I’ll Be Home for Christmas
By Fred Pruitt
When we begin to get a little bit settled in God and Who He is, we somehow see past our understanding (of the moment), and fall headlong into a depth of trust, enhanced by experience, that the Father IS bringing Life out of whatever it is in the moment that is stirring the pot.
When I just typed the paragraph above, I did not have Prov 3:5,6 (“Lean not unto thine own understanding, trust in the Lord with all thine heart, in all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths”) in mind, but after reading what I wrote, I realized that was exactly what I was saying. And at the same time, I realized how long it has been with me to live that way – since we broke down at Barstow in the Mojave Desert in California, headed home to Georgia for Christmas, 1977. This little story is how the Lord taught me the truth of that passage.
Too long a story, but the short version is this: Janis and our three, John, then 4, Andrew, then 2+, and finally Jessica at 1, and I, were headed home by car for Christmas from Monterey, California to Rome, Georgia, roughly 2,500 miles. The first night we stayed in Bakersfield CA, since with the three little ones and what I have come now to discover is a life-long late-leaving for any out-of-town driving trip, we didn’t get out of Monterey until about 2 PM, long after the scheduled 6 AM departure time.
We pulled into Bakersfield well after dark after surprisingly encountering blizzard-like snow showers and strong winds while riding through a mountain pass. Thoroughly exhausted, we got a room at the first cheap motel we saw. We were on a limited budget, enough to get to Georgia where we were promised funds for the return trip, so we had to watch our pennies. We found one, apparently a favorite of truckers, because lots of rigs were parked in the lot. (Being “in the ministry,” at an assistant level at the time, we [$75 each] were paid a salary of $150/week, not much even in 1977! As my pastor lamented, congregations often operated under the adage, “You keep him humble, Lord, and we’ll keep him poor!”)
In the middle of the night I awoke to sirens, lights and commotion outside the motel room. I looked out the window and the whole of the outside looked like it was glowing orange; wind was blowing fiercely – I could hear it– and I saw lots of flashing emergency vehicle lights, all going this way and that way in a big hurry. At first I thought maybe the motel was on fire, but when I realized it was not on fire and I that couldn’t know anything else, I went back to bed. I didn’t think what was going on, “affected” us.
When we woke in the morning around first light, (and 3 kids under 5 years always make sure you see that time of day) we were greeted with a phenomenon and landscape we could not believe. There was sand in the room! (131 miles to the ocean!) It had seeped in through the windows. When we looked outside, it looked like it had snowed several inches of sand. Trees were bent double with the wind blowing hard sideways, the air was still orange, and so was everything else, including our car. We had a little 1968 Volkswagen Squareback then, given to us by some good friends, and it was loaded to the gills with kids’ clothes, baby/toddler things, our traveling clothes, ALL our Christmas presents for us and our relatives, and Janis’ guitar.
Alright, common sense might tell someone, “Hey, don’t try to leave just yet.” But, what’s being young all about, if you can’t also be naïve and learn by experience? We had grown up in Georgia, and never had any dust storms there. We got remnants of hurricanes sometimes due to our proximity to the Gulf and the Atlantic, and tornadoes, too, but no dust storms. So we were dust-storm neophytes, and did not think it a great thing to scrape all the sand off everything there was, pack the car and head on down the road to Georgia. We had left on Monday, December 19th, had lost a lot of time with our lateness and not pressing on farther, now it was Tuesday, and we “HAD” to get going! So said Dad (me)!
So off we go. We had to drive CA Highway 58 from Bakersfield to Barstow, to get to Interstate 40, which would take us all the way back east. At first everything was normal, if lots of orange sand blowing around is normal. We were not impeded, and visibility was pretty good, at first, so we kept going. “Gotta get to Georgia, gotta get to Georgia!” We all know how it is when we are destination-minded, and sometimes we have to be!
We did not get very far. As soon as we left the outskirts of Bakersfield, conditions grew worse and worse. We were troopers always, and quitters no-way!, so on we pressed. Visibility mile-by-mile waned, from vague to more vague to nearly non-existent. Blowing sand and wind began to buffet the car, and it was as thick as any fog I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been in quite a few where I had to open the car door and feel the ground below me, to assure myself I was still on the pavement.
