One snowy Christmas, 1969

Harrison, AR

By Joseph E. Puett Jr.

Dec. 24, 2004

I awake with my roommate shaking my bunk. "Come on Joe, get up!" I groggily answer "OK, OK, I'm up!" As I unwrap myself from my warm green wool blanket. I turn to sit on the side of my bunk and my attention is drawn to the window of our room. Snow is piled up against the glass and you can see that it is coming down outside. "Come on Joe! The bus will be leaving at ten o'clock." Looking at my watch, I see that it is six o'clock in the morning and that we have four hours to go. It's Christmas Eve, and they just announced last night that those who lived within a certain distance of the air base could go home for Christmas, and that a special bus would be leaving for Chicago in the morning. Returning to my room last night the first thing I did when I got there was to pray to the Lord and ask his help in getting home for Christmas. I only had so much money stashed and didn't know what I would do, but at least I was going to try. Not knowing how things would work out I didn't call my mother to tell her I was going to try and come home. If I could, it would be a great surprise; but if I couldn't she wouldn't worry and be disappointed.
One of the stipulations of going home was that we were required to take all our gear with us. So I grab my duffel bag and start to pack everything that had been issued to me. That is, all except my fatigues for today and my dress uniform, and overcoat, which I plan on wearing home. When I get done my bag must weigh about 150 pounds. It's like trying to lift another person, but that's what the orders were so I don't argue. As I get dressed for breakfast I think about what the day is to bring. Making my way down to the mess hall in our building I join all the others for a Christmas breakfast before starting my day. After breakfast I make my way back to my room to change into my dress uniform and do my last-minute packing. I make sure everything is just right, from the brass on my collar to the alignment of my belt buckle. Then checking the shine on my shoes one last time I put my brush in with the rest of my gear and close my duffel. Then I go into the hall where there is a full­-length mirror where I can check everything to make sure it is right. Going back to my barracks room for one last look around, I grab my overcoat and hat and then dragging my duffel I head downstairs to the orderly room.
Arriving down at the orderly room, I soon join the large group of people gathered, and we shortly are greeted by our first sergeant, who again tells us what is expected of us as we travel. As he calls off the roster of those headed home, we each in turn answer as he checks us off his list and then we line up to receive a copy of our Christmas travel orders. This takes quite a while to accomplish as there are at least a hundred guys wanting to go home. Soon we are headed for the buses that have been arranged for us that are parked outside. There are six of the large charter-type buses - I had expected an Air Force-blue school bus, but this is a surprise. Loading all our duffel bags and then ourselves on this cold snowy Christmas Eve is quite an undertaking, but soon we are headed out on our way north toward destinations in Chicago. By what I understand we are to drop guys off at the airport, bus depot and train station depending on how we want to travel. I check my meager revenue and decide that I might just have enough to fly home to Kansas City if I can get a cheap seat, but this late in the season there are no guarantees.
The ride north would be interesting if not for the bleak snowy landscape and the overcast sky with heavy snow coming down. I watch the road ahead as we make our way along with the wind blowing out of the northwest causing the snow to drift across the road. The bus is extremely quiet with each of us deep in our own thoughts as we watch the bleak landscape pass by. Again, I say a silent prayer that our journey would be safe and that we all would be able to get home. Hours pass, and the scenery becomes bleaker as the snow accumulates on the ground. Then suddenly our bus pulls over along the side of the road and all the other buses in our convoy do the same. Up ahead are red flares marking off an accident in the road, and from what I can see looking out of the front of the bus it appears that a large tractor trailer truck is overturned in the road. You can hear a huge sigh of disappointment from all the guys on the bus and the questions start to fly. "We've come this far. Will we have to turn back? What will we do now?"
The driver gets up and tells everyone to stay in their seats while he goes to find out what is going on and how long we will be delayed. As he opens the door of the bus there is a blast of cold air that hits us, and we realize that it is as bad as it seems. We watch as the driver walks along the snow-covered road up to where a police car sits with its hazard lights on. We see him talk to the officer for a few minutes then he makes his way back to the bus to give us the bad news. Again, as the door opens another blast of cold and snow comes in to chill our expectations. The driver tells us that there are wreckers on the way and that they are going to try and move the truck off the road. Just as we think it's about as bad as it could get, a huge wrecker pulls around our line of buses. Soon he is busy positioning himself to where he can move the truck. A cheer goes up from all of us as we see this development, but soon our elation gives way to concern as it takes quite a while to finally get the truck moved. But finally the road is cleared, and we can proceed. By this time, it is late afternoon and the sky has not let up at all as snow is still falling.
