Christmas Cheer! That's what you say to each person as you see them for the first time today. At least, that's what we do in my household.
Early this morning, I had a lovely email from a friend Ralph Neal Hanson who lives in west Texas. Ralph sent me his story about a memorable Christmas he experienced 50 years ago. This story will be part of Ralph's new book Chasing the Rainbow which he will complete and publish later this year. Ralph is a Renaissance man who discovered the joys of writing after he retired. He's written and published his first memoir Flashback to the Golden Years.
Like his first book, his Christmas story is emotionally touching as well as a revelation about a way of life that has faded from view. Ralph was kind enough to give me permission to reprint the story here for our audience. I hope you'll enjoy it.
Long Road Home For Christmas
Copyright 2008 by Ralph Neal Hanson
Since volunteering for the army draft in September, I'd been away from home for three and a half months. After enduring a brutal 10 weeks of basic training at Fort Hood, Texas, I was nearing completion of the advanced Radar Operations and Intelligence school at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.
I finished O&I school on the Monday before Christmas, and I would receive my orders immediately after the first of the year. Until now, I had never been away from home for this length of time. I was anxious to show off my uniform and the 30 pounds that I had gained. Since we were given only one day off for Thanksgiving, I hadn't been able to take leave then, and it had been my first Thanksgiving away from home in my 19 years. So I planned to take 10 days of leave through the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. I was 500 miles from home. I was dreadfully homesick, and I had assured my mother on the telephone that I would be home for Christmas.
* * *
I sat impatiently on the wooden bench at the Texas and Pacific depot in El Paso, waiting for my train which was due to arrive in half an hour. The terminal was always busy since El Paso was a large city located about half way between the east and west coasts. I waited in the passenger boarding area, a long, red brick street between the depot and multiple sets of parallel railroad tracks. The red bricks looked like those that paved all the major streets in my home town, including the street in front of my house.
The waiting area was crowded - mostly with uniformed military personnel. Some of the soldiers and airmen carried Christmas packages along with their suitcases. I carried only a small AWOL bag with a change of underwear, toilet articles, and a carton of Lucky Strikes.
I felt rather awkward because I hadn’t bought anyone a gift this year though I had recently been promoted to Private First Class, and I was making just over 100 dollars a month. But I was proud of the new chevron on my green-wool dress uniform. Besides, gifts weren’t so important now since everyone in my immediate family was grown. The real gifts would be the love and fellowship with family and friends on this special day of the year.
I knew the trip home would take more than a ten hours whether I traveled by rail or bus since both carriers stopped in every small town along the way. A round trip ticket cost less than 25 dollars by either transit. I chose to take the train because I'd been fascinated by steam driven trains since I was a child.
One of our close family friends worked his whole life for a local rail road, and I had two uncles who worked over 30 years for Santa Fe. As a child I spent thousands of hours around the depot and the switching yards at home, watching in awe as giant steam engines moved their heavily loaded cars to unknown places far away.
My train was due to leave at 6:15 P.M. on December 23rd and arrive in Abilene at 4:30 A.M. the next day, Christmas Eve. When a steam locomotive came to a screeching metallic halt on the tracks about 50 yards past the depot and expelled a huge cloud of steam from the bottom of each side of its boiler, I was ready.
The train I'd ride pulled a coal car, a baggage car, ten passenger cars, and a caboose. I looked through the windows of the coaches and the two Pullman sleeping cars and saw that my train was literally packed with people. I guess I'd forgotten that this was just two days before Christmas and the holiday rush was upon us.
When I got to my feet and joined the throng of waiting travelers, a conductor popped out of the door of the first passenger car. He wore a full railroad conductor’s uniform complete with trousers sporting a stripe down each pants leg and a billed cap with a visor. The conductor had a full beard and looked more like John Phillip Sousa, the famous band director, than a railroad employee as he helped passengers de-train.
Then we were allowed to board the train. There were no numbered seats: it was first come, first serve. I managed to find a window seat in the third car back from the engine. All the cars were crowded, and the luggage racks were jammed with suitcases and Christmas packages so I put my canvass AWOL bag on the floor at my feet.
An extremely large Hispanic man took the seat beside me on the aisle. His bulk pushed me closer to the window. He couldn’t speak a word of English, but he grinned a lot. I spoke broken Spanish well enough to introduce myself. I learned that Manuel was going to Ysleta, our first whistle stop on the trip. When he offered me a shot of tequila from the flask he retrieved from the inside pocket of his overcoat, I thanked him but declined.
I have to admit that the news of his early departure didn’t bring tears to my eyes. I was jammed so hard against the window that I'd begun to lose circulation in my right shoulder. Just about then I heard the most beautiful sound that I'd heard in three months: Conductor Sousa, hanging part of the way out of the train car by a steel door rail called out the familiar, "All aboard."
With his electric lantern, he hand signaled the engineer that everything was ready to go. The steam whistle on the engine gave 3 mighty blasts. With its large bell ringing, the train lurched forward. Moving slowly at first, the train began accelerating. The wheels made the familiar clackety-clack sound as they rolled over the rail joints and side-track switches. Suddenly, I was filled with the excitement of a little boy. I was going home for Christmas!
About 30 miles from El Paso, the train slowly rolled to a halt at the small depot at Ysleta. Manuel stood up. His face was creased by a wide smile. I said, “Buenas noches. Feliz Navidad, y vaya con Dios”. (Good night. Merry Christmas, and Go with God.) I could tell that Manuel was filled by the Christmas spirit as well as the spirit of Jose Cuervo. After he disappeared through the doorway, I began rubbing the circulation back into my arm.