I said to Janis, “Hey, I think we ought to pray about this!!!” Or maybe she said it to me, I don’t remember, but we decided to have an earnest word about it right there in the moment! We were still driving, though we couldn’t see hardly 5 feet ahead, and so we prayed, “Lord, let us know if we should not go on.” (The Lord was probably thinking, “Geez, how dumb can they be?”) But He DID answer! (All grace always!)
I am not saying this for dramatic effect, but just saying what happened in the moment, because it happened exactly as I am telling it. As soon as the “amens” were out of our mouths, still cruising maybe 25-30 mph, afraid someone might be stopped ahead of me, it seemed like the very moment we said, “Amen!” … that a giant load of sand and dirt – like a WHOLE load coming out all at once from the back of a dump truck – fell onto our car in a giant “WHUUMP!”
We were immediately stopped dead in our tracks, the engine shutting off of itself, just going dead, stopped almost instantaneously by a mountain of dirt and sand! The children all started crying and we didn’t know what was going on. (I was pretty awed, though, because I had not ever had such a quick, decisive, or “impressive” answer to prayer before!)
After a bit, it cleared enough to see we weren’t buried, but only coated with sand. Still, we didn’t have any visibility. At that point the main thing I was worried about was being hit from behind, so I got out and pushed the car off to the side. For a while there was no further visibility and we could not see anything around us.
After about 10 or 15 minutes it cleared enough for us to see our surroundings. The first thing we saw, to our joy, was that we were near an exit where we could turn around and go back to Bakersfield. Then we saw that there were many of us, up and down the road, who had been stopped in our tracks and covered in sand, including a state trooper a little ways from us who had been in the blindness as much as we had been.
When I first tried to start the car, it would not catch. The battery and the starter were working ok, but I could tell it wasn’t getting enough fuel to fire. (I know enough about cars to botch any repair effort.) It’s always a balance between enough cranks to make it start, and the number of minutes the battery will support the effort. I kept trying, gingerly, didn’t want to exhaust the battery, and finally the spark fired and the engine started! Heartily praising and thanking, we turned around, made it back to Bakersfield, found a restaurant that was without power, sat there long enough for the power to come back on so we could have coffee and eat; ate; and then felt very lucky to get back into the same motel again, since they’d closed the roads and nobody could leave. Night 2 in Bakersfield. It is now December 20.
Now I have a confession to make, that might be especially meaningful to the Bakersfield area residents of that time. At the time, I took the blame, wholly on myself, for the storm that knocked out a whole section of southern California. “It was me, folks, I did it!” I’m saying that facetiously now, but sadly, such was the state of my spiritual understanding at the time. I had been “advised,” by a “minister above me,” that going to Georgia at that time, might not be the wisest thing to do, but I was free to do it if I wanted. Well, here we are, 2 days into our trip and not out of California yet, this big storm has come up, and, remembering Jonah, I went into the motel bathroom after all my crew had gone to sleep and repented to the Lord that I had made the “unwise” decision to take the trip to Georgia, which, I feared, had caused the Lord to send the Dust-storm Hurricane, doing great destruction, including loss of life, to that part of California, because of me. I was very much in earnest! (I have a better view of God, and myself these days!)
But, somehow I got peace on that in my bathroom chapel that night. Once the trip was on, we had to see it through!
So day 3, now Wednesday, we wait until 1:00 PM, until the CHP says the roads are safe, before we can leave. We were rested and well-fed, at last, finally heading on our trip! We were very exhilarated to be hitting the road!
However, when we went beyond the place we had been stopped the day before, we could not believe what we saw. For a stretch of highway, a little past where we had stopped, it looked like a bombed-out battlefield! There were cars and trucks all over the sides and in the median. Some had their windows blown out and were filled with sand. There were long-haul trucks on their sides, and even a train on its side! It looked like a war had happened. We were very sobered, seeing what we had missed the day before by only a mile or so.
