I had planned on writing this story based on the world-changing events triggered by the horrific tragedy of September 11, 2001. While none of us will ever forget that day, it was already unforgettable for me long before the World Trade Center was even built... you see 9/11 is also my birthday. For the rest of my life my birthday routine will now include remembering the souls who perished that day and, hopefully, I can look back with pride each year knowing that the lessons we have, and will, learn from the aftermath of 9/11 helped us to build a better world.
I wanted to write a story of peace amid the chaos of tragic events and I had a great story in mind. But, as I sat down to begin writing I found that I could not focus on the story I wanted to write, instead my mind kept drifting back to the past, to other Christmases, to simpler times. I began to realize that perhaps the time wasn't right to try making sense of the events of the last few months. Maybe the last thing we need this Christmas are reminders of a tragedy and of events still unresolved in reality and in our own minds. We're still waiting, hoping and praying for some kind of happy ending to all of this and it's still just too early to imagine how such heart-wrenching events could have a happy ending at all. I think we need time to heal and perhaps one way of helping the healing process is to draw our minds away from the present and back to the past... even if only for a few moments. I decided that my original story idea could wait for another day, when maybe I could look at recent events in a more objective, positive light and find a way to work in the 'magic' to craft a truly great story.
Once I decided not to write my original story, I spent quite a bit of time agonizing over a plot for a new story. Of course every time I'd start hashing out a new plot in my mind, I would find myself once again drifting back to my own past Christmases... one in particular. Finally I relented, I had experienced a magical Christmas of my own and perhaps it's time I wrote about it. I began to fictionalize the story, but since everyone involved would figure it out anyway, I might as well just tell it as it happened...
The last Christmas of the 20th century was also, unfortunately, my last Christmas in my beautiful little adopted hometown of Raton, New Mexico. I had quit my job a few years earlier to go out on my own doing computer work and building web sites. Well, after living off of credit cards and otherwise robbing Peter to pay Paul; by the fall of 1999 I was in deep financial trouble. I always had a problem charging friends for doing work for them. Instead of charging people what my services were worth, I charged what I thought they could afford and did a lot of bartering. I got a lot of cookies, brownies, dinners, lunches, drinks, six-packs, oil-changes and discounts on stuff, but didn't make a lot of hard cash. I was happy doing business that way... heck I would still be doing it if reality hadn't started catching up to me. Isn't it a shame that the things that truly make you 'rich' are not the same things that actually pay the bills? Next time I go into business for myself, I best have someone more ruthless than I am doing the billing.
I had a good life in Raton. I was living in a small town where the people were the most friendly I had ever met... they were like family. Raton is also in the midst of some of the most beautiful country in the world. Nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Christo Mountains, the breathtaking scenery is guaranteed to produce at least a miracle a day. Between the eerie pinkish hue illuminating the panorama of mountains, mesas and snow-covered plains stretched out to the east during a winter sunrise, the awe inspiring menagerie of colors produced by the sun setting over the snow-capped peaks to the west, or the spectacle of a burning orange moon rising like a phoenix over the dark imposing fortress of rock named Johnson Mesa, even the most fanatical atheist cannot help but believe in the existence of a God.
Raton itself is a charming little town, but it really turns on the charm during the Christmas holidays. Main Street is decked out with bright Christmas lights and garlands while a large neon star blazes at the top of Goat Hill, overlooking downtown and shining like a beacon, visible to travelers from many miles away. Each year we put up a huge Christmas tree in the heart of downtown at Ripley Park. The lighting of the tree signals the start of the Christmas season and the entire day is filled with activities. Santa comes to town by late morning and tours the neighborhoods and business district aboard the Fire Department's classic old engine, passing out candy and treats along the way. Later, the El Raton Theater has a special Christmas matinee for the kids... and of course Santa makes his appearance there as well. After the show, it's time to light the tree. Hundreds of families turn out for the lighting, and to see Santa as he passes out more goodies and takes his orders for Christmas from all the children. After the usual formalities, speeches and such, the tree is lit and everyone moves along to Main Street for the Electric Light parade. Dozens of floats and vehicles, decked out with fancy lights and decorations, parade down Main Street, throwing candy and treats out to the families lining the route. A procession of vehicles follows the parade as it makes a turn west on Apache Avenue, which is lit up with Christmas lighting and lined with illuminated wooden Christmas and cartoon figures all the way up the road until the pavement ends and you are greeted by two trumpeting angels, each perched on the side of an arch proclaiming that you are now entering the City of Bethlehem. The Raton Lions Club has been creating their City of Bethlehem display for over 50 years, and visitors are treated to a series of illuminated wooden scenes from the Nativity adorning the walls of the canyon as the sounds of Christmas Carols waft through the cold night air along with the smell of cedar burning in hundreds of fireplaces.
