The sound of the tires on the pavement made a low, dull humming sound as the car sped forward. Only 700 miles left until I would be ‘Home for Christmas’ as the song said.
‘Home’ was not exactly the right word to use, though. As a sophomore in college, and an Air Force brat, I was headed to my parents’ first owned home in San Antonio. In my twenty years of life I had lived in more than half of the contiguous United States and in Great Britain. So, for me, ‘home’ was not a definite place, just wherever mom and dad happened to be living.
“Mom and Dad must be glad to finally have moved in,” I thought to myself. “Especially Mom.”
I was just glad to have Dad back home, safe and sound. As a hospital administrator for the Air Force, he was sent all over the world setting up field clinics, base hospitals, and everything in between. He had recently returned from the Philippines and was scheduled to go back soon.
“As long as it’s not Korea,” I voiced out loud to the empty station wagon.
With only the charcoal gray pavement and the flat, brown New Mexico landscape in front of me my mind wandered to stories my father had told me of his early days in World War II as a medic and an ambulance driver in North Africa. No matter how much I had begged for reports of battles and Rommel and the Allied victory there, Dad would never say much. Instead he spoke of visiting the Sphinx and of his experiences assisting in a remote field dental clinic.
“Spiers, pedal faster,” the dentist repeated for the third time. “If General Fredendal’s root canal is going to be finished by the end of the war, I need the drill to go at top speed.”
Spiers pushed harder against the pedal. Muffled groans of pain from the General’s open mouth and the sound of the drill against the tooth made it hard to concentrate on pedaling to keep the drill going. Sweat ran down his back as the hot African morning shifted into midday and heated the room to sauna-like temperatures.
Suddenly, the general’s moans turned into a piercing scream.
“Ahh,” the dentist noted, “Now we are getting somewhere. It will all be over soon, General. I know it’s difficult without anesthesia, but I am working as fast as I can. Keep pedaling, Spiers.”
Nearly five o’clock in the evening. The Socorro radio stations were beginning to transmit more static than Christmas carols as I headed further and further east toward my destination. The sun was beginning to set in the sky behind me, casting flame colored hues across the horizon. A Spanish-style ranch along the side of the highway had lit luminaries to celebrate the holiday season. The soft glow of the candles radiated a feeling of peace and calmness despite my rush to get home.
I switched off the radio and thought more about Dad and his experiences during the war. How much more had he experienced, but never spoke about, I wondered? So few family members seemed to really know what Dad had experienced in his many years at war. Not even Mom. There was the incident that made the newspaper, though.
Grandma Rose fainted upon reading the headline of the Ogden Standard Examiner: Local Boy Declared a Hero. The photograph of the burning plane is what had stunned her the most. Grandma Rose’s dream of a few days prior had seemed so real and frightening—Don was running into a scorching fire. The dream had wakened her with its life-like clarity. She had prayed he would never have to experience such an incident in real life. And she had certainly never expected he would survive it.
But he had. And he was a hero. The article read: --
“On November 10 PFC Donald J. Spiers, a native of Ogden, Utah, was declared a hero after braving a burning plane to rescue several injured enlisted men. The downed two-engine plane, a C-47, had crash landed near the runway of the Lancaster Air Force base and immediately burst into flames.
“Despite the potential of personal injury, Private Spiers immediately rushed into the plane in an effort to save surviving passengers. His efforts helped to save the lives of three injured men: Sergeant David Williamson of New York, PFC Christopher Daniels of Pennsylvania, and PSC Brett Simonds of Arizona.
“In honor of his bravery, PFC Spiers will be the recipient of the Air Force Cross, which is awarded for extraordinary heroism. The medal is to be awarded to Spiers in the presence of his wife and family during his upcoming two-week leave of absence.”
The night sky was dark with only a sliver of the moon to light the night. The Texas landscape seemed to go on for miles and miles. Silently I cursed the flat tire I had had to fix earlier in the day. It had cost me some of the money I’d budgeted for fuel. I skipped dinner and used the last of my money to buy gasoline in a next-to-nothing town called Sonora. Only a few hundred miles to go on half a tank of gas. I did the mental math and hoped it would be just enough to get me home.
I checked the radio again only to catch bits and pieces of Elvis’ Blue Christmas and Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. I knew with near certainty it would not be a white– all the more reason to leave Utah and the snow behind for a holiday break—or a blue Christmas in San Antonio. A tinsel-decorated tree would be glowing and shimmering in the living room at home. Mom always decorated to the nines and cooked a feast for the family to enjoy over the holidays. I imagined the smell of her pies cooking and my stomach growled noisily.
“Darn that flat tire!” I muttered aloud.
In an effort to distract my mind from my hunger I thought back on the conversation I had had with the Dean of the Business School earlier in the week. Dean Lewis had served with Dad in Italy, and I had asked about their time together there. He was surprised I knew so little.