As we proceed along our way we see a large sign that tells us the airport is up ahead. Expectations grow as we exit the highway and turn toward the airport, and soon we are pulling into the terminal concourse. Stopping in front of one of the terminal buildings our driver announces that those who wish to travel by air need to get off here. So I along with those getting off exit the bus and retrieve our duffel bags from their underside compartment. As we head for the terminal building the bus that brought us pulls away and we are left to find our own way. Hefting my duffel on my shoulder I head into the building and look for the TWA ticket counter. But there doesn't seem to be one. So going to an information counter I ask, and they tell me that TWA is two buildings further down the concourse. So, gathering up my duffel I again go outside into the snowy evening and head down the sidewalk to the other terminal. Before I have gone very far, my duffel getting heavier with every step, I soon find myself just dragging it on the ground behind me as I make my way along. The snow is blowing, and my overcoat is flapping in the wind as I slowly make my way to the TWA terminal with my duffel bag dragging behind. Finally arriving at the terminal, a baggage handler in a red cap asks if I need help with my bag, but I shrug him off as I have already come this far with my duffel.
As I enter the building I see directly in front of me the TWA ticket counter with a very long line of people waiting to be helped. So I just join the line and wait my turn as we slowly make our way up to the counter. Finally arriving at the counter, I ask what the fare is for a seat to Kansas City. The lady at the counter takes a weary look at me and says $140, but if you fly stand-by it would only be $75. Checking again in my billfold, I realize that I can't fly full fare as I only have $120. So I agree to the reduced fare and will fly stand-by. So she prints up a ticket for me and puts it in a holder and as I pay her the $75, she points me to my gate.
Picking up my duffel, I check it in and then head for the gate she had told me. So making my way through the rush of people I travel down a long corridor, finally coming to the gate number she had said. Here there is another counter where I hand them my ticket which they stamp and then tell me to wait to be called for a flight. I am told that each plane has maybe a few open seats and that it was to be first-come first-served. Looking around I see that there are about 12 military people all flying stand-by like myself, and they have been here longer then I. So we wait for each flight to be boarded and what few seats are left go to the stand-bys. First there is a flight leaving at five o'clock. It boards and leaves. Then one at six o'clock that boards and leaves. With each flight only one or two of the stand-bys gets to board. Hour after hour pass until there are five of us left and it is eleven o'clock. When the eleven o'clock flight is finally loaded with its full-fare passengers, one of the people at the counter calls the last five of us to board as there are five open seats left.
Gladly we head down the ramp toward the plane. I am the first to board and as I enter the crowded plane I am directed to the back where I find one empty seat near the tail. Taking off my coat I settle into my seat and look out the window of the plane. Outside I can see where men are spraying the plane with something. Not knowing what they are doing, I just watch in fascination. Then the door of the plane is closed, and we can hear the engines start but then they abruptly shut down. Not knowing what the trouble might be, I say a silent prayer hoping that nothing major is wrong. Then abruptly the door of the plane opens, and a stewardess comes back into the plane and asks the four-other stand-bys that are closer to the front of the plane to please exit because four full-fare passengers need to board. As they exit the plane the stewardess comes back toward the tail of the plane as if looking to see where I am seated. I slink down m my seat and try to make myself as inconspicuous as possible.
She then turns and goes back to the front of the plane where the door is again closed. I hear the engines start to whine again and as they get louder the plane starts to taxi away from the terminal. With a sigh of relief, I again settle into my seat as the plane taxies out to the runway. The snow is coming down hard and the wind is blowing, making it hard to see beyond the wings of the plane. There is a long line of planes making their slow way out to the runway and we stop several more times before making the final turn to runway. At this final position are two trucks that again spray something on the plane's wings. With this final thing done the plane turns onto the runway and starts to accelerate rapidly until it finally lifts off the ground.
As we climb upwards I can see the lights of Chicago through the snow, but then they are lost as we pass through the low clouds. Climbing above the clouds we come out into a clear star-filled night sky, and just as we do the captain comes on the intercom to make an announcement. He reports that the airport we just left is now closed due to the weather and that we were the last plane allowed to take off. With this announcement you can hear a collective sigh of relief from the passengers. He goes on to report that Kansas City is open with clear skies and that it will be an hour and fifteen-minute flight. Settling in for the flight I make a silent prayer of thanks and realize that I am the only stand-by on the last flight out of Chicago on Christmas Eve night. Making our way to Kansas City is pleasant and uneventful with the passengers being very quiet. We shortly turn to land, and as we descend all I can see are a few lights scattered about on the ground as we pass over. Then the lights of the terminal buildings flash past the windows of the plane as it touches down. Taxiing to the terminal I am very confused, as I don't remember the Kansas City airport looking anything like this.
As the plane pulls into the terminal the Captain again comes on the intercom and says, "Welcome to Kansas City and Merry Christmas!" Then the plane door is opened and passengers all start preparing to leave the plane. I'm still confused about where I'm at, so after leaving the plane I start looking for the nearest counter so I can find out where here is. The confused look on my face must have amused them as they explain that I am at the new KCI airport that is about eight miles out from Kansas City proper. They also explain that if I hurry I can just make the last bus going into the city. Thanking them I head for the baggage area where I retrieve my duffle bag and making my way to the exit I arrive just as the bus is pulling out. Breaking down I almost cry as I see it pull away but as I am trying to figure out what to do next a yellow cab pulls up next to me and the driver gets out and asks if! need a ride. To which I thankfully say yes. He takes my duffel and puts it in the trunk and opens the door for me as I climb into the back seat. Then he climbs back in and we start for Kansas City. He tells me that I am his last fare as he was just going off duty and headed home for the night. He asks me where I am going, and I tell him that I am headed home but that I needed to go to the Greyhound bus terminal in downtown Kansas City. We talk about my being in the Air Force and many other things to pass the time as we make our way into town.
