Merry Christmas, World
I’d rather have been on Route 17 on the coast where it might at least have felt warmer. It was cold everywhere, and snowing here. Route 1 is where my rides had taken me. I’d had nothing but short hops all day, many of them people Christmas shopping in the next town. I got picked up outside Raleigh around midnight, then hitched another ride which lasted for about an hour before turning left, stranding me in the middle of a desolate stretch of pine woods. Traffic had thinned out to nearly non-existent and there were no land lights in sight. The last town I traveled through was small and at least ten miles back. Even the trucks were few, and none of them even tapped a brake light. I might well have been nonexistent.
What made the wintry countryside seem even bleaker was the absence of Christmas lights which had been nearly continuous most of the way down from my home. Even though I felt desolate in the dark, I wished for some light, just not those. I count any Christmas season successful if I don’t have to listen to a complete carol. So far that had been a flop because everybody had had their car radios on. I wanted to get away from Christmas; Christmas hurts me. It is my saddest time of year. I was on my way to Florida, my home away from home. I particularly hadn’t wanted to spend Christmas at my parents’ home in Milford, Delaware with them and my sisters. We always got into arguments which nobody won. I think they were as glad to see me out of there as I was to be gone. Their reluctant concession was that I could go as long as I made it back for classes, although my teachers were willing to cut me some slack.
So here I was on the shoulder of a road in the North Carolina woods in the middle of the night not getting a ride. I knew that as long as I stood there sticking my thumb out I had the chance of getting a ride with every car that passed, as if I had a choice. Back in those days it was considered safe enough to hitchhike, and equally safe enough to pick up a hitchhiker. There were very few horror stories. Probably this was a consequence of all the servicemen on leave who hitched while they were home during and after the war. It was accepted practice. I’ve often been the beneficiary of drivers who’ve gone significantly out of their way to take me where I wanted to go. There were those who wanted conversation to help them stay awake. Others might want a relief driver; those were the good, long rides. Truckers picked you up, too; it was always good practice to inquire around a truck stop to snag a ride.
All hypothetical tonight. When my thumb got cold, I’d try the other one. Actually they were spending most of the evening in my pockets. It was snowing harder and I was sure the temperature was still dropping. I was getting colder. I had two duffel bags. I got into walking twenty paces from them in on direction and then the same in the other to try to get warm. I had my heaviest winter clothes on, but within an hour I was shivering hard. Then it seemed as if there were no car moving in either direction. Everyone was nested at home on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day actually. Except for the occasional trucks, the tire tracks were getting snowed over. Other than what could be seen by their headlights it was completely dark. Did I wish I hadn’t left home? No, I was going to Florida. I was going snake hunting in the Everglades and on the Keys.
Sometime during the second hour a bitter wind had come up. It felt like it was going right through me sucking all my warmth, what little remained, away. I wished, I prayed, I conjured for a ride, an exercise in futility; none came. I felt that if I didn’t do something to change my situation I was going to get frostbite or even freeze to death. Over dramatic? I didn’t think so. Even knowing that if I wasn’t standing on the shoulder with my thumb out, I couldn’t possibly get a ride I felt that I had to at least get out of the wind. I was completely exposed to it by the side of the open road.
I dragged and carried my duffels into the woods through brambles, tripping over logs and vines. The standing trees were not close together, in fact they seemed curiously regular and evenly spaced. The ground was level. I thought this might be a pulp wood forest or tree farm. There was a lot of that around here and along the coast, I remembered. I walked blindly, stubbornly which warmed me up. Maybe if I had just kept walking on the shoulder I could have stayed warm enough, but the wind had bitten into me. It wasn’t much better here; brushing against tree limbs brought down cascades of snow on my head and down my neck. My gloves were soaked. Finally the woods changed, becoming more like what I thought a normal woods should be, less open. I started tripping more and the terrain became more irregular. I actually fell down a little slope and lay there, coming to realize that here I was at least out of the full force of the wind.
I retrieved my duffels and by trial and much error, found a big tree in a hollow that would give me some refuge. I gathered my bags around me, one on each side and nestled against its roots. I was so tired I shortly dozed off. No visions of sugarplums here. It wasn’t long before the warmth I had gained from walking left me and I woke up colder than ever. I knew I could have gone back to sleep if I pressed it and that scared me. I got up and had some trouble at first standing. My feet and my hands were numb. I kicked a tree hard to try to feel something, but all it did was jar my body. I had to do something about this.
I was oriented; I am good at that. I knew in which direction the road was. I started to walk away from it. Stumble was more like it. The underbrush and sticker bushes grew thicker, the trees closer together and more random, the ground more uneven. I kept at it for the longest time, but my feet and hands stayed numb. I was sweating and chilled at the same time, but I wasn’t warming up.
Then what I thought at first must be a mirage appeared. A light in the distance. It wasn’t at first steady; the blowing tree limbs were sort of flickering it. I ran now, instead of ponderously crashing. Then, when I saw that it was real, I ran faster. The woods were coming to an end upon what seemed to be an open field. The snow was about knee deep and still falling, swirling and, drifting.
I had hardly made my way onto the field when I was knee deep in something else- water. I could see some dead cat tails here; I had broken through the ice of a swamp or shallow pond. I broke ice with my fists and knees, continuing to make my way toward the light. Thankful that it hadn’t gotten deeper, I soon broke my way clear and was on the field proper. The light was now a little closer, but I still had a lot of hard walking to do. My legs were now numb. Hypothermia was a little used word back then; it was called exposure. It was thought that a shot of whiskey or a cup of tea would swiftly remedy the situation. But first you had to get the man out of the ice water.