As fall came upon me back in '99, I was considering leaving Raton and moving back to Ohio, where I was raised and most of my family still lives. My friend and landlord was forced to sell the house I was renting from him, and I was not having any luck finding another place to live... that I could afford. I was considering seriously living out of my Jeep, but with computer geeks like me in such high demand in the big cities... a move back home seemed like the real only option I had. To get my mind off my problems, I decided I needed to go out and do some karaoke. I loved to sing, it's one of those things I had never got to do before I came to Raton. I have always loved to sing along while driving in my pickup or in the shower, but I never had the guts to sing in public until I was moonlighting as a bouncer at the Crystal Lounge. Most of the local bands were my friends, and they liked having a good time when they played. Every once in a while, when we all had probably too much liquor in us, they'd be kind enough to let me sit in and sing a song or two with them. I really don't know if I was good or bad... I imagine I was pretty bad, but since the whole joint was drunk by then, everybody loved it.
One night after a Chamber of Commerce gathering, a bunch of friends and I decided to go out for drinks and dancing down at Schwede's Saloon. As we walked in that night, I was stopped dead in my tracks when I heard the voice of an angel singing a Stevie Nicks song. When I looked up at the stage, indeed there was an angel singing. Her name was Nancy and she is one of the most beautiful women I have ever known... not just on the outside, but in her heart and soul as well. Now I had just come off my second divorce, and while I dated, I was not in any serious relationship. When I saw Nancy... I think it was love at first sight. I wanted to get to know this woman, and I figured the best way to notice an ugly cuss like me would be to get up there and sing. I dug through her book and picked out two songs I knew I could sing... Lyin' Eyes and The Dance. Then I spent the next hour or so downing tequila... bravery in the face of beautiful women was never one of my strong points. Well, when I finally did get the courage to get up on stage, I belted them songs out like a pro... coming through in the clutch is one of my strong points.
Unlike what you see in Elvis movies, just singing for a gal doesn't make her fall swooning into your arms. I didn't get to exchange more than a couple of words with Nancy that night, but I made it a point to keep coming back to karaoke whenever she was playing. After a time I finally got up the nerve to ask her to dance. While we were two-stepping across the floor she told me "Why did it take you so long to ask me to dance... I have been hoping you would for the longest time." Over the next few weeks we began talking and getting to know each other and before long we became romantically involved. As we started spending more and more time together, I also got close to her daughter Jessie... she is a great kid and I found myself thinking of her as my daughter as much as I did my own daughter, who was so far away. I became a regular at karaoke wherever she happened to be playing, helped her travel, set-up and break-down, as well as singing a lot during the slow times when folks were too shy to get up and sing themselves. Nancy encouraged my singing, taught me how to do it better and I ended up learning enough new songs that we started just doing a two-person gig from time to time, in addition to her karaoke gigs. I was having a ball but the hours were killing me... up at 8 to work, not in bed till well after 3am... if at all, and probably drunk to boot.
By mid summer I was burned out and Nancy was too. She was also starting to feel suffocated so finally she told me it was time to cool off our relationship. I didn't take that too well at first... I was plain head-over-heels in love, but I agreed and proceeded to not see Nancy at all for a month or so. Yes, we of the 'strong' gender tend to jump off the deep end when we get dumped. Of course once I got over the hurt I realized that I'd rather have Nancy as my friend than not at all. I began going back to karaoke again from time to time and stopping by Nancy's trailer once in a while to take Jessie to a movie or event. Life was good that way.
