For the first time in his life, John
Roderick Gage was lost. He couldn’t believe it. One minute he had been hiking
on a trail he knew well, one he had hiked many times before. The next,
suddenly, he had found himself in unfamiliar surroundings. He had
been walking for hours trying to find his way back to familiar
territory, but he had not been able to. His sense of direction seemed to
have abandoned him when he needed it the most. Stopping now, he ran
his fingers through his hair, and heaved a sigh of exasperation as he
sat down on a fallen tree trunk.
John knew Roy had been upset when he had turned down the invitation to spend Christmas Eve with the DeSoto family. Normally, John would have taken him up on the invitation, gladly. He loved watching the kids with their presents. But this year, for some reason, he was feeling lonely. All the Christmas hype was getting to him. Roy’s invitation made him feel like a charity case, it pointed up the fact that Roy had a family to celebrate with and he did not. Having begun to think in that vein, he realized that Captain Stanley, Mike, Marco, and even Chet had families nearby to gather with on Christmas Eve. Except for his Aunt, who had gone back East for the holidays, he had no family nearby. To make matters worse, not only had his current girlfriend dumped him, but she had turned around and, almost immediately, gotten engaged to one of the doctors in the hospital. The idea of having to work on Christmas Day did not help either.
So John had elected to spend the three days he and the others had been granted for the holiday, in the woods, camping. Getting as far away from the Christmas hype as he could was his one thought. Having packed his gear Wednesday, he had left directly from the station on Friday, and driven to his favorite campground. Arriving relatively early, he set up his equipment, then decided to take a short hike before lunch. The short hike was turning into an all day affair.
Though it was cooler up here in the mountains than it was in the city, it was not as cool as it was back home this time of year. Back home…how long had it been since he had thought of anywhere but LA as home? John stood, shaking off the melancholy. Squinting up at the sun through the trees, he attempted to get his bearings then, he turned and began walking in the direction he thought would take him back to his campsite. The trail was a series of wide switchbacks, a steady downhill incline, filled with a series of roots and rocks that seemed to have been put there purposely to trip hikers.
“Help,” the faint cry came from the path below. At first he dismissed it, thinking it was some sort of animal making noises. When he got closer to the source of the sound, he could make out words. Hurrying, he stumbled around the next switchback and began looking for the man whose voice he had heard. Lying on the ground several feet ahead of John and a few feet off the path, was a man of at least sixty. Both his full beard and hair were salt and pepper from graying.
“Help,” he said, when he saw John, “please, help.”
That he needed help was obvious, but he could not, at first, tell what was wrong. “Are you injured?” John asked, kneeling down beside the prone man.
“I twisted my ankle,” the man replied, grimacing as he tried to sit up.
John began to examine the other man, wishing he had more equipment, but he only had a few emergency first aid supplies with him in his backpack. “Is anything else wrong?” he asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” the older man replied. Examining him, John could find no evidence of injury other than the twisted ankle, and a few scratches on the man’s face and hands. The ankle was definitely injured. John undid the lacing on the boot the man wore, but did not remove it. Knowing that if he did so it would be impossible to get the boot back on. The off duty paramedic knew the old man would need it to support the ankle until he could get him off the dirt path.
“You did a pretty good job on this ankle,” John said.
“I thought so,” the man said, nodding. “My name’s Alma, by the way.”
“Alma?” John asked, surprised.
“Yes.” Alma chuckled. “I have my mother to thank for that one, you can call me Al.”
“Alright, Al,” John said. “My name’s John.”
“Well, John, I would be grateful if you would help me back to my cabin,” Al said.
“Maybe you should go to a doctor,” John said, “you might have done more than just twist this ankle.”
“Cabin’s closer,” Al said. “Besides, I don’t much hold with doctors, anyway.”
“Well, where is your cabin?” John asked. He hoped it was downhill, also, he hoped the man could get him back to familiar territory.
“It’s back up there a piece,” Al said, pointing the way John had just come.
“I’ll help you get home, and maybe you can help me get back to my campsite.” John told Al where he was camped and was assured that Al could give him directions for getting back there. Helping Al to stand, John supported him as they started back up the path he had just come down. What looked like a deer track turned off the path roughly halfway back to John’s starting point. Al indicated they should turn off the path, and follow the track. At the end of this track, a clearing widened out, large enough for a small log cabin and a yard. It reminded John of cabins he had seen in old westerns.
“You live here?” John asked, incredulous. “Year round?”
“Yep, that’s right.”
