I admit it; at one time I actually dated a girl who lived in what she called a "trailer palace". Since my idea of dating has always been a total head first all in commitment, that means I lived in a mobile home for a time. This is not something I'm particularly proud of, but over the years it has given me perspective and a profound sense of what Christmas means to so many who have so little.
Christmas Eve and on this cold star filled night the temperatures are hovering just below freezing. Aside from a tent, you can't get more outside while living inside than in a mobile home.
The wind blows and with each gust, the wood and steel frame groans and creaks. The trailer shudders with each shift of even the slightest breeze. The cold doesn't just creep in when the wind blows, is barrels through the walls, pushing the furnace into overdrive on frigid nights like this.
When you are young certain things don't matter, the thickness of the walls or the sturdiness of a home's foundation were the last thing on my mind in my early twenties. All I knew was that sex on a water bed was amazingly fun, though I have to admit that I questioned the ability of the small single wide mobile home to support the weight of the water and our combined sexual enthusiasm.
Somewhere south of Charlotte, off a wandering ribbon of asphalt called Potter Road there was a trailer park. Pine trees looming overhead, their fallen needles carpet the gravel drive that circles around the small group of aluminum clad flat roofed homes set at odd angles from the rut filled road.
The layout is simple, garbage cans to the right, parking to the left. A clothes line along the front and junk in the back. The unmistakable sound of pine trees standing against the winter wind echoes across the cold expanse of Carolina red clay. The trees bend and flex in the frozen air and they rain pine needles that fall gently like snowflakes across the ground. The sound of the wind on a winter's night is amazing.
Not long after midnight the rumble of diesel engines steady in the night remind her of the CSX railroad tracks that run behind the property. The low and steady sound is warning that all hell is about to rain down on her small trailer palace.
There's a large "W" on a creosote soaked post that sits less than 25 yards behind the trailer. When Angela moved into the "new to her" mobile home she failed to notice the proximity of the railroad tracks or understand the significance of the "W".
But to railroad enthusiasts and train engineers the W was as common as mile posts on an interstate highway. The W marked the approach to the "grade crossing" just down the tracks from the trailer park. The W is for whistle and its placement requires sounding of the massive three tone air horn on the diesel engine regardless of time of day or night whenever passed.
She lay in her bed listening to the pulsing sounds as the four diesel electric engines grew closer, when trailer began to vibrate she knew the horn was about to open up. The sound so deafening that it isn't something you could sleep through. It is so loud and so close that it had startled many a drunk who had passed out on her couch.
A couple minutes later the fading sound of the last freight car passes and the silence of winter begins to return. The cold echoes of steel wheels chasing the last freight car down the tracks toward Monroe, a reminder that the night is clear, and crisp.
In order to save money Angela turns down the heat at midnight and fights the temptation to nudge the pointer past 50 on the analog thermostat until at least 6am. Her ability to stretch out her LP gas I find a little concerning, since one of her ideas is to run her laundry in the dryer during the coldest hours and unhook the gas dryer so that it vents to the inside of her trailer. During the winter this provides additional heat. I offer my advice that it’s not safe, but even so it’s still money she says. On this night she accepts my advice and so a couple of frozen bath towels hang outside in the winter moon light.
The back window of her minivan is covered in plastic. A sad reminder of a mistake made only a week before. It was a brief lapse in thinking for an otherwise smart young single mother.
The trip to Toys R Us by herself was a success. She had had arranged for the kids to spend the night with Nana and PawPaw, and she spent nearly all of her $300 bonus from the trucking company she works at, on toys and stocking suffers for her children. The two for one coupon offer on the family size lasagna at the grocery store was all she needed to complete her shopping. She hadn't planned to be in the store for more than a few minutes. But that was all the time the thieves needed.
In the parking lot outside of the BiLo, she didn't give a second thought to the two women nearby loading a car full of purchases. She didn't notice that they spotted the stash of toys in the back of her minivan as she closed the rear door. But they watched their mark enter the grocery store and it took them less than a minute to brazenly smash the rear window and empty all but the smallest of gifts from inside Angela’s Honda Odyssey and vanish into the night.
There were no tears shed, she didn't even bother to call the police. She knew better, and thinking about it she noted she could either be angry at herself or go on, and go on is what she did.
I imagine it was a cold lonely drive home by herself with that back window busted out, but she never complained. Living in a trailer palace, tempers your emotions she told me on more than one occasion.
Its around 3 am when she quietly moves the carefully wrapped packages into place around the small artificial tree. It is too cold to linger and inspect her handy work. She stops only briefly to admire the one thing that means the most to her. A baby's first Christmas ornament purchased for her son. The math surprises her, could it really be three years? The thought comes and goes as it does she smiles. She glances in the mirror at the scar on her forehead, faded over time and it makes her laugh out loud and shake her head in disbelief.
She had bought the Hallmark ornament with the last 15 dollars she had in her checking account or so she thought. But she had forgotten the bank service charge and the debit left her account with only a $1.50, the NSF charge of 35 dollars then caused two other checks to bounce even after her paycheck was deposited. The end result was that the ornament cost her more than 100 dollars. The scar on her forehead was a gift from her then (now ex) husband after he opened the mail somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The following year was a blur of police, and courts. The fights were just a haze of screaming rage directed her way not just from her ex but from his family as well.
The name calling and sworn testimony by her ex mother in law about her infidelity and drug use hurt the most, those lies and fabricated documents were the last straw. Thankfully the judge saw though that, and gave Angela full custody of her son and daughter.
Now three years later she seldom receives the monthly child support payments. The father hasn’t been heard from in over a year. She checks the second bedroom out of habit, both little angels are sound asleep. Neither child stirs as she gently lays another blanket on each twin bed.
It took me four stops and three hours to replace the stolen toys. I distracted her kids with popcorn and a VHS tape of A Charlie Brown Christmas while she wrapped the gifts in the back of her minivan outside.
Nearly 30 minutes after she whispered "Its time for Santa to come down the chimney", she returns to bed, her warmth is overwhelming and welcomed. Her soft voice, a quiet but breathy "Thank You" are the only words spoken during the next two hours.
More years have passed than I can count, Angela long ago remarried, her kids have grown into young adults and even though the years have gone by we still talk from time to time. The trailer palace a distant place in her past as well.
But looking back I don't think you can really appreciate life or fully embrace the wonder of Christmas Eve until you have spent at least one in a “Trailer Palace”.