His simple Christmas Eve gesture of kindness to two strangers was repaid a hundredfold.
- Posted on Oct 24, 2018
“Closed.” So read the sign up ahead. Seemed as if I’d driven all over Knoxville, Tennessee, that Christmas Eve in 1957 without finding one open gas station. But I couldn’t give up. My new wife, Pat, was waiting for me at home with her mother. They were counting on me to drive them to a big celebration with my in-laws the following morning. If this many gas stations were closed on Christmas Eve, what were my chances of finding something open on Christmas Day?
The gas was for my olive green sedan. I’d spent hours washing and polishing it for our holiday trip. I didn’t want to show up in a dirty car. That was no way to make a good impression on my new family. I glanced at my watch. Neither is coming home late for dinner on Christmas Eve, I told myself. I hoped my mother-in-law wouldn’t think I was irresponsible.
I turned down another street—there! Up ahead was a gas station with its neon sign aglow. When I pulled up an attendant in a white cap and snappy uniform ran out to take care of me. Hallelujah!
In no time I was on my way home. Maybe I hadn’t ruined everything after all. The street before me was nearly empty, just me and a city bus. Everyone else is home enjoying holiday dinner, I thought. Until I noticed the two people up ahead by the side of the road. A woman with a small child. She waved anxiously as the bus got near, but the driver didn’t stop. Just passed them right by in a cloud of exhaust. Why didn’t he stop for them? Express bus? Out of service?
The air cleared, and I saw the woman and her child closely. No, the bus wasn’t out of service. The driver hadn’t stopped because they were black. That was the way it was in 1957, even on a cold winter’s night. What could I do? I had potatoes, carrots and pot roast waiting for me at home—not to mention a mother-in-law. But that woman and her son sure looked desperate—more desperate than I’d been before I found a gas station. How could I just drive past? I slowed to a crawl by the bus stop and rolled down the window. “Is there some way I can help you?”
The woman pulled her coat closer around her, shivering. How long have they been waiting? The little boy looked about seven. He wiped away tears with the back of his hand. “Two buses passed us by,” the woman said, clearly trying to control her frustration. “My son, Michael, here is supposed to play the Angel of the Lord in our church Christmas pageant tonight. It starts in less than an hour. I don’t know when another bus will come by.”
Or if it will pick them up, I thought.
I wished I could call Pat and tell her why I was running late, but in those days the only person with anything like a cell phone was Dick Tracy. Finding a pay phone would take a while. I considered my options. The people at that church are waiting too, I thought. What’s a Christmas pageant without the Angel of the Lord?
I pushed the passenger door open. “Climb in,” I said. “I’ll drive you to the church.”
Michael clambered into the back seat. His mother started to follow. That was another unspoken rule in those days: As a black woman, she would sit in the back. “You’re more than welcome to sit up front,” I said.
She obliged with a smile. “I’m Mrs. Johnson,” she said and gave me the address of her church about 20 minutes away. “If you don’t mind,” she said, “I need to help Michael go over his lines.” She turned around in her seat. “Fear not…,” she began.
“Fear not,” Michael repeated. “Fear not, for behold…”
I hope Pat didn’t put the pot roast in the oven too early, I thought.
“For behold,” Michael said, “I bring you good tidings of great joy which…which…” “Shall be,” his mother prompted.
“Which shall be to all people!” Michael said. His voice was full of joy. The pot roast could wait.
“Now the next part,” Mrs. Johnson said. “For unto you is born…”
“Jesus the Lord!” Michael said. I gave him a thumbs-up in the rearview mirror.
“Now say it just like the Bible does,” Mrs. Johnson said. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior…”
“Who is Christ the Lord,” Michael said solemnly.
“That a boy, Michael,” I said.
“Now the very last part,” Mrs. Johnson said. “And this shall be a sign unto you…”
Michael picked up his cue right away. “Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
I almost burst into applause. Over and over Michael practiced his lines. By the time we arrived at the church, he was letter-perfect. Mrs. Johnson and Michael stepped out of the car. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” she said. “We’d be honored to have you join us for the service.”
“I’d love to,” I said, “but my wife and mother-in-law are waiting for me at home with what I’m certain is a very overdone pot roast.”
Mrs. Johnson reached into her purse. “It would be my pleasure to pay you for your gas.”
“It was no trouble,” I said. “Sharing Christmas Eve with you and Michael is a gift I’ll never forget.”
I got back on the road. I couldn’t wait to get home—not to make a good impression, but to tell my family I had given a lift to the Angel of the Lord. Surely that would make up for a dried-out pot roast.
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