Like no other time of the year, Christmas sends us back over the years or across the miles to home. This was especially true for a young army chaplain in South Vietnam at Christmas time in 1965.
In an attempt to cover the miles to home, he rolled a piece of paper into his typewriter and wrote a story all filled with snow and travels and Christmas and presents and family and love.
He sent the story home a chapter at a time. I’m not sure how a literary critic would respond but four of the chaplains grandchildren sat spell-bound this afternoon and listened to it as their Daddy read it to them from the original copy which still bore the fold marks where it had been placed in an envelope and sent across the miles to his family in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
As Christmas of 1965 approached I would often lie awake in my bed at night and watch the glow from the lights on the tree reflecting on my bedroom wall or I would think about my Dad and the things we would do when he got home. It was on one of these nights that I over-heard my mother talking to Joyce Lloy on the phone. Mom was telling her that Dad would be sending home transistor radios for each of us for Christmas. That radio was precious to me. I would listen to Detroit Tigers ball games on it later in the summer time, but like everything does, it eventually wore out and it was thrown in the garbage. This simple story remains a treasure to this very day because my Dad was the chaplain whose heart ached for home as Christmas time came in 1965.
Eleven-thirty! I pulled the car into gear and eased it out of the dark driveway. Big flakes of snow splashed against the windshield and melted sliding down the glass. A glance into the back seat assured me that the children were settled snugly in the two corners. Jane had thoughtfully dressed them both in insulated pajamas and wrapped them in blankets for the long night ahead of us.
“Are you hungry?” My wife motioned to the picnic box on the floor behind her feet. “Sure am,” I called out softly. She pulled open the metal box and partially unwrapped a fresh cheese sandwich and positioned it at my side on a napkin for attention as soon as I had pulled onto the expressway.
The snow, almost rain at this thirty-plus degree temperature, was gathering in the lower corners of the windshield as I moved down the ramp and out onto the expressway — U.S. 131 leading south away from Grand Rapids.
“We must be the goofiest people in Michigan tonight,” I mused aloud. “You might say the most adventuresome,” my wife replied with a smile. “What a game little wife,” I thought, as I returned Jane’s smile. We had nearly 400 miles to drive on a stormy December night and I had already worked all day. But, Melony and Kenny didn’t get to see Grandma and Grandpa much with me tied down to seminary studies plus a full time factory job. Only the day before we had decided to make the trip for Christmas, almost on a dare with each other. “Oh boy! Oh boy!” our young bundles of energy chorused. “We’re going to Grandma’s for Christmas!” And they danced happily around the kitchen table.
So, here we were, headed south for Ohio only one night before Christmas Eve, disregarding the weather, bent on spending Christmas with my folks on their farm.
The mild cheese sandwich tasted good as I hungrily bit into it now as we moved steadily down the highway. “Cocoa?” My wife held up the big quart thermos nestled between us on the seat. “Yeah boy, if you hold the cup.” I smiled back as she made it ready to compliment my meal.
This whole scene would have been amusing to an outsider who didn’t share the Pierpont venturesomeness. We always enjoyed doing things on the spurt of the moment and in unusual ways. This trip was typical – midnight, snowing and on an almost deserted highway in the dead of winter. But, like modern-day pioneers, we were happy and content feeling that we would probably get there all right to share in the fun and festivities that Christmas at home always promised.
“How much money do we have left, Honey?” I asked between bites of my supper. “Twenty-three dollars,” she replied. “Think that’s enough?” I looked over for a moment and caught her eye. “It’ll have to be won’t it?” Her raised eyebrows told me that answer we both knew: $23 was all we had left from my paycheck after the last minute Christmas gifts, our tithe money for the Lord’s work and the bills that had to be paid. The four hours overtime I had worked the preceding Friday evening had given us just enough extra money for the trip — we hoped!
“Well, a car,” I remarked. “That’s the first one we’ve seen since we left Grand Rapids.” “Looks like the snow’s beginning to stick, Ken” my “copilot” said with just a touch of concern in her voice. We could both see the snow more plainly now falling toward us from the other side of the median. The big flakes were beginning to whiten the broad highway now as we drove on, our headlights piercing the darkness ahead.
I glanced into my mirrors, “Nothing ahead or behind us,” I thought, “I guess we’ll have the road to ourselves.” At fifty miles an hour our ’57 Chevy held the road with no side sway. I was glad for this concrete highway providing an extra margin of safety. We had about two hours left on it.
