The Spirit of Raton
Daniel ‘Chip’ Ciammaichella
Silhouetted by the blackness of the storm clouds surrounding her, the majestic snow-capped peak of Sierra Grande towered over the volcanic plains of northeastern New Mexico like a lonely sentry, seemingly keeping watch over a lone eighteen-wheeler that made its way west on the steel-gray ribbon of U.S. 87.
Mike could feel the mountain watching him has he guided the Peterbuilt through the fading remnants of what little daylight the storm clouds had allowed to filter through. The cinder cone of Capulin Volcano rose like a black mirage as the dark clouds spewed forth a misty white blanket of snow, devouring all signs of the mountains to the west, and the mesa country to the north.
Mike knew the hazards of this stretch of U.S. 87 in the winter; he had been running between Amarillo and Taos for a couple of years. On this night he was also in a hurry to get home to Taos, determined not to miss his first Christmas with his new wife and their baby boy. Despite the white nothingness ahead he pressed the accelerator and urged the Peterbuilt on, determined to cover as many miles as he could before meeting the storm. He reached up and turned the tuning knob on his stereo until the strains of “Little Town of Bethlehem” echoed clearly from KRTN in Raton, now only about 30 miles to the west.
Within minutes the first flakes of snow began to pepper the truck’s windshield and gusts of wind began to buffet the cab. Soon the volume of snowfall increased along with the velocity of the wind, building into a full-blown blizzard. Despite not being able to see even the front of the truck, Mike pressed on through the whiteout conditions. He knew he should stop and wait for a lull in the storm, but one glance at the fuel gauge told him he did not have enough fuel to stop, still keep the engine running to provide both heat and light to warn any other vehicles of his presence, and still make it to the nearest fuel-stop in Raton.
As the cab began to yaw to the right, slipping off the shoulder of the road, he realized he should have just stopped. He jerked the steering wheel to the left and applied pressure to the accelerator, but it was too late. His corrective actions only caused the tractor and trailer to jack-knife. Before any profanity could escape from Mike’s mouth, the truck crashed over on its side like a beached whale, throwing him across the cab to the passenger side that now rested on the snow-covered earth.
Except for his pride, Mike was unhurt. His first reaction was to grab the CB microphone, now dangling above his head, and call for help. He tried all forty channels, but his transmissions were met by only static. Disgusted, he kicked out the windshield, regretting it at once as the wind and snow began howling into the cab. Knowing he had just eliminated any option of staying in the truck, Mike climbed out carefully through the now missing windshield, and slid down the engine cover to the ground. The wind and snow blotted out the view of all but a few feet of the overturned truck, as Mike stumbled his way up the incline to the road, and made his way on foot towards Raton.
It didn’t take long for Mike to realize the foolishness of trying to walk through the blizzard. So far every decision he’d made had turned out to be the wrong one, and he wondered if fate had decided that his time on this earth was over. The snow blinded him as he stumbled on, not even sure if he was going in the right direction. The white tempest that surrounded him gave no indication of dimension, and he couldn’t even be sure of the ground below him as the cold rapidly made his feet numb. The sharp wind cut through his jacket and clothing, the cold penetrating to his bones. As if in a trance, Mike pressed on, until finally he stumbled and rolled down an embankment that bordered the road. He tried to regain his feet, but his legs didn’t seem to work upon command. He felt tired, so very tired. He did not try to get back to his feet; instead he curled up and closed his eyes.
“I’ll just rest here for a few minutes, then I’ll start again,” he thought to himself as he drifted into unconsciousness.
Mike felt warm and comfortable, and he could see his wife sitting at home on their worn-out sofa, gently playing with their three-month old son. He felt quite content, until a voice cut through the fog and brought him back to consciousness.
“About time you woke up, son…I thought you might be dead.”
Mike opened his eyes to find himself sitting on the passenger side of a car, covered with a blanket. As the interior of the car came into focus, he noticed the stack of radio equipment between the driver’s and passenger seats, and the red “gumball” mounted on the dashboard. He began to wonder if this was a police or fire vehicle, but that was easily answered as he looked to his left. The man driving the car was obviously a policeman…the Raton Police patch on his right shoulder made that a no-brainer, but the man himself could have easily been a poster model for police officers. His hair and full mustache were mostly gray, but as he took his eyes off of the road to look at Mike, his glasses could not hide a youthful twinkling blue. His voice resonated with both authority and compassion as he spoke again.
“So how are you feeling? You know you’re darned lucky I found you when I did, you could have frozen to death.”