The night I broke the news to Nancy about my situation, I was totally taken off-guard when she said, "Don't you dare go back to Ohio on me... you'll stay with Jessie and I. I can clean out Jessie's room for you, she can sleep with me, and you can set up your desk in the dining room." I protested at first... but only half-heartedly. I could never win an argument with Nancy anyway, and I admit that the thought of being with Nancy and Jessie almost 24/7 was very appealing. I vowed to pay my share, help with her gigs and help to fix things up around her trailer, which she accepted... not so much out of need but I think more to make things easier on my ego.
For the most part we were all very happy living crammed together in Nancy's tiny singlewide mobile home. Our routine was pretty simple. I'd get up early and, careful not to wake anyone, I'd go out for my morning rounds. I'd usually have a bit of work for a few hours, and then I'd go to coffee with my good friends Mark, Bobby and Eric, where we'd plot the overthrow of the evils of Raton... or at least made it look that way to the other 'regulars' at whatever restaurant we were at that morning. Eric was the City Manager, while Bobby, Mark and I were all ex-City Commissioners and still active in other areas of the community... it was fun letting the town rumor mill speculate on what we were up to.
After coffee I'd make some more calls, then have lunch at whatever restaurant my friend Linda happened to be working for at the time. Linda was a good friend and my best drinking buddy. I can't count all the times that we sat around her kitchen table drinking Coronas and talking about anything and everything. After lunch I'd run back to the trailer and fix Nancy a pot of coffee. The hours she had to keep earned her the right to sleep in, and she loved a nice cup of coffee and some solitude when she got up. She told me once that off all the nice things I ever did for her, getting her coffee for her was the sweetest of all... so I made sure I had a cup waiting for her every day. I'd finish my calls in the afternoon, followed sometimes by a late coffee meeting with the gang or a few beers with Linda. I'd usually get back to the trailer by 5 or 6, earlier if I was going to fix dinner. One of the other things Nancy used to appreciate was that I would cook dinner quite a bit... and wash the dishes too. Pay attention guys, it's those small things that make a woman happy. After dinner I'd do some work on my PC while Nancy got ready for the night's gig and Jessie watched TV or did her chores. Then it was time to go out for our latest gig... if it was in-town Jessie was quite old enough to take care of herself and put herself to bed... though we did check in on her... and if we were out of town we'd take Jessie with us and get a motel room... sometimes provided as part of the gig.
Of all the places we played, I liked Schwede's Saloon the best. Schwede's was local and I guess you could call it our 'home base'. The place had everything a western bar needs; hardwood floors, a stage, a dance floor, cold beer, un-watered-down drinks, a jukebox full of country-western music and munchies that ended up being my dinner more times than not. Roberta Schwede, affectionately know to us all as 'Bert' and her husband Mike own the place, and I have always been proud to call them both my friends. Bert outdoes herself each Christmas, decorating the place into a winter wonderland that includes so many Christmas lights that you can hear the 'ching-ching' of the Power Company's cash register with each twinkle. Bert and Mike also put on a heck of a spread many evenings including brisket, pork, posole, green chili stew, potato salad and other goodies. When you spent an evening at Schwede's, you were not spending it at some bar; you were spending it with family.
Bert took care of running the bar, so most nights Mike and I would sit at the corner of the bar, trying to occupy ourselves without getting into too much trouble between our turns to sing. Mike surprised a lot of people that he could sing so well... and he often had me rolling on the floor laughing at his antics while on the stage. Mike Schwede did a great imitation of John Wayne, that when applied to some songs would have the crowd busting up with laughter. We had a lot of fun doing duets together as well... usually not-so-serious songs like 'The Streak' (don't look Ethel!!), 'Cover of the Rolling Stone', Flowers on the Wall, and everybody's favorite 'The Y'all Come Back Saloon'. Nancy was proud of the range of songs we would do, like Mike's rendition of Jimi Hendrix' 'Purple Haze', or my attempts at Led Zeppelin's 'Kashmir' or Will Smith's 'Men in Black'. Sweet little Nancy had her own surprises as well... I don't believe she can go anywhere anymore without dozens of requests for Clarence Carter's 'Strokin' or Selena's 'Como la Flor'. I especially loved when she sang Stevie Nicks or Tanya Tucker, both of which she did better than the performers themselves ever had. As for me, I liked to sing Eagles, Garth Brooks, George Strait, Bob Seger and Brooks & Dunn. A night didn't go by when I didn't get a request to do 'My Maria'... a song that could easily hurt a guy for life.
