For the first three days of the week before Christmas, my tiny hometown of DuPont became an island and a beacon for residents and travelers.
Hour by hour we struggled with the unthinkable reality of having an Amtrak train derail right at our front doors, spilling railroad cars like a giant’s play set all over the freeway.
Suddenly, Interstate 5 was closed and lines of vehicles detoured, crawling down Center Drive past our houses. Quickly, residents found that “you can’t get there from here.”
After taking nearly two hours Monday to cover the usual 12 minutes of DuPont-Steilacoom Road, and having to get permission from the police to turn into my own street, there was no choice but to follow the time honored Army dictum, “If you can’t help, get out of the way.”
Emergency vehicles arrived from all over the area and our town mobilized to help where it could.
Washington Territory began in this very spot at Fort Nisqually. Just a few steps away is present day City Hall, which became a staging area to reunite victims of the crash with their families.
Radio and TV newscasts had trouble placing DuPont. “South of Seattle” was as close as most could come. Sure, but so’s Mexico City.
Many stories coming out of the rescue efforts seemed to parallel the beloved stories of the season.
There were the three soldiers who were first on the scene after the derailment and stopped to give aid, motivated simply by the fact that “these people are going to need help.” Their story reminded me of “The Other Wise Man” by Henry van Dyke, about one of the wise men who missed his rendezvous at the manger, because he stopped to give help to those in need.
One injured woman, shown on TV, had written down the names of each of the people who had stopped to help her or who had helped her at the hospital, After a few names, the reporter stepped in in a voice-over to say, “The list is too long to read here.”
I-5 is open again and the modern version of Christmas has managed to come anyhow.
A British company offers a Nativity set with Mary looking incredibly haggard and Joseph taking a selfie. The three wise men are on Segways and carrying packages from Amazon. It’s selling fast.
But no matter how things change, when you’re sitting by the fire, trying to decide whether that’s a bug or a desiccated clove in the mulled cider, the kids will always want to hear the stories of the old days and how Mom and Dad met.
Even big kids like me.
My parents were homeless the first Christmas of their marriage. They had eloped, so my father left Roseburg, Oregon, rather precipitously with his young bride.
His prospects were good, he thought, since he was to be a contractor building the new Soldiers’ Home in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. When he got there, the job was canceled.
My dad often said, “I never had anything against Franklin Roosevelt – not a thing – but the fact is, I worked every day of Hoover’s administration. The day Roosevelt came into office, I lost my job.”
The young couple were on their own. They walked across the Midwest, getting day work where it was available.
One night in North Dakota, a farmer let them sleep in his barn. And he gave them a can of pork and beans. Just a can. Not even open or heated.
“Not everyone would do this for you,” the farmer said.
My father said he knew that and thanked the man for his kindness. So the young couple had dinner and slept on the straw.
“I held her all night,” my father said, and he stretched his 87-year-old arm as if he could still feel the weight of her body. “I believe,” he told me, “that’s what you call ‘A Moment.’ ”
My father retold this story later in a recording he made for me. It ended with, “Mama said we had to find a home. There was a baby on the way.”
That’s the thing about Christmas stories. There’s always a baby on the way.
I treasure the recording my father made for me with that story, which would otherwise be lost. Maybe this would be a good time to record your family story. May the list of people who’ve helped you be too long to read here.
Dorothy Wilhelm is a professional speaker and writer. Follow Dorothy’s blog at itsnevertoolate.com. Contact her at P.O. Box 881, DuPont WA, 98327. Phone 800-548-9264, email Dorothy@itsnevertoolate. com.