Nearly 40 years later, Jim Higdon still remembers the Santa Train visiting his house.
"I heard the sirens coming down Lazard Street in East Ridge, where we lived," Higdon, a member of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, recalled Tuesday. "I had four siblings and my mom and dad didn't have much money back then. It saved our Christmas."
Come Friday night at 6:30 at the Chattanooga Convention Center, the 47-year-old Higdon will be on the "Guns" side of the 11th annual Battle of the Badges charity boxing competition — also affectionately known as "Guns and Hoses" — which pits local law-enforcement officers such as Higdon against local firefighters and first responders.
By the time this year's event wraps up, it will have raised over $500,000 over those 11 years to help save a lot of Christmases for needy kids throughout our community.
"Part of it is the competition," Higdon said Tuesday. "But it's really not about us, it's about the kids. There are so many folks out there, kids and adults, so much less fortunate than us, and this is one way we can help them."
Charlie Thomason of Fire Station No. 7 in Hickory Valley will attempt to win one for the Hoses on Friday, but despite being in the same heavyweight class as Higdon, the two won't match up against each other for a second time in the event.
"That was my first-ever match in Guns and Hoses," remembered the 42-year-old Thomason, who wrestled and played football at Ooltewah High School. "He won. Jim's a lot better fighter than me. But he didn't knock me out like he said he would."
Other than losing to Higdon, when asked what he most liked about the event he's competed in several times, Thomason chuckled, then delivered a decidedly politically incorrect line: "It's fighting. Besides, who wouldn't like to hit a cop?"
Higdon, who once hit over .400 for the East Ridge Pioneers baseball team during his senior season in 1990 before going on to play at Chattanooga State, said most of the trash-talking is confined to the internet these days.
"Most of it's on social media," he said, "because no one's scared on social media."
Of course, social media also has done a good job of promoting such events as Guns and Hoses, which feeds both the YCAP Boxing program and the Forgotten Child Fund, which has been helping Santa Claus help the less fortunate since 1962.
"Please mention the Coats for Kids drive at Hamilton Place this Thursday," said Higdon, referring to the event sponsored by NewsChannel 9, FOX Chattanooga and the CW Chattanooga that will accept new coats, hats and gloves for children in need. Financial donations can also be made to the Forgotten Child Fund. The coat drive will take place in the upper parking lot of Dillard's between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Higdon and Thomason are also involved in YCAP Boxing, which through the hard work of Joe Smith and his son Andy has done so much to help save a lot of at-risk youth.
"You go there and they're feeding these kids breakfast, helping them with homework, teaching them discipline," Thomason said. "What a fantastic organization."
Added Higdon: "I've cooked dinner for them. Taught them about respect and honor. YCAP has saved a lot of kids' lives."
YCAP betters lives all year long. But much of the Forgotten Child Fund's good work culminates with the Santa Train on Christmas Eve, which has wooed red-suited jolly ol' Saint Nick to our town for 57 years in a row at the start of his very long night of work around the world.
"I remember going with the Santa Train to a home one year," Higdon said. "The mother really needed some help. So Santa comes in with the toys and you immediately see the smiles on the kids' faces. Then you see the mother start crying, and you're about to break down yourself."
Thomason is also a volunteer firefighter in Ooltewah. One year a request for the Santa Train came too late for the family to be considered for the 10 stops it makes in Chattanooga each year.
"Somehow, we put together a small Santa train at the last minute. Santa worked it out. It was a really special moment. A lot of people in the Ooltewah community pitched in and helped."
The Guns and Hoses event has gone from helping raise $10,000 or so for the Forgotten Child Fund in its first year to over $50,000 annually. While ringside seats and ringside tables have long been sold out, there will be plenty of general admission seats available at the door or online at Chattanoogagunsandhoses.com for $15 each.
"To be honest, the boxing's not always great," Joe Smith said. "But the event has become one of the best in town, and it certainly saves Christmas for a lot of needy kids."
And despite a record-breaking economy for some, there seem to be more needy families than ever this holiday season.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.