This Santa rides a fully loaded Harley for toy run

Loaded with nearly 200 gifts, Linda Martin, 54, of Brandon rides into Evans Park in Seffner on Sunday in an annual toy run with a pack of 500 motorcycles.

STEPHANIE WANG | Times

Loaded with nearly 200 gifts, Linda Martin, 54, of Brandon rides into Evans Park in Seffner on Sunday in an annual toy run with a pack of 500 motorcycles.

SEFFNER — Linda Martin shows up alone.

Rumbling up the long path into the park, she rides her Harley-Davidson with only the company on the seat behind her: a tower of gifts.

Stuffed animals balanced on top of wrapped packages on top of skateboards on top of even more plush toys. One hundred ninety-four gifts in all.

She parks her motorcycle next to clusters of others at the starting point, Veterans Memorial Park off U.S. 301 in Tampa. Her kickstand catches, barely, on its silver foot. The bike is heavier than normal.

"This is my Christmas," Martin says. "This makes Christmas worthwhile."

She doesn't really have a family to buy presents for. Not since her mom and dad died. So instead, she loads up her bike the first Sunday every December for kids she doesn't know.

They're kids from single- or low-income families, kids with mental disabilities. This might be the only Christmas they'll have this year.

She used to help at lots of motorcycle toy drives, but now she devotes herself just to this one: the Cookson Hills Toy Run.

"There's bigger ones, more known ones, more popular ones," says Martin, a 54-year-old Brandon woman who works in the poker room at the Hard Rock Seminole Casino.

"But this is the one that hits you right in the heart."

This is not an anonymous act of generosity. Each of her gifts will go to someone she personally chooses from a crowd. She'll watch faces light up when they're singled out.

It's her way of honoring her dad and his quiet way of helping people in need. He was a well-digger who would go out in the middle of the night to help a family without water and who would forget to charge the ones who couldn't pay.

"In Special Memory," a line on the back of her T-shirt reads. "Edward Harley Martin."

The kids are waiting a few miles away in a Seffner park. She'll ride a little slower today. Good bikers, even the ones with Easy-Bake Ovens strapped to the back, don't have to rely on their brakes to stay in control.

That's what Martin's dad used to say. And he would have known, because he could do everything better than everybody else, it seemed, including ride a motorcycle.

So in a parade of 500 motorcycles riding to the Christmas festivities at Evans Park in Seffner, Martin tries not to hit the brakes too much.

• • •

There is a real Santa Claus and Mrs. Santa at the park. They have the outfits, and Santa even has the natural wavy white beard to prove it.

Martin has a pom-pom hat and a tree skirt around her neck. She pairs her black leather jacket with dangling Christmas present earrings and nails painted with candy cane stripes. With a velvety red sack of toys in hand, she looks more like Santa than anyone.

Among hundreds of adults wandering rows of children to hand out toys, Martin looks for versions of herself.

She was the quiet child who melted into the background, so she wants to find "that oddball child nobody can see."

On the edge of the field, Martin walks up to a man from a group home. He's older, in his 50s, and he's dressed up for the occasion: button-down shirt, pinstripe slacks, shiny black shoes.

It's not much, Martin says, pulling a candy cane out of a red-and-white purse. A $5 bill is twisted around it.

The man takes it and starts to cry.

Martin sees herself again in a girl who introduces herself by listing her vitals: "Savannah Brewster. Nine years old. Girl."

A neighboring 9-year-old checks out the toy in Martin's hand, a stuffed tiger with a leather jacket.

Savannah relents: "She can have it."

And for that, for the girl too timid to speak up for herself, Savannah gets a special gift from the bottom of the Santa sack: a white stuffed horse dressed like a snowman.

The very last toy in Martin's hand is an orange bear with a red cap and jacket. It had been squashed at the bottom of the pile, under a skateboard. Even before the motorcycle had been unpacked, the bear had caught a little girl's eye.

Martin scans the crowd. She can't remember the girl's face.

"I think I'm going to hold onto this," she said slowly, "and hope she comes back to me."

The girl never reappears. Martin packs the bear back onto the bike. Maybe next Christmas.

She gets back on the motorcycle and rides home alone, lighter now.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

This Santa rides a fully loaded Harley for toy run 12/08/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 8, 2010 11:15pm]

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