Wednesday, November 20, 2013

In Thanksgivings past, Detroit opened its heart to its special children

When I was a child attending an orthopedic school for children with disabilities in downtown Detroit, my mother would wake me and my younger sisters, Rene and Nancy, before dawn and get us dressed up to go watch the then Hudson’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

For myself and the 180 or so other kids with disabilities at Leland School for Crippled Children, it was a really special and unforgettable day.

We’d dress up warm in snowsuits and wait anxiously for the yellow bus that said “Leland” on the side to turn down our street of Pinewood off of Gratiot and Seven Mile on Detroit’s northeast side. We’d climb on the bus with the other children with disabilities and their parents and the bus would take us down to Woodward near the former J.L. Hudson’s building. The building had the world’s largest flag on its side. It was several stories high and looked especially immense to a young child who was all excited about seeing Santa.

We’d stay in the bus once we got to the end of the parade route and we had a spectacularly close view of the floats.

They would start coming our way as we heard bands playing Christmas music. The floats were gigantic. They were colorful. The people on them were dressed in fancy outfits, clowns, elves and the floats would come one after the other for what seemed like forever. We didn’t mind because we all knew that sooner or later Santa Claus would come.

The clowns would carry giant balloons or cartoon characters. I would always wait for my Uncle Tom Opatich who worked as Hudson’s during the year as a driver who delivered furniture. But at Thanksgiving he would turn into a clown and volunteer to be part of the parade. He would get all of the other clowns to come on our special bus and give us big hugs because we were the special children with disabilities who were receiving loving treatment from great souls on a wonderful day.

My sisters always thought it was cool that their big brother went to an orthopedic school because they got to go with him and our mother, Carol and now 98, to the Thanksgiving Day parade for a special treat.

When we started hearing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” we on the bus would really get excited because Santa would jump off of his red sleigh and leave all the reindeer, including Rudolph and Dancer and Prancer behind and hop up the three steps of our bus and go down the aisle and ask: “Have every one of you children been good boys and girls this year?” And we’d scream back in unison: “We sure have Santa.”

And then Santa would ask what did we want for Christmas. Most of the time I wanted a real cowboy suit or a chess set. My sisters told Santa they wanted dolls or clothes and mother would say she didn’t need anything as long as her children were happy and had enough good food to eat for the holiday with our dad, Vincent, a Detroit policeman.

And after a few minutes, even though it might have been 15 minutes, Santa would climb off the bus and go back and hop on his sleigh and welcome all the thousands who had come to downtown Detroit in the 1950s to watch the Thanksgiving Day parade.

Our bus would wait a while until traffic of maybe a million people would clear out and then the bus would make its way back to drop each of us off at our homes.

There never was one tear about not being able to walk or talk or having to wear braces because we, the students, had a disability. We were special and we knew it. We had just received the hearts of many generous clowns and a special hug from Santa, that upon looking back now at age 67, lasted a lifetime.

Jerry Wolffe is the Writer-in-Residence and Advocate-at-Large at the Macomb-Oakland Regional Center. He can be reached at 586-263-8950.