There were several more small stops at towns along the Rio Grande River before the train headed due east through the sparsely populated region of the Davis Mountains. After each stop, there were fewer passengers left on board. When we reached Fort Stockton, there were only three other people in my car.
I regretted that the entire trip would be made at night because this mountainous region of Texas is very picturesque. Earlier in the year, I'd seen its rugged beauty on my way to El Paso in the army bus. Tonight, as I looked through the window, there was only darkness - not even the lights from any of the scattered ranch houses pierced the blackness.
A convenience of riding the train, as opposed to the bus, is your ability to get up and move around while in transit. I got up to stretch my legs, and I walked down the aisle into the next car. There were about a half dozen people in this coach. Most of them were asleep. In all my excitement, I had ignored my own weariness even though it was approaching midnight. Soon it would be Christmas Eve. In a few more hours, I would be home. I'd be arriving a day early to surprise my folks. They weren't expecting me until Christmas Day. I thought this little surprise would make our reunion even more special.
When I returned to my car, I stopped in the Men’s room, located at the end of the car. The restroom was about the size of a phone booth, but with all the necessary facilities. I think Superman would have had difficulty making a costume change in there. Above the toilet was a 2-inch sign: PLEASE DO NOT FLUSH, WHILE TRAIN IS IN STATION. The railroad company had thought of everything.
By the time I settled back in my seat, it was Christmas Eve. I was weary. I stretched out across the seat where Manuel and I had been sitting. I laid the back of my head against the cold glass window. The last thing that I vaguely remember was the conductor walking down the aisle. Like a carnival barker, he proclaimed, “Next stop...Pecos.” I was over half way home.
My deep sleep was interrupted by the same conductor calling out: “Abilene!”
I almost jumped to attention. My watch showed 4:10 A.M. The train was right on schedule. I'd been asleep for almost four hours. I stood, smoothed the wrinkles from my uniform, and picked up my AWOL bag.
As I stepped down from the train, the night air was crisp and cold. I pulled on my GI-issued, black leather gloves and walked four blocks to the Greyhound Bus terminal. I had a 40 minute delay there, and an hour’s bus ride before I reached home.
I hated bus stations. This one was no different with canned music coming in through a garbled speaker in the ceiling. I had to use my imagination to make out the words of the Christmas carols that played. I smoked a couple of cigarettes as I tried to will the sweeping second hand on the wall clock to move faster. Finally, I heard the familiar hiss of air brakes as my bus arrived.
I was not only the first passenger on the bus but also I was able to take the first seat behind the driver so I could look out the wide, panoramic windshield.
We left the holiday-decorated streets of Abilene for the main highway to the north. Christmas lights were still on in the yards of many houses as well as the city street light decorations. Their bright reflections kept me from seeing the early morning sky. As we pulled onto the highway, through the windshield of the bus I could finally see the millions of stars in the moonless, winter night. These were the decorations that I liked best at night.
Through the darkness, I could occasionally see lights from scattered farm houses along the highway. The cotton crop was already harvested. Most of the fields were winter bare. Yet, the rural people still arose about the same time each day to attend to daily chores. This routine had gone on this way every day since long before I was born.
Finally, the bus pulled into the terminal at home. The terminal, as was the case in many other rural towns, was a 24 hour café that also served as an ice cream parlor and taxi service. Since my early homecoming was a surprise, I'd have to walk another 8 blocks to get home.
It was only a block to the town square from the bus station. I looked at the window decorations as I walked around the square. The store decorations were kept lighted all night during the holidays. The post office stood in the center of the square. There was a life-size, lighted Nativity scene set up on the lawn. This community project had been done for several years by a cooperative effort of local church organizations. I always thought it was such a commendable thing that groups from all churches could work together on a common project, particularly on such a religious holiday as Christmas.
I walked past the magnificent structure of St John’s Methodist Church in which I'd grown up and been baptized. Although I'd been away, I was still an active member of the adult choir. I was musically blessed. I'd memorized every piece of music in the church. Tonight, I'd be singing, along with Mother, in the choir. There would be a special Christmas Eve service, since Christmas Day was on Wednesday this year. The service would be extra special for me this time because it seemed as if I hadn’t seen my friends and family for years.
As I walked past my uncle’s gas station, I noticed that gasoline had gone up to 38 cents a gallon. Inflation was setting in! Not too long ago, I had pumped gas, serviced cars, and repaired flats for 25 cents. Gasoline was 29 cents a gallon then. Maybe, I thought, it is best that I am 19 years old and have never owned a car.
I walked under the Missouri Valley railroad trestle and past the City park where I'd played for thousands of hours when I was a child. I stopped on the sidewalk in front of my house. The eastern glow of a rising sun had erased the stars for another night. Another glow came from the lights in the back windows of my house.
Breakfast should be ready about this time. I stepped up on the wooden porch, as I had done so many times, and opened the unlocked door. I knew that my mother would know who it was by the sound of my steps. The warm air from the house and the smell of freshly-percolated coffee broke through the chill of the night air. Although I knew that I didn’t need to identify myself, in my excitement I called out down the hallway, “Mama, I’m home!”
Emotion filled me. It was like the morning I remembered, when I was a little boy, when Santa Claus had brought me toys. There were no toys this year, but I had the most special gift of all.
I was home for Christmas.