Last Saturday evening, I went out on a drive with Santa through the winter-dark streets of Turlock. Through the wailing siren and the biting wind, at least one thing was obvious on the faces of those who ran from their warm houses: holiday cheer.
“It gets the community together,” said Frank Saldivar, Turlock Fire Captain. “They look forward to it every year when it comes through. It gets the neighborhoods together. We’ll do a whole block and they’ll be all out waiting.”
As I approached Fire Station 3 on Monte Vista Avenue, I was greeted by the sight of the old 1955 American LaFrance fire engine. The truck was sold by the city after being retired as a front line engine and is maintained by a non-profit group in the Fire Department called Turlock Fire Incorporated.
“Everything – all the costs come out of our own pockets,” said Scott Wejmar, Captain at Fire Station 2. “None of it comes out of the city’s.”
Wejmar had been waiting outside when I walked up. He was eager to coach me on where to sit and assured me that if I had any questions, I could ask him. Wejmar has been a part of this Christmas miracle since starting his volunteer days 24 years ago.
I sat in the jump seat on the right-hand side at his recommendation. The jump seat was a small, backwards-facing seat that was only about the width of my hips. I could feel the engine roar to life as well as every bump in the road.
The route we took went behind Turlock High School. We flew down Canal Drive, East Avenue, Daubenberger Road and Colorado Avenue, with Mike Alberti – that night’s Santa Claus – cheerily calling out “Merry Christmas” to all who could hear. When people heard the siren, they scattered out onto the sidewalk, waving and hooting and hollering.
Now and then, there were a few requests to stop for large groups. Some wanted to give Santa cookies or pose in front of the fire truck for a picture. But one was especially touching.
Mike Rebensdorf, the firefighter stationed on the truck that night, radioed Wejmar midway through the night. He told him there would be a large group with a boy in a wheelchair outside, waiting for us to stop.
“It's probably one of the biggest programs we have,” Saldivar said. “This one has been around so long with so many generations of families. They remember when they were kids – they go ‘this is something as a kid we used to watch and they get to see what we saw.’ It’s kind of hard to just not do it anymore.”
It’s obvious, too, that the program is well-loved by the people of Turlock. Even cars passing by would roll down their windows, call out to Santa and run up to donate cookies and sweets.
To see Santa’s schedule, visit www.ci.turlock.ca.us/citydepartments/firedepartment/decembersantatours/ or call Turlock Fire Administration at 209-668-5580 for more information.