Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross

70. A Story to Get You Excited about Christmas

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16]

The Nativity, by Jacob Jordaens

Christmas is round the corner. What shall we post for the Christmas slot this year?

We can turn to Matthew and mine his articulation on the nativity from a particular angle on Joseph. Or we can take a cue from Luke and immerse in the captivating story weaved round Mary of Nazareth. Or shall we prefer a theological reflection on the incarnation and follow the Johannine Christological narrative? Other possible choices of themes soon came into view as well.

As we were considering the myriad choices, a touching story which we read some years ago repeatedly intruded into our consciousness. It is a story that simply would not go away. Why? Because when Christmas runs the risk of just another excuse for a holiday and an occasion for excessive presents, food and drinks, here is a story that warms hearts and grows faith and brings joy to the soul. Here is a story that epitomises the true spirit of Christmas where God loved the world so much he gave his Only Son. And so finally, we took the decision to post the story here and let it speak to the readers.

The story is titled “The Family in the Parking Lotby Norman Spray. We hope you will enjoy reading it, even if you have read it before.

The Spirit of Christmas [Greg Olsen]

Have you ever looked at the holiday with a cold and practical eye and then talked yourself into believing that Christmas was not worth all the trouble?

I was making just such a cold and practical appraisal as the Christmas of 1956 approached. On December 11 of that year, another blue-and-purple northern was whistling through our town of Bedford, Texas, and I was in a fittingly icy mood as I drove to work that cold and bleak morning.

I knew that that very morning I faced a deadline on the Christmas issue of the employee news magazine I edited for the Bell Helicopter Company. So far the issue was a mess. Little copy had been written and, worse, my idea well was dry.

“Why should we bother with a Christmas issue anyway?” I asked myself. “In today’s busy world who really cares?” Besides, who was I to write a sermon on peace and goodwill to interest men and women who built helicopters?

After all, we were publishing a line of communications between management and employees – not a Sunday-school bulletin.

I drove up to the Bell plant. A car was stopped ahead of me, and the driver was talking to the guard at the gate. Beside the driver sat a dark-haired young woman, and in the back, wedged in among a seat full of battered old suitcases sat a shaggy-haired little boy holding a puppy. The guard pointed directions, and the car drove off toward the visitors’ parking lot. I didn’t know it then, but before the day was out, that car and those people would become important to me.

The driver of that car was Frank Gates, and his wife of four years, Eugenia, sat beside him while their three-year-old son, Frank, Jr. sat in the back.

Frank was a logger. He had been working up in Montana, but logging operations had closed down for the winter a week before and Frank had lost his job – again.

He had heard that in Texas he might be able to get year-round work, and so they had loaded their belongings into the old car and headed south. They ate lightly and at night slept in the car because they had barely enough money just for gasoline.

The family had arrived in Fort Worth on the evening of December 10, penniless, bone-tired and famished. Frank had gone to the construction company which happened to be building a new addition to our Bell plant, and they had hired him immediately as a laborer at $1 an hour. That wasn’t much, even in those days – unless you just arrived from Montana with nothing at all.

“This is it, honey,” Frank had said to Eugenia, elated. “From now on, things are going to be better.”  On that blustery night they had shared a quart of milk and bedded down in the car in high spirits. “I’m a new man on the construction job out here,” Frank had just said to the guard when I first saw him. “Can I park around here?” The guard had no idea that Frank wanted to park his car and his family there for the entire day.

At midmorning, the guard captain at the plant-security headquarters got a phone call from the gate guard. “A woman and kid are out here in an old car. They’ve been here all morning.”

A lone car in the parking lot.

The captain and a guard lieutenant went out to speak to the young mother.

She looked tired – very tired. “Why,” the lieutenant asked, “are you staying in the car?”

Eugenia explained, “We’re going to try to find a place when my husband gets off work today.”

