their parents the same question: “When’s Santa coming?”
Parents were shouting back in near unison, “Any minute now.”
And they weren’t lying. At one minute till 11, Veronza Stephens and Felix B. Satterly took their seats in Jake Capshaw’s ramshackle sleigh. Elliott led his two sleepy steeds, Sammy and Pill Box, in a right turn onto Winter Street at the post office. From there, he was confident the horses could lead the sleigh one block to Railroad Street, where stumbly little kids along with doubtful ten-year-olds would all be craning their necks to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus.
“Ho, ho, ho!” Felix practiced with a most theatrical flair.
The old horses really wouldn’t have to do much pulling, as it was all downhill to the railroad. Elliott figured that even Veronza could negotiate one simple turn at Railroad Street, so he let loose of his hold on Pill Box’s halter and gave the old mare a soft pat on the rump to send her on her way.
As Elliott, Emma May, and the other women walked on the sidewalk toward Railroad Street, staying even with the sleigh, Veronza jiggled the reins a bit. She glanced nervously at her friends on the sidewalk, and just as the horses reached the point where Winter Street starts its decline, Veronza felt a surge of confidence.
“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer!” she yelled, looking over again at the girls with a grin and giving the reins a quick snap.
Something also snapped in the brains of Pill Box and Sammy. The old horses came alive under the slap of leather, and they quickened their step.
“On, Comet! On, Cupid!” Veronza hollered with a laugh, and she snapped the reins again. This time, Sammy and Pill Box really responded. They call it horsepower for a reason, and the two nags broke into a trot just when all the wagon wheels under the sleigh were heading downhill.
Felix, though his face was partly covered by an abundance of fake white hair and beard, didn’t want to break character, but he did want to slow down. He mumbled a muffled, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.”
Veronza stopped smiling and gripped the reins tighter, and Elliot stepped off the sidewalk to try to catch up with the horses. But it was too late. The horses were at a half gallop, and with the sleigh wagons picking up momentum, Sammy and Pill Box had to quicken their gait to stay ahead of the rolling lawn decoration as it hurtled down the hill.
Elliott and Emma May and were motoring as fast as they could, but they couldn’t keep up with the sleigh.
“Whoa, whoa, whoooooooa!” Santa/Felix shouted.
“Stop runninnnnng!” Veronza commanded.
But the team plowed on.
Two hundred yards ahead, Eugene Murphy was standing by the railroad track. A Midway fellow who worked at a local horse farm, he and some friends had come downtown to grab a beer and get some kettle corn from their favorite street vendor, 2 Ladies and a Kettle. His friends were Anderson County boys that nobody in Midway really knew. Most folks simply referred to them as a group: Gene ’n’ ’em.
A fake sleigh atop a collection of kiddie wagons isn’t exactly a recipe for speed, yet the downhill grade was steep enough to get the little wheels spinning. The contraption probably wasn’t traveling any faster than a kid on a bike would coast down the hill, but to the two passengers; it felt like the sleigh was about to break the sound barrier. And they sounded off.
Whoooooooa!” Santa/Felix howled.
“Turn riiiiiiiiiiiiight!” Veronza shrieked.
Gene ’n’ ’em heard the racket, saw the horses’ wide eyes, and did what horse people do: The fanned out and spread their arms, signaling the horses to stop. And it worked— except that as Sammy and Pill Box slowed, the sleigh kept coming, nipping at their heels. The horses needed to sidestep the oncoming sleigh, and fortunately, they both angled to the right. If either had ever run on a North American racetrack, they might have defaulted to a left turn. But neither nag had ever come close to a track.
Just when the horses were veering to the right, Veronza was, too. She remembered she could guide the front wheels of the front wagons, so she pushed the steering bar hard to the right.
It was a turn they couldn’t make.
Gene ’n’ ’em realized the sleigh was moving too fast, and they quickly stepped aside. Veronza was successful in turning the wheels, but the speed was too great, so like a muscle car in an action movie, the sleigh and the horses went into a mighty skid. The whole outfit turned completely sideways, pointing east toward the crowd on Railroad Street … while skittering north toward the railroad tracks.
If you’ve ever been through downtown Midway, you understand that a bump will forever be part of crossing the railroad tracks. Winter Street has a downhill angle, but the two tracks are set to keep the trains flat level. So there’s a bump. And the sleigh hit it in a sideways spin.
The screeching wheels and the screaming passengers generated a lot of noise. So nearly everyone in the crowd at the middle of Railroad Street stopped talking and turned to see what was happening. If they were lucky, they got to see Santa Claus like nobody had ever seen him. Many said later that the scene seemed to play in slow motion.