(The only time since then, that I have seen anything to compare in some way to what we saw, was the destruction the US Air Force heaped onto the Iraqi forces in 1991, as they were retreating from Kuwait. It looked like that! [on a much smaller scale])
We drove on for a time, feeling nothing but thanksgiving as we passed out of that area, headed into the desert. The desert has a real beauty, I’ll give you that. And as we drove through the late afternoon, in dark December, something began rolling in me in my heart and mind. On one hand nothing in nature can compare with the immediacy of the sky, and especially the night sky, in the desert. That was my first love in the West – the sky! In the US there is really no comparison in the East. We just have too much in the way, mountains included. But in the West – certain parts anyway – there’s that incredible in-your-face right-at-your-fingertips SKY! In the East I feel like we look at the stars. In the West I feel like we are in the stars!
“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Ps 8: 3,4).
“The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” (Ps 19: 1-4).
We drove down the highway into the dusk, diapers changing, snacks eating, luggage-rack rattling, attempts at entertainment and appeasement, threats of grievous bodily harm, sudden delights of beauty – the American Dream, really, truly, actually, going “over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we” went. Two thousand one hundred and sixty-two miles to go.
And as the afternoon waned further and further into dusk, at the same time as all that above was going on, an inner repetition began to go on in me, of Prov 3: 5,6. Now, I’ll have to say, I didn’t “work this one up.” It just came of itself and started repeating itself over and over, inside me. I don’t know why, except for my general frame of mind then, which often was fearful.
I had plenty to be fearful about on the trip already. Worry #1 was the schedule. We should’ve been at least halfway across the country by then but were still in California. Which caused Worry #2 – we had already spent more than half our money and it was running out like water out of a bucket riddled with holes.
Then there was Worry #3, unrelated to #1 and #2, in remembering the mechanic who told me the car would “probably” make it cross country and back, after he had worked on it and found “marginal” issues with the rods in the engine. There was no way we could’ve fixed the car AND gone to Georgia, so I put that “probably” in the back of my mind, in the “not an option” category, since the budget had already been far exceeded.
I began saying in my mind, over and over and over, Proverbs 3:5,6, quoted above.
But I’ll write it again, for the third time in this article.
“Lean not unto thine own understanding.” Understanding, enlightenment, wisdom, all are things greatly to be desired in the Lord. But we do not live from our understanding. In other words, even though we may have deep understanding of the ways of God, we may have walked in the Lord for a long time, still no matter how far our understanding goes or how clear it is to us, it is not where we put our trust. Our TRUST is in God, WHO is ALWAYS beyond any “understanding” we may have!
“Trust in the LORD with all thine heart.” These verses are really the key to all living, with this phrase being preeminent. With “all thine heart” means there is no reserve of “trust” left for anything else other than God! It means, ultimately, that we, as far as trust and reliance are concerned, leave everything perceptible and sensible (able to be perceived by the senses, physically or psychologically), all things solid and visible, all things with substance we can see, hear, feel, smell, and finally even the last vestige of our own sense of self, all the “somethingness” we have known all our lives and have always relied on nothing but, and trade it for a new reliance on – “nothing.” It is not really “nothing,” but, as far as this world is concerned and any perceptibility in it, God is “No-thing.” The “Invisible,” as my friend Burt Rosenberg likes to call it, and the “Invisible,” says Burt, “is a hard sell!”
“In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths.” Though I did not yet see it when the Spirit was pressing me in this passage, thinking then that these were things I “had” to do, like steps to take or something, but even in my dim consciousness at the time, I somewhat saw the universal quality in this, that this was a major key. Back then my “goal” was to acknowledge Him in all my ways, one by one, as we got to them, or when I could think of them. It also meant that I needed to “adjust myself” in my ways so that I could then acknowledge Him in them.
But I have since learned this is exactly the “oneness” we share, the union life we live, in these so-called “old testament” concepts. How many other “ways” can there be in me to acknowledge Him, when we recognize only Him as the Life of our lives, our heart of hearts, the Love within us, the unction of the Life we walk naturally every day? In other words, when we are one with the Father even as Jesus was one with the Father – “I and my Father are one” – acknowledging Him in all our ways and His sure direction of our path is the Life we ARE living, rather than one we are striving to live. Please note the difference between the two ways!
Now all that was not going on in my mind that evening as we were putt-putt-ing across the beginnings of the Mojave desert. The scripture passage was on my mind, however, and I was inwardly repeating it over and over as we drove down the highway. I did not know the Spirit was preparing us for what was coming next, and I certainly did not know I was in for a “Life” lesson that I would still be talking about 40 years later. I never know stuff like that. We just wanted to be home for Christmas!
