Santa Claus was scheduled to make his usual appearance at Montgomery County's annual holiday parade yesterday. But he seemed a minor attraction compared with the man whom children had really come to see.
"Chief Moose! Chief Moose!" yelled 3-year-old Bryce Woodrell, as Montgomery's top law enforcement officer rolled by in a green Cadillac convertible. "Thank you for making us safe!"
Police Chief Charles A. Moose smiled somewhat awkwardly as he surveyed the throng of cheering fans lining the parade route through downtown Silver Spring -- nearly all of them sporting sparkly, purple moose antlers and sounding moose calls on long, colored horns.
It was just one of the many tributes showered on the chief yesterday, as residents celebrated Thanksgiving early with an outpouring of gratitude to the law enforcement team that brought an end to the sniper shootings that terrorized the Washington area for more than three weeks in October.
The day started with a morning interfaith service at St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church in Silver Spring. A few hours later at another service in Takoma Park, the family and pastor of one of the shooting victims, cabdriver Premkumar Walekar, presented Moose with the Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church's annual Caring Heart Award for service to the community.
"This fall . . . we realized that evil can indeed put righteous people in its cross hairs and pull the trigger," Pastor Peter Bath said. "But we also realized that grace triumphs over evil."
As the congregation of more than 1,500 rose in a standing ovation, Bath handed Moose a small plaque engraved with the words "He who seeks good finds goodwill."
The holiday parade usually steps off in December. But in light of the shootings, the event was rescheduled and recast this year as a regional Thanksgiving salute to law enforcement.
"A lot of times they don't feel appreciated, and this is one of those times we can show how much we do appreciate them," said David Naimon, who sat on the sidewalk with his wife and 6-year-old twins.
The mood was mostly festive as Moose and the other three grand marshals -- County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), FBI Special Agent Gary Bald and Mike Bouchard of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms -- cruised the streets in antique cars, grinning broadly and waving.
Moose, in his crisp dark-brown uniform and epaulets, clearly was the day's star attraction. Again and again, parents and children surrounded him, hoping to shake his hand, get his autograph and take a photo with him.
"Can I give you a kiss?" one woman asked hopefully.
"Uh, no," Moose replied.
Yet there were also somber moments. Early in the parade, the crowd fell silent as an empty Ride On bus passed by in homage to driver Conrad Johnson, 35. Johnson, shot Oct. 22 as he stood on the top step of his vehicle at the predawn start of his workday, was the last of the 13 local victims.
Two days later, two suspects were arrested and later charged.
At the Takoma Park service, Andrea Walekar told those gathered that she and her family still grapple with the loss of her father. "Every day I wake up, I hope I'm dreaming," she said, as if speaking to him. "I can't believe this pain. I can't believe you're not here."
But she reaffirmed her faith. "God makes no mistakes, and with him all things are possible," she continued, while her mother and brother stood behind her. "By answering our prayers, God was able to help Chief Moose find the sniper, and today we would like to thank Chief Moose and all the law enforcement for helping our community to be a safer place."
Moose appeared visibly moved as he embraced Walekar's widow, Margaret, who wept as she presented him with a bouquet of autumn flowers. He expressed admiration for the family.
"Heaven is a better place, but sometimes it's really painful for all of us who are still here," he said. "We will try to follow your example in the way your family is dealing with it."
Many in the audience said the Walekars and Moose had lent the service a poignancy that brought home the true meaning of Thanksgiving.
"It was very different this year," said Leela Job, a systems administrator from Adelphi. "I've realized that every day we have to be thankful for our lives and our family. . . . Now I don't take the little things like traffic jams seriously. I remember the important things and stay calm."
It was a sentiment echoed by many at the parade.
"A lot of times Thanksgiving is just the holiday we brush over to get to Christmas," said Lanita Whitehurst, a stay-at-home mother from Silver Spring. "This year it's really taken on a special feeling. People really have something to be grateful for."