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South shores, bears and automobiles

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, January 12, 2005

My, how quickly December passed us by. When I was a kid there was no month I looked forward to more than the twelfth one. My holly-jolly month of celebration started with a bang on the Dec. 6 when St. Nicholas’ Day came around.

St. Nick, the Catholic saint upon whom the legend of Santa Claus is based, was the son of wealthy devout Christians. After his parents died during his youth, St. Nicholas gave away his entire inheritance to aid the needy. He was especially known for his love of children, his devotion to the sick and suffering and for his tendency to secretly leave bags of gold coins in needy homes, tossing them – it is said – into shoes and stockings left near open windows. The practice of giving gifts during the Christmas season is largely based on the many legends of St. Nicholas which celebrate his uncommon generosity.

Of course, I didn’t know any of this when I was a boy. What I knew was that if I left my boots by our front door and went to bed, when I woke up there would be mountains of candy inside of them. There’d be gold coins, too, but not of the monetary kind. No, for this young boy there was something much more important than money: milk chocolate.

My sugar high would wear off around another December milestone: my youngest brother’s birthday. As nice as this day was for him, it was even better for me. Invariably, he would receive gifts that would, by hook or crook, become community property. This particularly applied to video games and movies which always had a way of making their way out of his private stock into the hands of his two older brothers.

By the approach of Christmas Break, my December bliss was at a fever pitch. It was just a hop, skip and jump to Christmas Day, where I quickly unwrapped and discarded boxes of sweaters to get to toys, toys, toys.

As it’s been said, all things change. Over the past four Decembers here at Notre Dame, I’ve spent most of the month hiding away high up in the stacks of the Hesburgh Library. My boots filled with candy became notebooks filled with Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, neither of whom is nearly as delicious. Since I’ve been away my little brother has gotten much stronger and can easily fend off my attempts at gift piracy. And on Christmas Day these days I quietly unwrap and discard toys to get to sweaters, sweaters, sweaters.

But rather than dwell on what used to be and what might have been, I’d rather pass along a simple December story.

My brother and I were invited to a Chicago Bears game on the first Sunday of Christmas Break by a dorm-mate and friend of ours. We hopped on the South Shore and we were immediately greeted with an hour long delay in Michigan City. When the electric train lost power, producing the holdup, we laughed. It was like a scene out of one of my favorite holiday films, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” We were a real-life Steve Martin and John Candy and we’d have a good story to tell when we got back.

But life wasn’t finished imitating art. As we stood outside of Solider Field after the game waiting in the dark for our train home on a night with heavy snowfall and a high temperature of five degrees, I experienced something much more painful and humiliating than the Bears’ 24-5 loss.

The South Shore, our trusty and safe ticket back, sped right past us. As I stood there feeling hopelessly alone and panicking as to how we’d get home, my brother’s cell phone rang. It was our friend and his dad. They had seen our predicament and were ready to drive us back to South Bend. We were certainly not expecting such an uncommon act of kindness and it proved even more extraordinary when we ended up driving most of the way home at 35 miles per hour in complete white-out conditions. In a lifetime of living in the Midwest, I had never seen driving conditions so poor. What our friend’s dad saw, however, was two boys who needed to get home.

It may seem like a simple story – a straightforward act of charity – but the English poet William Wordsworth said that the best part of a man’s life are his “little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love.” At the core of every seemingly simple kindness like this is a wealth of great love. St. Nicholas knew that. This past month my brother and I witnessed it first hand.

Bob Masters is a senior English major and co-president of the Humor Artists club. He can be contacted at amasters@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.