Do you remember where you were on Christmas Eve, 1971? I do. I was 16 years old, a junior in high school and working the 2-10 shift at the Indiana Toll Road Wilbur Shaw Plaza Restaurant outside Rolling Prairie, Indiana. There weren’t many places for a teenager to work in our small Hoosier town, so scoring this waitressing gig was a bit of a coup for me. The main drawback was the “attractive” uniform. When Howard Johnson restaurants were on their rise to fame, Christian Dior was hired to design the uniforms. Unfortunately, that was not the case with my employer. You can just see the lovely bow we had to wear on the back of our heads peeking out. It was precious…
Few people want to work on Christmas Eve, but I didn’t really mind. The regular truck drivers would wish me Merry Christmas as they headed home, happy to be off the road for a couple of days. Traveling families were a delight, little ones often cozy in footie pajamas for the trip, excited to be on their way to grandma’s or other family. They were usually very excited to tell a willing listener (me!) where they were going, what they were hoping for from Santa, and if one of their parents had blurted out a bad word while negotiating the busy holiday traffic.
The afternoon passed quickly but after dinner time business slowed to the occasional truck driver or harried traveler just wanting to get to their final destination. About the time I started to watch the clock crawl towards 10:00 p.m., a customer came and sat in my section, making me forget about the time. He wasn’t dressed all in fur from his head to his foot nor wearing red, but he was definitely the spitting image of my childhood picture of Santa Claus! While fetching his coffee order, the only other waitress working that night made a beeline to the coffee station. “Ask him if he’s Santa!” She was relentless in her badgering, but I refused. Was I sensitive enough to think someone who bears such a striking resemblance to Kriss Kringle might not welcome yet another inquiry into his identification? More likely I was a sullen teenager wanting to believe there just might be a little magic left in the world. That I wanted to hang onto the wish that Santa were real and sitting in my section drinking a cup of warm truck stop coffee. The gentleman finished his twenty cent (it was 1971) cup of coffee, put down the money for his check and took his leave. When I went to clean up his cup, he had left me a dollar tip on his twenty-cent bill and this post card.
My shift ended and I headed home, knowing I had to be back to work at 6:00 a.m. Christmas morning. Christmas Day had been divided into four-hour shifts, so I would be done for the day at 10:00. My younger brother had lobbied hard that we open gifts before I left for work at 5:30 a.m., but luckily my parents vetoed his wish. My four hours passed fairly quickly while my co-worker and I poured quarters into the jukebox, playing all the Christmas music it offered. I’ll never know whether it was my postcard Santa or not, but I got my magic that year. When I arrived home after my four-hour shift, what to my wondering eyes should appear but my beloved Aunt Ruby! She and Uncle Ike had left their home in Illinois at 5:00 a.m. to drive to Indiana and be there when I got home from work. It was a total surprise and one of my best Christmases ever.
Wishing you all your own moments of magic this unusual holiday season and perhaps a glimpse of Santa wherever or whenever you might need him.
C’est la vie.