Arriving at the bus terminal he lets me off and as I go to pay him his fare he says, "It's on me!" I ask, "Are you sure?" and as he starts to pull away he yells out the window of his cab "Merry Christmas!" Grabbing my duffel, I climb up the stairs and pass through the doors into the bus terminal and head to the ticket counter. At the counter I ask when the next bus is to leave for Lawrence, Kan., to which the guy behind the counter replies. "Their loading up now, you just made it!" Paying for my ticket I grab my duffel and head out to the bus where the driver takes my bag and puts it in the underside compartment. After punching my ticket, I board and take the only empty seat on the bus that happens to be at the front. Checking my watch, I see that it is now two o'clock Christmas morning. The driver climbs on behind me and starts the bus and soon we are making our way out of the city headed west into Kansas.
The motion of bus lulls me into a fitful rest but I awake at every bump and curve in the road as we make our way into the night. No time seems to pass at all as I wake to see that we are making our exit from the highway into the city of Lawrence.
This is the first time I have ever come into Lawrence by bus, so I don't quite know where I am when we pull into the bus station. But this is my stop, so I pull myself together and exit the bus and the driver retrieves my duffle for me and wishes me a "Merry Christmas" to which I reply "Thanks, same to you." Entering the terminal I look around and soon find the door to the street. Then my duffel and I are out the door and back out into the cold dark night.
Not sure where I am or which direction I need to go. I see a Native American setting against the building, huddled against the cold, smoking a cigarette. Getting his attention, I ask him the way to the Indian Institute, which I know is on the side of town toward where I am going. He points me off down the street so thanking him I haft my duffel on my shoulder and off I head in the direction he indicated. It's a dark cold night and walking makes me tired, so I stop in front of a store in downtown Lawrence to rest. As I lean against my duffel a police car pulls up to the curb and the officer gets out. He asks me "Where are you going?" and I tell him that I am headed for the town of Eudora that is about seven miles east of Lawrence.
By this time, it's about three-thirty in the morning Christmas day. He tells me to grab my duffel and get in his car. I am a little frightened about what he wants me to do but I do as he says and get in. Without saying much to me he gets on the radio and calls someone using numbers that I don't understand then requests that a county officer meet him at the city limits. Without saying anything to me for the drive across town he finally pulls into a gas station at the edge of town. Shortly after pulling in another police car pulls in beside us and he tells me to get out. Without another word he drives away. The other officer in the new car rolls down his window and yells to me "You going to just stand there? You better get in here, it's cold outside!" to which I respond by putting my duffel in the back seat and then climbing into the front seat with the officer. He asks the question "Headed home?" to which I respond "Yes, sir I'm headed to my mother's house!" He goes on to say, "OK, we'll have you there in a little while. Who is your mother?" As I explain my situation and tell him my mother’s name and that she had moved since I was last home. As I wasn't sure where she lived he picks up his radio microphone and makes a call. He explains to the person who answers on the other end who I am and who my mother is.
The voice on the other end says, "I know his mother and I will meet you in town." As we arrive in the town of Eudora we pull over in the parking lot of a diner as another police car pulls up behind us. The county officer who gave me the ride gets out of the car and meets with this new officer momentarily then comes back to his car where I am setting. He says "He'll take you the rest of the way from here" as he indicates the other car. Thanking him I get my duffel out of the back seat of his car then climb into the other police car with this new officer. He asks, "So you're Peggy's boy?" to which I reply, "Yes sir!" Then he goes on to ask, "Does she know you’re coming?" to which I reply "No sir, I'm a surprise." He goes on to say "This is going to be fun!" I look at my watch as it is now about four in the morning Christmas day. We head down the highway and soon we are leaving the city limits of Eudora. We travel just about a mile out of town before he turns right on to a dirt road.
We don't go down the road very far before he slows down and turns into the driveway of a house that has its lights on. When he pulls in he turns his flashing red lights on and hits his siren. My mother, startled by the commotion, comes to the door of the house to see what is going on. It is here that I climb out of the police car to her great surprise. I grab my duffel and thanking the officer for his help I head for the front door. He also comes up to the door where my mother is standing in a state of shock and tells her. "Look what I found! I wouldn't have missed this for anything." Then he says, "Merry Christmas Peggy!" Then he turns and heads back to his car and my mother and I wave to him as he pulls out of the driveway. With my arm around my mother and my other hand holding my duffel, we enter the house. As we do I say a silent prayer to the Lord thanking him for getting me home for Christmas.

This is a true story! Christmas 1969!

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