A Miracle At Christmas
A Memoir By Jerry D. Haight
By most accounts, a miracle is an event, intervention or action that is amazing, or unexpected. Some events might be coincidence, but then, some just maybe not. Those of Christmas 1958 are related here for you to decide.
That year, Christmas fell on a Thursday. For most, the buzz of expectancy started weeks before reaching a crescendo the week of. But for the mere seaman apprentice with less than six months of active service his holiday would be spent “on duty”; isolated on an almost abandoned Naval Base. Friendships are sometimes hard to find even among the throngs of people on a large military base and hadn’t happened yet for the young man. Then making matters worse, he had spent most of his short time on TAD (Temporary Assigned Duty) floating from one project to another, never really connecting. The thought of Christmas this year brought a lump to his throat and already, he was lonely and homesick, being it was his first time away from home. He was unaware events would intervene turning it into a very special Christmas indeed.
It started Wednesday just before noon when, seemingly, out of the blue, his immediate supervisor handed him a 7 day pass saying, “Haight, I don’t know how you managed this, but here it is Seaman, enjoy it and we will see you next week”. He the petty officer turned and walked away, leaving the pass in the hands of the dumfounded young sailor. He examined the document incredulously. Yes, his name was on it, yes, it was a 7 day leave, and yes it expired the following week. It was signed by Rear Admiral Charles J. Palmer, Shipyard Commander, Longbeach Naval Shipyard. Shocked, the young sailor went to the Admiral’s office to thank him but he was already gone for the holiday. His Yeoman confirmed, yes, he had typed up the pass for signature and yes, it was real. “I don’t know how you managed, but enjoy it”, he said.
It was a long way home but he couldn’t resist the tempting pass and even though his very used Renault 4cv, similar to a vintage VW Beatle, was “just a car to knock around Southern California” he was soon driving it on his way to Denver, hoping for a very early morning arrival Christmas day.
The first stop was for gas at a station in Nevada that was just closing for the holiday. Forewarned, he bought a five gallon Jerry can filled with fuel, just in case, put it in the back seat and continued on toward home. The night grew late, the thermometer dipped and the 4cv’s heater blew nothing but cold air. He turned off the heater, made sure all windows were closed tight and pressed on. Past midnight the terrain changed from desert to mountainous, the temperature turned even colder, reaching single digits. Now shivering, he continued driving. “It was a very long drive”, he thought.
Somewhere in Utah, he saw shadows of the road split in two directions but neither looked real. His vision became blurry as time and distance moved forward. Obviously he was seeing double and needed rest when just ahead on the right, he saw a roadside diner. The flashing red neon sign said “welcome”, the interior was well lighted and he heard music. He stopped the car, got out and started walking to where warmth and hot food awaited. But wait . . . there was no diner. It vanished along with his hope. Only darkness, a vacant field and a canopy of brilliant stars remained. “A mirage?” he questioned. “But it looked so real”. But, alas, there was no diner, no warmth and no food. Disappointed and still shivering, he returned to the car, opened the door and discovered it reeked of gasoline fumes. The can’s vent was leaking, letting the vapors permeate the car’s interior. He knew he was nearly asphyxiated. As he walked in the dark letting the crisp night air refresh him, he questioned; “Did the diner save me?” but with a puzzled mind, he continued on sans the can.
Hours later, he reached his parent’s driveway where the engine died. He pushed the car the last ten feet, but it was not out of gas, just simply would not restart. A few days later, a post mortem would reveal the startling cause.
On the little engine, a timing gear on the crankshaft, made of fiber, vital to the operation of the engine, had not even a trace of a tooth remaining. Its surface once studded with them. There was no way valves could ever synchronize with pistons. Simply put, the engine could not possibly run.
The road that night was devoid of traffic. Had the part failed anywhere on the trip, there would have been little chance for help and perhaps no story to tell. How would you account for the pass, the diner and timing gear? The young sailor knew and would never forget.