Christmas Eve: Surely nothing can go wrong

December 25, 2006|By KEVIN COWHERD

This is a story about Christmas, a story about hope and the expectations of the season, and it takes place some years ago in the faraway land of New Jersey.

A man and his wife and two young kids were driving from Maryland to southern New York state on Christmas Eve to spend the holiday with his mother and sister and her family.

The man wrote a column for The Sun. A day earlier, he had knocked on his editor's door and, after the usual bowing and scraping, had asked: "Begging Your Worship's pardon, but would it be all right to, um, take a day or two off for Christmas?"

"Go ahead, worm," the editor had snarled. "Just make sure you're back on Monday, and no funny business. Now get out!"

So now the man and his family were high-tailing it out of town, the back of their humble Subaru station wagon filled with Christmas presents for various family members, including his sister's three little brats.

The trip up Interstate 95 was uneventful, which was a Christmas miracle in itself, and they stopped at a rest area on the New Jersey Turnpike to observe the holiday tradition of waiting in a long line to buy overpriced burgers and fries at a Roy Rogers.

When they got back on the road, the turnpike was busy. After a few miles, they came to a construction area, where three lanes were squeezed into two via bright orange cones and - as is often the case - no one seemed to be working.

The man vaguely remembered seeing a 40 mph sign and another sign that said: "Fines doubled in work zone."

But he thought: Hey, it's Christmas Eve. What cop is going to give you a ticket on Christmas Eve?"

So he sailed past the construction area with all the other cars.

A quarter-mile down the road, he looked in his rearview mirror and was surprised to see a New Jersey state police cruiser with its lights flashing.

The man pulled over, followed by the cop.

But still the man was not worried. A pregnant wife in the seat next to him, two kids in the back, a station wagon full of Christmas presents ... we're like a rolling Norman Rockwell painting, he thought.

"It's Christmas," he said confidently to the others in the car. "He'll just give me a warning. These are good people, the New Jersey State Police."

The trooper who emerged from the cruiser looked a little like David Letterman, only even more irritated with life.

"Is there a problem, officer?" the man asked.

"Speeding. Work zone," the trooper replied, apparently deciding that this was the day when he'd finally strip his speech of all nonessential components. "License. Registration."

"He's not real chatty," the man said after the trooper returned to his car with the documents. "But he's the salt of the earth. He won't write me up. It's Christmas."

"You're a dead man," the man's wife whispered.

The trooper remained in his car for several minutes. In the Subaru, the man and his wife couldn't help noticing that every car that passed the construction zone now appeared to be doing 90 mph.

Drug dealers, arms merchants, Hell's Angels carrying kilos of methamphetamines in their saddlebags, bakery vans packed with illegal aliens - all were speeding by while the Norman Rockwells, in a station wagon littered with Goldfish crumbs and empty juice boxes, were being detained.

When the state trooper finally returned, he carried a ticket book the size of a brick.

He handed the man a $90 ticket for speeding in a work zone. He was clocked doing 60 mph.

"What happened to the Christmas spirit?" the man asked. But he already knew the answer: The Christmas spirit had died on a bleak, windswept stretch of the Jersey Turnpike, in the hard stare of a state trooper without a fiber of ho-ho-ho in his entire being.

"Slow down," was all the trooper said before returning to his car.

For the remainder of the trip to New York, the car was quiet, except when the conversation, initiated by the man's wife, touched on the topic of: Why do you have to drive so fast?

But eventually they arrived safely at his mother's house and had a wonderful Christmas Eve and Christmas Day - at least until everyone opened their presents and the man and his wife had a big fight about who was supposed to pick up AA batteries for the little talking Barbie, or whatever that doll was.

But that's a tale for another day.kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

For podcasts with Kevin Cowherd, go to baltimoresun.com/cowherd.

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