A man tries to get home for Christmas
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Brian was sitting in Philadelphia International eating his breakfast. He had just gotten off of a red eye from Denver. It was December 24, and he was concerned. An ugly storm was blowing east across the Great Plains, and it promised lots of snow and cold weather for Christmas. Brian chuckled. Didn’t all these people who wanted a white Christmas know that it never snowed in Bethlehem?
He paid for his food, stood and headed to the Altair Airways gate. Altair was wholly owned by Eastern, but they only operated commuter flights, using small turboprop aircraft. He checked the flights. His was a short hop to Williamsport, PA. Once there, he had a rental car reserved. It would be about a one-hour drive to Mom and Dad’s for the Christmas holiday. With any luck, he would be home by noon.
His mom’s family was large. They celebrated a traditional Ukrainian Christmas, starting with Holy Supper Christmas Eve. He had always loved Christmas because of this. But he had missed it for three years. He was in the army. A year in the ‘Nam, and then two more in Thailand meant there was no trip home for the holidays. Finally, in his final year in the army, he would be home for Christmas. After his discharge, he was thinking of college. But right now, he was looking forward to something he had dearly missed.
He checked the flights again. The status of his flight was “Delayed.” He picked up a newspaper from the newsstand and sat down to read. He read the paper for an hour, and checked the flight again. Now it said “Cancelled.”
Brian approached the ticket agent.
“Hi,” he said. “What’s up on the Williamsport flight?”
“They closed the airport,” the agent said. She was a pretty, young brunette. Brian now noticed these things since he had been in the ‘Nam. “It’s not snowing there yet, but I guess they are taking no chances. It’s the call of the airport manager. Sorry.” She smiled at him.
“Any chance of a flight to Reading?” Brian asked.
“Where you going?” the agent countered.
“Shamokin. When I get to Reading, I can rent a car and drive to Shamokin in about two hours. Not a bad trip.”
The agent keyed into her computer terminal, frowning. Then she brightened. “We’ve got some seats on the Reading flight. Interested?”
“You bet!” Brian almost shouted. The agent smiled, cancelled his old ticket, and reissued him a boarding pass for the Reading flight. “Merry Christmas!” she said, with a big smile.
The plane to Reading landed and taxied to the terminal. Brian got off and surveyed the sky. The clouds were steel-grey and very heavy. With the temperature hovering around freezing there was a good chance of snow. “Better get moving,” Brian muttered. He headed into the terminal, grabbed his bag, and went looking for a rental car.
There were two rental car agents in the airport, Avis and National. And both companies were cleaned out. They had rented every last vehicle they had. Brian cursed and walked away. Now how would he get home? His dad had to work until 4 p. m., it would take him two hours to get to Reading, and two hours back home. Brian would miss Holy Supper completely. His mom would be working hard on her contribution to supper. And the snow was supposed to hit, and hit hard, between two and three in the afternoon. How would he get home? He may have to spend the night in Reading, and maybe Christmas Day as well, if it snowed hard. Then he got shocked. Someone said hello to him.
“Hey, bro,” the voice said. Brian turned to look.
A young guy, beard and long hair, sweater, jeans, boots, and field jacket, with a hippy chick dressed similarly, was smiling and speaking to him. “Where you headed?” he asked.
“Shamokin,” Brian responded.
“Well, we’re going to Mt. Carmel,” the hippy chick said. “You want a lift? We’d be happy to give you one.”
“Sure, if you don’t mind,” Brian responded. “I’ve got some cash. I can help with gas.”
“Don’t worry about it,” the guy said. “Yo, Dad! We’ve got a rider to go to Shamokin!”
Brian helped the couple with their bags and packages, no doubt containing some Christmas gifts. He traveled light. That was one thing the army taught you, how to travel light. And older man, the guy’s father, guided them to an old Volkswagen Beetle. They packed the car and then the quartet squeezed in. The guy wanted to ride in the back seat with his girl, so Brian got to ride up front, using what little leg room there was.
“I’m Bob Sacavage, Sr.,” the father said. “This is my son, Bob Jr., and his fiancé Patti. Who might you be?” He smiled gently.
