This Christmas story was first told to me by an elderly preacher long ago. I do not know whether it was true. What I know is that pulpiteers can tell some good ones, and this old revivalist delivered his story well. I never forgot it.
The small, silver-haired clergyman hobbled before our full chapel and spoke quietly. I was 15 years old. He had us in his palm that night.
He told of an icy, white, Oklahoman landscape covered in snow. And a tiny bus, almost microscopic when viewed from a distance, crawling across a flat alabaster prairie. Inside the bus was a teenage girl, pregnant, and bound for Texas, looking for a clean start.
The bus rocked back and forth. Her hands rested on her belly. She watched the snowscape go by like a lead-white diaorama. This was an era when Americans were rejoicing that Hitler’s war was finally over, things were returning to normal. Except, things weren’t normal. Not for the girl. It was almost Christmastime and her life was wreckage.
Midway through the journey the big vehicle stopped at a filling station located in no man’s territory. It was a pit stop with a general store, hot coffee, cold sandwiches, beer, and outhouses. It was the only structure around for miles. The passengers availed themselves to the facilities.
The young woman used the privy just like the others, but pregnant women are not quick in cramped lavatories, so things took longer than she’d planned. When she finally finished her business she discovered that the Greyhound was gone.
She almost couldn’t believe what she was seeing. This couldn’t be happening.
But it was. The driver had forgotten her. Her world was now a vacant highway covered in flurries. She cried. Namely because even though, yes, her life had been bad before, now it was bad AND she had no luggage.
The girl had a meltdown inside the filling station at the lunch counter. Her only confidant was the store’s sole employee that day, a young man. He was a teenager, too, but older than she was, scrawny, and not quite finished with puberty. He ran this place when the owner was away, and the kid lived on site.
All he could do was offer the young woman a sandwich and coffee.
The girl vented her problems like she was unpacking a footlocker. She told him about her baby, and how the baby’s father was a rich college boy whose parents were embarrassed by the child’s existence. And how the parents called her a harlot, then gave her a small sum of money and sent her away.
The kid behind the counter was the perfect confessor. He was quiet and he passed no judgement. When she finished her monologue it was already dark outside. He offered the girl his bed for the night. She was hesitant at first, but he seemed so kind.
His cot was located behind the store, housed in a renovated chicken coop, which the owner gave him for room and board. His tight quarters were minuscule. The ragged wooden walls had a few framed pictures. There were several quilts on an old straw bed, a wood stove, a gas lantern. The place reeked of livestock.
That night the young man slept on the floor of the filling station while a snowstorm horsewhipped the Great Plains. He drifted off to sleep, still worrying deeply about his new friend.
He was awoken by screams. He burst into the chicken coop with a flashlight to see what was wrong, only to find that the inevitable was happening.
Stories told by old preachers have a way of forcing the inevitable.
The birth pangs were getting worse. She was screaming, weeping, shouting, panting, and begging the young man to fetch somebody. Except, there was nobody. The nearest doc was a half-day away, the nearest town was even farther.
The kid was helpless and afraid, he wanted to cry, or disappear. He didn’t know what to do or how to do it. But his fear didn’t show. He stood before her pretending to be more mature than his 16 years. And even though he was frightened, he took her hand and squeezed it with improvised confidence.
Soon, the girl was pushing. Howling. Wailing. Her face turned jawbreaker red. There were many tears.
It was a long, long night. The kid did whatever felt right in the moment. He told her she was doing great, he fetched clean rags, hot water, and whatever she needed. She bellowed in pain; he replied with supportive cheers like it was the ninth inning.
And there, on a snow beaten prairie, the sound of an infant’s weak cries filled a nondescript chicken coop with untamed and remarkable joy. And somehow the universe was brighter because of it.
The young man was the first to hold this fatherless child. He wrapped the babe in a ratty T-shirt and laid him in a peach crate. And after his Niagara of tears, the young man promised this child, the beautiful mother, and heaven, that he would never leave their side. And after a lifetime of marriage and faithful fatherhood, he never did.
The baby grew up to be a preacher, some say the greatest there ever was.
When the old minister finished delivering his tale he received gentle applause. And when he deboarded the altar to take his pew, I asked him if this story was true.
The parson did not answer at first. He didn’t owe me anything. So he didn’t comment on how our hate-battered world is often like a barren prairie, whipped by blizzards of division and anger. Nor did he explain how the humble birth of kindness, peace, goodwill, charity, and love can shatter even the most bitter snow crust and mend any broken heart.
Instead he only rested a hand on my shoulder and said, “You tell me.”