The kids came running yesterday when they heard Santa's bell. Doors to the tract houses around Springfield opened and they spilled barefoot into the street. Their eyes opened wide, their breath turned to steam.
They gave him their Christmas lists. Santa gave them candy canes.
"Now go to bed early on Christmas Eve," he advised. "And be sure to listen to what Mommy and Daddy say."
Once a year, Mike Gadwill pulls on his $59 Santa suit from Sears. He removes the back seat of his horse-drawn buggy and replaces it with gifts and toys. Girded with a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches, he takes to the streets of Newington Woods and Burgoyne Forest subdivisions, riding behind Charlie's Angel, a big bay trotter retired from the Rosecroft track.
"I got tired of going to shopping centers and waiting half an hour to get a picture of Santa Claus with the kids," said Gadwill. "I kept thinking how nice it would be if there was one that just came strolling through."
Underneath the beard and the red suit, the two pairs of long underwear and the wire rimmed glasses that get foggy in the cold is "Farmer Mike," as he is known to neighbors.
In the midst of suburbia, he lives with six chickens, a goat, a wife, two children and Charlie's Angel on a small two-acre spread. By day he's a 32-year-old cop in the District K-9 corps.
Four years ago, the farmboy from Ladysmith, Wis., decided to spread his own good feelings about Christmas in Washington's suburban cul-de-sacs. Charlie's Angel wears sleigh bells on her harness. Wife Diana brings coffee when the chill sets in. Mothers rush out with cameras and Gadwill rings his bell.
For kids who are skeptics, he's got his story pat: "I tell them Santa's resting for Christmas. He called me up and asked if I would help."