It never occurred to me that people in the South give Christmas presents scrounged from junkyards until I went to South Alabama and ran into a man called “Hoot.” He is a Junkyard Santa of sorts. So he says. He roams around junkyards with a wrench and pliers and a big sawblade knife on Black Friday while everybody else fights it out at Walmart, Target and Best Buy. He has a claw hammer strung on his belt. He takes bits and pieces of old cars and drops them off to people who need them. And from what I’m told, he is just as likely to come back and help those people install that part on their old car so it will run enough to get them to work, school, church, grocery store or doctor.
“He is a gift from God,” said Henny, a 70 year-old widow living on what’s left of a pension, Medicaid and some charity. “He got my old Falcon running last year and so far, it’s still moving.”
“When you don’t have nothing,” said Leonidas, a man with one eye, one arm and a mouth that made up for both, “well, I reckon you appreciate anything. And Old Junkyard Santa helps a lot of folks around here.”
Hoot is hard to pin down. I ran into him at a gas station and he made me swear to never use his real name “or I’ll hunt you down and use a 78 Chevy tailpipe to straighten you out.” As might be expected, Junkyard Santa comes with a little attitude.
A woman at a church told me he once rebuild the engine of a church bus and never told a soul. Yet somehow she knew.
“He has a reputation as a wayward man,” she said. “But God uses all kinds.”
After I met him, before he could jump in his old LTD and ride off in a plume of blue smoke, I asked why he did what he does.
“I was once a serious mechanic,” he said. “Famous maybe. I made cars go real fast for money. Racing, shine, whatever. Even cops came to me for a little git-up-and-go.”
He looked around and took a chew of Redman into his cheek, spitting shreds as he talked.
“One day I was sleeping off a drunk and woke up in church. Don’t know how I got there, but there I was. It was empty ‘cept me and the pulpit and a little cross on the wall. I heard a little voice say, ‘you better stop your sinning and go do something good.’ So I did.”
Before I could ask him anything else, he said, “I married that little voice a few months later. She was asleep on the pew in front of me. Her name is Angie. She was a lost soul just like me. I guess that’s how a rough man changes.”
I guess so too.