By Chad Darnell
It was a dark and stormy night. No, really. That is how this story goes.
In 1972 I was a college student spending my first Christmas away from home. To be gone from all the traditions of my family and childhood was a novelty. It was one I was determined to survive with good cheer.
But as the days grew closer to Christmas and I saw the other students around me slowly begin to depart to celebrate the holidays at their homes I grew melancholy.
Lights and decorations and all the elements of a cheery season surrounded me. Mom had sent me several holiday survival packages, one including my well-worn Christmas stocking that I had to hang from a file cabinet. I even had non-stop Christmas music to put me in the mood. But it wasn’t Christmas and I knew it.
My plans were simple. I would work my part time job in a newspaper printing plant. I would study and get ahead at school. And I would keep my expenses down, the whole point in missing Christmas in the first place.
Two days before Christmas I just snapped. It had been raining quite a bit but in a moment of sentimental despair I decided to don my heavy coat and hitchhike home for Christmas. Home was only 746 miles away. I had no idea how long it would take to get there and I had no plan in place to help me to return when I needed to be back at work two days after Christmas.
I got no more than 40 miles into my journey. After walking for a while in a light drizzle a man in a faded pickup stopped and asked me where I was headed. When I told him, he gave me a skeptical glance. “Do you know there is a storm expected tonight?” he asked me.
“Yep,” I said. In reality, that was a detail that had escaped my attention.
We didn’t talk for the first thirty minutes. But as the old truck chugged up an incline and began to sputter the man asked me what I knew about cars.
“Not much,” I said. This time I told the truth.
He expressed his regret as the old truck ground to a halt. As we sat there on the side of the road he made no move to get out to see what had happened to the truck. He just sighed.
Judging from his appearance, the man was likely in his mid-70s. His faded denim jacket, heavy work pants and thick hands gave the impression that he was a no-nonsense fellow who knew plenty of hard work in his time. I found it somewhat unbelievable that he did not know what was wrong with the vehicle. But it was more than clear that the old truck was more like a trusted old friend who didn’t require a lot of maintenance– until, of course, that dark and stormy night.
As we sat there on the side of the mountain road, the temperature dropped and fog settled in around us. He kept his lights on for a while but soon turned them off to save the battery. We never got out to check under the hood. It just didn’t seem important to him.
“Are you going home for Christmas?” he asked me. So I told him my story. With a tiny twinkle in his eye, he asked me if I really thought it was worth it to go home for just a day or two.
I felt at first as if my father was interrogating me. That look he gave me impressed upon me the foolishness of my actions. I felt like a real child in this man’s presence. He seemed sensible and businesslike. To strike out on foot to cover more than 700 miles in less than two days seemed in retrospect to be a very immature thing to do.
But he didn’t chastise me. He didn’t even express an opinion. He just asked me what made Christmas so worth it.
I didn’t need to think much about my reply. I had been feeling it for weeks. As the late summer turned into fall I was anticipating Christmas as much as I ever did at home. In a way, I was excited for it. I wanted to prove to my self that I was independent. I felt grown up to be facing Christmas alone.
Right after Halloween I began to put in place those items that would give me the familiar feel that I love so much about the holidays. I drove one of my roommates absolutely insane by listening to tapes of Christmas music by Dean Martin and Bing Crosby. Everything my mother had sent me went up on the walls. I was having a great Christmas – all by myself.
But what I tried to explain to him was the void I felt in spite of the decorations, the music and the lights. Christmas was no time to be alone. He took it all in and sighed. He stared off ahead into the foggy dark. But he didn’t say a word.
“Yes,” I said. “It is definitely worth it to me to be home for Christmas.”
He looked over at me long and hard. I wished I could tell what he was thinking. Did he think I was just a kid? I was sure I looked very foolish to this man. I decided to change the subject and I asked him about his plans for Christmas.
“Oh,” he mumbled. “I don’t have no plans.” And that pretty much ended the conversation about Christmas between us.