Around 7 PM it had gotten to be full darkness, and we had not eaten since we left Bakersfield, 6 hours before. We were approaching Barstow, sort of the last stop before a long stretch in which, in those days, there was virtually nothing, and debated a little bit whether we should go ahead and stop for supper, etc.
We decided we’d better take a supper break, since there might not be much ahead. I pulled onto the exit ramp at Barstow, applied my brakes and finally went to neutral, pushing the clutch in as I stopped, and that is when I heard it. KLOP-KLOP, KLOP-KLOP. Instantly I KNEW what it was, those “marginal” rods in the engine. It was an unmistakable hard metallic sound, banging in the inside of the engine; if you’ve ever heard it, you know … and I knew.
But, not wanting to worry anyone else, being the typical “dad,” I told Janis that “knocking” might be a problem, but let’s go eat and let the car rest and cool for a while, and maybe it will be better. Always try solution #1 first – ignore it and maybe it will go away. So off to McDonald’s and double cheeseburger heaven, fries and drinks. I think to myself while we eat, “Maybe it will be ok, maybe it will be ok. Please, Lord, make it be ok, Please, Lord, make it be ok!”
With everyone back in the car (which was always a production just in itself), I turned the key, fingers crossed, wishing, hoping, and praying, and then – KLOP-KLOP, KLOP-KLOP!
Ok, that said, there was that sound again, no mistaking it! O so sadly I related how we were going to have to get a room for another night, since I was afraid to drive the car until we had it looked at, though, thankfully, it would still drive around town. We found a motel close by, a little above budget (but at that point, EVERYTHING was above budget!), and moved into our 3rd night of stay on the road, in California. We HAD made progress, because now we had a shorter trip left to Rome – only two thousand thirty-two miles to go!
Barstow was not a big place back then, but they did have a full-service Volkswagen dealership and service center, so I had it there the next morning, the first one in line when they opened. Luckily it was walking distance from our motel. They said they would check it out and call us. So we went back to the motel. By that time we realized we were going to have to stay for at least another night, so we elected to move to a much cheaper motel down the street, and waited to get the call.
Finally mid-afternoon the mechanic called. They had to partially take the engine apart to be sure, but yes, as we feared, we had a broken rod, and the only way to repair that was to overhaul that part of the engine. That was definitely not on the budget! In fact, it was several hundred dollars higher than it would have been to fix it before it broke, back in Monterey! (Nothing makes you wince anymore than realizing such a “self-inflicted” mistake – though I probably would not have done differently anyway.) They wanted $750 to overhaul the engine, a great deal of money in 1977, and we already owed them for taking it apart even if they didn’t do anything else!
The funds to make the trip had come from my mother and from Janis’ parents. My mother had sent the money to get us to Georgia, and Janis’ folks were helping us get back to California. We certainly didn’t have that money, and I figured she didn’t either, so we didn’t know what would happen. I called her and sure enough, as I thought, she said there was no way she could help with that, and the same with Janis’ folks. Our trip looked like it had hit the dust, literally.* We all went to sleep that night, feeling really really sad and really really dejected. (*That turned out to be more true than we first knew. It was the dust and sand going through the carburetor down into the engine that turned “marginal” into “broken.”)
And now we’re staying another night, Thursday, December 22, still two-thousand thirty-two miles to go. 130 miles closer to Rome. (At 130 miles per day, it would take about 16 days to drive to Georgia.)
The next day, Friday, December 23rd, we had to come to a decision about what to do. We could not repair the car. The way to Georgia seemed completely blocked, and we were running out of money. We decided, unless something else came up, the only thing we could do was to buy us all tickets on the Greyhound Bus, back to Monterey. We still had enough money to do that, at least! We could get ourselves back home, sans car, but at least back home in one piece. Making another long-distance call to my mother, reverse-charged of course (no phone cards, ATMs, wireless phones, computers, wifi, nothing whatsoever resembling any of that existed in that day), I explained our situation and told her that was what we were probably going to do, since we had no other option. We were all very very sad, but we were resigned to it, and decided to stay one more night in Barstow, and leave the next day, Saturday the 24th.
