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Accidentally Great
By Paula Killen

My father decided that it would be a good time to park and assess the situation. There was a sudden burst of flames.

Our Volvo was now burning on the side of the road. My family flew out of the car and froze; we were just inches from the edge of a cliff. Other people had stopped; they were running and screaming up and down the highway. My brother remembered the guinea pigs in the back seat, and ran back to get them. My parents screamed and ran after him and dragged him back as flames engulfed the entire car. It appeared that the guinea pigs were toast. A brave man with a fire extinguisher put out the fire. The car sizzled and then sort of belched and shifted forward. It nearly rolled off the side of the cliff, but the weight of the U-Haul held it back. A light snow fell.

We hadn't been in Big Bear long enough to buy a sweater, hat or mittens. I had on a hang ten T-shirt and shorts. My brother was crying. My mother's purse was still in the car. My father had his wallet and a vague plan to hitch a ride down the mountain and rent a car. He walked across the two-lane highway, flagged down an RV and disappeared down the winding road. My mother said, "I told your father I smelled something burning."

We waited by the side of the road for many hours. We were cold and hungry; we all had to tinkle, and it's all we talked about. My mother found the courage to go back to the car and verify the fate of our guinea pigs. I'd seen smoked fish before and figured they would look similar, maybe just fatter in the middle, with burnt hair. My brother said they could still be alive. Bullshit! But they were still alive. My mother pulled her charred purse and the guinea pig box out of the car. My brother and I held Winnie and Pooh in our arms for warmth.

An elderly couple with New York license plates pulled off the road to look at us. The old lady rolled down her window and asked for a damage report. I dramatically recreated the scene, made sense of the fiery chaos that had left us freezing by the side of the road. The old lady clapped her hands and said that our Christmas was probably ruined. I agreed. She said that she was Jewish and didn't celebrate, but that she had a joke that might cheer me up.

"Why did Hitler commit suicide?"

I didn't even know who Hitler was, but played along. "Why?"

"Because he got his gas bill."

I laughed and laughed. Old lady was pleased with my response. She gave me an apple. They pulled away and my mother said not to eat it because the woman was a witch and the apple was probably poisoned. This was rich -- a witch, a poisoned apple, my mother suddenly cracking wise. Where had I been all my life?

Twenty thousand hours later my father returned with the rental car it was very dark and we were very blue. I had gone from feeling 100% alive to utterly brain dead. My mother wouldn't let us fall asleep for fear that we would nap and die. For insurance reasons we could not take the rental car into the snow, so going to the cabin was out of the question. A tow truck came and took our car and the U-Haul away to wherever they take those things to die. So long, presents and Christmas dinner. Goodbye cruel Big Bear Mountain.

We arrived home. We had nothing. It was still Christmas Eve.

The next morning, Christmas, confirmed my brother Jefferson's worst fear. Santa had indeed dropped our presents off at the empty cabin in Big Bear. We went to Denny's for breakfast and sat amongst other dejected Holiday Losers. The melancholy was delicious. We went to a tree lot and all they had left was a scrabbly little branch that reminded me of a Charlie Brown Christmas. We took it anyway. This was my family's greatest hour; the four of us bound by the same pain. We said things like, "At least we have each other." I never knew what it was like to have nothing before. I felt poor and outcast by fate. By accident, I had been thrown onto the "have not" pile. And burned

It was wonderful -- magic really. For weeks afterward I would pick the scab of that wound and weep with joy. I had been singed by the spirit of the season, and survived.

So now when I say, "Have a great holiday," here's what I mean. Have an accident. It will bring you fond memories for years to come. If something disastrous happens, it will eventually turn out to be a story worth telling. Maybe the greatest story ever told.

Ask Jesus.


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