This is the first of nine winners in the Deseret News annual Christmas writing contest, "Christmas I Remember Best."
Our instinct was only to take our children home, yet we took them into darkness, hunger, and danger. Fifty years later, I still feel the metallic taste of fear and helplessness.
I bundled my sons Mark (18 months), and Sean (6 weeks) deeper into snowsuits and quilts, feeding them the last milk and snacks on the entire train.
My husband Jack and I lived in Ames, Iowa, where he worked on his doctorate. We missed the West, so we decided to take our sons home to Phoenix for Christmas — by train, Kansas City to Flagstaff. As I packed extras for any possibility, Jack laughed, “Take the kitchen sink, why don’t you?”
Excited and boarding, we noticed a light snow falling. Traveling, our snowfall became heavy, wet, all-consuming. It was 1967. We were headed into the worst storm in Arizona’s history. It snowed 86 inches in eight days. In Nebraska, in front of us, a train derailed. We sat on the tracks for 12 hours. All the food and blankets on the train evaporated. We had both lived in Arizona. Flagstaff was good with snow.
We indulged some nervous giggling as the conductor’s claims grew more exaggerated: “They are airlifting food and hay to the Navajos,” “Snow’s 5 feet on the level in Flagstaff,” “Air and car traffic has ceased,” “The hotels and motels are full,” “Your seats are sold after Flagstaff to allow university students to leave town.”
We didn’t take these announcements seriously until we crossed into Arizona. Snow reached the crossbars on telephone poles. We panicked, pondered and prayed. Pre-cellphone. No way to contact anyone. My parents couldn’t get through from Phoenix. We didn’t know anyone in Flagstaff. The train was a sanctuary, but we had to get off.
Pulling into the station, it was Doctor Zhivago. We stood on the platform. I wondered, "Who would rescue us? How could we rescue ourselves?" Suddenly, I heard my name from the back of the crowd. I burst into tears and said, “Oh Jack, there’s someone here for us!”
An elderly couple pushed through the throng. They hugged us while she said, “Karen, I’m your cousin Louise and we’ve been waiting all day for you.” Louise, my third cousin, hadn’t seen me since I was 2. My mother had called her. Layton and Louise Beamer stand in for all who cared during that storm. They say extreme emergencies bring out the worst and best in us. I saw nothing but the best. The Beamers took us home, past 10-foot drifts. They fed, slept and nurtured us. My father arrived the next day — the only day in a two-week period when snow stilled enough to allow passage.
As we left, I hugged Louise and spoke from the heart, “You rescued us. How can I ever repay you?” She replied, “You can’t. But you can pass it along.”
God gave me a chance to “pass it along” quicker than I ever imagined.
We had a lovely Christmas, returning by train to Kansas City. Trying to quiet Mark and Sean in the terminal, I visited with a very pregnant woman. She was desperate, destitute, in labor, and more alone than I had ever been. Penniless, deserted by her common-law husband, ostracized by family, rejected by the hospital (though now hospitals must take the indigent).
Children underfoot, I timed her contractions. I began to sound like a midwife. “Breathe deep. You are doing so well. Don’t be afraid. I won’t let anything happen to you.” I wondered if I could deliver a child. Jack, the rancher, certainly could, but he had gone to find our car.
Finally, I called the police. When they arrived I explained the predicament, then said, “The hospital will take her if you bring her in.” I pulled out my bank passbook. “Our bank account is small. We’re students, but if her family still refuses to help, we will (cover) her expenses.” As the first responders carried her to the ambulance, I realized I didn’t even know her name. This birth, along with the birth of Jesus and all other births, partook of both miracle and mystery.4 comments on this story
My cowboy-scholar Jack is gone now, as is the toddler Mark who did tricks for treats up and down the train. The baby Sean, too young to remember, has eight children of his own. So I keep these memories of two young mothers rescued so long ago, reflecting Mary who gave birth to Jesus. Jesus Christ, who rescued us all.
As I chose a scripture for Jack’s grave, John 16:22 resonated most: "And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you."
Pass it along.