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It was one of the coldest and worst winters that I have driven through in my 40 years of over the road trucking. The wind was blowing hard and the snow drifts were high alongside  my semi as I progressed north toward the Canadian border. It was late in the evening sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I had the heater up as high as it would go. A large piece of cardboard was held in place with elastic straps to help keep the water in the radiator warm so that I could have at least a little protection from the bitter cold winds in the cold cab of the  Peterbilt I was guiding through the night.

Then, the one thing that all truckers dread happened. The engine started to run rough. It started to misfire which is a real bad thing for a diesel engine to do.

For almost an hour, I nursed the truck along as best I could. The truck began to go progressively slower as whatever was causing the engine to act up got worse. Since it was well below zero outside, it was certain that water was in the fuel and was starting to freeze. I was in the middle of absolutely nowhere. It had been what seemed like been hours since I had passed any kind of building. There was no place to pull over. This was not an interstate I was on. It was a narrow two lane road going through a sea of snow on either side.

Then, I had a bit of good luck. Off in the distance was a light, faint at first, but gradually growing brighter as I continued to struggle to keep the truck going.

Soon, I got close enough to make out a small square building with what looked like a parking lot in front of it that just might be large enough to pull the truck into to get it off the road.

I finally made it, barely and set the tractor brakes. I kept the trailer brakes charged since if they got set, they might freeze up and it would take forever to get them released.

I knew that I was going to have to call dispatch in Florida and tell them that I was not going to make my delivery. The truck was broken down and they would need to send a mechanic. My only hope was that there was a telephone booth outside or barring that, the place would be open in the morning so that I could call my soon to be angry dispatcher.

This was back in the days before cellphones or widespread public access to the internet. This was before Facebook, Twitter, Skype and so on and so forth.

I braved the cold and trudged over to the entrance to the building. It turned out to be a general store that was closed, naturally. There were no hours of operation posted, just a closed sign and no outdoor phone.

I resigned myself to crawling up in the sleeper and inside my sleeping bag to see if I could get some sleep. That was going to be something of a miracle since I could not get the engine to idle fast enough to keep the water hot enough to be comfortable. I considered myself lucky if I did not freeze to death in my sleep.

I had been sound asleep for I do not know how long when a loud banging sound scared the crap out of me and woke me up. I looked out the driver’s side window into the rear view mirror to see red lights flashing and the silhouetted figure of who I thought must have been a highway patrol officer.

As the pounding on my cab resumed, I crawled into the driver’s seat and rolled down my window. I asked the officer ” is there a problem, officer?

As it turns out, the officer was a local fireman who had been coming back from a call and noticed my truck parked alongside the road. He asked me if I was ok and I said yes and told him that I was having mechanical problems and needed to wait until morning when I could try and find a phone to call dispatch.

The fireman told me that the owner of the store was in Florida for the winter and that the place would be closed until spring. He then offered to take me the short distance up the road to the firehouse where I could sleep on their spare bunk and keep warm.

It was an offer I could not refuse and in short order, I was sitting in the nice warm cab of the fire engine watching the clearance lights of my truck fade in the distance as we proceeded toward the firehouse.

You have not lived until you have had coffee made by firemen. It hit the spot in short order and I was soon warm as toast. There were five of them on duty that night. They were not real busy this time of the year. Sometimes there would be the occasional call to rescue a stranded motorist who ran off the road into a snow drift. One of them would patrol the roads every so often looking for someone who might be in trouble. This night, they found me.

We all soon gathered around the enormous round stove that was heating the main room next to where the firetrucks were housed swapping stories and enjoying each others company.

During our conversation, I happened to glance over at a large box that probably once held a washing machine or other appliance of a similar size. It was open at the top and covered around the sides with Christmas themed wrapping paper. To the left of the box was an enormous Christmas tree that was elaborately decorated.

On one side of the box was a small square sign that read “for the kids.”

One of the fireman explained that they collected toys to give to the kids who might not otherwise have a Christmas. The box was half full so apparently they had done fairly well this year. There were also a couple of bicycles near the tree.

One of the firemen showed me the bunk I would be sleeping on and said they would all be turning in and would turn the lights off so that I could get some sleep.

It was about this time that the sound of a car with a bad muffler could be heard approaching the firehouse. The car pulled up the to the entrance and someone got out. The driver went to the back of the car and pulled out two large cloth bags. I sort of imagined it was Santa Claus. That illusion did not last long since it soon became apparent that it was a woman dragging the bags on each side of her toward the door of the firehouse.

One of the fireman went to the door and opened it so that the woman could enter. I felt that something odd was going on. The once happy expression on the firefighters face was replaced by one that was profoundly sad.

The same sad faces appeared on the other firefighters faces as they came toward the woman. Nobody said a word as the woman unpacked the bags and placed the wrapped presents into the box. I stood next to the firemen watching the woman as she put the last present in the box.

When she was done, the woman turned around and looked straight at me. Nobody said a word, not me, not her, not the firemen. Then, without any warning, she hugged me and started sobbing. It soon turned into an intense crying. All of the firemen surrounded the woman and hugged the both of us. I looked out the window, watching the snow fall and was completely confused.

Soon the woman stopped her crying, backed away and offered me a half hearted smile. She then turned and left. In all that time nobody said a word. She hugged each of the teary eyed firemen in turn and then left.

I sat down on my nearby bunk and tried to absorb what I had just been a part of. The fireman who had met me at my truck sat next to me and told me the story of the woman.

She was the mother of three young children, 8 year old twins and a 10 year old daughter. Two days ago, her husband had taken the children into town some distance away. It was a ruse so that the woman could wrap all of their presents and then hide them in the attic of their house until Christmas day.

The children would not get to see their presents. They would not spend Christmas with their mother. Neither would the woman’s husband. As he and the children were coming home from the movie, their car was hit head on by a drunk driver going way over the speed limit. The accident had happened in front of the store where my truck was parked. The woman lived close to the store.

It was these firemen who had responded to the accident and it was these firemen who had broken the sad news  to the woman that her loved ones would not be coming home.

The two bags had contained the presents she had lovingly wrapped for her children. Their presents would now go to some other children to make their Christmas a happy one.

There is not much to tell after that. I went to sleep, finally, after running the story of the woman and her family through my mind. The fire station had a phone and I had called my dispatcher. By the afternoon of the next day, I was on my way north to deliver my load.

This, however, is not the end of the story. A couple of months into the next year, I was on my way north once again and saw that there was enough room to pull off the road and say hello to the firemen who had been so kind to me that last year.

We had a friendly chat over some of the good warm fireman’s coffee. I then noticed a photo that I recognized as the woman who had delivered the presents. Under the photo was a small table and a vase that contained a dozen roses.

I turned to ask the fireman about the photo, but I did not have time to ask the question before he spoke.

He told me that the woman had committed suicide on Christmas day.

Every year around this time, i remember the events of that holiday season. The story of the woman reminds me that no matter how bad our individual problems are, there are others who have things much worse.

I have learned from that experience, to be thankful for the good in my life and to hope that things get better for those who are worse off than me.