By Rev. Steve Chambers
There is a heartbreaking tearjerker of an old Stan Rogers song that grabs my gut whenever l hear it about a young lad away from home for the first time at Christmas.
This Christmas my own daughter won't make it home...the first time that my family won't share a table. Some people bolt from home right out of high school and never look back, but as a young man, my home life was stable enough to come back every Christmas. I would put aside my issues and everyone else's and allow for a few hours of the old pleasant feelings. Sooner or later, though ,it happens to most of us.
I was in Seattle, having gone there in an attempt to hop a freighter so that l might work my way around the world. It was a bold move for me, but I figured it might be my last chance to see the world and down the road be able to tell my grand kids some killer stories. I had been in St. Thomas , Virgin Islands the previous winter, lying in a hammock reading Tom Robbins. What the hell made me think that the rainy Pacific Northwest sounded romantic? But my friend Dave Smithgall loved it there and he offered me a place to stay. So, l made my way to Seattle, what seemed a perfect jumping off point for the rest of the world.
Dave lived in a house with four other adults and it was a fun place to hang out. Friends would stop by, and out to the bars we would all go. The taverns had great character then, not at all gentrified as they are today. Many of the waterfront taverns retained a certain beer hall, down by the docks, turn of the century charm. I ended up getting a part time job in a sandwich shop and staying on for a few months, prowling the docks looking for a boat out...to Hawaii maybe, or China. But l had no luck.
Thanksgiving was a great feast with my new friends. That afternoon Dave and l played frisbee football in the bank parking lot across the street with a few locals and sat down to a turkey dinner that evening. But for Christmas he went back to Pennsylvania. l couldn't afford plane tickets so l stayed on with folks that l actually didn't know as well as l thought. Folks with families of their own.
I was suddenly a lonely man in a big city, far from home. All the bright window displays and cheerful Christmas carols and sparkling holiday lights served to mock rather than cheer me. And there was the relentless cloudy and rainy weather, some Seattleans love it, preferring it to snow, but l was miserable.
On Christmas eve l went to a local alternative theater for a movie.
A film called "It's a Wonderful Life" was playing. Now there was a point
when this movie hadn't seen the light of day for a long time. Today it is a common holiday show…very common. But between 1950 and 1975, because of licensing issues, it was not seen. I had never heard of this movie at the time. I found it profoundly moving that night, probably because of my lonely state. What a happy ending, the Jimmy Stewart character, who is foiled in his attempts to travel the world, later finds relevance and redemption in his own little home town!
When l stepped out into the dreary street, other movie goers were walking along shouting out "Merry Christmas". l shouted back to them. It was probably my last and only moment of Christmas spirit for that year.
The next day l awoke with an atrocious case of influenza. There was vomiting and diarrhea and headaches. I lay alone in a fetal position, in my bed, no one to care for me. l'd infect them anyway. I'd hit rock bottom, both emotionally and physically.
Ah, but you make it through days like this and you move on. But l quickly realized that maybe l wasn't cut out to work on a freighter in the Pacific Ocean. Who would nurture me out there? Who would be there on Christmas morning to kiss my face and hand me gifts?
So by New Years day l was gone, heading back to the Virgin Islands for the winter, where the sun would warm me and where my many friends had gathered to lay upon the beaches, swim in the caressing sea and read Tom Robbins.