merry christmas 2009

It’s official. You have a witness on site. Santa Claus’ flight plan as filed did in fact include the necessary vectors to get him into Memphis TRACON and result in a visit to North Mississippi. Apparently the wake turbulence was extreme behind the sleigh this year as he managed to drag a few polar snow flakes with him. In fact, it’s spitting snow right now.

The family stockings have been distributed. Santa, the all-knowing elf that he is, filled mine with a favorite local brand of bottled seasoning, a cookbook from the Pickwick, Tennessee, Flag Society, and a DVD copy of Second Hand Lion, which family legend states is loosely based on some kinfolk of Pop’s named Benzie. Now, my nephew and I are wrapped up on the couch watching old Tom and Jerry cartoons. Life rolls comfortably by in the hills of North Mississippi.

My arrival home was not without drama, however. In fact, any time I trod upon the deck of a commercial airliner, I have taken to praying for the best and preparing for the worst. This trip would prove itself no different.

I’m sure you watched the weather yesterday. Continental’s hub in Houston was an absolute disaster. Mostly, it was flights bound for the midwest that caused woe for travelers. The regional jet Terminal Bravo fairly resembled a homeless shelter, and one in serious disarray at that. Scads of people and their luggage were aimlessly distributed across every square inch of seat and floor. My flight to Memphis was still listed on time, so I pulled up a section of wall and waited for the call.

Now, I have done some traveling in my day. Been on more than a few airplanes, both private and commercial. And as a result, I’ve flown in weather. All kinds of weather, both luxurious and filled with the razor sharp teeth of imminent death. And as I sit here and review the events of the last 24 hours, I’ve yet to decide whether finally getting airborne and turning north by east towards the Memphis area was celebratory or misfortunate. The descent into Memphis on this December 24, 2009, has officially made my Top 10 List of Absolutely The Roughest Airplane Rides I Have Ever Experienced.

A couple of asides in the wake of a main wing spar bending ride. The young lady in the overdone leggings/Uggs combo, traveling from Jersey to her family in Little Rock had to be surgically removed from my right arm at the conclusion of the flight. I talked for a couple of minutes with the First Officer while waiting for my gate checked backpack to be tossed up. Once he knew I was not a Fed and had more than a layman’s knowledge of flight mechanics, he confessed to their dropping the gear almost a hundred miles out to burn off excess fuel, and, after being cleared for landing and calling runway in site, they had briefly but seriously discussed aborting the approach and diverting.

Considering the amount of rain that began to fall and the severity of winds that arrived after I got the the rental car bus, I loosely calculated another 10 or 15 minutes on that final leg and we’d probably ended up in Jackson, Mississippi, or Lord knows where seeking a calm place to land.

For the next hour of my journey, I fought to keep a silver Toyota Corolla that smelled faintly of marijuana and tacos from being blown clear to Lee County. A recent life filled with the mundane Mediterranean weather of the Worst Coast lapsed me into meteorological complacency. The severity of this little front truly caught me off guard.

The Christmas Eve service at my parent’s church was scheduled for 5:30 pm and I felt sure that Pop, who most of you is not feeling very well these days, was looking for me to attend. I literally paddled into town at 5:15, pulled up in the church parking lot, rifled through my backpack and found a fresh shirt, changed it standing beside the car in the driving rain, tossed my Yoshimura pit jacket over my head and sprinted for the building.

Sixty-three minutes from the rental counter to the church door in a driving wind and rain storm. It must be some kind of record somewhere, I thought as I plodded through the puddles toward the soft glow of stained glass.

I walked into the warmth of the foyer and was immediately met by the angelic face of a young girl of perhaps 12, bowed and bedecked in red from head to toe. She presented me with a program for the evening and held out a basket filled with tiny candles. Trying not to look as much like the mutant love child of George Clinton and a drowned rat as I did, I mustered my best non-psychotic smile, took the program from her outstretched hand, whispered Merry Christmas to her, and selected a small white taper from the basket of candles.

I only managed three or four steps inside the sanctuary before a voice on my left softly but urgently called out Thomas Andrew……. My folks reached for me and hugged me close and smiled brightly as I slid into the pew next to them. Lo and behold, I was finally home.

Now indulge me for a moment. I realize most of you pinheads come here looking for my own unique angle on the human condition and to watch me berate myself and bathe in a pool of my own vile suffering; an electronic birch branch, as it were. My own online version of the Sun Dance. But let me drop the hokey bitterman persona for a few paragraphs and share a few secrets with you. Comfy?

Christmas at my parent’s church never really changes, and even though I’m the absolute last name on that list that Jesus supposedly has, I never cease to be touched by the quaintness and sincerity of the folks parked in the pews.

The teeny weeny children rambled forward and sang Away In A Manger while young mothers flush with pride and excitement fired away with digital cameras. A young man with a sweet baritone twang as good as George Strait nimbly finger picked an acoustic guitar and warbled a song about two folks venturing to Bethlehem. Bevin played the traditional hymns of Christmas on her giant pipe organ. She made the ancient instrument sing as beautifully and joyously as she ever has. The deacons, some of whom have known me since I was a very little boy, were in their places for the distribution of communion. And finally, Dennis, the pastor of the church, spoke of the true meaning of Christmas to his flock with his usual auratorial grace and conviction. My continuous flurry of movement which started at 4:00 am that morning slowly began to drain away from me and I managed a sigh of relief.

I greeted dozens of people, many by their first names, as I exited the service. I grabbed my best friend from high school from the que and wrapped him in a hug. We agreed I’ll call him tomorrow to see about coming over and catching up.

I remember being 14 and beginning the mark of time for 18 so I could get out of this town. I longed to see what the rest of the world had in store. It had to be bigger, better, and brighter than the nowheresville Corinth, Mississippi, turned out to be. Being the impatient punk kid I was, I burned a lot of bridges and made more than a few headlines in that quest. And as brightly as those bridge fires once shined so many years ago, an intense moment of clarity fell on me and struck me dumb and damp eyed. It always does; my holiday clarity seems as rock solid in arrival as death and taxes these days, these wiser days.

And as I looked across the rows and rows of faces awash in the light and the spirit of the season at my parent’s church, my old friend, that singular moment of clarity, began to grow into an complex upwelling of emotion. I felt my very soul lift and stir over the warm greetings, under the gentle gaze of curious eyes that wink to me in recognition, at the softness of perfumed hands reaching to touch my arm, and at the firm grips upon my shoulders.

It’s my home welcoming me back again, and I’ll not speak poorly for they are truly glad for my return. They want to hear my tales of the world beyond. My sheepish, sweeping feet and corn pone self-deprecation matters not in the slightest, for it is clear that they will never abandon me, never give me up. I will always have a place here in my home town.

Merry Christmas………

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