Greetings to you at this wonderful time of the year. To help us celebrate the Yuletide season, I want to tell you a Christmas story as I lived it in 1958. You might find it difficult to believe what you are about to read, but it is absolutely true.
In April of that year, I turned 22 and graduated from college a month later. I was excited about the future and was anxious to be able to get on with my life. I had been accepted as a graduate student at the University of Southern California and planned to begin working that fall on a Ph.D. That is how I would spend the next four years. I was also in love with a pretty homecoming queen named Shirley Deere, who was in her senior year of college. We were not engaged, but that seemed to be where we were headed. Then something happened that turned my plans upside down. I received a letter from a colonel at the local draft board.
He ordered me to come to a federal building in downtown Los Angeles three weeks later. There I would take a physical exam to determine my fitness for the draft. The colonel sounded like he meant business, so I decided I had better comply.
When I arrived on the appointed morning, at least 400 men were already standing in line. They had received the same letter. We were ordered to remove all our clothes except our shorts and shoes. We snaked along from station to station so technicians could test our eyes, ears, nose, heart, lungs, and feet. Finally, we were told to turn our heads to one side and cough. Guys who have been in the military or played organized sports will know what that means. We were yelled at a lot which was rather humiliating, and then we took something like an IQ test. Presently, a sergeant with a bad attitude came out and told some of us to enter a big room.
'Well," I thought, "This must be good. I have been chosen for something," Then the sergeant walked to the front of the room and said, "You guys have been classified 1A. For the next two years, your a__'es will belong to the Army." He didn't ask if we had other plans. He just said, "Get your affairs in order. Within ten days you're going to be drafted."
I thought there must be some way I could keep from being tied up for two years. I quickly found it. I discovered that the National Guard had a program whereby enlistees could spend six months on active duty in the regular Army and then they would serve for seven and a half more years in the reserves. That was an eight-year obligation which seemed like forever, but at least I would be at home and I could go on with my graduate education. So the next day, I hurried down and joined the National Guard. I was ordered to come to Fort Ord on August 10th in Northern California, so I took an all-night Greyhound bus on August 9th, and the next morning presented myself for induction into the Army for basic training. They shaved our heads bald as a billiard ball and yelled at us for the next nine weeks. We marched and we fired rifles and pulled 12-hour KP duty and learned to fight.
That brought us to the middle of December when we were given a 14-day pass. Most of the guys were excited about going home for Christmas. Unfortunately, I had no place to go. I had graduated from college and I couldn't go back there. I wanted to be with my parents in Bethany, Oklahoma, a suburb of Oklahoma City, but I had no money because privates like me were paid only $78 a month. I certainly couldn't afford to fly.
Then I heard about something called the MATS program, which stands for Military Air Transport Service. Anybody on active duty could go to a military airport and if you found a plane going your way, the captain might let you fly with him. So that's what I did. I hung around an airport, and finally a lieutenant showed up and announced that he was flying to Oklahoma City, which is where I wanted to go. I asked him if I could fly with him, and he said, "Yeah, there's a plane on the runway. Just get on it."
I picked up my gear and went out on the runway where an old DC-3 was sitting. The DC-3s were the workhorses of World War II, and this one looked like it was worn out. There were seven other guys who were already on board. I didn't know them. I didn't want to know them. I just wanted to get to Oklahoma City. So, I climbed on this plane—and it was primitive. The seats were down very close to the floor, and they were made of steel and ice cold. We all sat side by side with our knees up near our faces.
Before long, the captain got on board and fired up the engines, and we taxied down the runway and took off. We flew for a couple hours and encountered an incredible blizzard that blew us all over the sky. Then something terrifying happened. The captain spoke to us on the intercom and said, "I have to tell you guys, we have a mechanical problem with one of the engines." It turned out to be an oil leak. Do you know what can happen when oil runs onto a hot engine? Fire was likely, and we all knew it.
The captain minced no words. He said, "We're going to do what we can, but we may have to jump from the plane." Then he said, "There is a stack of parachutes in the back. Get one and put it on. When I ring this bell three times, you'll have several seconds to get out of this plane." So, the cargo door was opened, and the blizzard seemed to blow through the fuselage.
I had never worn a parachute and didn't know how to buckle one on, much less how to jump from a plane in freezing weather. There was one guy among the eight of us who had jumped before, and he told us how to buckle ourselves into the chutes. By then it was two o'clock in the morning, and we were flying through snow, sleet, rain, and wind. We had no idea what lay below us. It could have been a lake, or a church with a steeple. There could have been trees or a highway! Furthermore, each of us would probably be alone, because when people jump from a plane, they inevitably get separated. You don't know where you are. I didn't even know what state I was in. And so we buckled up and waited for the captain to ring.