When the wheels of the wagons crossed the rails of the track, they had skidded around enough so that they rolled over—rather than getting caught in—the grooves beside the rails. By that point, the sleigh had passed the horses, and the bump was like a ramp, sending the sleigh and, briefly, the horses, too, into the cool December air.
For years, everyone who was there debated just how much the horses and sleigh helicoptered in midair. Back then of course, there were no smartphones to record the event, so it was up to each person’s recollection.
Elliott Mercer said the contraption did a 180-degree turn.
Jenella Johnson said it was a full 360.
Felix B. Satterly swore it was at least a 720—two full spins— claiming he saw the Corner Grocery flash before his eyes twice.
Veronza said it felt like at least four revolutions, but she admits she had closed her eyes to brace for a crash.
But they didn’t crash. The two horses and the two occupants of the sleigh all landed hard on the other side of the tracks, but not hard enough to cause injury. Sammy and Pill Box both stood back up, and Veronza, who had been jostled off her stool, quickly located her top hat, perched it upon her head, and climbed back aboard. Santa, somehow, remained on the bench seat of the sleigh. He had slammed against the side of the seat, but the balls of newspaper had protected him.
The crowd went wild, applauding and cheering. Those who had witnessed the sleigh and animals whirling over the railroad tracks were impressed. The kids, many of whom were too short to see the spectacle over the towering adults, were just happy that Santa had arrived.
“ARE WE ALL intact?” Felix B. Satterly asked, sitting all the way to the left side of the F-1 truck seat. “The show must go on.”
By that time, Elliott had rushed to the landing site and once again had a firm grip on Pill Box’s halter. “I think we can make it over to the kids,” he said.
“Let’s do this thing,” said Veronza, with a steely glint in her eye. She now was ready for anything, including 152 children now at a fever pitch, excited to see Saint Nick.
Eugene Murphy grabbed Sammy’s halter, and the two men led the horses as they pulled Santa’s sleigh along Railroad Street. The entire team was glad to be on a perfectly flat street.
As the crowd parted, the sleigh arrived at “Santa’s Castle.” It was the building formerly known as Thoroughbred Tavern, which had been closed for two years.
The old bar looked snowy and jolly that day, though. Two fully decorated Christmas trees, frosted with fake snow, were at the entrance, and another five trees were inside. The Santa Celebration Committee had set up a spot in the rear of the building, where Santa was to perch on a huge chair and listen to the Christmas wishes of kids from all over Central Kentucky. The committee had decorated the barstools and connected them with garland, forming a back-and-forth path for families to line up, like at an amusement park.
The perfect scene was set … if only Santa Claus could join it.
When the sleigh pulled up in front of the newly bedazzled tavern, Veronza was only too happy to climb off. Her nerves were jingle-jangly from the near disaster, and she also was excited by the throng of children. Somebody produced a Rubbermaid stool, and Veronza carefully stepped onto it, with one hand on the side of the sleigh and the other making sure her hat didn’t fall off.
Now embracing her role as reinswoman, she stood at attention, waiting to help Santa dismount. Only he didn’t.
He didn’t step down onto the Rubbermaid stool.
He didn’t even stand up from the pickup truck seat.
Instead, Santa was reaching around to his rear end, fiddling with his fine, velour Santa pants.
Felix spoke just loud enough for Veronza to hear him. “It appears that, against all probability, I am … stuck.
“Whaddya mean, stuck?” Veronza asked out of the side of her mouth between smiles at the waiting children.
Felix tried to slide over slightly to get a better look at his predicament, but he couldn’t budge an inch. “I am somehow affixed to the seat,” he said in a stage whisper. “I feel something metal grasping the pocket of my pants.”
Veronza now turned to face Santa. She stepped onto the Rubbermaid stool and reached behind him to try and help unhook his pants from whatever piece of the old truck seat had latched on to them.
“You must’ve got caught on something when we were bouncing around on the railroad tracks,” Veronza whispered. “You’re stuck tight.”
“Hey whaddya doin’ to Santa’s rear end?” a man in the crowd yelled at Veronza. “I brought my kid to see Santa. We don’t want no hanky-panky.”
“Ho, ho, ho!” Felix bellowed in his best Santa voice. “I assure you Santa wants to talk with your child. It’s just that … at the moment … Santa is a bit stuck.”
The news rippled through the crowd, and Emma May, who was inside Santa’s Castle, could tell something was up. She rushed outside to the sleigh.
“What’s going on?” she h. “Vee, get your hand out of Santa’s behind!”
“I’m trying to jiggle him loose. He’s caught on a piece of metal—it’s like a loop with no opening,” Veronza said with exasperation.
Emma May edged closer to them. “Look. We gotta get Santa inside before this crowd riots. Cut him out of there if necessary.”
