Santa brought me home for Christmas.
December 30, 2015
CHRISTMAS WAS APPROACHING, and I had a decision to make.
I could remain on the Navy base where I was stationed for Christmas, have turkey dinner in the mess hall and then occupy the lingering hours by playing pickup basketball, going to the base’s outdoor movie and staying in the mostly empty barracks and reading.
Or, I could try my luck hitchhiking home and take my chances getting there in the face of an icy winter storm headed directly into the path of the route I would have to travel on the highways.
The decision was not difficult. I had never missed being at home for Christmas. I did not intend to start now.
It was a couple of hours before sundown when I got away from the base and down to the highway where I would begin my travel by thumb.
I was in luck. I quickly got a ride with a couple headed home for the holidays. They were not traveling too far but they were going far enough that they could let me out on a major highway that ran across the state. Maybe I could hitch another, longer ride there.
We made good time. But shortly before they were to drop me off, sleet began pecking at the car. Uh-oh.
The sleet picked up. But they had taken me as far as they could. I got out. And immediately the sleet was pecking at me. The intensity of it picked up. The cold wind grew harsh.
A truck stop was in the area. I walked there, went inside to see if by chance they had hot chocolate. I did not drink coffee in those days, despite being in the Navy. I needed to warm up.
The truck stop restaurant was filled with truck drivers. Most of them seemed to be talking about staying the night there. They had heard radio reports of the bad weather. It was getting worse. They did not want to risk being out on icy highways.
That did not bode well for me. If truck drivers were going to stay off the roads, other vehicle drivers probably would do the same. Not good for a hitchhiker.
Maybe I should try to make it back to the base. Or, maybe I would have to stay at the truck stop.
But the desire to make it home for Christmas won out.
I went back out on the highway.
No vehicles came.
The sleet, the wind picked up.
Maybe I should go back inside the truck stop.
Maybe I should cross the highway and try for a ride back in the opposite direction — the direction of the base.
Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Again, Christmas at home overrode all other considerations.
Then, out of the darkness came hope – headlights.
Then with the headlines came sound – the sound of a big truck.
But as it neared me, there was no indication the truck would stop.
I put out my best hitchhiking thumb – high and wide and waving as if anxious, something I and other hitchhiking sailors had more or less mastered in our numerous trips up and down the highways.
I thought I heard a faint pppuuuusssssuuu, pppuuuussssuuu of the truck’s air brakes.
Was it just wishful thinking? Would it stop? Or pass me by?
Yes? No? Yes? No?
Then I heard the sound again, louder this time.
The truck stopped. I opened the door. The truck driver told me to get in.
The truck driver was blunt. He said he never picked up hitchhikers, that if it had not been sleeting and if I had not been in uniform and if it had not been near Christmas, he would have driven on by.
I thanked him.
He said he did not know how long he would keep driving, that the weather was getting worse, that he might have to stop at a truck stop up the road and stay there the rest of the night.
He did say he was also trying to get home for Christmas.
We talked. About the weather, sports, military service, life on the road.
Most of the time, we seemed to be in the only vehicle on the highway.
Slowly, the hours, the hundreds of miles went by.
Sleet seemed to be our only highway companion.
We came upon one truck stop, then another. As we passed each one, he said that since he had made it this far he would keep trying.
We did come to that proverbial fork in the road. He needed to take that part of the fork that went right that would take him home for Christmas.
I needed to go left. He stopped. I thanked him for the ride, wished him Merry Christmas and good luck driving on the ice the rest of the way and got out of the truck.
It was long past midnight, icy cold and the sleet was relentlessly pounding my face.
I watched the truck – with its multitude of red running lights, making it there in the chilly darkness look something like a combination of a giant, rolling sleigh and a welcoming, cheerful Christmas tree — until it disappeared down the road.
Then, all I could see was blackness, if you can see blackness.
That night I did, as the blackness and the cold swallowed hope.
What I did not see were headlights.
I waited and waited and waited. No headlights.
I took a chocolate bar out of my duffle bag and munched it.
Weary, I leaned against a highway sign.
The relentless sleet showed me no mercy.
I laughed out loud as I imagined some newspaper headline somewhere saying something like:
“Sailor Freezes to Death Clinging to Highway Sign and Clutching Chocolate Bar.”
Then I did calisthenics so I could maybe warm up. Didn’t work too well. But it did help pass the time.
And keep that imagined headline from coming true.
I had made most of the trip and was within wishing distance of getting home for Christmas but couldn’t seem to finally get there.
Prayers do too get answered.
A couple, also wanting to make it home for Christmas, stopped, picked me up and took me the last miles of my journey.
All of this was decades ago. But to this day at Christmas I think about that hitchhiking trip and that truck driver who, in a quite real way, was Santa.
Santa, in an 18-wheel, gigantic, rolling sleigh going down the icy roads and also in the imagination looking something like a brightly-lit Christmas tree.
Santa, delivering not toys but a young sailor most of the way home for Christmas.
Roger Summers is a journalist, essayist and author. Roger’s latest book is The Ladies in the Pink Hats and My Johnny.