“Brian Yeager. Heading home on leave. My first Christmas home in three years. I’m really looking forward to it.” He settled in for the two-hour drive.
“We were going to stop at the diner for lunch,” Mr. Sacavage said. “You mind if we skip it? I really don’t like the look of that sky.”
“No, no problem.” Brian took a breath and turned to face the couple in the back, addressing the girl first. “Patti Smith, right? I used to work with you at Knoebel’s during the summers. I made candy apples and candy floss.”
“Yes, and I recognized you instantly,” she said. “You’ve changed a bit, and grown.”
“And you are Bob Sacavage,” Brian stated. “Outstanding football player and two-time state wrestling champion. You were also a National Merit Scholar. You were great! I never recognized you with the beard. Last I heard, you were heading to Cornell.”
“I graduated in three years, and now I am a law student at Penn,” Bob stated. “Don’t know what type of law I want to practice yet. I will cross that bridge when I come to it. What about you?”
“Nothing much,” Brian said. “Of course, I never did a lot in high school. Tuba player in the Shamokin High School band, and played piano in the jazz orchestra. Thinking of studying music when I get out of the service.” Here Brian chuckled. “Tuba players don’t make front page headlines.”
What Brian did not know was that he had made headlines when he was wounded. In small towns like Shamokin and Mount Carmel, a wounded soldier was big news. Brian had taken shrapnel in the neck, and the Parotid nerve was damaged. The right side of his face drooped slightly. And the scar from the wound extended onto the lower part of his right cheek. He tended not to face people directly when speaking to them. He was very self-conscious of the scars.
The conversation shifted to small talk for the remainder of the trip. The car arrived at the Sacavage home and Brian helped unload. Bob said he would take Brian the remainder of the trip, in fact, he insisted. In terms of weather, the temperature had dropped below freezing and fine, white powder was falling and sticking on the highway. This would freeze, and would become treacherous as the sun set. It was three o’clock, and Brian was going to make Holy Supper and Christmas with the family.
When Brian hugged Patti and wished her a Merry Christmas, she tried to kiss him on the cheek. Brian pulled away and turned his head. It was the embarrassment of the scar. Then Brian got into the ageing Beetle.
They arrived at his parents’ home, and Brian offered Bob gas money. Bob turned it down. Next, he grabbed Brian by the arm and held him tightly.
“Don’t you ever hide your face!” Bob almost shouted. “And never turn away from anyone who tries to give you a kiss! And never, ever be ashamed of what you have done. What you did took courage, and discipline, and heart. And it took a whole lot of it, far more than it does to play football or step onto a wrestling mat. You hold your head high, and be proud, because if you don’t, I will find you and kick the living shit out of you! Now, Merry Christmas!”
Brian watched the old VW Beetle chug down the now slick road. He grabbed his bag and headed indoors. He greeted Mom and Dad, and sis and brother. He attended Holy Supper. Midnight Mass was now a thing of the past. The priest now had an eight o’clock mass, and Brian attended. When his family returned home, that fine white powder was now four inches deep and great if you were on skis, not so good if you were in a car.
It was ten-thirty, and everyone was sleepy. Brian was not. He poured himself a glass of the spiced wine his father favored at Christmas. He heated the wine on the stove. That was how it was meant to be served. Brian put on his heavy winter coat, and headed outside.
The house had no front porch. It was built on the side of a steep hill, right next to the highway. The slope continued down into a narrow valley, and then continued up a tree-covered, very steep hillside on the other side. Brian walked around to the front and surveyed the scene.
Christmas lights winked on houses. The snow had stopped, but not before depositing five inches of that fine white powder on the ground. The sky had cleared, and the stars looked hard and brilliant in the deep, dark sky. The temperature had dropped, and it was bitterly cold. The valley looked beautiful in the moonlight.
Brian sipped his wine and grinned. Maybe snow at Christmas wasn’t such a bad idea after all. He sipped his wine, and mouthed the words, “Thank You, Lord.” And then he went back inside.