I plowed and kicked my way through the snow as stubbornly as was possible, staring single-mindedly at the light which was growing larger and brighter. My little star of Bethlehem. It could be seen to be coming through an opening in the side of a large barn-like building. There was a long metal chimney rising from it from which could be seen a steady column of white smoke with some sparks mixed it; the smoke was blown abruptly sideways as soon as it left the chimney. Finally, I reached the door and looked in, hesitant to enter without permission, even in my extremity. The interior was richly lit with a flickering light. Socrates’ cave. The barn itself was of gray weathered planks over a steel superstructure. It was spacious. There was heavy equipment at the far left end of what looked to be a sawmill. Directly ahead of my at this, the right end of the building was an iron or steel furnace with an open door. Inside it was a raging fire being tended by an old black man, the night shift. I guessed that a tractor pushed the sawdust and scraps from the days sawing to this end to clear the deck, as it were, and the old man shoveled it into the furnace by night. It turned out I was right.
“Hello,” I called. He didn’t turn around.
“Hello,” I said again, a little louder. A lack of the proper etiquette, I knew, could mean death.
“I heared you,” he said, turning. His eyes took me in and we were both at first silent.
“I’m freezing,” I said. “And I’m wet. I fell through the ice getting here.”
“Why was you comin’ here?”
“To get warm. I was trying to sleep in the woods and thought I might be freezing to death.”
“Why was you sleepin’ in the woods?”
“Because I couldn’t get a ride.”
“Ride to where?”
“What you want?”
“To get warm. To get dry. Could I please stay here by the fire for awhile?”
“I cain’t say yes. It ain’t up to me.”
“Who’s it up to?”
“Boss. Up to the boss. White man.”
“Is he here?”
“Won’t be ‘til 7:30 even tho’ it’s Christmas.”
“Could I please stay here until then? I’ll leave before he comes.”
“I could git in a lot of trouble.”
“You won’t if I’m not here. I promise I’ll leave when you tell me to.”
“I d’know. I could get fired.”
“I could freeze to death. I could die.”
“Well, we don’t want that.”
“Please. I’ll pay you something.”
“No need fo that.”
“I can stay then?”
“’Til 6:30. I’ll get you up and out then.”
“Thank you. I’m very grateful.”
“You got to stay out of my way. I got to burn all this.” He still had a big pile to go and I was wasting his time.
Standing as close to the furnace as I was, my clothes were steaming. “Where can I stay? I’d like to sleep for awhile.”
“See that ladder?” It was an old wooden one leaning up against a steel I-beam which ran across the building over the furnace. “If you was to get up there you could flatten out on that beam and not be seen case of surprises.”
“Don’t fall off.”
“I won’t fall off.”
“I got to git back to work.”
He turned and started shoveling as I climbed the ladder.
Even though there were open vertical cracks between the wood siding boards the building was well built, long but not wide and not very high. The beams supported wood posts holding up a low pitched roof. The beam I was on led directly over the old man’s sawdust pile, so even if I fell off in my sleep I’d probably have a soft enough landing. I was not much more than fifteen feet up, if that. I crawled out onto it and made my bed, lying flat on my stomach with my arms at first hugging the beam until I relaxed them as I fell asleep and they dangled down. At first I faced the fire because it was so comforting, but then I turned away to sleep.
The next think I knew was the old man’s voice. “Time to go. C’mon down.”
I was awake in an instant, feeling good, well rested, warm. And I was dry. I wasn’t at all disoriented, knew exactly where I was and what I had to do. I had put my gloves on the beam; they were dry. I had left my boots on; that was slightly another matter, but my feet were warm even though one of them hurt, especially the toes.
As soon as I was on the floor, he said, “You got to git.”
“I know. Can I give you anything?”
In trying to press a five dollar bill into his hand it must have looked as if I was trying to shake hands with him. He refused the gesture.
“How do I keep from falling through the ice again?”
“Follow your tracks to where it happened. Then walk a quarter mile one way or the other. You ought ter git across.”
“Hurry. He might can see you from the road.”
I hurried. I didn’t want him to have a problem because of me. I really rushed which kept me warm. It was bright, sunshiny bright, giving a sparkle to the field and the woods ahead. The snow had stopped and it was dead calm. I felt good, as good as I’m capable of feeling, despite getting wet again from the knees down from the snow. I was rested and I believe my sleep had been dreamless, unusual for me. I was limping because my right foot hurt, the foot I had kicked the tree with.
When I reached my fording spot I turned left, away from the direction I thought might lead from the main road to the saw mill. Now why is the boss coming in on Christmas? I wondered. Maybe to take the black man home, I hoped. When I thought I had gone far enough, seeing no more cat tails sticking up, I crossed. Ah, no ice. Then I walked back to where I had broken through and picked up my trail back toward the road. My duffels were easy enough to spot despite the snow that had fallen on them. I sat on one and took my right boot off. The sock was bloody and I didn’t want to look at my toes. Later, somewhere else.
I slung my small duffle over one shoulder and half dragged, half carried the heavier one to the road. I was right; this was a tree farm. Pines in rows as regular as a vegetable garden. Tall pines, maybe destined to be telephone poles. They had a good head start. When I reached the road, I started thinking coffee. Coffee, coffee. I had the makings, but there is no way I wanted to set up camp and campfire under these circumstances. I could wait for a diner where I could also get breakfast and change my socks.
There were fresh tire marks on the road.
Merry Christmas world.
®Copyright 2014 Jack Scott. All rights reserved.