John helped Al into the cabin. Al sat down in a rocking chair. John started to take the man’s boot off.
“Let’s get a better look at this,” he said. Slightly swollen and tender to the touch, the ankle was not discolored. “Well, it looks like it was just twisted, but it would be best if you stay off it as much as possible the next day or two. I’ll wrap it with an ace bandage.” John reached into the backpack he always carried with him that contained first aid supplies. Having been caught unprepared a time or two, he had decided that it would always be best to have some supplies with him. Pulling out an ace bandage, he began to wrap the man’s ankle.
“You have quite a few medical supplies there,” Al commented. “Are you a doctor?”
“No, I’m a paramedic,” John said. He had not expected the old man to know what a paramedic was, but Alma nodded his head.
“Ah yes, the eyes and hands of the doctor in the field,” Al said smiling. John looked up at him in surprise.
“You know what a paramedic is?” he asked.
“Of course. Doesn’t every one?” Al asked, smiling.
“No,” John said. He finished wrapping the bandage around Al’s ankle. “How does that feel?”
“Not too tight?”
“Nope, just right.” Al said. He put his foot down on the floor and looked toward the cold fireplace sadly. Shaking his head, Al sighed.
“What’s wrong?” John asked.
“I was going to cut some firewood this afternoon, when I got back from my walk,” Al said. “But now…,”
John hesitated only a moment before he spoke. “I tell you what, I’ll cut you some wood before I go.”
“Would you?” Al asked, looking brighter. John nodded. “While you do that, I’ll draw you a map of how to get back to the campsite.”
John began chopping wood. As he worked, he thought about what had brought him to this place. Janet had started it. Thinking about her duplicity, he brought the ax down on the piece of wood he was splitting, the ax went through it like the proverbial hot knife through butter. After he had been chopping for several minutes, he realized his anger stemmed not from being dumped, but from having been dumped, again.
He thought he had solved his problem, but apparently he had not. Waiting until he found someone who was, or so he had thought, as interested in him as he was in her, he had asked Janet out a few weeks ago. When Janet had ended the relationship he had been surprised, having thought she was as interested in him as he was in her. Apparently she had only gone out with him to make the doctor jealous. And it had worked, too. She had gotten what she wanted, from both men. On that thought, the ax came down hard on the piece of wood before him, so hard it stuck in the stump that served as a chopping block. Removing the ax from the stump, John sighed. He had always found chopping wood to be very therapeutic. This time was no different, as he struck each piece of wood, a little of the anger and frustration left him.
When he had a good-sized stack of wood, he picked up an armful of it and went into the cabin. Still sitting in his chair beside the cold fireplace, the old man held a piece of wood in his hand, which he was whittling with a pocketknife. John walked to the wood box and dropped his load into it.
“Did you get that map drawn for me?” he asked.
“No. I couldn’t get to the paper and pencil,” Al said, he indicated his ankle, then continued to whittle. “Besides, it’s too late for you to be traipsing around out there, when you don’t know the territory.”
“Where’s the paper and pencil?” John asked, ignoring the latter comment. “I’ll get it for you.”
“That’s okay, you can get it later.” Al said, not looking up from the piece of wood in his hand. “Why don’t you finish bringing in the wood you chopped.”
“Right,” John said. He had hoped that he could get back to camp that night. Having come on this camping trip to spend some time alone, the last thing he wanted was to spend it with an old man he barely knew. He went back out to the woodpile and brought in more wood. When the box was full, Alma asked him to build a fire in the fireplace, which was a mess. John wondered, as he looked at the fireplace, if the old man had ever cleaned it out.
“Sorry,” Alma said, when he saw John cleaning out the fireplace, “I was going to do that when I got back from my walk, too.”
John decided it was just as well that he was staying, at least for the night. With his ankle in the shape it was in, Alma would not be able to do anything for himself, at least until the next day. When the fireplace was cleaned out and ready, John laid the fire, and lit it. When it was burning well, it lit the cabin and warmed it. Looking around the cabin, he saw a small wooden table with four wooden chairs; an old wood-burning stove stood near the wall opposite the fireplace. John lit an old oil-burning lamp he found standing in the middle of the table.
Not waiting for the old man to suggest it, John volunteered to fix supper. Luckily, he was familiar with wood burning stoves and had the meal fixed quickly. After the meal, he sat and watched the fire. Al continued his whittling.
“What brings you out into the woods so close to Christmas?” Al asked, as he worked.
“Actually, Christmas does,” John said, snorting derisively.