“There’s the church,” Jane remarked, as we neared the Wayland junction. “I’m sure glad they called a pastor,” she continued. “Yes, so am I,” I emphasized. The building was not big but the lighted cross atop the steeple arrested the attention of travelers as they drove past the small peaceful community. It had taken the people only one summer to build the neat little brick place of worship. “God has been so good to us,” I thought. Even though I had been only a student pastor, there were people with us who had a vision. Together, our two years of hard work paid off. I had resigned in September this year to devote my time to my final year of seminary. Then, too, Jane and I both believed God had called us to pastor churches just long enough to get them going. Our resignation placed the church in the position to call a permanent pastor, for which we were both thankful.
Suddenly I was jolted out of my thoughts by a flicker of red light from the instrument panel. There it was again! “Uh Oh!” The generator warning light was the source of the light. “What’s wrong?” Jane called out as she munched a pretzel she held. “I’m not sure, but whatever it is I don’t like it.” For the next few minutes I held a wary eye on the instruments. No generator warning light flashed but I silently reviewed the possible difficulties which would have shown the light in the first place. Here we were, on the open road, now nearly one o’clock in the morning with more than a hint of impending car trouble.
“Honey, do you think we should turn back?” came my wife’s nervous voice. “The kids will be really disappointed,” I returned. “I know,” she rejoined, “but what if we have a breakdown?” We both glanced at the two sleeping youngsters curled in their temporary nest. We looked at each other. Neither of us spoke but our thoughts were the same — Melony and Kenny had their hearts on spending Christmas with their grandparents. Turning back now seemed a very distant option at this point. I unconsciously pushed the gas pedal down a little harder and gripped the wheel a little tighter. We were still headed for the Buckeye state.
“Where are we?” came a sleepy nine year old voice from the back seat. I half turned in the driver’s seat and saw Melony looking around from her sleepy nest in the back seat. “Where are we Daddy?”, she demanded again, a little more awake now. “We just turned onto highway 15 from 131, Honey”. “You had better go back to sleep”, I added. With that, she turned her small frame and blonde hair over and curled up in her blanket. A glance at her brother Kenny our sparkling seven year old boy told me he was still snoozing soundly. And the soft brunette hair touching my shoulder told me his mother had given way to sleep and was resting curled up at my side. In one way I was glad the family had settled down to rest. The highway I had now reached was much less traveled and a secondary road. I had used it often in good weather and found it a good scenic short-cut to US 33 running through Indiana. Tonight, however I was not much concerned about its scenic qualities. Instead I eyed the snow which was beginning to swirl into narrow drifts along the edge of the pavement. I momentarily switched on the overhead light and glanced through the vent window at my left. The tiny thermometer held by a suction cup on the outside pointed squarely at the 25 degree mark – it was getting colder. I subconsciously pushed the heater temperature control up. “What a night for trip”, I thought.
Suddenly my attention was arrested by a flash of red light. The generator warning light had flashed on again. Only this time it stayed on! Immediately the headlights began dimming. Quickly I whirled the instrument light switch to dim out the instruments to save current. I stepped on the dimmer switch and began running on the dimmer low beams only. The red warning light however, brightly and menacingly glowed on the now darkened instrument panel. I pushed the shift lever to neutral and gunned the engine. The lights grew no brighter. Slowing down to a gradual stop, I eased the car as far to the shoulder of the road as I dared. I set the hand brake and pushing the door open slipped from the driver’s seat. The rush of cold air momentarily took my breath away. I quickly lifted the hood and reached in and felt the voltage regulator. I doubled my fist and banged the regulator several times solidly and quickly closing the hood got back under the wheel. I glanced at the instrument panel. The red light was still on. I pulled the car into gear and pulled back onto the deserted highway. To my surprise the stop had not awakened any of the family. I mentally sized up the situation. We were about ten miles from route 33. It was about another 50 miles to Fort Wayne after I reached route 33. Again I switched on the overhead light now very dim and glanced at my watch – 2:30. Quickly turning off the light I tried to figure how much longer I dared to drive on battery power only. Evidently the generator was not charging at all. At this rate the battery power would be quickly drained. From my previous trips on this highway I knew that there was not a single gasoline station along it. I tried to remember if there were any stations near the intersection where 15 joins route 33. I couldn’t remember where the nearest one was. I did remember that I had never seen one opened late at night even in the summer all the way to Fort Wayne!
