Opinion: Finding Meaning

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By Skip Hellewell

A Cold, Cold Night in Nevada

The Beautiful Wife and I are winding our way through those beloved Christmas traditions. Our Christmas cards usually include a picture but we couldn’t find one where we didn’t look, well, old. In the search, my eyes chanced upon a portrait from our first year of marriage many moons ago. Aha! So, we’re looking young in this year’s card, titled “The way we were.” May I tell a story from that long-ago time?

On the night of this story, I was headed home for Christmas from college, driving across Nevada late at night with two of my sisters and the future BW. The temperature was way below zero, and Nevada was the coldest place in the nation that night. It was the only time my faithful Studebaker ever failed me.

As we passed through one of those Nevada towns, unsure of the name, I noticed something that couldn’t be ignored—a black streak rising up the windshield that looked like engine oil. It was 1 a.m. on a sub-zero night, so we retreated back to town, where we found an all-night café. Here we waited out the night until the local garage opened in the morning. And here we learned a Christmas lesson that still burns brightly in my memory.

The waitress was an older woman, shuffling on tired feet, waiting out one more long, cold night in a forgettable town, serving the occasional customer. She surely saw us for what we were, starving students and poor tippers, but she was kind to us. We had to buy something, and the cheapest item was a cup of hot chocolate, so we passed the night away, ordering a cup each hour. Our waitress showed us kindness from character, not the expectation of a generous tip.

Wanting to show thanks, we decided to make her a Christmas card. From their purses, my sisters produced scissors, a pen, Scotch tape, and magazines with pictures we could cut out. Using napkins for paper, we created a story about the wondrous things that might happen to our waitress this Christmas. It was all we could give her, but it was a beautiful story, eighteen pages long. And though we were stuck in a chilly café in a forgettable town, I remember the night as warm and wondrous.

We drove to the local garage in the morning and explained our problem. I was worried about the cost, especially when they said the engine had first to be steam-cleaned to see the source of the leak. An old man hung around the garage and did odd jobs, like the messy work of steam-cleaning engines. After he was done, he talked to me while the mechanics worked on the engine. “You’re college students, aren’t you?” he asked. I answered, and we chatted until the mechanics delivered what turned out to be good news: Nothing wrong with the engine. Engines of that time had vented crankcases, and the extreme cold had caused the vent to freeze closed, forcing oil to leak out. They replaced the lost oil, and I paid the bill. Getting back in the car, the old man approached me again. Taking out his wallet, he offered me the contents—three one-dollar bills. It was all he had. “Here,” he said, “take this to help you.”

Many years have passed since that snowy night. But when I remember my favorite Christmas stories, I always begin with those caring people who had so little but gave what they had. I fear that hard times lay ahead for our economy. Helping others is a Laguna tradition. It’s part of what makes our town special. There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected]

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