“Heavens, no! We can’t do that!” Veronza hissed. “Wayne would kill me if I messed up his Santa suit.”
Emma May thought for a second, then said, “Felix, if we found you a big red blanket, you could ease yourself out of the Santa pants and wrap up with the blanket to make your way inside Santa’s Castle.”
Felix narrowed his eyes at Emma May, then realized that all the kids were watching him. “Ho, ho, ho!” he laughed for their benefit. Then he leaned closer to Emma May and Veronza. “I will not disrobe in front of these children. My performance contracts always say ‘No nudity.’”
Now it was Emma May who was exasperated. “We don’t have a contract, Felix. And you’ll be covered up with a blanket. Besides, you’ve got your skivvies on.”
Felix B. Satterly drew a deep breath. “Madam, I removed my undergarments when I saw at the fire station that they clashed with the red suit,” he said with all the dignity he could muster. “I’m not wearing any ‘skivvies,’ as you say.”
Emma May blushed.
Pill Box gave a quick snort.
Veronza whispered in amazement, “Commando Santa.”
Emma May stepped back and gathered her thoughts. She walked to the front of the sleigh and conferred with Elliott. Then she stood on the Rubbermaid stool and addressed the crowd.
“Hello, all you Santa lovers!” A cheer arose from kids and adults. “We have a slight change of plan. Because it’s such a nice morning, we’re all going to stay outside in the fresh air.”
Emma May listened for any complaints. Hearing none, she continued. “Let’s form a line here at the step to the sleigh, and you can sit with Santa or sit on, um, Santa’s lap—and tell him what you want for Christmas!”
A cheer arose again from the crowd, and Emma May stepped down from the sleigh. Still smiling to families nearby, she grabbed Veronza by the front of her prom dress and pulled her close.
“I don’t care where you get it, but get a big pillow for Santa’s lap. Right. Now!”
IT WAS a good thing Felix hadn’t loaded up on coffee before coming to Midway. And it was good that Emma May thought to restrict Santa from drinking any fluids while he chatted with children. A trip to the bathroom would have been impossible, and she sure didn’t want to consider any alternatives.
After three hours of Santa time, the line of children ended, and Elliott drove his pickup truck to the front of the sleigh. He had already taken Pill Box and Sammy back to Fisher’s Mill Farm after everyone agreed it would be better for the horses to get away from the crowd. Plus, the humans wanted to avoid any mishaps on the trip back to the firehouse.
Most of the crowd had gone home or were shopping in Railroad Street stores when Santa waved goodbye and was hauled away—slowly—in the sleigh behind Elliott’s truck. Veronza resumed her role of reinswoman, helping to steer the wagons around the two right turns, first onto Gratz Street and then onto Bruen Street and the firehouse.
It was there, with Emma May and Veronza averting their eyes, that Felix slipped out of the Santa pants under the cover of a clean horse blanket that Elliott provided. Then, holding the blanket at his waist like a towel, Felix retreated into the firehouse to get dressed.
Without Felix and the balls of newspaper inside the Santa pants, they were unhooked from the troublesome piece of metal fairly quickly by Emma May. And when Felix emerged minutes later in his street clothes, he handed Veronza the Santa jacket, hat, wig, beard, and gloves.
Emma May just had to ask, “Felix, what color skivvies did you wear today that clashed bad enough for you to go commando?”
The actor shrugged. “It was a stupid mistake, really. For some reason, I chose Halloween-themed underwear this morning,” he explained. “The bright orange was hideous next to the red Santa suit, and I simply could not have pulled off this performance knowing I was so horribly mismatched.”
“You are a true artist, Felix,” Emma May said as she handed him a check. “Thank you for stepping in at the last minute.”
Then she turned to the owner of Sammy and Pill Box. “And thank you, Elliott. You and your horses were truly our majestic heroes today.”
Elliott accepted the check from Emma May, looked at the amount—double what they had agreed to—and was about to protest, but Emma May cut him off.
“It’s well deserved, Elliott. For you and your children’s Christmas.”
It was a touching moment for the survivors of Santa Saturday … until Veronza broke the spell.
“You know, I’ve been thinking,” she said. “Next year, we should have Santa and the sleigh again, but we could expand it into a whole parade, see, with floats and bands and maybe even balloons. And you already know what street the parade should be held on.”
With a perfectly straight face, Elliott ventured a guess. “Stephens Street?”
“Exactly,” Veronza said, tugging at the sleeve of her prom dress.
Emma May touched Veronza’s arm. “I think Mr. Stephens would be so proud.”
Bob Rouse lives, writes, and waxes poetic at his home just outside of Midway, Kentucky.
Nolan McDonald (cover art), is a 14-year-old student and artist in Burleson, Texas.