I really did not expect a rescue. Andrew had contracted some virus and he was vomiting that afternoon and evening. The kids were cramped and bored and bouncing off the walls of our little motel room.
But then, in the late afternoon, my mother called our motel room again. An anonymous benefactor, a friend of my mother, had bought the whole family airline tickets as a gift to her, leaving the next morning from Las Vegas, nonstop to Atlanta. The next morning was the 24th, Christmas Eve. It was an absolute miracle that they had gotten the tickets for December 24th! We were joyous and elated, hearing that news! Like Steve Winwood said a decade later, we were “back in the high life again.”
We did have some obstacles yet, however. We had gotten only what we needed for the motel stay out of the car. 75% of our stuff, including Janis’ guitar, all the Christmas presents and most of our winter stuff which we would need in Georgia, was still in the back of the VW parked in the shop. The other obstacle, was getting ourselves to Las Vegas from Barstow by 7 AM or so. I think our flight left around 9-something.
To solve the first problem, all our stuff still in the VW locked inside the lot, I tried to figure out a way to contact someone who could help us out, since by then it was after hours. We could not wait until the next day for two reasons. One, our reservations were miraculously received in the first place, and two, we had booked us all on the Greyhound that was departing Barstow around 2:30 AM, getting into Las Vegas around 5:30 AM.
I walked all over the town trying to contact someone who could let me get more of our stuff from the car. I tried calling the “IN CASE OF EMERGENCY CALL” number, but I couldn’t get through. I stopped in at the police station, told them my situation, and asked if they knew how to get in touch with anyone there. One of them said he thought the owner lived in another town. They were no help, either. I finally had to give up. We would have to figure out how to get our stuff later.
Back to the motel, we packed up what we had and got some rest. Around 1 AM, any passing motorist would have seen quite a sight walking down that main road. We had all our stuff (such as we had), and the three kids, two being carried and one walking. Andrew was still nauseated and a little feverish. It was several blocks down to the Greyhound Station, but we made it, boarded the bus, rode the 3 hours to Las Vegas, arriving around 5 AM. Next, we all piled into a taxi (an expensive necessity!), which took us to the airport.
No security checkpoint in those days, so we found where our departure gate was, and of course it was way down at the bitter end of a concourse. We arrived in a huff, and I had been enduring a growing need to relieve myself, which I did after we set our bags down. As I was hurriedly moving toward the bathroom, I happened to notice that the gate attendant was taking down the sign that said, “Atlanta.” Hmm, I thought, then forgot about it for my more pressing business.
When I came back out of the bathroom and got back to Janis and the kids, Janis was crying.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“They’ve canceled the flight to Atlanta! Mechanical difficulties!”
The gate attendant told us they would reroute us, but we had to go back to the ticketing area at the front. So we grabbed everything again, only this time we were in a big hurry to make it before we lost another shot. Breathing hard, we arrived at the ticketing window. The agent put us on a plane leaving shortly for – you guessed it! – California! (LAX, Los Angeles to be exact!)
So we grabbed up everybody again and started running back down toward a new departure gate. We had to be ready, when we got to LAX, to run with all our might to catch the flight, which was supposed to take off about 15 minutes after we landed from Las Vegas. So that’s what happened. We exploded out of that plane, me holding one kid, Janis carrying one and tightly gripping another’s hand.
Then we started our sprint! I think on camera our family might have merely been a passing blur, we were running so fast. One Hare Krishna guy in full robed-regalia tried to stop me for a donation. I doubt he did that again to anyone else that day! He may still remember me! As I approached him and he said, “Excuse me sir ….,” I yelled, “NO!!!!!!” He promptly got out of my way!
Finally, we boarded the plane, took off, made one stop in Dallas, and at last touched down in Atlanta, where my mother was waiting to take us home. “I’ll be home for Christmas, you can count, on me.” (We always were suckers for Bing Crosby!)
I’m going to stop the narrative now, even though there is more to the story. Maybe one day we can come back to it, and like Paul Harvey used to say, we can have “the rest of the story.”
Another adventure backlighted as always by the Living God – of Whom we all are.