“Yeah, well, I don’t guess Christmas really,” John said amending his statement. “It’s mostly the hype, ya know. I just got sick of it.”
“Yes, commercialization has done a lot to hide the true meaning of Christmas,” Al said, nodding, his eyes on the block of wood in his hand. John could see that Al was not just shaving pieces of wood off the block as he had at first thought, but was actually carving the wood.
“How do you know about that?” John asked, puzzled. “If you live here all year round, how do you know about commercialization?”
“Well, son, I haven’t lived here all my life. And commercialization isn’t exactly a new thing.” Al said, smiling, his eyes twinkling.
“Well, for some reason, this year,” John said, sighing, “all the hype and forced good cheer…all that stuff...it just got to me.”
“It’s hard being alone for Christmas,” Al said, nodding his understanding
“Yeah,” John said. A frown came over his face. “How did you know I was alone?”
“If you weren’t alone, you wouldn’t be out here in the woods alone. Would you?”
“No, I guess not.” John said. Silence reigned for several moments before John spoke again. “Though I don’t guess I could say I was really alone, I do have friends, ya know.”
“I could have gone to Roy’s place, he’s my partner. He and his wife and kids invited me to spend Christmas Eve with them.”
“So why aren’t you?”
“I don’t know,” John said, shrugging. He fell silent again, this time thinking about when Roy had invited him to spend Christmas Eve with him and his family. Janet had just dropped her bomb on him, and he was still feeling angry with her. When Roy had asked him to come on Christmas Eve, he had extended the invitation to Janet as well, not realizing that they were no longer dating. Not only had it brought home to him the fact that he would be dateless for the season, but it had made him feel angry about feeling lonely. “I guess, mostly, I was mad. I didn’t want Roy or anyone else feeling sorry for me. My aunt went back east for the holidays, and I don’t have any other family in L.A. I guess I just took it out on him.”
“The two of you are close?” Al asked.
“Yeah.” John said. He quit wondering how the man knew so much about him, and just accepted that he did. “Pretty close. I helped to pick out and decorate their tree. It was the kids’ idea.” John went on to tell the old man what had brought him into the woods. “And then we have to work Christmas Day this year, too. I don’t know, some how that was just the final straw.”
“Oh, but what a wonderful way to spend Christmas Day,” Al said, looking up from his whittling.
“What? Working is a wonderful way to spend Christmas Day?” John asked.
“Not just working,” Al said, “performing service for others.”
“Performing service for others,” Al repeated. “In your job you help others, right?”
“Well, yeah, but,” John said, still puzzled as to what the man was getting at.
“When you help others, when you save a life, or help those in need, or just give comfort where you can, you are serving others,” Al explained.
“Okay,” John said slowly. “But what does that have to do with Christmas?”
“Christmas represents the ultimate service,” Al said, explaining. “When the Christ child came to earth, it was to perform a service for all of us.”
“I don’t get it,” John said, frowning. “How could a baby being born, be a service to anyone?”
“Not just any baby, the Christ child,” Alma said. “Christ was born into this world to perform the atonement. Without the atonement, none of us would have a hope of getting to heaven. But with it, we have every hope of getting there. Wouldn’t you say, dying so that others could live, was a service.”
“Well, yeah, I guess so,” John said. “I never thought of it that way before.”
“So when we perform even a small service for others, we are emulating him.” Alma continued. “What a wonderful way to celebrate the birth of the Christ child.”
“I’ll have to think about that one,” John said. They sat in silence for a long while, the younger man staring into the fire, the older man carving on the wood.
“John’s not coming for Christmas Eve?”
“No,” Roy said, “He’s going camping instead.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that. Is there?”
“No, not with going camping,” Roy agreed. “But, the reason he’s going camping, that’s what worries me. I think this thing with Janet really has him upset.”
“Oh, you know Johnny, he’ll get over it quickly enough. Next week I’m sure he’ll have a new girlfriend and be right back to his old self.”
“I suppose, but I think he was really trying,” Roy said shaking his head. “I think he really wants to settle down now.”
“Well, it happens to the best of us,” JoAnne said teasingly, ruffling her husband’s hair.
That night, when it was time for bed,
John was yet again surprised. There was not a bed in the room he and
the old man had occupied for most of the night. John helped the old man
through a doorway that led to a small room in the back of the cabin. What
surprised John was that there were three beds in the room.
Seeing John’s surprise, Alma chuckled, “My brothers live here with me,” he explained. “They are gone on a short trip right now. They’ll be back day after tomorrow.”
