Track 21: Driving Home For Christmas – Jonathan Roy Ft Corey Hart
Christmas Eve in Umatilla By Donald S. Smurthwaite
More than fifty years have passed since the Christmas Eve when our family car sputtered, steamed, and lurched to a stop on a state highway in the hilly country of eastern Washington. In the time since, the memory of the strangers who came to our rescue on that starry, brittle night has blinked and faded. The faces have blurred, the names retreated from mind. Some of the details, too, have slipped away—exactly where the car stalled, the cause of the breakdown, the precise hour when the stubborn Oldsmobile rolled onto the shoulder of the road and could not be coaxed even an inch farther.
But one thing has not dimmed through the years—one family’s kindness and care are as poignant now as they were on that chilly December night so many years ago. In many ways, what happened then shaped all of my Christmases to come.
The story is this:
My mother’s mother—Grandmother Mary—was ill. Her heart, weakened by rheumatic fever earlier in life, was failing, and the telephone calls, followed by hushed conversation, told the urgent news: Her health is rapidly deteriorating. Come now if you want to see her. She might not live to Christmas Day.
Our family tradition was to spend Christmas with my father’s parents in Baker, Oregon, so we quickly made a decision—on our three hundred-plus-mile trip from our home in Portland to Baker, we would detour to the small town of Prosser, Washington, where Grandmother Mary lived. There, we would visit her, perhaps for the last time.
We packed the car and drove to Prosser for a day—my parents, two sisters, little brother, and me—to see her and say what proved to be our good-byes. Three days later, she quietly passed away.
With the sombre part of our journey finished and as the winter sun dipped toward the lumpy hills to the west, we set out for Baker and allowed ourselves the first thoughts of Christmas Day, by then only hours away.
Not far into the drive, it was clear something wasn’t right with the car. Dashboard lights blinked on, and my father groaned. The vehicle slowed, and he steered it onto the side of the road. Most ominously of all, steam hissed from under the hood. My father checked the engine and then came back and said that we’d let the car rest and cool and then try to push ahead. He hoped we could get to the next town, a small place called Umatilla, just across the border in Oregon. Even though it was the night before Christmas, maybe someone there could help. Maybe it was a simple problem, and we’d be on our way before long. After a brief wait, the steam subsided, and he started the car again. We didn’t get more than a half-mile before the car repeated its performance. This time, when we rolled to a stop, I remember the sinking feeling that we might stay in that spot for a very long time.
So that’s the predicament we found ourselves in. A young family, stalled and stopped on the side of a road. Broken down. Far from home. Burdened already with the fading health of my grandmother. My father raised the hood of the car, the universal sign of distress along a highway.
It was Christmas Eve, and we were stuck.
Cars zipped by. Hope swelled each time we saw the headlights of an approaching vehicle. We all had the same unspoken thought: Maybe this is the driver who will stop and ask what can be done. For what seemed like an hour or more, car after car raced by. None of them even slowed. Finally, we saw the brake lights of a car pop on, and the driver pulled over to the side of the road. He got out of his car and asked if he could be of help. He was a young man, traveling alone, and after talking with my father, he walked back to his car and drove on.
My father came back and explained: The young man promised us he would go into Umatilla and try to find someone who would be willing to tow us back to town. Beyond that, no guarantees. It was the best the young Samaritan could do, the best we could hope for. It was, after all, Christmas Eve, and people had plans, which likely didn’t include helping a stranded family.
A fretful hour passed. Then, a sign of hope. The amber running lights of a tow truck came into view. The driver slowed, passed us, then turned around and pulled in just ahead of our crippled car. My father went to greet him. After a short chat, the tow truck driver came around to the car, looked in, and saw four worried children huddled in the backseat. The exact words he spoke have long ago slipped away, but I remember the smile—the smile and the feeling of assurance that everything would be made right and we would not spend Christmas Day on the side of the road. For the first time since the car had hissed and stalled and the dashboard had blazed in colour, I felt a ray of hope. He hitched our car to his truck and towed us to Umatilla.
I don’t know what was spoken among the adults along the roadside. I don’t know when the offer was made to take our family into the tow truck driver’s home because it was Christmas Eve and not a night for a family to stay in a broken-down car or to be left stranded at a shop or checked into a motel at that late hour. I don’t know just when we arrived at the plain, older house, and I don’t know if the tow truck driver’s wife even knew beforehand that he had invited us to be his family’s guests. I was just seven years old, and all I knew is that things just happened. And in my family’s case, they happened because of the kindness of a tow truck driver and his wife and their children.
After the car was parked at the shop, we were divided and bunched up into the tow truck and, in two separate trips, were taken to the driver’s house, where we were greeted as family: fed, comforted, and offered a place to stay—“put up” in the lingo of the day—if the repair work could not be completed that night. The tow truck driver’s wife asked, “Are you okay? Are you comfortable? We have enough room; we have enough food. You can stay with us. You can stay here and be a part of our Christmas Day. We would welcome you into our home.”
The tow truck driver nodded and told us that, yes, they would be happy to host us for as long as needed, and then he hopped into his truck and drove back to his shop. He had work to do that night. He had a family to rescue.
By the time he fixed the Oldsmobile, it was well past midnight—Christmas had come to Umatilla. Weary though he was, my father decided to push on and continue the journey to Baker. We arrived at my grandparents’ house a little before six in the morning.
One of my sisters recalls hearing my parents say that the tow truck driver charged only enough to cover the parts needed to repair our car. The rest came free.
More than five decades of Christmases have come and gone since our car stalled on the highway near Umatilla. Few have passed without me thinking about the tow truck driver, his wife, their children, their kindness, and how we almost spent Christmas in a small town called Umatilla.
Yet, after all that time, I am still constructing a bridge from now to that Christmas Eve long ago and trying to understand the full meaning of the experience.
This is what I think:
I think of a humble, kind man in ancient times on a starry night, on a road far away, leading his young wife, who was near the time of the delivery of her firstborn child, as she sat on the beast and made her way slowly to Bethlehem.
I think of what he must have said to her: “Are you well? Are you comfortable? What more can I do for you? I will care for you. I will find us a place to stay.”
And he might have also said, “I am sorry. I am sorry we had to come this way at this time, but it was all meant to be. All will be well. We will find kindness somewhere along the way.”
I think of him knocking at the door of the inn, seeking help, and feeling forlorn when he and his wife were turned away.
I think of the young mother in the stable, the birth of her Son, her laying Him in the manger, the multitude of heavenly hosts—some seen, most of them not—and the joy that night wrought, a joy that would last through the eternities.
I think of the Son who was born, the life He lived, the truths He taught, His eternal and boundless love, and the gift of salvation He brought. I think of His example. I think of how He taught us to treat one another. I think of the roads He travelled and the special compassion He must have felt when He saw those who were broken down on the side of a road, those who could move no farther.
And I think again of the day of His birth and the source of all kindness that He was, and it seems to me that Joseph and Mary and Jesus the Christ had much to do with the kindness shown to a young family on a road near a small town almost two thousand years later. And that is where my thoughts end each time: They are related. One came because of the other. They are not separate events. His birth blesses us in ways we cannot always see and may not understand for years. Bethlehem first, Umatilla later. Do I stop for those along the road who can move no more?
There is no doubt the tow truck driver and his family knew much about Christmas and the true reason we commemorate it. And though we can’t remember their names, to this day, we still know how to describe them: angels.
“Truly, they were angels,”.