I don't mind telling you, I was scared and I was doing some serious praying. Thankfully, the pilot was able to land at a military airfield somewhere in Oklahoma. The plane rolled to a stop, and the other guys and I exited the DC-3. Then I encountered a new set of problems. I stepped into blackness. There was no airport, no bus station, and no lights. The whole town must have shut down hours before. I didn't even know which direction Oklahoma City was. The men I was flying with got off the plane and disappeared. I never saw them or the lieutenant again. I encountered a guy standing under a street light and asked him if there was a highway that came through town, and if so, where was it? He mumbled something about a road "that away," pointing at what I thought was south. I finally found a lonely paved road, but there were very few cars on it. Those that came by were going at least 60 miles an hour, and the drivers weren't about to pick up a shadowy guy standing in the rain at 3 AM with his thumb in the air. I wouldn't have stopped. Would you?
I began thinking about spending the night in a muddy field, alone and freezing. I did some more praying. Then I saw an old car rumbling along toward me. Unbelievably, the driver pulled over and waited for me to catch up with him.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"Oklahoma City," I answered.
"Me, too," he said, "Get in."
I threw my gear in the back seat, and off we went.
We drove about a mile and passed a big white sign in a field that read, "Oklahoma State Prison, Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers."
We drove the rest of the night, arriving at dawn. The driver asked me where I wanted to be let out.
I said, "I don't know."
He said, "How about the bus station?"
I replied, "That'll do."
It was nine o'clock in the morning, and I'd been up all night and had gone through a harrowing experience. My clothes were still damp.
I picked up my gear and went into the depot. It was nearly deserted. There was one guy behind the counter. I spoke to him, and he looked up as I said, "I need to get to Bethany, which is 15 miles west. Can you get me there?"
He said, "No. We don't go there. In fact, there's no bus service to Bethany."
What was I going to do then? Nobody in the whole world knew where I was. I had some change in my pocket, and I went over to a phone booth and put in some coins. I called my parents, but no one answered.
"That figures," I thought. Everything else had gone wrong.
So, I picked up my stuff and started walking toward Bethany. Again, that was 15 miles away. It would have taken me at least five hours while carrying that heavy bag to get home. I was walking on the west side of the street and feeling totally alone. After an hour, I was very weary.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, you are not going to believe this part of my story, but it really happened. I was walking along, carrying this heavy pack, when I looked ahead on the road and saw a lone car coming toward me. As it came closer, I couldn't believe my eyes. It was my mother! She was 12 miles from home, driving on a road she rarely traveled. Can there be any doubt that the Lord led her to that time and place? In fact, it began to feel that despite my troubles, there was a divine presence traveling with me. If my timing had been off by a few seconds, or if my mother had taken a more familiar road, this exhausted soldier would have trudged for many hours on Route 66.
I recognized Mom behind the steering wheel as she drew closer, but she didn't see me. I began waving my arms and shouting, "Mom!" She didn't look my way until she was parallel with me. Then she suddenly turned and saw me. My mother made a big U-turn at the next intersection and came rushing back. We greeted one another in the middle of the road. We were so excited to see each other as I tried to explain what I was doing alone on an Oklahoma City street at 10 AM. She thought I was still at Fort Ord. She took me home to the house that I had grown up in, and to the little bedroom where I had spent my childhood.
That was one of the happiest Christmases ever as I celebrated the birth of the Christ-child with my mom and dad. My mother was a fantastic southern cook, and she prepared three delicious meals a day. We had such a wonderful time. We played table games, and my dad and I watched NFL football. It wasn't the Super Bowl in those days, but it was a championship game. And just being with them, after having been in a pretty hostile environment for quite a while, was a wonderful thing. My dad and I went hunting for bobwhite quail. We brought the birds home and my mother cooked them. It was just a marvelous time.
When the leave time was over, I caught another MATS plane back to California. This DC-3 had a heater and stayed airborne. I made it to Los Angeles where I spent New Year's Day with Shirley. We were married two years later. That was 62 years ago, and we are still enjoying every day together.
Thank you for letting me share my Christmas story with you. You're welcome to pass it on to others who might enjoy it.
because he will save his people from their sins.”
– Matthew 1:21 (NIV)
P.S. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from all of us at the James Dobson Family Institute!
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