December 2, 1943. The bay shimmered reflections of the city lights cast down from the surrounding Italian hillsides. Sergeant Spiers and Medic Lewis leaned casually against a stone wall at the dock, smoking and watching a fleet of seventeen ships as they slowly made their way into the bay of Bari. The calm night was quiet and serene with only the lapping of water and the occasional car passing by to be heard.
“How much longer before they dock?” Lewis asked Spiers between drags on his cigarette.
“Not too long before they dock. But how long it will take them to unload the hospital supplies is anyone’s guess. Hopefully before dawn,” replied Spiers.
Silence resumed between the two again.
A short while later they could hear the low pitch of an engine rumble.
“What’s that noise?” Lewis asked as he tried to determine the direction from which it came.
“I’m not sure, but it’s getting louder.”
The two men looked at each other and then to the north. The sound was growing by the minute.
“It sounds like an airplane. Actually, a lot of planes,” Sergeant Spiers paused before adding, “German planes.”
Just then a squadron of over one hundred German aircraft came into sight, flying low and quick over the water. Within seconds the bombing began, whistling torpedoes blasting into the convoy of ships that had entered the bay. Spiers and Lewis dove behind the stone wall to wait out the deafening attack and protect themselves from the diving planes.
Broken glass, fires, and screaming men made the next hour nearly unbearable. Again and again the planes swooped over the harbor, shooting and bombing until every one of the ships was severely damaged and quickly sinking.
Then, as quickly as they came, the planes were gone. And the night air was full of the wailing injured.
“Quick, get into that rowboat. There are men out there who need help,” Spiers commanded as he and Lewis rose from their hiding place to see the devastation.
“Wait! That garlic-y odor—that’s mustard gas. There must have been some on one of the ships. We can’t go out there,” Lewis exclaimed in fear.
“We have to go out there. Too many people need help. The sooner we get there, the more we can save from the gas. Come on!” Spiers dragged Lewis to the boat and threw him a life jacket.
Finally, the lights of San Antonio came into view. I sighed audibly to myself. But my heart was racing as my mind urged the wood-paneled station wagon to keep on going. The gas gauge had been on ‘E’ for more than 20 miles. Realistically it was not going to be much longer before I ran out of gasoline and would be left stranded on the outskirts of town.
A sudden realization struck me: I don’t know where Mom and Dad’s new home is located. All I have is an address. But having never been to San Antonio before, I had no idea how to find it.
I took the first exit hoping to find a telephone to use, but the late hour revealed very few businesses to be open. A few had brightly shining Christmas lights along the roofline, but the windows were dark and empty.
My engine started sputtering about the time I spotted a Texaco station a half a mile ahead with its sign still lit. Using the last of the station wagon’s momentum I pulled the car part way into the gas station’s lot before coming to a dead halt. I pulled my stiff but lanky, 6’4” frame from the car and walked up to the attendant.
“Can I help you?” he asked as I came closer. His blue work-shirt was stained with oil and grease, but bore a name patch that read ‘Hank.’
“I ran out of gas,” I sheepishly admitted.
“Kinda’ thought so,” Hank replied in his heavy Texan accent.
“I am out of money, but my parents live here in town. I’ve been driving home for Christmas from college in Utah. Could I borrow a dime to call home? I’ll repay you after my Dad comes to get me.”
I hoped my rambling explanation would be convincing enough. Hank was eyeing me warily.
“Please?” I added as an afterthought.
“I suppose so. What’s yer name, son?” he asked as he led me to the office and the pay phone on the wall.
“Jim. Jim Spiers,” I replied with gratitude in my voice. Then I added, “Thank you, sir,” as he drew a dime from his pocket and placed it in the machine.
The phone rang once, twice, three times before Dad’s groggy voice answered the phone.
“Hi, Dad. Sorry to wake you. I made it to San Antonio, but I’ve run out of gas and I’m broke. Can you bring a gas can and come help me?”
“Where are you?”
“I’m not exactly sure. I took the first exit off of the highway and then coasted into a Texaco station a mile or so into town.”
“What are your cross roads? Can you see the street signs?” His voice was sounding more awake now.
“Well,” I craned my neck to see what signs I could read. “It looks like I’m on the corner of Walk and Don’t Walk – no, wait! Now it’s Don’t Walk and Walk.”
“Smart aleck-y kid. Stay where you are, I’ll be there soon.”
“Thanks, Dad,” I replied and hung up the phone.
Twenty minutes later Dad arrived to rescue me with a gas can in hand and $20 pressed into my palm. He even repaid Hank for the borrowed dime.
“Glad you’re home safe,” Dad said as we filled the gas can.
“Me too, Dad,” I replied.
Nearly fifty Christmases later and Dad is still rescuing people. At nearly 90-years-old he is painting a collection of pictures showing the meaningful times in his life. His gift to me this year was one of these watercolors. It is not of a burning plane, the front lines, or field hospitals. It is of a 1951Chevy station wagon that did not quite make it to the pumps on that December night so long ago.