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Angels In Indiana
"A Christmas Story"

"The Big Wheel"

In September 1960, I woke up one morning with six
hungry babies and just 75 cents in my pocket.
Their father was gone. The boys ranged from
three months to seven years; their sister was two.
Their Dad had never been much more than a presence
they feared. Whenever they heard his tires crunch
on the gravel driveway they would scramble to hide
under their beds. He did manage to leave $15 a week
to buy groceries. Now that he had decided to leave,
there would be no more beatings, but no food either.

If there was a welfare system in effect in southern
Indiana at that time, I certainly knew nothing about
it. I scrubbed the kids until they looked brand new
and then put on my best homemade dress. I loaded
them into the rusty old 51 Chevy and drove off to
find a job. The seven of us went to every factory,
store and restaurant in our small town. No luck.
The kids stayed crammed into the car and tried to
be quiet while I tried to convince whomever would
listen that I was willing to learn or do anything.
I had to have a job. Still no luck.

The last place we went to, just a few miles out of
town, was an old Root Beer Barrel drive-in that had
been converted to a truck stop. It was called the
Big Wheel. An old lady named Granny owned the
place and she peeked out of the window from time
to time at all those kids. She needed someone on
the graveyard shift, 11 at night until seven in the
morning. She paid 65 cents an hour and I couldstart
that night. I raced home and called the teenager
down the street that baby-sat for people.

I bargained with her to come and sleep! on my sofa
for a dollar a night. She could arrive with her
pajamas on and the kids would already be asleep.
This seemed like a good arrangement to her, so we
made a deal. That night when the little ones and
I knelt to say our prayers we all thanked God for
finding Mommy a job. And so I started at the Big
Wheel. When I got home in the mornings I woke the
baby-sitter up and sent her home with one dollar
of my tip money, fully half of what I averaged
every night.

As the weeks went by, heating bills added a strain
to my meager wage. The tires on the old Chevy had
the consistency of penny balloons and began to leak.
I had to fill them with air on the way to work and
again every morning before I could go home. One
bleak fall morning, I dragged myself to the car to
go home and found four tires in the back seat.
New tires! There was no note, no nothing, just
those beautiful brand new tires. Had angels taken
up residence in Indiana? I wondered.

I made a deal with the owner of the local service
station. In exchange for his mounting the new tires,
I would clean up his office. I remember it took me a
lot longer to scrub his floor than it did for him to
do the tires. I was now working six nights instead
of five and it still wasn't enough. Christmas was
coming and I knew there would be no money for toys
for the kids. I found a can of red paint and started
repairing and painting some old toys. Then I hid them
in the basement so there would be something for
Santa to deliver on Christmas morning.

Clothes were a worry too. I was sewing patches on
top of patches on the boys pants and soon they
would be too far gone to repair. On Christmas Eve
the usual customers were drinking coffee in the
Big Wheel. These were the truckers, Les, Frank,
and Jim, and a state trooper named Joe. A few
musicians were hanging around after a gig at the
Legion and were dropping nickels in the pinball
machine.The regulars all just sat around and
talked through the wee hours of the morning and
then left to get home before the sun came up.

When it was time for me to go home at seven o'clock
on Christmas morning I hurried to the car. I was
hoping the kids wouldn't wake up before! I managed
to get home and get the presents from the basement
and place them under the tree. (We had cut down a
small cedar tree by the side of the road down by
the dump.) It was still dark and I couldn't see much,
but there appeared to be some dark shadows in the
car, or was that just a trick of the night?
Something certainly looked different, but it was hard
to tell what. When I reached the car I peered warily
into one of the side windows.

Then my jaw dropped in amazement. My old battered
Chevy was filled full to the top with boxes of all
shapes and sizes. I quickly opened the driver's side
door, scrambled inside and kneeled in the front
facing the back seat. Reaching back, I pulled off
the lid of the top box. Inside was whole case of
little blue jeans, sizes 2-10! I looked inside
another box: It was full of shirts to go with
the jeans. Then I peeked inside some of the other
boxes: There was candy and nuts and bananas and
bags of groceries. There was an enormous ham for
baking, and canned vegetables and potatoes.
There was pudding and Jell-O and cookies,
pie filling and flour.

There was a whole bag of laundry supplies and
cleaning items. And there were five toy trucks
and one beautiful little doll. As I drove back
through empty streets as the sun slowly rose on
the most amazing Christmas Day of my life, I was
sobbing with gratitude. And I will never forget
the joy on the faces of my little ones that
precious morning. Yes, there were angels in
Indiana that long-ago December. And they all
hung out at the Big Wheel truck stop.

Deborah Jean Smith
Phoenix, Arizona
August 2002



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