It was just before Christmas in Virginia. The aircraft carrier Enterprise had just returned from a tension-filled deployment during the Cuban blockade in 1962.
Needless to say, the personnel aboard ship were eager to get home to family and friends after a long cruise in foreign waters.
One family was heading for a family reunion in upstate New York. Their station wagon was loaded, even the rack on top, with Christmas gifts. The 500-mile trip began the afternoon of Christmas Eve and went well — no bad weather, no major problems with traffic. By 8 p.m. the family had driven through New Jersey and had reached the New York State Thruway rest stop at Harriman.
At this point, the driver called home to let the folks know that they were only a couple of hours away and would be home soon.
The response was unexpected. “You’re so early! We’re just not ready for you. You’ll have to find somewhere to spend the night.”
What a shock within two hours of home. The driver said, “We’ll do the best we can,” and returned to his wife and five children (including a five-month-old infant), who were all tired and cranky from the 400 miles already driven.
Driving north, they saw a major motel sign. Exiting the interstate, they pulled up to the entrance, and the rumpled driver walked into the lobby.
A desk clerk looked down his glasses at the young man and asked if he could be of help. The father asked if the motel had space for two adults, four children and an infant.
“Don’t you know this is Christmas Eve? We’ve been sold out for weeks. We’re sorry, but there’s no room in the inn.” When asked if he could suggest another motel or hotel, the clerk just shrugged and said he could suggest nothing.
The already tense atmosphere in the car was mounting. The driver was asked why he didn’t call before leaving Virginia. To make matters worse, the baby began to cry; she hadn’t had a bottle in some time. It was nearly impossible to find a restaurant open on Christmas Eve, but finally a tavern was spotted and somehow they found a way to heat an infant’s bottle.
The fruitless search continued for miles, and then, while crossing the Mid-Hudson Bridge, around midnight, a lit star and under it the word “Hotel” could be seen in the distance. As they found the hotel they felt doubtful. It was a small hotel in a run-down part of town.
Pulling up to the entrance, the exhausted family was ready to give up hope. Yet at this inn, there WAS room, and the family checked into a very simple room at almost midnight on Christmas Eve.
Thus, the story of Christmas — the story of a couple settling into the simplest of accommodations — came true in our time. To be sure, the family did not end up in a stable, but it was a hotel most people would ignore. In a way, the large lit star and hotel sign might have been the Bethlehem star leading the way to a special place. In a way, it was a miracle in modern time.
Despite the confusion, Christmas Day turned out to be a great family reunion and a very positive experience. However, I will never forget that Christmas Eve, since as you might guess, the family trying to find room at the inn was mine.
As Paul Harvey might have put it, “Now you know … the rest of the story.”
Bruce Mitchell is a retired United Methodist pastor living in Greenfield. This weekly column is written by local clergy members.