“Yes, sir, I realize that, officer,” Mike replied. “I guess I should have stayed with my truck…better yet I should have never tried to keep driving through this storm…” Mike hesitated, “…which brings up an interesting question. How and why are YOU driving through this storm? I can’t even see the front of your car.”
The police officer just chuckled. “I can see just fine. Would you rather I was back in Raton sipping coffee while you froze to death? Speaking of coffee, I have some in that thermos next to you…help yourself.”
“Thanks, I will.” He grabbed the thermos and poured the steaming hot liquid into the cap. He took a sip and asked “So how did you find me, anyway?”
“Somebody saw you roll your truck and called it in.”
“Don’t the State Police usually handle stuff out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“Usually, but we all do what we can. There aren’t enough of us to be everywhere at anytime. Besides, I kind of enjoy a nice drive through a snowstorm. You weren’t hard to find, you only made it about fifty feet from your truck, after walking in circles for a bit.”
He turned and grinned at Mike, who immediately took a liking to him. Mike wasn’t a fan of cops, but this one seemed like a really nice fellow, the type of guy you couldn’t help but like. After a minute or so the officer spoke again.
“I called ahead and got you a motel room. You can make any calls or arrangements you need from there.”
Mike thought about his wife and son. “I was hoping to find a rent-a-car and get home to Taos. My wife just had our first child recently, and I’d hate to miss my first Christmas with them.”
“Sorry, son, but I doubt that you’ll find a rent-a-car at this time of night on Christmas Eve. You’re lucky you got me. Besides, the State Police have closed all the roads out of Raton, so even if you found a car you couldn’t go anywhere. I doubt you’ll be going home until the day after Christmas, but don’t worry…if you have a little faith things might just work out.”
Mike didn’t reply. His face showed his disappointment as he turned to stare out the passenger side window. “Do you have a family?”
The officer’s voice softened. “Yes, I have the best wife in the world and we have three great children. We are together always, but I do know how it feels not to be with the ones you love. I also have two other children from my first marriage, and it hurts not to be able to spend time with them as well. My parents also live far away from Raton, so I don’t see them as much as I’d like. The bottom line is simple, though. We have to live our lives under the circumstances that the Lord sees fit to bestow upon us, and make the best of it. Your wife and son love you, as you love them, and nothing can change that. Learn to appreciate what you have, and not dwell on the pitfalls fate throws your way… life is just too damn short.”
Mike remained silent as the bright streetlights announced they were entering Raton. The police car continued on US 87 until coming to the light at the Main Street intersection, where they turned left and traveled another half-mile before turning into the Robin Hood Motel. Instead of going to the office, the officer pulled right up to the first row of rooms, and tossed a key to Mike.
“There you go. Everything is already set up for you, compliments of the City of Raton.”
Mike caught the key, amazed at the efficiency of this policeman. “You’d think you knew I was coming.” he grinned as he got out of the patrol car.
Mike turned and stared at the policeman. His blue eyes twinkled, but gave no other indication that he was joking. Their eyes met for a moment.
“Seriously, I don’t know how I can thank you, officer. I owe you my life.”
“Anytime, son. You just be a little more careful driving next time, and take good care of your wife and baby. Maybe buy me a beer sometime when you’re passing through.”
“I’ll do that.” Mike grinned as he shut the car door and stood back to watch the patrol car pull out into the street. The driving snow made it seem that the car merely faded and disappeared into the night.
Mike turned and placed the key into the door. It didn’t occur to him to wonder why a light was already on in room 11, but as he opened the door he was met by the sight of his wife sitting on the bed, playing with their baby boy. He stood in the doorway, dumbfounded.
“Close the door, silly, do you want to give the baby a cold?” She lay the baby on the bed and rose to greet him as he closed the door.
“How did you get here…how did you know…?” He embraced her when she came to him, still dumbfounded.
“I thought you sent him, dear?”
“That nice Raton police officer who came to Taos to bring me here to meet you. He told me you sent him because you were going to be delayed in Raton. He loaded all of our Christmas presents as well and even brought us that little tree in the corner. He really was a nice man…imagine driving all that way just to do a stranger a favor.”
Mike remembered the police officer’s words as he was getting out of the car and grinned. “I think that policeman must be some kind of an angel.” He recounted the night’s events to his wife, who listened in wonder, grateful that he was all right and that they were together. Soon, the baby began fussing, and all attention turned to him. Mike didn’t care to try to explain how or why this police officer had brought him together with his family for Christmas, he was just grateful that he had. He turned to his wife, and looked into her deep green eyes.
“Merry Christmas, darling.”
