I’m not much of a believer in the mystical and magical. I don’t look at fantastical events and think of some divine intervention, or a prayer was answered. For all the good and bad that happens, and happens in a miraculous way, I see it as either good luck or bad luck. Yes, I view life as if we’re all living in some perpetual casino. Every decision we make and every step we walk towards some unknown outcome is basically us dropping coins into the slots and hoping for all cherries. Every chance at bettering ourselves; whether it be a new job, relationship, new car, or experimental drug is nothing more than us stepping up to the universe’s blackjack table and calling it on 17. I don’t believe in miracles.
Well, except for one.
Christmas Eve of 2002 my wife and I were invited to my aunt’s house in Plymouth, Indiana. That’s about a 35 minute drive west on U.S 30 from where we lived. It’s a trip I’ve taken hundreds of times from adulthood to back when I was in short pants. My mom and I would go over to my aunt’s house often. I had 3 cousins there, and one was a boy and just a year younger than me. I spent ample time over there running around their giant, old house that at one time back at the turn of the century had been converted into an apartment house. By the time my uncle bought it it had become a lifelong project to turn it into a single family home. It was a maze of a home where hide and seek, dart gun fights, and just general mischief was always a possibility.
This particular Christmas Eve in 2002 was a pretty clear one. It was cold, but the skies were blue and no snow in sight. At least none expected till late that night and early Christmas morning. At the time we had a 2-year old daughter and were expecting another the following May. The previous holiday season we’d lost a baby to miscarriage, so the fact that this particular bun-in-the-oven was developing nicely made the whole feel of this holiday much better, and joyous. Mother Nature can deal some true crap hands at times.
Luck of the draw.
We’d made our way to Plymouth in reasonable time. My mom and dad had beat us by about an hour(they lived and still do live in the same neighborhood as we do.) When you’re not having to pack diapers, toys, snacks, and ample changes of clothes for a rambunctious toddler you can do things like get to places on time. Even when we weren’t hauling little people around it was a miracle we could get anywhere on time. This particular Christmas Eve we weren’t the last to arrive, so that was good. We even managed to bring dessert and a white elephant gift(a holiday tradition at my family holiday celebrations…never got the point.)
The evening was great. Everyone loved seeing our 2-year old. She had hair red like her mom’s, and had that “Annie”-like flair to her. At the time she had wild, straight hair but by the time her sister would come into the world in May her hair was curly just like that little orphan that enjoyed singing. There was plenty of food and drink and lots of laughing. We’re laughers. If there’s one thing you could count on at a Christmas gathering with my mom’s side of the family it was laughter. Laughter and singing. Christmas carols, classic rock, Neil Diamond(my grandma’s favorite.)
We were a joyous bunch.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say I missed those family gatherings. Kids turn to adults, then those adults have kids of their own, and extended family gets more extended. Pretty soon people live half way across the country and time needs divided among in-laws and there’s not enough time to do what we used to do. It’s just a part of growing up and growing apart, I suppose.
Anways, back to the story.
Pretty soon, the evening was starting to wind down. Desserts had been devoured and the lousy white elephant gifts had been traded and yelled over. My parents had hit the road about 45 minutes before we had, and someone talked about the snow hitting much earlier than first forecast. So the wife and I gathered our 2-year old and her week’s worth of clothes, snacks, and toys she’d gotten from her great-grandma and after about 30 minutes of heading to the car and saying our goodbyes we hit the road. The first five minutes of getting out of town wasn’t bad. The snow had started but it wasn’t terrible. Though as soon as we hit U.S. 30 east things started to get dicey. The snow was a concoction of snow, sleet, and rain. The wipers on our 1994 Nissan Maxima were working overtime, as that rain and sleet was turning solid as the cold air hit it on the window as I drove as quickly as I could to get us home.
About ten minutes into the drive something terrible happened: the windshield wipers stopped working. As I drove the wipers just locked up and began making a godawful sound. It was as if the motor seized up from the accumulation of ice and snow and they ceased to exist. Within seconds I could barely see anything out of the windshield. At this spot on the highway there was nothing. Nowhere to pull over to. Honestly, I couldn’t even seen to pull over. I became completely discombobulated, as if I’d been dropped from the sky from some undisclosed coordinate and landed on some random highway. I could see the taillights of the few cars that were out adventuring along with us, so I knew when to brake. I rolled down my window so I could look to make sure I wasn’t floating into the other lane or into another car. Other than that, I was flying blind.
