It was the day before Christmas and Al Badowski and his wife Phyllis, and their two kids, thirteen-year-old Patty and her little brother Jason, were stuck in traffic on Route Nine a little south of Catskill, New York. They were headed to Al’s parents’ house in Brooklyn, intending to arrive in time for five-o’clock cocktails before their annual Christmas eve dinner.
Crawling along at five miles an hour, Phyllis angrily switched from a book CD to an AM traffic station. She was concerned about the worsening weather. Heavy rain was already making the wipers work extra hard to maintain visibility.
They learned that a heating-oil truck had turned over about twenty miles ahead and traffic would be blocked for the rest of the day. None of the detours listed were near where they were stuck.
“Patty, give me your phone. My battery’s dead and I need to do a map-search,” Phyllis said over her shoulder.
“Mom, I’m texting. Use Dad’s.” Patty snapped.
“Your father forgot his. It’s in the pocket of his other coat. Give me yours. I gotta figure out how to get around this mess.”
A few minutes later Phyllis said, “Take the next right—Malta Avenue. We can bypass the wreck and get back on Route Nine in about thirty miles.
“Where does this take us,” Al asked.
“Along the east side of a big reservoir. Just leave it to your navigator. I’ll take care of it,” Phyllis answered, trying to lift the mood a bit.
“Mom! Jenny’s waiting.”
“Okay, okay,” Phyllis said and passed the phone back to her daughter.
After Al turned west onto Malta, Patty said, “Mom, what'd you do to the phone? The battery’s dead. I need the charger.”
“It was already low. You should’ve charged it before we left home,” Phyllis said, rifling through the glove compartment.
“What am I supposed to do now? I need to use it!”
Paying no attention to her angry daughter, Phyllis said, “Al . . . where’s the damn charger?”
“Uh… uh, I think it might be in the other car.”
“How many times have I told you to buy another one of these things so this won’t keep happening?” Phyllis spat back.
“Sorry, babe. We were so rushed getting out of the house I forgot about it.
“Daaad. How can you be such a screw-up? Now I can’t text Jenny. She’s gonna think we had a wreck or something.”
Al ignored his daughter and concentrated on the narrow road. The rain had turned to sleet and was making a mess on the window, and ice was beginning to build up on the road. He felt the slipperiness increase as they got closer to the big body of water, and the heavy cloud cover added darkness to the already shortened winter day. The reduced visibility made it difficult to stay in his lane.
Finally, they got to the reservoir and turned south along the shore. Ten minutes later they reached a hilly stretch and started a slight climb. Then when they rounded a sharp curve in the twisting road they suddenly encountered blinking red lights. Al hit the brakes and came to a sliding halt next to a state trooper parked across the road. He lowered his window when the trooper approached.
“Better slow down, sir. Ice is building up real fast. The road’s closed up ahead. A landslide blocked both lanes. You’ll have to go back the way you came.”
“Is there any way around it? We've got to be in New York City soon. And Route Nine's closed."
“There’s a back road over that hill,” the trooper said, pointing west. “It rejoins this road on the other side of the landslide. But there may be some snow up there. Ice, too. I wouldn’t recommend it without four-wheel drive or snow-tires.
“This Chrysler holds the road real good. We won't have any problems. Where’s the turn-off?”
“Back about half a mile. Just after a big red house. You gonna try it?”
“Yeah. We’ve already lost too much time.” Al made a U-turn and headed back north, easily finding the road the officer described. It was a narrow blacktop that meandered through a dense forest and quickly increased in elevation. The snowfall became heavier as they climbed; a thick wet layer accumulated on the front window except where the wipers were just able to clear it away.
They'd been on that road about twenty minutes when Jason, who had until then been focused on his Game Boy, said, “Mom, I gotta to go to the bathroom.”
“You have to hold it til we get to a gas station or a McDonald’s.”
“I can’t. I gotta go now. Can’t we stop for a minute?”
“There’s no place to pull over,” Al said defiantly.
Then Phyllis said, “Albert! No other cars are gonna come along here. We’re in the middle of nowhere. Stop and let him out. It'll only take a minute."
“All right, but I don’t like it,” Al replied. "Just make it fast. We gotta get out of this mess." He took his foot off the gas and gently applied the brakes. But even as gently as he did, the big car started sliding on a patch of ice and shifted to the right because of to the road’s slope away from the center. No matter what he did, he was unable to keep the forward motion in a straight line; the momentum was too great and the road too slick. Unable to get the car back under control, it slid off the side, crashed half-way into a rocky snow-covered ditch, and came to a jarring halt. It was at a thirty-degree angle with the left-side tires suspended in mid-air spinning wildly and the underside stuck on the raised berm.
