Every holiday season, for at least a few hours, I volunteer to ring the bell for one of the Salvation Army’s red kettles.

I do so because just before Thanksgiving in 1987, I was part of an FBI SWAT team called to Atlanta to deal with a riot at the federal penitentiary there. Cuban criminals shipped to the U.S. as part of the Mariel boatlift had taken control of part of the prison and held several hostages. The Cubans surrendered after several weeks, but I never forgot how every morning during our deployment there, the local Salvation Army served us coffee and donuts. I vowed I’d pay back their kindness.

One year, I was ringing the bell at the Maple Rd. Kroger with my wife. We both wore Santa hats and Salvation Army-issue red vests. It was snowing lightly, the Christmas lights were shining, and carols were playing on the store’s PA system.

All of a sudden a man ran out of the store, closely followed by two men in white butcher smocks. The butchers tackled the man in the parking lot and pulled several cuts of meat from under his coat. The thief yelled, flailed, and kicked.

Having some experience making arrests, I thought I should help the butchers. I grabbed the flex-cuffs (large heavy-duty zip-ties) I kept in my car and knelt behind the struggling man. In my most soothing voice, I told him that we could let him up if he let me put the cuffs on him.

The man turned his head to look at me, and his eyes got very big. I’m about 6’4″ and weigh about 235 lbs. I had forgotten I was wearing a Santa hat and a big red vest.

After staring at me for a few moments, he asked, “Who are you?”

I smiled and replied, “I’m Santa’s helper.”

He immediately stopped fighting. I cuffed him, the butchers helped me stand him up, and he placidly waited for the police to arrive.

Maybe the Dickensian message of this incident is simply: if you’re poor and hungry at Christmastime, don’t rob a grocery store. Find a place that cares, like the Salvation Army.

Condensed from ticklethewire.com