A Mason's Christmas
For 10 years now, the members of the Mount Tabor Masonic Lodge in Detroit Lakes have been using the proceeds of their "Photos With Santa" program at the Washington Square Mall to spread a little Christmas cheer to families who can use it more than most.
Whether those families have a loved one who is severely ill or recovering from injury, or are suddenly rendered homeless, or living through some other unexpected hardship, the Masons have been there, accompanied by the man in the red suit.
"We have given out over $30,000 (in Chamber dollars and presents) to families since we started doing this," said Jerry Bursaw, a longtime member of the Mt. Tabor Lodge.
"Those who don't get the chance to do this are missing out," said Bill Henderson, another member who has been involved in the program since its beginnings. "It really is touching -- some of the families are so happy to see us that they cry, and you cry right along with them. That's just human nature."
Rick Johnson, who like Bursaw steps in to play the role of Santa when needed, said there's nothing quite like it.
"The happiness and joy you see on the faces of those kids, seeing their eyes go so wide -- you just can't resist it," he said.
So what are some of the most frequent questions he gets asked? One of them is how he (Santa) can get into houses that don't have chimneys.
"I carry a magic key that lets me get into any house without setting off the alarms," he says with a Santa-like twinkle in his eyes.
Another frequent question is, 'where are the reindeer?'
Johnson has an answer for that one too.
"They're (the reindeer) only magical on Christmas Eve," he said. "They're resting up at the North Pole, waiting for the big night."
And what advice does he have to offer for when Jolly St. Nick himself shows up tonight?
"Leave some milk and cookies out -- and go to bed early," Johnson said. "Santa won't come if they're awake. And if they want to leave some Cheerios out for the reindeer, that would be wonderful too."
This past Wednesday night, several Masons teamed up with Santa -- whether it was the big guy himself, or one of his stand-ins, none of them were willing to say -- and delivered presents to five area families.
Among them were Jessica and Jason Kropuenske and their four young children: Michela, 8, Wesley, 4. Harley, 3, and Byron, 2.
Jason was severely injured earlier this fall in a bizarre accident with a Bobcat loader, and has been on disability leave from his job at Jon & Sons Disposal Service since the accident occurred on Nov. 25.
"I can't wait to get back (to work)," he said. At the same time, he knows the process of healing is going to take time.
In fact, he's very lucky to be celebrating Christmas at all this year. Kropuenske came very close to being skewered by the fork lift attachment on the Bobcat. As it was, he was left with multiple broken ribs and two punctured lungs.
"I was cleaning the yard up, and was switching from the bucket (attachment) to the forks on the Bobcat," he said. "I accidentally hit the safety device, which engaged the lever to bring the forks up and squeezed me between the forks and the roof of the Bobcat.
"It's one of those freak things that would probably never happen twice."
Still conscious, the injured man was able to extend his leg far enough to reach the safety lever that would lower the forks on the Bobcat and free him. Too severely injured to make it back into the house under his own power, he was able to find his cell phone and call Jessica, who was inside doing housework and unaware of what had occurred.
Jessica called 911, and the Frazee Rescue Squad arrived -- along with a couple of Jason's friends from the Frazee Fire Department, where he served as a volunteer.
Though Jason was still alive, the damage from the accident was severe.
"I broke all the ribs on my right side, and five more on the left," he said. "I punctured both lungs... there was a lot of chest damage."
In addition, Kropuenske suffered a tear in his intestines that required emergency surgery, and they also discovered during the surgery that his appendix needed to be removed. In all, Kropuenske bears the scars from 26 staples in his stomach and two chest tubes -- necessary to drain the fluid from his lungs.
He was in such severe pain at first that doctors at MeritCare Hospital (where he was airlifted from St. Mary's Regional Health Center in Detroit Lakes) kept him heavily sedated.
"I don't remember anything about that first week (after the accident)," Kropuenske said.
Part of the reason, his wife added, was because he had been fighting the breathing tube due to a strong gag reflex in his throat.
"They also told me I was fighting the medication," Jason added.
So severe were his injuries that Kropuenske remained at MeritCare until just last week; he went home on Wednesday, Dec. 13.
"I'm glad to be home -- and glad to see all the support of my friends and this community," he said. "The Frazee Fire Department really stepped up and helped out a lot."
Kropuenske also expressed his appreciation for the benefit fund that has been set up at Midwest Bank on his behalf, and noted that plans were underway for a benefit event of some sort.
"I'm kind of shocked at how things are turning out," he admitted. "I was worried about having all those (medical) bills."
The family was especially grateful for its visit from Santa and his accompanying "elves."
"It's touching," Jason said. "It was very emotional, and neat to see (Santa arriving). We're very grateful."
Four other families also received an early visit from Santa Wednesday, courtesy of the Masons. In all, about $2,000 in Chamber dollars and $300 in presents were distributed.