The next morning, John was up early, but no earlier than Al. When John had settled the man once more into his rocking chair, he picked up the piece of wood and began to carve on it once again. John did the morning chores and fixed breakfast for the two of them. After breakfast Alma offered to draw the map for him so that he could leave. John surprised himself with his answer.
“No, that’s okay,” he found himself saying. “I’ll stay for today and tonight, if you don’t mind. I mean you’re still not getting around too good on that ankle, so…”
“That’s kind of you,” Al said, nodding. “Thank you, I’d appreciate it.”
John nodded and went about doing the chores that needed doing around the cabin. When the chores where done, he sat and talked with Alma. That night, lying on one of the brothers’ beds, John reflected on his weekend so far. He had intended to spend it alone, licking his wounds, he realized now. But, it hadn’t worked out that way. John grinned to himself as he realized that he felt better, about himself and life in general, than he had in months. While he had been helping the old man, he had also been helping himself. Also, he knew that he no longer wanted to spend Christmas Eve alone, he wanted to spend it with those he loved and who loved him. And he knew just where to find those people.
The next morning, John once again did the morning chores and fixed breakfast. After breakfast, as he was finishing cleaning up the breakfast dishes, Al called to him.
“Here,” Alma said, proffering the wooden carving he had been working on, “this is for you, to remind you of your time here.”
“I don’t think I’ll need anything to remind me,” John said, his smile lighting his eyes.
“I carved it for you,” Al said, continuing to hold the piece out to John.
“Why, thank you,” John said taking the carving from the man. His smile was replaced with a look of astonished wonder. In his hand, he held a finely carved nativity scene, which included Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus. Mary held the baby in her arms while Joseph held them both in his. “This is incredible, thank you.”
Shortly after this, they heard approaching footsteps, Alma’s brothers returning from their trip. Alma introduced the men to one another. When John was ready to leave, instead of drawing him the promised map, one of the brothers offered to walk him back to familiar territory. When John knew where he was, the man bid him good-bye and turning, began walking back the way they had come. John continued on the path and then, remembering something he had wanted to ask the man, turned to hail him. No one was on the path. Looking around, John could not see where the man could have gone. He shrugged deciding it was just another part of this whole astonishing weekend. Turning, he continued on, returning at last to his campsite.
Roy stared for a long moment at the man
before him. He was surprised to see his partner standing on the porch with
a bag slung over his shoulder.
“I’m not too late, am I?” John asked, when Roy did not greet him.
“I thought you weren’t coming,” Roy said, still not moving from the doorway.
“I thought I wasn’t, too,” John said. “If you would rather I left…”
“Uncle Johnny!” Jennifer exclaimed, as she caught sight of the man standing in the doorway. Her greeting seemed to break her fathers spell.
“No, of course not,” Roy said, standing back from the doorway so that John could enter. “Come in.” At the same time, Jennifer and Chris both rushed John gleefully. They took the bag he had over his shoulder from him. They were excited to find that it contained the expected presents.
“We’ll put these under the tree!” Chris offered.
“Just be careful with them,” Roy admonished. Turning back to John, he said, “I thought you were spending the holiday in the woods, hiding out.”
“I was, or at least that’s what I started out to do,” John said. Just then, JoAnne came into the hall from the kitchen.
“Well, hello, John,” she said, smiling. “I thought you were out in the woods somewhere.”
“I was,” John said, with a laugh.
“I’ll set another place at the table,” JoAnne said, smiling, her eyes twinkling.
“Are you sure?” John asked, “I mean, you weren’t expecting me. Will there be enough?”
“Of course there’ll be enough.” JoAnne said, smiling. “I always make extra. You never know when a friend is going to drop by unexpectedly.” John could tell by the twinkle in JoAnne’s eyes that he was being teased. Before he could answer, she turned and walked back through the kitchen door. “Dinner in ten minutes,” she said over her shoulder.
After dinner, they gathered in the living room where the tree was. Looking at the Christmas tree, John remembered the day it had been set up. Chris and Jennifer had asked him to come and help pick the tree out. They seemed to think it only natural that their “Uncle Johnny” would be included in picking out the family tree. Roy had grinned when he saw the expression of hesitancy on John’s face. Clapping him on the back, he had added his voice to the children’s. John had gone with them to the tree lot and helped to pick out the tree.