Mike didn’t even try to rent a car on Christmas day, but rather contented himself by spending time with his family. They opened their presents under the small tree, and walked to the High Country Kitchen restaurant next door for a wonderful Christmas dinner. He’d never really spent much time in Raton, and he was amazed at the friendliness of the people he met. One couple, hearing they had no vehicle, took them on a tour of the little town, showing off it’s Christmas tree in Ripley Park, and the famous City of Bethlehem display in Climax Canyon. By the end of the day Mike was convinced that Raton was a town he would like to live in. The place seemed to overflow with magic and enchantment.
The day after Christmas Mike had no problem securing a rental car from a local car dealership. Before going back to the motel to pick up his wife and son, he decided to drop into the police department so he could thank the officer who did so much for him. He walked into the lobby and approached the opening in the glass window where the dispatcher sat.
“I’d like to speak to one of your officers, to thank him for helping my family and I on Christmas Eve.”
“No problem, sir.” replied the dispatcher, “What was the officer’s name?”
Mike gave the dispatcher a sheepish grin.
“I never did get his name. He was a tall fellow, with gray hair, glasses, and blue eyes. Perhaps if I could just talk to the Chief?”
“One minute, sir.” the dispatcher responded, picking up the telephone. “To your right, on the wall there, you may be able to recognize him from those pictures.”
Mike surveyed the photos on the wall, but did not see the officer who had helped him. As he turned back to the dispatcher he noticed an 8 1/2 x 11 photograph sitting by itself in a corner of the room.
“No, I don’t see his picture there, but that’s him…there, in that picture in the corner.”
The dispatcher looked confused for a moment. “What picture in the corner?” As she turned to follow Mike’s gaze, she dropped the telephone receiver abruptly. She did not turn around as the imposing uniformed figure of the police chief walked into the room.
“Hello sir, I’m Chief Marcus. What can I do for you?” He didn’t notice his dispatcher, still staring at the photograph in the corner, her face as white as a sheet, tears welling up in her eyes.
“Hello Chief. I was just telling your dispatcher that I’d like to thank that officer over there for helping my family and I on Christmas Eve.” He pointed to the picture in the corner. The dispatcher remained froze.
The Chief turned to follow Mike’s outstretched arm. He froze for a minute, and turned back to Mike, anger burning in his eyes.
“I don’t know what kind of a loony-tune you are, mister, but your joke is not funny at all. You’d better leave now before I arrest you and throw away the key.”
It was Mike’s turn to be angry, as well as a bit confused. “Look Chief, I don’t know what your problem is. I merely want to thank that officer for going above and beyond the call of duty by saving my life and bringing my family together for Christmas. I don’t see anything funny about it. What the hell is the matter with you people? Please give my thanks to that officer, and I’ll just get on home to Taos.”
Mike stormed out of the building and got back into his car to leave. As he started the engine he heard a tap on his window and turned to see the police chief standing next to the car. He rolled the window down.
“What do you want? Are you going to give me a ticket or something?”
The anger had left the Chief’s eyes, replaced by a look of great pain. “I’m sorry I blew up at you, sir…you obviously don’t understand. Please, come back inside and tell me about what happened on Christmas Eve.”
Mike met the Chief’s gaze. Neither man spoke for a moment, until finally Mike shut off the engine and opened the car door. As the two men walked back into the building Mike recounted the events of Christmas Eve. The Chief listened without interruption. When they re-entered the building Mike noticed that the dispatcher had obviously been crying.
“That’s what happened, Chief. You have one hell of an officer there. I owe him my life, and so much more.”
The dispatcher could no longer control herself, and the Chief motioned her out of the room. “I’ll mind the store for a few minutes, Darla. Get yourself some coffee.”
He remained silent for a few moments after she left the room, then he turned to face the picture of the officer. Mike noticed that the Chief’s eyes were moist as well.
“Yes sir, he was indeed a fine officer… the best.”
Mike was confused. “Was? Did something happen?”
The Chief took a deep breath, his voice cracked as he spoke. “That is Lt. Vinnie Harrelson…he was one of my best officers as well as a good friend.” He paused again before continuing. “Vinnie died in a plane crash a few days before Christmas last year, along with his wife, three children and his father-in-law.” No longer able to control his emotions, the Chief walked away into the recesses of the police department, leaving Mike alone.
It took a few moments for the Chief’s words to sink in. Mike’s own emotions began to overcome him as he stared at the picture of Lt. Vinnie Harrelson. It might have been the tears welling up in his eyes, but it seemed like the officer’s blue eyes twinkled at him from the photograph.
Author’s Note: Although our friends Vinnie, Katie, Audrey, Erica and Ryan Harrelson no longer walk among us, their spirits will forever be a part of Raton and all who knew them, especially at Christmas.