The two officers both know that company rules forbade her staying there in the parking lot, so they arranged for Eugenia to park at a service-station lot across the street. While the move was being made they overheard the boy plead, “I’m hungry, Mommy.

Back at the guard office the two security officers told what had happened.

It was then that the two other guards suggested that they buy lunch for the mother and son. Instantly, $3 was on the table.

One guard carried the money to the plant cafeteria. Then the cafeteria manager heard the story, he heaped two plates. “It’s on the house,” he said.

Eugenia was grateful when the guard handed her the plates, but when he insisted she take the $3 besides, she became emotional. “Thank you very much, she said, her voice breaking. “But we’ll pay you back.”

The guard returned to the front-gate guard station. “These are good people, just down on their luck,” he told the other guards. “We ought to help them if we can.”

The captain and lieutenant went to talk with Frank Gates. “This young fellow’s not about to ask anybody for help,” the captain said afterward.

“All he wants is a chance.”

“Trouble is, he won’t get paid for two weeks,” the lieutenant added.

The last comment left the guards silent. Two weeks is a long time to camp out in a car.

There was a plant rule against employee solicitation, a rule the guards were responsible for enforcing. But in any plant there is a shadowy information network, the grapevine. And at Bell that day, word of the mother’s plight swept through the plant. The guards’ first act of kindness was multiplied as secretaries and production workers began to build a kitty to help a couple they had only heard about.

And that was when I heard about the Gateses, only ten minutes before I was to meet with my boss to talk about the Christmas issue.

Mildly interested, I took a note pad and ambled out to the security office.

By then someone had come up with the idea of offering the family some of the clothing that was being collected at the plant for Hungarian relief.

On Frank’s lunch hour, the young logger and his family were escorted to the clothes collection point. Hesitantly, they picked a few items: a jacket for Frank, a pair of shoes and overalls for the boy. “This is all we’ll need until we get started,” said Eugenia. She was careful not to take too much from “those poor people in Hungary.”

I went back to my desk and called my wife. I told her about the young Gates family. Barby’s reaction was instantaneous – and practical.

“Meet me at their car,” she said in the definite tone she reserves for times when she doesn’t mean to be questioned.  “I’m bringing that woman and her boy home with me.”

I walked back to the front gate. A riveter from the factory strode up.

“The boys around the plant want this to go to that woman and child out front,” he told the guards.  “Folks just heard about them and reached for their wallets.” He laid $96 on the desk.

Nobody asked any questions – rules or no rules. Another guard, accompanied by the president of the union local, took the gift to Eugenia; I tagged along.

There was no fancy speech as the union official said simply, “The folks in the plant want you to have this.”

This time, the tired, disheveled Eugenia couldn’t hold back the tears.  She just sat there, stroking her son’s puppy, letting the drops fall unashamedly.

Barby drove up.  “I want you to come and visit me until your husband gets off work,” Barby said.

Eugenia was hesitant, but she accepted.  When Barby brought her back to the plant that afternoon at quitting time, she looked like a new woman, years younger, even radiant.  She had napped and bathed and fixed her hair, and Frank Jr., was sparkling clean.  She could hardly wait to rush into the arms of her husband.

“You people are wonderful,” he said.  “I can’t say how wonderful.  We’ll pay you back.  It’ll take a little time, but we’ll pay you back.”

The next morning, Frank appeared on the job 30 minutes before starting time – clean-shaving, rested, the picture of a man with a future.  He whistled merrily and strode briskly.

Everyone I met that day wore a cheery smile and had a pleasant greeting.  It wasn’t imagination – the plant had changed overnight into a friendlier, happier, better place.  Suddenly Christmas was everywhere.  Suddenly I believed again in its miracles.

In the course of one day I learned that Christmas can never be looked at properly with a cold and practical eye; its value cannot be measured that way.  Frank Gates and his family had helped me find a story, and a reason for the Christmas issue.

Do you know any impoverished family that could use a Santa visit this year?

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, December 2012. All rights reserved.

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