Every once in a while, when our friend Rob was in town, a group of us would have an after-hours party in the outdoor hot tub at the Sands... which Rob partially owned. There is nothing more relaxing than lounging in that swirling hot water at 3am on a crisp fall morning, with good whiskey and a good cigar, compliments of Mike Schwede, and, more importantly, good friends. Sometimes we'd stay out all night, enjoying the sunrise before scampering out into the cold morning air to get home.
Halloween came and went, as did Thanksgiving. My business wasn't going any better, but I was happy and having fun living, working and playing with my little adopted family. I guess I was too busy having fun to really buckle down and throw the effort required into making my business successful once again. I knew it could not last forever, so I enjoyed each moment and put my future into the hands of God, knowing that whatever happened He would see me through. Christmas was coming and I had faith that the answers I was seeking would become clear to me soon.
One of the great annual pilgrimages for Ratonians is a trip to Pueblo, Colorado to go Christmas shopping. Sometimes you just can't find a lot of things in local shops and stores, or even at Kmart or the big Walmart over the hill in Trinidad, but that isn't the big reason why even 'shop-at-home' advocates like me take at least one all-day shopping trip to Pueblo each Christmas. The trip was like a mini-vacation where we could shop in actual malls, see a movie, have a nice dinner out, and just get away from small-town life for a while. We used to joke that you could find more people from Raton at the mall in Pueblo at Christmastime, than you would see on any given day back home.
It was only a few days before Christmas before Nancy and I had a free day to take Jessie with us on a shopping trip to Pueblo. When Bert called and asked Nancy if she could play Schwede's that night, since the booked band had to cancel, we still decided we could make the trip and get back in time to make the gig. We'd already gotten most of our gifts in town, but we still needed to get a few that were not available at home, including most of the stuff for Jessie and a gift that Bert had been swooning over. Besides the massive amount of lights and decorations that adorned Schwede's each Christmas, Bert just loved Christmas gadgets. This year she had her sights set on a dancing Santa Claus, dressed up in a cowboy hat, that could only be found at Dillards From our last scouting report, from our vast network of fellow Ratonians making the rounds of Pueblo, there were only a few left. Nan and I decided we would buy one for Bert as our Christmas gift. To keep Bert from driving up after one herself before we could get there ourselves, we convinced a few of our friends to lie, telling Bert that they were all sold out.
As we drove up I-25, over Raton pass northward towards Pueblo, the radio told us that it should be a nice clear day, with a chance of snow by evening. We figured we would have to be starting back home by 5:30pm or so to make the night's show. I wasn't really concerned about the weather. I knew full well that this country could throw some mean weather our way, including high winds and whiteout blizzards. I had been through them all and while I respected nature's power, I had confidence in both my driving skills and my Jeep Cherokee. The trip to Pueblo was uneventful, and we made good time doing our shopping. I thought we had missed the last of the dancing Santa's with the cowboy hat, but Nancy's psychic abilities saved the day when she picked the last cowboy-hat-clad Santa from a pile of those with only the traditional Santa cap. We also had to get quite creative in purchasing gifts for Jessie, then getting them buried in the back of the Jeep without her seeing anything.
After a nice dinner, the temperature had plummeted, the sky was growing dark and snowflakes were beginning to drift lazily downward as we got back into the Jeep for the trip home. By the time we got to the interstate, the snow was coming down pretty heavy, accumulating rapidly on the pavement. As we got outside of Pueblo, the snow had let up some, but the road was slick and icy under the layer of snow. Cars were off the road all over the place and as I put the Jeep into 4-high, I grumbled about the idiots who didn't know enough to slow down. I continued steadily in the left lane, being careful but not having too much problem doing an even 40mph or so. Of course some moron in a minivan wasn't happy with my speed and before I had a chance to move into the right lane for him to pass, he swerved to the right, passed, then cut me off as he cut back into the left lane. Jessie covered her ears as I swore up a storm; making choice comments about morons in minivans without the sense God gave a heifer. Nancy put her arm on mine, calming me as she always did, as I watched the taillights of the minivan move farther away from us.