I had no choice but to try to conserve what battery power there was and to try to make it to Fort Wayne. I reached down and pushed the light switch to parking lights and slackened my speed to about 25 miles per hour. The thin glow of the two small lights in front was very dim but on the white snow it was enough for me to make out the outline of the highway ahead. I thought to myself “I’ll switch to headlights if any cars come in sight”. But, I felt fairly certain this would not be often if it all!
“What’s wrong, Honey?” Jane had raised up from her place beside me and sounded alarmed. “I don’t know kiddo”, I replied, “but the generator doesn’t seem to be working at all”. “What does that mean?”, came her typical feminine reply. “Well”, I said trying to sound calm, “it means that the engine will soon stop because there is no electrical power to keep it running”. “Where are we?” she asked. “We are on highway 15 about sixty miles from Fort Wayne”, I said. “Could we stop and get help from a farmer here?” I looked over at her and tried to smile. “We could”, I said “But these farmers couldn’t give us much help. We are in Amish country”. “Oh Oh”, she replied, “What will we do?” “The only thing we can do now is to keep going and hope it suddenly corrects itself”, I said. But I knew that electrical trouble seldom corrected itself, and the Amish who use horses not cars couldn’t help.
“What’s wrong Dad?” Kenny’s soft sleepy voice sounded in my ear. He was standing behind me peering over the front seat at the dimly lighted road ahead. “Why do you have your lights off, Dad,” he demanded. “Son, something is wrong with the car,” I said trying to sound calm. The stir of our voices roused Melony. She raised up on one elbow and pushed back her blanket. “I’ll bet we have to walk,” she added with a mixture of excitement and sadness in her voice. “We couldn’t walk tonight Honey,” put in her mother, “its too cold and snowy.” Indeed it was, and getting more snowy by the minute.
“What do you suppose is wrong” Jane asked. “Well” I said, “the voltage regulator is new.” I had put in a new one in October. “The battery should be OK,” I thought aloud, “so the only thing left is generator trouble itself.” That I thought to myself spelled big trouble this far out in the country. I peered at the dark highway ahead and drove on through the night, hoping somehow the strained battery would hold out.
The car seemed cooler than it had been. Suddenly I remembered that the heater fan was on. I switched it off and pushed the heater temperature control all the way over to “hot,” At least what air came into the care would be very warm air- that is, as long as the engine kept running.
“Daddy, maybe we should have a prayer meeting,” Melony advised from her perch on her knees in the back seat. “That’s a good idea Honey,” replied her mother. With that each of the three of them bowed their heads and Melony led in prayer –“Dear Lord help the car to keep going, help Daddy fix it if it stops and help Grandma not to worry about us.” When Melony finished Kenny joined in — “Dear Jesus make our car better and make our lights brighter so Daddy can see the road and go faster to Grandmas.” They both reminded me over the Lord’s shoulder, so to speak, that they were in a hurry to get to Grandmas. After Jane had prayed I added a brief prayer even though my eyes were open and fixed on the road. We had seen difficult times before but I couldn’t remember any worse than this, particularly since the weather was cold for working on a car and cold to sit inside a stalled one.
By now the snow was swirling around our slow moving car and the wind whistled menacingly at the windows. I couldn’t think of a worse time to have to try to work on a bad generator. Suddenly the lights grew dimmer and dimmer until I could no longer make out the highway ahead. With a sick feeling I pulled to the right and came to a stop. As I did the engine quit. I reached down and pushed the light switch to off and turned off the ignition. Jane opened the glove compartment and quickly handed me the flashlight. “You’ll need this won’t you?” she asked but didn’t really expect an answer. She knew as well as I did that it was the only light we had left now!
I reached under the seat and pulled out my old pair of jersey gloves I kept for tire repairs and pulled them on. “Honey, keep an eye out for cars coming behind us,” I said, “we are not quite off the road.” “Can I help Dad?” Kenny offered his assistance. “No, thank you Buddy,” I said, “you and Melony stay bundled up. The car will get cold now.” I flashed my light on the thermometer outside — 20 degrees now. It sure would get cold inside!
As I pushed open the door and braced myself for the ice wind I thought to myself how far we were from our destination and what a small chance I had of correcting generator trouble with the few tools I had and only a flashlight to see by. It looked now like Kenny and Melony would not be seeing Grandma and Grandpa this Christmas.