I quickly asked my wife to call my parents. She’d recently gotten herself a cell phone. This was still the early days of mobile phones. She’d bought herself a little blue Nokia for emergencies since she was driving around with a little one often. But to my dismay she said she left it at home. Home? HOME?? You left it at home?! I was yelling this in my head. Outwardly though, I just maybe whimpered an “Oh great” out. I’d thought it was kind of a waste of money at the time. This only solidified my opinion.
So I was too far out to turn around, and I really couldn’t see to turn around. I was navigating based on vague-ish glowing red lights in front of me and a driver’s side window rolled down sticking my head out into the freezing spittle and making sure I wasn’t floating over into the other lane. I really couldn’t see how I was going to do this for another 45 minutes to an hour, as our 35 minute cruise down a major highway had turned into an hour+ death race 2000. Just as I felt I might start to lose my mind I saw a beacon of hope. Ahead of us to the left was an old truck stop. It was Christmas Eve and nearly everything was closed along the highway. Gas stations, diners, and even homes looked retired and darkened. It seemed as if we’d ended up on some abandoned ghost highway, until we came across these glowing reds and whites and green lights, and the four words that to this day fill me with great joy: EAT FOOD GET GAS.
I ever so slowly made my way into the left lane, then gingerly got into the turn lane. With my wife rolling her window down I could see the coast was clear and made my way across U.S. 30 and into the parking lot of this heavenly site of a truck stop. We quickly got our daughter unbuckled and made our way into the restaurant attached to the gas station.
It was an older restaurant. Had the look of something you’d find of the New Jersey Turnpike in the 60s. Black and white photos up on the wall and strands of Christmas lights strewn from booth to booth. The young waitress greeted us with a smile, despite the fact that it was 8:40PM on Christmas Eve and customers just walked into her store. I immediately went to the pay phone by the register and hocked some change into it to call my parents. Luckily they were home and I asked if they could come pick us up at the truck stop near Bourbon on U.S. 30. They said of course and headed out to get us. My wife and I ordered coffee and we got our daughter some ice cream. The young waitress was pleasant and made small talk. We told her what happened with the windshield wipers and the terrible weather and she said she was glad they were open for us to stop. They’d nearly closed up early around 6pm, but another couple traveling from Chicago back to Ohio stopped at 5:57PM for a hot meal.
Thank you, you buckeyes you.
Soon enough my parents showed and we all piled into their much newer Nissan Maxima(and with working wipers, natch) and made our way to home. Before I’d left I told the waitress and owner how thankful I was they’d been open and left the waitress a $25 tip. I said Merry Christmas and was off. On Christmas Day my dad drove me back to the truck stop to retrieve our car. The skies were blue and not a cloud in sight. The place looked as if it had never been open. It looked abandoned. I peeked into the door just to make sure I hadn’t witnessed some sort of It’s A Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol miracle the night before and saw the lights and everything looked as it had 16 hours prior. I started my car and scraped the windshield clean. Within 10 minutes my dad and I were on our way back home for Christmas dinner.
A couple weeks later we drove by that truck stop while on our way to South Bend and noticed they were closed. For good. There was a realty sign in the front window where I’d peeked in just a couple weeks before. The pumps were locked and the parking lot hadn’t been plowed. It really was as if that place had been closed for years. .
Of course they had been opened, and at the right time for us. That truck stop has been reopened and closed several times since then, and has been closed now for at least 10 years. For my wife, daughter, and I, it was a right place right time sort of thing.
Like I said, I’m not one that believes in the mystical or the magical. I don’t think there’s angels watching over us and stepping in when we need some otherworldly assistance. It’s really just luck. Good luck, bad luck, in-between luck. On December 24th, 2002, I dropped coins into the universe’s slots and came up with 3 cherries. I got a blackjack on 17. That night the cards were dealt, and I got a full house.
Best $25 cup of coffee I’ve ever had.