A Christmas Odyssey©
A Gradowith© Short Story©
H. L. Gradowith©
A Nine-And-A-Half-Finger Production©
The following story is basically true, only some details added or omitted due to failing memory deviating from the actual events. It chronicles a real trip the author made in 1982 – his first Christmas after graduating high school. It is offered for your pleasure and is fictionalized form – that is, no names are mentioned and it is told as though every detail were fixed in the author’s memory perfectly. Though based on (and in the main actually) fact, just read it as a story and enjoy…
H. L. Gradowith
A Christmas Odyssey
He was coming home for the holidays – as he always tried to do for each holiday -- and usually succeeded, as much from his own desire to be there as from the desire to satisfy the longing for his presence by those already there. He liked the people and the presents and the food and the idea of being home for Christmas. Christmas was never a religious celebration in his family – though some of them were religious. It was a family time. A special couple of days set aside for time-honored rituals that just couldn’t be broken or altered. In fact, Christmas any other way was just out of the question – not even considered. Each particular set of relatives had their time for their celebration and everyone just went there when they were supposed to and no one ever thought of changing or missing or messing with what had worked so well for so long. He was there for Thanksgiving and he would be there for Christmas.
When he moved to college in Florida, over five hundred miles from his Northeast Arkansas home, he thought that being home for Christmas would be no problem – after all, it wasn’t as if he had moved to Alaska, Florida would have nice weather all the time. He hadn’t planned, though, on the weather in Arkansas, and this year that was to prove problematic. And, as we shall presently see, the weather was only part of the problem – a big enough part, but by no means the only memorable thing about this Christmas Odyssey.
The Trip That Almost Didn’t Happen
It was Thursday morning and he had asked for permission to leave school early so that he might make his ten- to twelve- hour trip and arrive in time to get at least part of a good nights sleep before the holiday rituals got underway. Getting out of classes early – even for a trip home for Christmas – was no easy matter. He was kept waiting all the way up to the time for the trip and even as he packed his bags early that morning before reporting to class he had received no definite word about his request. In the end, though, the request was granted; as much from concern for the safety of an eighteen-year-old traveling so long a distance as from any holiday sentiment – or so he thought as he received the permission he sought.
He left Pensacola at about eleven A.M. with the temperature in the upper thirties and a fairly steady rain falling. In the back of his mind he knew that the farther north he went the colder the weather would be, but he hoped that at least the rain would stop. Having been raised in the hills of Northeast Arkansas he was accustomed to snow and even ice – but basically he only knew that if it snowed and you didn’t absolutely have to be out you didn’t leave the house. As for ice, he knew that if there was ice on the road you didn’t get out even if you absolutely had to… Living where it snowed didn’t really benefit him a lot, but everyone spoke of it as thought there was some magical advantage to having lived in snow-country so he just took it in stride. It never dawned on him that even people who had lived in much colder climates than the one in which he was raised had accidents on snowy roads.
All the planning behind him, he set out on his trip home for the holidays. He had made the trip enough to require no map. In his mind each intersection at which he would change highways was clearly depicted. He saw the businesses, the road signs, the landmarks, the state border signs – and most of all, he saw home. He intended to make only such stops as were necessary for the trip and thus he planned to arrive in ten-and-one-half or eleven-hours. He would need food and gasoline, both of which he could usually get at the same place and while there he could use the facilities and he had been told that at 60 miles-per-hour each minute you were off the interstate equaled three minutes of travel time: one minute for being there, one minute that you would have gone had you not stopped, and one minute to make up the time you lost. He wasn’t sure exactly how that worked out, or even if it worked out; but he believed it and used it to rush the journey every time.
He decided to get a bite to eat in Milton, FL and that would do him well maybe as far as Mississippi. He pulled in to the parking lot of a local diner and, when he turned the engine in his 1977 Chevrolet El Camino off he heard something that didn’t sound just right. When he looked under the hood he saw what it was – a busted water pump. At all of eighteen years of age he was more than a little upset at the development, but by no means willing to allow it to prevent his trip. He went inside and sat at the lunch counter and ordered a sandwich. A couple of mechanics from a local garage were there and when he explained his problem to them they told him that it would take about three hours to get the part and another one or two hours to get to it and actually repair it. Five hours at the earliest! That would never do. He indicated as much to the mechanics and they told him that he could theoretically make the journey just fine if he would fill the radiator up with water now and not shut the engine off again until he reached his destination. That was all he needed – he ate his sandwich, filled the radiator, and set out for what would prove to be an unforgettable evening.