Little did I know that dark winter night as I stepped from the car that within a few minutes I would face one of the most agonizing trials of my life.
I stiffened against the icy wind as I stepped from the car and quickly closed the door to keep the car as warm as possible. I was thankful Jane had brought along three heavy blankets as well as warm coats and boots for the children. I prayed that they could keep warm until I could find the source of our electrical trouble and could get the car running again.
The hood latch released as I squeezed it and I pushed the hood up and leaned in over the engine. At that moment I realized to my agony that our trouble was not all electrical. I heard the radiator give that distinct gurgle and flashed my light at the overflow pipe in time to see the overheated radiator. My mind raced across the thoughts of the possible trouble. It couldn’t be voltage regulator, that wouldn’t cause overheating. The water pump wasn’t making any bad sounds, chances are it wasn’t that. Then I realized what must be wrong. I focused my now dim flashlight on the fan, there was a full two inch sag in the belt. Puzzled I took hold of the generator and pulled – it swung loose in my hand – that was it, the set screw on the generator had loosened and had let the generator pull loose and put slack in the fan belt. The result was that both the generator and water pump were not being turned and so neither worked properly.
I breathed a sigh of relief. That shouldn’t be too much trouble to fix. But my relief didn’t last long. Just at that moment my flashlight went completely dead. I tried adjusting it, tightened the cover, but nothing worked. The batteries had gone dead. That left only one thing for me to do. I would have to walk to the nearest farm house, borrow a light and realign the generator and hope that in the interval the battery would recharge itself enough to start the engine. It was worth a try. Not only so, but I knew altogether too well it was my only choice!
“How are you doing Honey?” I asked as I quickly opened the door and slid into the car. “Keeping warm,” Jane replied with a weak smile. The inside dome light momentarily lighted the car as I entered the car. I told Jane that I would have to go to the nearest farm for a light and that I thought I could fix the trouble once I got back with a light. “Lock the doors,” I said and keep warm. As I pushed open the door again I glanced at the children in the back seat – only their faces shone from within their blankets. “Don’t get cold Daddy,” Kenny called after me. And then Melony added “And don’t freeze your hands.” I smiled and closed the door.
I started down the highway in the middle. No danger of cars now half way through the nights like this on this highway. Then I realized that I still had the now useless flashlight. My fingers tingled with the cold. I had always had trouble keeping my hands warm in the winter and the children had seen me rush in from outdoors and stick my hands into a basin of cold water on several occasions. I began swinging my arms to restore the circulation in my hands.
The snow was now about an inch deep and coming down harder. The darkness made it almost impossible to follow the highway even. I decided to walk along the gravel at the edge that way at least I wouldn’t be wandering from side to side. I mentally tried to remember where the next house was on this highway. I had only been down this road in the summer and had never realized the location of these houses would be important to me one winter night. I trudged on hoping the walk would not be too far. My ears were starting to get cold now. I cupped my gloved hands over them and walked on.
The night was quiet around me and almost pretty and even though I was in no position to appreciate the cold or the snow, I felt somehow things would work out and quickened my pace against the cold wind.
Even though the darkness and snow made it almost impossible to see anything, I knew I had made several turns and had gone up and down a grade during what I judged to be about a 30 minute walk, I mentally figured that I had walked about a half mile. The flashlight was making my fingers cold so I pushed it into my coat pocked. Just as I did my foot struck something hard. I staggered forward a step and then fell crazily forward a step and then fell crazily forward and down. I had expected to stop my fall as I stepped out but instead nothing came under my foot but air and I reeled down and twisted through the air. At that moment a terrible flash of pain shot through my left leg and I sprawled on my back in the snow. For a moment I just laid there. Then the pain came surging through my leg. As I tried to catch my breath I became conscious that I was lying with my head down hill. “What had happened?” I thought. The pain in my left leg was almost unbearable. I tried to sit up and take stock of the situation. As I did some snow fell down my collar but I could think only of the throbbing of my leg. In the darkness I pushed up my trouser leg and tried to feel the injury to my leg. I could hardly touch the place on my shin for the pain but to my relief I discovered it seemed to be bleeding only slightly. Thankful for this I struggled to my feet. Hot pain seared through my leg and I crumpled to the ground again. “Was my leg broken?” “Lord no, I thought, I’ll freeze to death.”