Then, not surprisingly, I saw the taillights of the minivan begin to move violently from one side of the road to the other, before finally disappearing into a deep arroyo in the median separating the north/south lanes of I-25. As I slowed down, I could see the minivan at the bottom of the arroyo, lying upside-down and motionless. I couldn't get over to the right because of traffic, so instead I pulled off to the left as far as I could, on what little median there was at the edge of the arroyo... that, as it turns out, was only the first of my stupid moves that night.
I turned on my emergency flashers, grabbed the flashlight that always lay next to my seat and tossed Nancy my cell phone as I jumped out of the Jeep.
"Call 911 and get away from the Jeep!" I barked as I ran off down the arroyo, slipping on my butt more than once on the way down.
When I got to the minivan, everything was still and dead silent. The engine was no longer running, but the headlights were still on, their beams swirling with dust and snow as they reached out into the night. I noticed gas flowing out of the tank as I approached the driver's side door... I didn't have a good feeling about this. As I made my way to the front of the minivan, a head popped out of the driver's side window, looked around, then pulled the rest of his frame out of the vehicle through the window. I helped him up, and asked him if anyone else was in the van. He gave me a blank look and a silly grin.
"Yeah dude, my brother is in there, but he's coming out too." He said as he pointed to the van, where another head was popping out of the same window.
Both boys looked to be about college age to me, and the way they were giggling I thought they were either drunk, stoned, or in shock. As I started helping his brother through the window, another motorist had come down to see what had happened. He was an older fellow, with a big cigar sticking out of his mouth. He stopped short of the van and hollered to me; "You better get away from there, that gas could blow any second!"
"Not if you put that cigar out mister... and maybe you could give me a hand getting these boys out of this arroyo?"
The two boys began mocking and giggling at the old man, forcing me to use my best Marine Corps Drill Instructor voice, "and you two shut up before I stuff you back into that sardine can and light a match." I don't have a lot of patience with people sometimes.
Meanwhile, the other motorist began mumbling something about us all being crazy and began running back up the slope. I grumbled something not nice and began helping the two young daredevils up the arroyo. I was happy to see a couple of other motorists about halfway out, with blankets and offering to help. I thanked them and made my way out of the arroyo and back to the jeep, and as I came up near the shoulder a scene was unfolding that made my blood chill.
While many other cars had pulled over on the other side of the road, some even deploying flares on the highway, one idiot must not have been paying attention to the road. He was doing at least 50 when he finally noticed the flares and flashing lights and did the stupidest thing in the world when on icy pavement... he slammed on his brakes. I watched in horror as he lost control and the car slid rapidly to the left... straight towards my Jeep where I could see Nancy's head still sitting in the front seat.
I don't know what I was thinking. I felt so helpless, yet I ran towards the oncoming car, hoping he would swerve further to avoid me and miss my Jeep. I was directly in his path and he wasn't slowing down or in control. I braced myself thinking I was a dead man. Then there was a bright light and what felt like a tornado sucking the air from all around me. I wanted to close my eyes, but I couldn't. I stood as if in a trance as the bright light subsided and I was able to see the form of the car passing next to me, a look of panic in the driver's eyes. I turned as the car sped past, knowing it would soon demolish my Jeep and it's precious human occupants. I felt like I was in the middle of a bad nightmare, but to my relief, the car missed the Jeep by a good foot, then seemed to come back under control and continue down the interstate without so much as a brake light.
I ran back to the jeep and jumped in. Jessie was crying in the back seat while Nancy just stared at her muttering "Thank you, Victor. Thank you". I knew who Victor was, but I didn't say a word.
I figured they were probably both in shock, so I covered Jessie with a blanket and Nancy in my coat, turned up the heater and got the heck out of there. I didn't want to be sitting still like a target in the middle of morons playing snow-dodgems for a second longer. Nancy and I did not say a word all the way home, though Jessie soon recovered and rambled on and on about what had happened. Roads being as bad as they were, we got home just in time to get changed and down to Schwede's. Nancy wrapped the Dancing Santa as we drove over.
Bert was thrilled with her Dancing Santa. Nancy showed no trace of any shock or trauma as she told everybody most of the details of our adventures on the road. Nancy is true pro when it comes to entertainers. No matter what is going on in her life or in her head, when she's in public she projects a happy, animated and totally charming persona. She knew how to stroke my ego too, overstating what I did and proclaiming me as her hero to everyone listening. I didn't mind, it felt kind of good and made me blush.