Some time later a highway patrol car pulled up behind us. The trooper inquired of our trouble, looked under the hood and offered us a ride back to town. Some nine hours had passed since I began and I was no further on my Christmas quest.
The man shook my hand as we parted and wished me well on my Christmas journey. I wished him a Merry Christmas. And then I went home to think about what to do next.
I didn’t have to think long. Once again, I put on my coat and started walking – this time in absolute darkness, in the dead of night. I had nothing better to do this Christmas. Going home was my best and only option.
I got picked up by a cheerful man who sang Jingle Bells for about 60 miles before finally dropping me off as he went on his way. Though tired, it felt good to finally make some progress. I ate a package of doughnuts and a carton of milk where he dropped me off but soon I set out on foot yet again. I headed up the road, my back to oncoming traffic, my thumb poking out every time I heard a car whiz by.
Soon I heard the squeak of brakes and the low rumble of a vehicle as it stopped beside me. It was the same faded truck — driven by the same man. “Get in,” was all he said to me.
Upon inquiring about how the truck got running again he explained that the tow truck driver replaced a couple of spark plug wires that had rotted. He said the truck had always been reliable but was just getting a little old. Judging from the cold air coming up from the rusted floorboard that much was evident.
He told me that he was impressed with my determination. And that since he had nothing better to do, he would take me all the way home for Christmas. I was stunned. I thanked him and told him it was not necessary to go so far out of his way just for me.
It was then that he told me his story.
In the 1930s this man had a family – a wife and three children. Like so many others they suffered for want of employment and he left the family to pursue any kind of employment he could find. He sent money home every chance he could. But because he worked at so many jobs he failed to write much with the money he sent. Weeks turned into months, months turned into years. He just had to keep working so that the family could stay afloat and so that he could have a future. But in that time they failed to share much of their lives with each other.
When he finally returned home a few years later he found that his wife had obtained a divorce and married another man. His children did not recognize him.
Trying to put his life together he returned to work and it became his life. He worked as a lineman for the power company. At all hours of the day or night, he would drive in his old truck in rural areas looking for troubles with the power lines and responding to emergencies.
He confessed to me that Christmas was his most difficult time of the year. Only an occasional storm would interrupt his thoughts of happier times as a young married man and as a child. With his parents dead and his wife and kids a distant memory, Christmas was a dreaded season filled with bitter thoughts and lonely moments. He only want it over with – every Christmas.
As I heard his story I became very sad. This was my first Christmas alone. Who knows how many it had been for him. It was difficult to talk to this man. By this point, we had spent several hours together before he shared with me his history. He was volunteering information slowly but I did not feel it my place to ask many questions. He seemed sad but very private. I wanted to respect his space.
But I couldn’t resist asking just one thing.
“Why are you taking me home?” I asked.
He stared ahead, foot on the gas, his right arm resting on the gear shift. He was in thought. I feared for a second he didn’t hear me. He seemed to take a long time to respond.
“There are two reasons to take you home for Christmas, young man.” he said. “First, when you feel the need to be home for Christmas you should never ignore it. And second, as I said before, I ain’t got no plans.”
Once that was said he seemed to brighten. In a way, it was like a cloud lifted or that something heavy he was carrying was finally put down. He asked me about what I could expect about Christmas at home. And from that we had a wonderful conversation about Christmas traditions and memories. He even shared with me a story of hunting ducks with his father on Christmas morning. His smile at the memory warmed me and gave me hope for him.
By the time the miles were spent, and we had pulled up into the driveway of the house, there was the good, familiar feel of Christmas in the air and between us. My mother rushed from house as she saw me getting out of the old truck, her hands to her face in surprise, tears right on the surface.
The man did not get out of his truck. In fact, he started to back out of the driveway before I had a chance to shut the door. I rushed over to his window and thrust my hand through it.
“Thank you,” I said to him. “And a Merry Christmas to you.”
“The same to you and yours,” he said, with that twinkle in his eye. And with that he backed out of the drive and drove down the street.