Above me in the darkness I could barely make out the shadow of a railing, no not a railing but a concrete bridge. In the darkness I had stumbled just as I came to the bridge over a small culvert and had evidently
tripped and come down with the full force of my weight striking the concrete bridge railing and sending me toppling into the snow covered ditch.
Try as I may I could not gain my footing in the ditch with the terrible pain in my leg. I must have been lying in the ditch for nearly a half hour, possibly longer when I felt my self praying aloud “Lord send someone to help. Lord what about Jane and the children?” Our many good times together raced through my head. We had always done everything together. Jane had even jokingly mentioned, but truthfully, that we even went to the dump together. We had even made this chore a family fun time and we all loved it. As I thrashed about trying to regain my footing and get out of the ditch I suddenly heard a faint sound. It was coming from down the road in the direction from which I had come. As it grew nearer I could hear the distinct sound of a car engine. The funny thing was that the car evidently didn’t have its lights turned on. As it drew nearer it suddenly dawned on me – that familiar sounding engine was our car, Jane had become worried and had been able to start the engine and was following down the road toward the first farm house toward which I was going. Frantically I realized she would not see me below the road in the ditch. The car was almost at the bridge when I remembered the flashlight in my pocket, in desperation I flung it at the moving car and in the same instant let out one of my loud whistles I often used to call the children from down the block. The flashlight thumped against the side of the car and for a moment I thought she would drive on. Then I saw the red illumination of the stop lights in the darkness as she came to a halt, again I whistled. In a moment Jane was standing above me in the road “What happened?” “What are you doing down there?” she cried. Quickly she pulled a blanket from the car and grabbed the end of it and came struggling up out to the ditch as she pulled for all her might on the blanket I had hold of. I half crawled onto the front seat. As I did so I mentally recalled that in the short space of no more than an hour the battery had recharged enough to start and run the car for a short way. I decided it was worth a try for us to try to tighten the car fan belt even in the dark despite my injured leg.
“Now Honey, listen to me,” I said. We are going to try to fix the car ourselves. In the trunk you will find a short bar with a curved handle, get that and the adjustable wrench out of the tool box. In a minute she appeared at the car window holding the two tools I had asked for. By this time the thumping in my leg had stopped and it was beginning to feel a little better. I pushed the car door open and tried it. I was weak and it ached like the toothache but I could use it.
What a comical sight we would have made. The children inside the car wide awake at three in the morning, acting as a cheering section as we strained to tighten the fan belt. In the darkness we were able to put tension on the belt then I felt for the retaining belt, got my wrench on it and pulled for dear life, then another turn and finally a third – it was tight. I reached down and pulled on the belt – it held. We were in the clear or so it seemed. Quickly now as we fought the cold and still falling snow we wiped our hands clean dumped the tools in the trunk, already filled with Christmas packages and tumbled into the car.
“Let’s have a word of prayer,” I said “that there will be enough power in the battery to get us started.” I bowed and we prayed aloud together. Then I reached over and turned the key and we all let out a cheer as the engine roared into life. Then suddenly I remembered – the radiator was probably low and would now boil. “Oh no,” I said, “We still have trouble.” “We are short of water In the radiator.” Just then I felt a hot little breath in my ear – “Dad, Dad,” came Kenny from the floor behind me “Why don’t you use the water in the drink jug.” “That’s right” his mother put in. ” I forgot about the ice water, and who wants ice water on a night like this,” she added.
Two hours later we were inside a warm all night station in Fort Wayne. I had wrapped my injured leg in some warm towels and was thawed out from my harrowing experience. In a few minutes we were moving swiftly down the highway with my wife at the wheel. “That’s a pretty sneaky way to get me to drive,” she smiled as she said it though so I knew she didn’t mind too much.
But as 7:30 came in the morning, I was back at the wheel and we were now only four miles from Mother and Dad’s. “Wake up everybody,” “We’re in St. Louisville,” “Wake up – almost to grandma’s.” And sure enough we were. In just a few minutes more we topped the last rise just before reaching the big farm. A very light snow was beginning to fall here as we drove into the yard. Jane reached over and teased by honking wildly on the horn. In a moment the car doors flew open and two little grandchildren beat a path for the front door just as Mother and Dad smiling rushed out to greet us – “Well Hi” they chimed together and in a moment Melony had flung herself into her Grandmother’s arms and was heard to say “Hi Grandma – four more for Christmas!”