Christmas Past

I graduated from college with a Bachelor of Arts in history in May 1979. I planned to begin my graduate program at UCLA in Semitic languages that autumn. To pay for my classes and to keep myself fed I had first taken a job over the summer cleaning apartments. The pay for that was barely three hundred dollars per month, but I had found a two room apartment to rent for only about half that, and thankfully my rent included my utilities. I had no kitchen or even a microwave, but I did have a hotplate and a coffee pot that I could use to heat water. The rest of my salary went to food and gasoline. I had about nine hundred in savings that I had made the previous summer working at a brush factory and I hoped to use that toward paying for my first quarter of classes at UCLA.

My plans for how I’d make it through graduate school were quickly unraveling, however. During the summer of ’79 the Arab Oil Embargo hit. The cost of gasoline doubled practically overnight. And my car was a 1974 Buick LeSabre, with a large eight cylinder engine. Not exactly an economy car. Then the governor, in his infinite wisdom, instituted gasoline rationing, forcing the people of California to fill up their tanks on either odd or even days, matching the number on their car’s license plates.

As if that weren’t bad enough, my car suddenly developed significant mechanical problems, one after another. My savings quickly disappeared into the pockets of auto mechanics and before I knew it I was down to eating but one meal a day of ramen noodles or macaroni and cheese. I lost a lot of weight, which was not a good thing since I was already very skinny.

I was in despair of ever being able to afford my graduate program. But suddenly in late August, I found a better job working at the Burbank airport in the parking lot as a cashier. I got the evening swing shift, which meant that I worked from four until midnight, leaving my days open for classes. The job was only part time, but still brought in about three times what I was making cleaning apartments. On top of that, my boss at the parking lot hooked me up with the owner of a private lot across the street from the airport and I managed to gain a second part time job driving a shuttle bus back and forth to the airport. Suddenly I went from impoverished to making enough money to eat three meals a day. More importantly, I could finally afford the gas to commute to school and I could actually afford to pay for my classes. At the end of September, I began my master’s degree. I was commuting from Canyon Country to UCLA and then traveling to Burbank to work. I worked most nights and weekends

Somehow I survived my first quarter as a graduate student at UCLA, having taken Hebrew, Akkadian and German classes. Christmas break in December was a welcome relief since now all I had to do was go to work: no classes and no studying until the middle of January.

As my first Christmas since college approached, my boss in the main lots at the Burbank Airport asked me if I could work on both Christmas Eve and on Christmas night. Then my other boss, the one that had me driving a shuttle bus, asked me if I could work Christmas day.

I quickly agreed to it all. I was single and had no family living anywhere near me, so it was either make money, or sit alone in my apartment by myself. It wasn’t a tough choice to make. I had to pay for the next quarter’s classes, after all.

Christmas Eve was a busy time at the airport: every flight in and out was packed. We processed thousands of cars. By the end of my shift I was looking forward to going home, knowing that I’d have to be back by eight AM to drive the shuttle bus. But then the news came that the person who was supposed to work the graveyard shift, from midnight until seven thirty, had called in “sick.” That meant that one of us would have to pull a double shift and stay overnight. It also meant someone would be making triple time: overtime plus holiday pay.

The Burbank Airport has noise abatement regulations, so there would be no flights from midnight until six AM. The primary task of the graveyard worker was to take an inventory of the cars in the parking lot. That consisted of writing down the license plate numbers on a grid of the lot so that if someone were to lose their parking ticket, we’d at least know how many days their car had been in the lot and could charge them accordingly.

Since I was young—just twenty-two–and single, I agreed. I stayed the night alone and somehow managed to keep myself awake. Come morning, I was tired, but got some coffee from the coffee shop in the terminal, along with a breakfast sandwich before I headed over to my other job of driving the shuttle bus.

Christmas day I made but a single trip in the shuttle bus to and from the airport. My lone passenger was grumpy and barely said two words to me. He apparently enjoyed traveling on Christmas as much as I enjoyed working on it. So I spent Christmas as alone at work as I would have been had I stayed home. But at least I was getting paid for my time.

At four, I returned to the main parking lot across the street and managed to put in another eight hour shift of taking money from but a handful of parkers. Few people traveled Christmas night. Most everyone was already wherever they wanted to be, which was not where I was.

By the time I clocked out at the end of Christmas night, I had been at work for twenty-four hours straight. It was midnight. After a half hour drive I returned to my dark apartment. I went immediately to bed and slept for barely five hours before I had to drive back down to Burbank to work another shift driving the shuttle bus. It wouldn’t be until that shift ended, eight hours later, that I could go home and finally have enough time to open my Christmas presents—and get a full night’s sleep.

During the course of my graduate work over the next four years I worked every holiday: every Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Thankfully, however, I never again worked quite so many hours in one stretch.

Since finishing my graduate program at UCLA and moving on to better jobs, I’ve never again had to miss a holiday for work. I find myself very grateful now, every time I get to sit down to a Christmas dinner, or watch my children unwrapping their gifts in the morning. A difficult Christmas or two can keep you from ever again taking the holiday for granted.

* * *

tablelandcover00001The first book in the science fiction series, The Chronicles of Tableland, is now available for free on the Kindle until December 27: All His Crooked Ways.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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