When they had gotten home he had helped Roy to fit the tree into the tree stand and move it into the living room where a place had been prepared for it. John watched as Roy examined the string of lights for burned out bulbs and then replaced them. While Roy wound the lights around the tree, draping them just so, John held the rest of the string for him, feeding it to him slowly. Handing John an ornament, Jennifer had directed him to place it on the tree. They had all spent the afternoon laughing, talking, and squabbling good-naturedly, while they decorated the tree. Then there was the last bit of decoration: the icicles, long strands of silver tinsel. John could tell by the loving care, with which Roy placed each one on the tree, they were his favorite. John held a handful of the silver icicles, wondering what to do with them. His first inclination had been to toss clumps of them onto the tree and let them fall where they might, but then as he watched Roy carefully placing his, he realized tossing them would never do. So he placed his as carefully as he had seen Roy do.
“Uncle Johnny!” Jenny’s voice broke into his musings. From the tone in Jen’s voice he knew this was not the first time she had called his name.
“Yes, Jen. What is it?” he asked, giving the girl his attention.
“We’re trying to decide who’s going to play Santa Claus,” she said. “Do you want to play Santa Claus?” John knew from past experience that Jen was talking about someone handing out the presents. Neither of the kids wanted to play Santa because “Santa” was always the last to open his presents.
“Sure, I’ll play Santa,” John said. Standing, he walked over to the tree. Sitting beside the tree was the bag of presents he had brought, half the presents remained inside the bag. Taking them out, he placed them under the tree with the rest. Then, reaching into the bottom of the bag, he took out a small wooden object. The carving the old man had given him. Looking at it in the light of the Christmas tree, he smiled to himself as he remembered the old man and the time he had spent talking with him and watching him carve it.
“What’s that, Uncle John?” Chris asked seeing the wooden object in John’s hand.
“This? This is a present from a very special friend of mine.” John said. Going on, he told them about having gotten lost and finding the old man. Also, he told them about what Al had said about working on Christmas Day. About how doing a service for others, even a small one, was emulating the man who had performed the ultimate service. Showing his carving to the others, he was not surprised at their oos and ahhs of appreciation.
“This is exquisite,” JoAnne said as she held the carving, examining it. “He carved this for you?”
“Yep,” John said smiling. Taking the carving back from JoAnne he placed it next to the DeSoto’s nativity scene. The rest of the evening was given over to opening presents. Feeling again the love that permeated the household, he sighed in contentment. That he had ever considered not spending this Christmas in this home, with this family, was unbelievable. John knew he had never been happier.
Later, he lay in bed remembering JoAnne’s Christmas dinner, watching his adopted family opening presents they had lovingly chosen, and opening his own presents they had just as lovingly chosen for him. Suddenly he knew this year he had come closer to spending Christmas in paradise than ever before. He smiled at the thought as he drifted off to sleep.
Christmas Morning, Roy greeted Mike as
he walked into the locker room and opened his locker. Chet,
looking decidedly disgruntled, and Marco followed him into the room,
and crossed to their own lockers. A short time later, John bounced into
“Good morning, good morning,” he called out cheerfully, walking over and opening the door of his locker.
“What’s so good about it?” Chet asked, frowning.
“It’s Christmas,” John said, smiling brightly.
“Yeah, and where are we? Here, working,” Chet replied.
“Yeah, what a wonderful way to spend Christmas Day.” John said, as he set his nativity scene inside the locker. Not wanting to let the precious carving out of his sight, he had brought it to work with him.
“John,” Chet said a look of concern coming over his face. “Are you okay?”
“When we left here Friday morning, you were grumbling about working today as much as we were. Now you’re practically bouncing with joy to be working.” Chet shook his head. “You gotta be sick or something.”
“I’m not sick, Chet,” John said.
“Well, I’m glad to hear that, John,” Cap said coming into the locker room. “Roll call in five minutes, gentlemen.” Cap started to leave, but was stopped by Chet.
“Cap, you gotta do something about Gage. If he’s not sick, I think he must be just plain nuts.” Chet recounted to Cap the conversation that had gone on before. Before Cap could say anything, John spoke up.
“Cap, I’m not sick, or crazy. You see, I went camping Friday morning and got lost…” he then went on to recount to them his experience with the old man. After hearing the story and seeing the carving, they all felt better about working on Christmas Day.
“And if you don’t mind sharing, John,” Cap said when John was finished. “I would like you to put your carving on the day room table, to remind us all.”
And so, Alma’s carving of the Nativity sat in an honored position all that day. The next day, John took it home and placed it on a shelf where it was easily visible. It stayed there long after Christmas was over, reminding him that doing someone a service, even a small one, was to emulate the man who performed the ultimate service.