Since Rob was in town that night, a bunch of us ended up in the hot tub that night. After the day we had, Nancy and I deserved some relaxation. Most everyone else had things to do the next day, so after a few hours Nancy and I were alone. She snuggled up next to me, which was always a treat, and we finally talked about what had happened on the road.
"Victor saved my butt, didn't he?" I asked her playfully.
"Yes, he did. He saved us all." She replied matter-of-factly.
Victor is Nancy's guardian angel or spirit guide. I know some folks don't believe in that sort of thing, but I do, even more so since I met Nancy. She is one special woman and one of the most spiritual human beings I have ever known. I believe in Victor, and I believe Nancy when she tells me that, when she saw me jump in front of that car, she prayed to God to allow Victor to save my life and protect Jessie from harm. I have no doubt that the bright light I saw and the presence I felt those few seconds was Victor, altering the path of that car. How could I think otherwise?
Two miracles should be enough for anyone, anytime. Just the miracle of spending Christmas with a beautiful woman and her wonderful daughter as a family would have been enough to last me a lifetime, and Victor saving me from becoming part of the grillwork of a Japanese car was more than I deserved, but the miracles were not over yet. We had one more miracle happen that Christmas, and I don't think anyone in the world knows about it but me... till now.
The one thing Jessie wanted most that Christmas was an American Girl doll. I found a place to order them online, and convinced Nancy to let me handle getting it. In the meantime we told Jessie it was too expensive, we couldn't afford it, and that if she were good, maybe Santa would bring her the doll. Some folks may think it's wrong to allow a child to believe in Santa... and I feel sorry for those folks. Nancy wanted Jessie to be able to hold on to her dreams and her faith for as many years as possible, and I don't see anything wrong with that. Of course I am a 42 year-old believer in Santa, so why should I tell any child any different?
On Christmas Eve, I took care of wrapping the rest of the presents and placing them under the tree after Jessie went to bed, while Nancy worked in the kitchen to prep a big Christmas dinner for us to enjoy on Christmas Day. For the second time in a week my blood chilled when I heard Nancy ask from the kitchen;
"Jessie is going to be so excited when she sees the American Girl you got for her."
I gulped in horror, realizing that I had forgotten to order the doll! I managed to mumble something incoherently, which she took as agreement and went on talking about other things. I felt like the biggest heel in the world.
My mind raced the rest of the night, trying to think of a way to fix my horrible screw up. I couldn't sleep but I did hatch a plan. I'd let Jessie think she didn't get the doll, since we had told her we couldn't get it anyway. Sure, she'd be disappointed, and I'd certainly have some 'splainin' to do to Nancy, but with any luck I could order the doll with overnight shipping on the day after Christmas, then have her find it under the tree a few days later with a note from Santa explaining his busy holiday schedule. It wasn't perfect, I was a bonehead, but it was all I could think of.
I must have dozed off for only a few moments when Jessie woke me up with her excited shrieks.
"Chip, wake up, Santa came!"
I grumbled something about what happens to kids who wake up grouchy old men, then smiled and jumped up to give her a hug and let her lead me into the living room where bright packages overflowed from under the twinkling lights of the tree. I made Jessie wait till I made coffee before we woke up her mom. Then Nancy and I sat on the couch sipping our coffee while Jessie began tearing through packages like a small twister. I tried to get Nancy to come into the kitchen with me so I could tell her about my crime, but she was having too much fun watching Jessie and snapping pictures. Finally I whispered, "I need to talk to you about that American Doll." She gave me a look before narrowing her eyes and asking, "What about it?"
I began to open my mouth to spill my guts, when I was stopped by Jessie's high-pitched screams.
"Look Mom, it's an American Doll, and it's just the one I wanted!"
My jaw dropped as my eyes turned to Jessie, proudly holding an American Doll and trying desperately to free her from the packaging. Nancy nudged me.
"What about the doll, Chip?"
"Oh nothing, I was just worried that I didn't get the right one." I lied.
I don't know how that doll got there. It's possible Nancy somehow knew that I would forget to order it and did so herself... she was psychic after all, but I like to think that Santa Claus brought it. Come to think of it, I don't remember eating all those cookies we left out that night myself... hmmmm.
A True Christmas Story by Daniel 'Chip' Ciammaichella
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