During what I laughingly call my textile career, the east Alabama cotton-mill bosses often chose me for important assignments that required rare skills and abilities.

For example, they put me in charge of inspecting the mill’s cardboard spittoons to make sure the sawdust filler was being changed regularly.

(Our mighty government, after much scientific investigation and analysis, decided that the greatest threat to our nation was mill workers spitting their dipping snuff and chewing tobacco on the floor. State-of-the art spittoons were critical to our Republic’s survival.

Laws were passed making spittoon installation and upkeep mandatory. I was the guy!)

Christmas Santa Claus carrying gifts in a warehouse

Naturally, who else but me had the qualifications to carry Santa’s extra bag of hand-out gift suckers when the jolly old elf made his annual yuletide visit to Fairfax Mill, The Legendary Home of Martex and Lady Pepperell Towels and Washclothes.

The humongous mill had over 2,000 employees, hence the pressing need for a back-up bag bearer toting extra suckers.

(While flattered by being chosen for the honor of being Santa’s wingman — who wouldn’t be? — I adamantly refused to wear an elf costume.

Whoever saw a 240-pound elf? However, I did agree to wear a big red stocking cap with a floppy white ball on the end.)

I don’t think I’m speaking out of school by revealing that there was a different Santa every year. The Christmas I was appointed as the back-up bagman, the person chosen to play Santa Claus was an oversized, older mechanical-shop employee nicknamed “Preacher” Reeves.

One would have to know Preacher Reeves to appreciate the supreme Irony of that nickname. In his younger days, Preacher had been what they called on the mill village “a sight” — a legendary beer-joint brawler and ruffian.

Preacher would fight at the drop of a hat; and if necessary to commence the festivities, Preacher, himself, would eagerly drop the hat.

By the time I started working in the mill, Preacher was still a large, imposing galoot, with a thick head of snow-white hair, yet possessing a subtle air of menace.

However, the years had mellowed him somewhat into a more agreeable fellow. He actually smiled from time to time. I liked Preacher Reeves. Most people did.

While Preacher might have been older and no longer the terror of the county-line taverns, I soon discovered the Preacher of yore was not dead, but merely hibernating.

So, the last day before the mill closed for Christmas, Preacher and I filled two large brightly decorated bags with suckers he would be handing out. He was dressed in an impressive red-velour Santa Claus costume, with a full, realistic fake beard.

There is something about Santa Claus that runs some people a little nuts, especially females.

As we made our way through the four floors of the huge mill, women workers, squealing like teenagers attending a Justin Bieber concert, mobbed Preacher hugging and kissing him, to his great delight.

At one point, Preacher said to me, “Dog! – If I hadda knowed women woulda act like this, I’da started wearing a Santa Claus suit years ago!”

Then chuckling fiendishly, Preacher added, “There wuz a time when it woulda been dangerous for a woman to grab and hug me thisa way—‘specially If I wuz drinking. It mighta got out of hand.”

(Now there was a non-traditional yuletide image –Santa Claus the molester.)

It took us hours to make our rounds through the vast mill, but we finally reached the Carding Room, only one more department to go.

Preacher had really gotten into the spirit of the thing as we moved along. Like a gifted stage actor submerging himself into a role, Preacher Reeves had become Santa Claus, transformed into Kris Kringle.

As he eagerly pushed through the heavy metal door ahead of me into the Carding Room, Preacher yelled, “Merry Christmas, everybody.”

Approaching an employee standing by his machines just inside the door, Preacher jovially roared “Ho-Ho-Ho, Merry Christmas.” and offered the small, startled man a sucker.

This little middle age guy was known for his irascible, surly nature. He stood there, with his thumbs hooked in his overall galluses and scowled at Preacher. He didn’t take the offered sucker.

Preacher didn’t seem to notice the snub. In an even louder voice, he yelled again, “Ho-ho-ho, Merry Christmas.” And stuck the sucker in the little guy’s face.

The fellow looked at the lollipop with contempt. He told Preacher exactly where he could stick the sucker, and how deep; and then walked off down the alley between the machines.

Preacher’s head snapped back like he had been slapped. Instantly, he reverted back to beer joint mode. He turned to me and growled, “Did you hear what that sawed-off, dried up little so and so just said to me?”

Preacher’s face was as red as his Santa Claus suit.

Before I could answer, Preacher dropped his sack of suckers and lumbered in behind the jerk that had refused the Christmas treat. His fists were balled up.

I smelled big trouble, and it was wearing a red Santa Claus suit and a fake beard.

After dropping my own back-up bag of suckers, I caught up with Preacher just as he reached out with his left hand to grab the man’s shoulder.

Being so much larger than his smaller prey, Preacher looked like an enraged red-suited Grizzly about to pounce on an unsuspecting cub scout.

Preacher’s ham-sized right fist was drawn back so he could bounce a punch off the little fellow’s skull.

I hooked Preacher’s arm with mine just as he swung, and it lifted me off the floor. I managed to get hold of him and pull him out of the work alley.

The little fellow who had angered Preacher, kept walking away, totally unaware of just how close he came to receiving a once-in-a-lifetime gift from Santa Claus – a concussion.

Preacher and I sat outside on the steep mill steps until he cooled down. After he pulled off his Santa cap and beard, he lit a cigarette and cussed for ten minutes. “You ought not to stopped me,” Preacher irritably complained. “Anybody who’d talk to Santa Claus thataway needs a butt whuppin’.”

I told him, “Yeah right. I can see the headlines in the company newspaper now – ‘Santa Claus Beats Crap out of Rude Employee.’ “

After mulling over my observation for a moment, Preacher said earnestly, “Folks like that don’t deserve a sucker.”

He was serious…

Merry Christmas to one and all. And remember, Santa Claus has feelings, too. Mind your manners and make sure you’re worthy of your sucker. Santa Claus is watching you.

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