Not all Christmases are “Tiny Tim,” “Santa Claus,” “Joy to The World” affairs. Some are. . .well . . . “different.” This is the story of one of those. It was December, 1987. Anne and I were living in Lone Jack MO where I was the School Superintendent. We were “empty nest” parents with all but one of our five kids “Married With Children.” Two of them lived in Springfield MO, one in Hanford CA and another in Youngstown OH. Our youngest, Nathan, still single, was in a college only 20 miles away majoring in Aviation with the goal of becoming an airline pilot.
Almost all the large extended Italian family into which I had married had joined the “White Flight” into the suburbs during the turmoil of the 60’s and 70’s, and Anne’s parents had since died. The wonderful Christmas Eve tradition we had enjoyed for so many years had faded away. The only remaining tie to those times was “Aunt Teresa Campobasso.” She was basically alone. After her husband, “Uncle Frank” had died she was left with only her one daughter with whom she could celebrate Christmas. We had always been very fond of Aunt Teresa so we decided to give her a “family” Christmas as close to “the old days” as we could make it. All of us except our California daughter would go spend the holiday with her.
Nathan had been a Private Pilot since his 16th birthday and by this time was qualified to fly in all kinds of weather. In fact he was now a better pilot than I. That, and the fact that his goal was to become an airline pilot had a lot to do with how I spent Christmas Eve that year. Before Nate could reach his goal he had to he had to spend many hours flying airplanes. That was an expensive requirement but surprisingly we found it cost less to buy an older, small, two-seat airplane than to rent the university’s planes. That delighted me because it gave me a reason my wife would accept for buying an airplane. We bought a 1971 “American Yankee.” It was “sassy-looking” and fun to fly but not very well-suited to flying inside clouds.
This trip to Chicago was a perfect opportunity for Nate to fly several hours and would give us some father-son time doing something we both loved. The rest of our family would drive to Chicago but since we could make the trip in only a few hours we would leave several hours later. All of us would be there in plenty of time for the traditional fish dinner. Nate and I got into our little “Yankee” in the early afternoon and climbed into a typically Midwestern wintry, dull, overcast sky. About two hours later the clouds above us began dropping down, squeezing us closer to the ground. Somewhere over Illinois we began to fly into and out of snow showers. Nate was at the controls. The closer we got to Chicago the worse the weather became and darkness was beginning to close around us. Finally, Nate, who was at the controls, said, “This is crazy. We can’t get through all this.” At this point I had no idea exactly where we were except “over” Illinois. It was up to Nate to find an airport behind us. He did a “U Turn” in the sky and after what seemed (to me) like hours later we saw an airport beacon slashing through the snow and across the darkened sky. Nate got us landed and on the ramp at an airport where we saw a sign telling us we were at “LaSalle/Peru Municipal Airport.” We knew where we were. The bad news was; we were a bit over 100 miles from Chicago and our Christmas Eve dinner, standing at a deserted airport with no telephone in sight and it was, by now, dark and snowing heavily.
We had noticed an Interstate Highway and a Truck Stop just north of the airport. Seemed like the only refuge for miles around. Smaller airports are usually located quite a ways from town. We tied the airplane down, gathered our belongings and started hiking cross country through the deepening snow. After climbing over a couple of fences we found the Interstate. There wasn’t much danger in walking across it. It was Christmas Eve; a time to be with your family. By the time we found the Truck Stop, which was no more than a bevy of gasoline pumps and a “C-Store,” we were wet and cold, especially our feet. A blast of warmth welcomed us as we entered, told the lone clerk our situation and asked if it was okay if we stayed there while waiting for someone to come and pick us up. Of course he said, “Yes,” and was probably glad for the company.