Phyllis and Patty screamed. Al swore and pounded violently on the steering wheel. Jason burst into tears.
“Oh, my God!” Phyllis shouted. “What are we gonna do?”
“Are we gonna die?” Patty cried.
“Daddy. I gotta pee!” Jason pleaded between sobs.
“Calm down!” Al yelled. “Phyllis, shut up. Jason! Open the door and do your business. Patty, check your phone again."
A second later she said, “It’s still dead, Dad.”
Phyllis started to blurt out something but caught herself, her eyes boring into Al. Then, after a moment, she calmly said, “Al—we can’t sit here until the gas runs out. We'll freeze to death. Unless a car comes along soon, you’ll have to go for help."
“Are you crazy? It’s too far. And it’s too cold.”
“Al! You have to! You can walk back to the main road and use someone’s phone. It can’t be more than five miles or so."
“I’m not dressed for a hike like that. I’d never make it.”
“Get your snow boots and parka out of the trunk. We’ll be okay with the engine and heater running if you start now.”
“Uh . . . I left the boots and parka at home. There wasn’t room after I got all the food and presents and damn luggage in.”
“What? Well, you can’t walk five miles in a foot of snow in those stupid loafers and that thin jacket. Oh, my God. We are in trouble, aren’t we?”
Just then Jason climbed back into the car, shivering from the cold.
Patty sat with the phone clutched in her clinched fist whimpering. “Mom. We're gonna die, aren’t we?”
Then, without warning, there was a soft tap on the driver-side window.
“Thank God,” Phyllis said, looking past Al to see who it was.
Al rubbed away the moisture to reveal a scraggly-bearded old man peering at him and lowered the window. “Hello. Are we glad to see you! We’re in a bit of trouble. Do you have a phone we can use?”
“No. Never needed one. Looks like you're halfway into that ditch,” the old man said. “Probably hung up on the undercarriage. You need a tow.”
“Yes, sir. We sure do. Do you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and a tow chain or strong rope?”
No, but my friend might be able to help. He could probably pull you free."
“Can he get here soon? Does he have a tow truck or something?”
“He’s on a break right now, but I’ll call him anyway.” The old man stepped away from the car, looked into the woods bordering the road and whistled a single long note.
A minute later there was the sound of something crashing through brush and low-hanging tree limbs, followed by puffs of snow powder erupting in the air. Then a huge form appeared at the edge of the dark woods, still as a statue. Its glimmering eyes were focused on the old man.
In the darkness, Al and the others couldn’t tell what it was. Then, apparently in response to some subtle signal, it started coming closer, its identity gradually becoming apparent. It was a gigantic deer, or perhaps an elk, with a magnificent rack of antlers, a thick neck and broad chest. It seemed to radiate strength and undeniable power, and when it reached the old man it remained unmoving as if awaiting instructions.
Leaving the animal where it stood, the old man walked up the road a way, then returned a few minutes later holding a heavy harness which he slipped onto the patiently waiting animal. He mumbled a few words that Albert couldn’t hear, then came back to the car window. “When I signal, hang on tight.” A few seconds later he waved at Al, then yelled something at animal. When the huge beast lunged forward the car sprang up with a jarring jerk and with an ear-piercing crunch landed squarely on the road, leaving a churning trail of snow, ice, and gravel swirling behind. The whole family cheered.
Al jumped out of the car, ignored the wet cold penetrating his flimsy shoes, and ran to where the old man was undoing the harness. He held his wallet in one hand and several bills in the other. “Here, sir. I want to pay you for your trouble. You saved our lives.”
The old man glanced at the bills and said, “Keep your money, Al. Your thanks are enough.”
Al wondered how the old man knew his name, but instead of asking about that, said, “What kind of animal is that? It bigger than a deer, and those antlers are huge.”
“A Siberian reindeer. Goes by the name Rudolph. Maybe you’ve heard of him. He’s pretty famous. Anyway, we have to be on our way. Still lots of work to do.”
With that said, the old man turned toward the woods and whistled two loud blasts. Before Al was back in the driver’s seat and ready to drive off, eight more reindeer had emerged from the forest and made their way to the sled where they formed two columns. Soon the old man had them harnessed. Rudolph was in the lead. In no time the old man was in the sled and tearing past the car. As he sped by, he cried out, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.”