Even the children noticed there was something strange about the way Santa Claus arrived in Baltimore yesterday.
Rather than appearing in a dainty sled that flew high over the rooftops, the man in red rode into town in a big oak wagon with spoked wheels. And instead of eight reindeer leading the way with graceful dancing and prancing, a pair of huge English shire horses named Travs and J. J. had the honors.
For the thousands of children who lined downtown streets yesterday for the Thanksgiving Day parade, however, it didn't seem to matter how Santa arrived, just that he had come.
"I want a swing and sliding board," pleaded Alexis Arledge, one of dozens of youngsters who swarmed around Saint Nick as he made his way to Santa's Place, the Harborplace exhibit that marked the parade's end.
"Do you think you could put them in my back yard?" she implored.
The parade, an annual event that marks the unofficial beginning of the holiday shopping season in Baltimore, wound from Martin Luther King Boulevard and Eutaw Street, turned south on Charles Street, and then bent east past a reviewing stand near the corner of Pratt and Light streets.
A sparse crowd, bundled against unexpectedly chilly temperatures, lined the route.
They cheered for the familiar mainstays of Baltimore parades, such as the gold-jacketed Boumi Camel Drivers, who popped wheelies and did other stunts on buzzing three-wheeled motorcycles. They raved about Leonardo, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle who served as the parade's grand marshal.
"They were worrying me about it this morning," said David Nealy, of the 2100 block of Barclay Street, who brought his fiancee's two children to the parade. "I'd wanted to sleep late."
In fact, some children were so eager to see the Turtles, fictional movie hero outcasts who live in sewers, that when a group of electricians began working from an open manhole cover along the parade route, a young audience peered down at them.
"Are the Turtles in there?," one child was said to ask, apparently not sure of the absolute limits of make-believe.
The parade was not quite a smash hit for everyone.
Richard Roberts was one of several pushcart merchants who searched for an explanation for slower-than-expected parade route sales. An itinerant huckster from Morgantown, W.Va., he ,, had come to Baltimore to hawk $4 plastic swords, inflatable Santa dolls and other toys he stacked in a shopping cart.
"The Halloween parade at Hagerstown was pretty good," he said, struggling to keep the chilly breeze from tipping his top-heavy cart. "Maybe it's too windy. I can hardly hold on to this."
The hours of tending to squirming children eventually began to fray the nerves of some parents.
"When are we going to see Santa?" one child whined, moments af
ter the parade ended. "December 25th," her father retorted testily, half-dragging the child past the long line of other children waiting to climb onto Santa's lap.
For Zachary Chamberlin, 8, his trip to the parade was a profile in courage.
The diminutive lad, who his father said is waiting for a heart-lung transplant, arrived at Pratt Street tugging the oxygen cart that allows him to lead a relatively normal childhood.
When Zachary climbed upon his father's shoulders, a parade performer riding high upon an extended
unicycle veered over, idled for a moment with some deft pedaling, and gave Zachary a high five.
"He knows he's different, and everyone else knows he's different," Al Chamberlin, a Glen Burnie resident, said of his son. "But we try to treat him like any other kid."
As he spoke, Santa passed, waving first to the left and then to the right. And Zachary asked the question that also burned inside hundreds of other children who had come to watch the parade.
"Hey Dad," Zachary implored, his upturned face spreading in a grin. "Can we go to Santa's Place?"