Who says Santa Claus needs reindeer?Published 12:03am Sunday, November 25, 2012
NATCHEZ — Being late November in Mississippi when Santa came to town Saturday, there wasn’t much of a chance there would be any snow on the ground for him to ride a sleigh to the Natchez Mall.
But rather than be deterred from an afternoon of endlessly hefting children onto his lap to hear their Christmas wishes, Santa came rolling in on a giant-sized piece of America’s collective childhood memory when he arrived on the largest motorized Radio Flyer wagon in the world.
When the wagon arrived, it didn’t take long for a number of passers by to gather around and start snapping pictures. Santa entered the mall, but the wagon departed, traveling down the highway at 40 miles per hour.
Most of the time, the wagon isn’t used to haul Santa around. It instead travels around the country, visiting schools, children’s hospitals and parades.
The creation of Ellisville resident Ted Mangum, the wagon made its appearance in Natchez at the behest of an old high school acquaintance who had contacted him about transporting Santa, Mangum said.
The vehicle isn’t completely unique — there are three others on the West coast, though Mangum said his completely street-legal Radio Flyer is the only one on the eastern side of the country.
Mangum decided to build his wagon after seeing a picture of one of the three others. Where he found the others lacking, he said, was in size.
“My friend sent me a picture of one of the other (wagons), but it could only hold two people,” he said. “I said, ‘I am going to build one that can haul a lot of people.’”
And haul a lot of people it can — Mangum’s wagon can seat 11 people with seatbelts, which is a good thing, because it can travel faster than some more traditionally-shaped vehicles on the road.
That’s because, before it was a wagon, it was an ambulance with a Ford 460 police package engine.
“I can drive it 70 miles per hour down the interstate,” Mangum said.
“The only thing is that on the interstate or on a four-lane highway, you start to back up traffic because when people see what it is, they come in and move real slow trying to take pictures.”
When he started to build the wagon, Mangum — a retired auto body and paint teacher — cut the ambulance down to the chassis and then built a frame of 3/4-inch tubing before covering it with steel plating and painting it.
But before he committed to calling it a Radio Flyer wagon, Mangum contacted the company to make sure he wasn’t violating a copyright.
But the company told Mangum they liked what he had done.
“They were really the best about it,” he said. “The lady I spoke to there told me, ‘Radio Flyer is all about having fun, and you look like you’re having it.’”
It wasn’t long before Mangum started getting invitations to show the wagon, including recently at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, an experience Mangum described as being an honor. He’ll also be appearing in nine parades this year, and had to turn down five more.
The appeal of the Radio Flyer wagon and why he wanted to build an adult version of one is simple, Mangum said.
“Everybody had one when they were a kid,” he said.