We got on the phone and called Aunt Teresa’s number. It was by now early evening. The rest of the family, as planned, was already there. But – expecting us to arrive momentarily the preparations for dinner was too far along to put them on hold. They were glad we were safely on the ground but not terribly sympathetic to our plight. “If we come to get you right now it will be far too late to have our Christmas Eve dinner by the time we get back. We’ll come and get you as soon as we finish dinner,” they told us. That wasn’t exactly a “Santa Claus is coming moment” for Nate and I. We had eaten rather skimpily earlier in the day in anticipation of being gluttons around Aunt Teresa’s table, but now our “Christmas Eve Table” looked more like truck stop vending machines than a linen tablecloth with a sumptuous traditional dinner resting on it.
Nate and I had mixed feelings. On one hand we felt abandoned, but more rationally we realized that actions have consequences and that our actions alone were responsible for our “sad” situation. “Flying to Chicago” didn’t seem nearly as great an idea at 8:00 p.m. stranded in a truck stop as it had at our home airport some five hours earlier. We told the attendant we would be spending Christmas Eve with him. He let us re-arrange a few cases of oil in an out-of-the-way corner near the magazine/paperback book rack and we settled in not for a “long winter’s nap” but for a long, feel-sorry-for-yourself wait. Stephen King’s book “The Tommyknockers” had just been published and was on the rack. I took it down and began reading. By the time we were “rescued” I had read the whole book. For his part, Nate had arranged the cases of oil so that, using his flight jacket as a pillow, he could lay his head on one and at least catch a few cat naps.
Several cans of cola and various vending machine snacks later, Nick, our oldest son and his wife arrived at the truck stop. A couple of hours later, well after midnight, we arrived at Aunt Teresa’s apartment. Save for some home-baked holiday cookies the table was as barren as a sharecroppers field in The Dust Bowl, but Aunt Teresa warmed up some leftovers for Nate and I which we enjoyed greatly. Various comments along the lines of “Why didn’t you come and get us sooner?” and “Why didn’t you just come with us in the first place?” were exchanged. But we were all safely together, Aunt Teresa was happy and the warmth of family surrounded us. That and the knowledge of what we were truly celebrating was all that mattered. As Dicken’s “Tiny Tim”said, “God Bless Us All.”
I know from experience what Illinois winter storms and 'deserted' Interstate highways ate like! Your vivid descriptions kept me 'glued' to your story clear to the end! Great story! Thank you for sharing.
Glad I got across the "picture" that lives in my memory. It's one of those "life experiences" that, though not much fun at the time, imbed themselves and become a vital part of the tapestry of one's life. You can pile up quite a few in 79 years. I'm very grateful to God that He has ordained that I can remember so much of it. (Still can't always remember why I came into the kitchen a minute ago, but that's the way things are.)
Don, I think holidays are memories being made no matter how. This is a memory that would be hard to forget. I've been sending people to ready your stories. They are simply too good!!
Your comments are kindly appreciated. I've enjoyed writing since my high school days. "Sending people to read my stories. . . That's nice. If you see someone holding a contract for a book, send them my way. I've never tried to publish anything but I have lots of such stories. I wrote a book entitled "So Briefly An Eagle" which was a biography of one of my older brothers (my favorite) who was Killed in Action in WWII aboard a bomber. I self-published a few copies for the family and a few friends. I suppose I'm not entrepreneurial enough with my writing. But I definitely enjoy writing and sharing.
Wow, Don, what a Christmas story!You told it with such passion that I could almost 'feel' the bitter cold. Bravo!
Good story. Having lived in Illinois for many years, however, it didn't surprise me a bit. It has to be one of the worst climates known to man - bitter cold and snowy in the winter and hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk in the summer.
The story does have a silver lining in its cloud. "You will never forget the time when...." is a good line to start with when talking about this situation and your son won't forget it either. Whatever the situation, good or bad, you can always remember the time you got to spend with your boy that long day and night. Great writing. I found myself wanting to reach over and grab a bag of Doritos and a classic car magazine to read while I waited for someone to pick us up.
Thanks, Justin. One of the great bonuses that came with the joy of piloting small airplanes with my son was the hours and hours we spent with just the two of us, far above the earth in a small cockpit sharing the joy, the rare, but actual boredom and the occasional moments of real terror. We probably spent close to a thousand hours of flying time together in myriad situations and weather.