Happy Holidays from The Salvos in Asia. It is very bizarre to be in a non-Christian country at this time of year. Chris is doing his part to keep the holiday spirit alive in a strange land by impersonating Rudolph - he is sporting a giant red zit on the end of his nose. It is impossible to ignore. My eyes are drawn to it like a magnet and I giggle every time I look at him. The hell with guiding Santa’s sleigh, with his handsome oversized Roman proboscis shining, he could guide a covey of 747s. He is not amused by my musings. Which only makes me think about it more:

Even though I said it very politely, he snapped at me when I asked him to put his hands on his head like antlers and do the Reindeer Dance. So I told him he was a Rude Rudolph and had better watch out or I was going to report his behavior to his boss, Santa. He didn't laugh. In fact I could tell he was getting mad but I couldn’t help it. It was starting to get good to me and I was really laughing hard. I didn't want to make him angry, but at that point I couldn't stop. Pretending to make amends, I said how glad I was we were together for Christmas - because the weather forecast was calling for fog. Through fits of now uncontrollable giggles I told him if he didn’t lighten up there would be no Reindeer Games for him tonight.

At that, he got huffy and started doing what I recognize as The Chris is Mad Stiff-Legged Walk. I thought he was being overly sensitive so I told him to quit prancing around. That went over like a ton of reindeer poo. Realizing things were getting serious, I tried to surpress my outward glee, causing me to snort everytime I inhalded, which of course made me cackle even harder. I really really tried to stop laughing and apologize but every time I looked at him all I could see was his nose and I would breakout in renewed giggles. After about 30 minutes of this I put my hands up and said OK, OK, I promise to quit. With a straight face I looked him sorta in the eyes and said I was sorry I used to laugh and call him names. He was so mad he didn’t get it.

For those of you who haven’t read it:

And to All a Good Flight

It was almost 12:00 Christmas night. By some weird twist of faith (OK, I’m greedy and couldn’t bring myself to turn down the job) I found myself on a nearly empty airplane, bound for an icy spot on the map located some 300 miles inside the Artic Circle. We were headed for the legendary oilfield known as the Alaskan North Slope. For the map-heads out there, look for the town of Deadhorse, Alaska (population 47) near Prudhoe Bay. There lies the headwaters of the modern marvel called the Alaskan Pipeline - the stuff oilfield dreams are made of. Our assignment: bring back dramatic photographs of the people and operations in this harshest of harsh locations.

I had been jumping up and down excited when we got the job a month or two back. Outside of the North Sea, there is no other place on the planet with a meaner reputation for inhospitable working conditions than the North Slope of Alaska. Temperatures regularly drop to 40 and even 50 below zero Fahrenheit – that’s 50 below ZERO, not below 32, freezing. In December, it’s always nighttime with a maximum of 2-3 hours of twilight per day. You will not actually see the ball of the sun appear above the horizon until sometime in the spring. Completion of an artic survival training course is required before you are allowed to travel to the slope. We would pick up our very necessary personal artic survival gear in Anchorage before heading up.

Sitting in my own warm little home in south Texas back in October, it all sounded like jolly high adventure and an opportunity to put another new dot on my travel map. I’m afraid that vanity also played a role in the decision to go. To say you had worked the North Slope could raise your standings a rung or two in the eyes of anybody who knew anything about the “awl biz”. I confess that in the weeks leading up to the trip I spent a lot of my spare time concocting elaborate daydreams about my imagined daring frozen photo exploits.

Some of these flights of fancy involved me casually mentioning my North Slope experience while in the company of macho oilfield roughnecks. I’m referring to the condescending jerks I run into from time to time who look down their (usually broken) noses at me and like to call me “little lady” or “darlin”. In my fantasy scenario, I see the smug look on their faces turn to shock and finally to begrudging respect and maybe even a little envy.

Sadly, I’m not above such conceited and boorish thoughts and behavior. In fact if I were totally honest, I’d also admit that being able to SAY I’ve done something is about as important to me as actually doing it. Like most everything in life, the experience itself is short, but the memory (and the tales) last forever, right?

Me and Chris at 50 below zero!

Back to the plane: I was dangerously tired and my back was throbbing like a bass speaker at a rock concert. We had been on the road continuously for weeks and weeks and I was not having fun anymore. Adventure my butt, this was more like torture.

Hubby Chris was crashed out in the back of the plane (that man can sleep anywhere) and the 6 or so other passengers (I had to wonder who in their right mind flies to Alaska in the middle of winter?) were all asleep as well. I was feeling forlorn and as the French would say, full of ennui. What a sorry way to spend Christmas night! No family, no presents, no joyful carols - I was the host and the only guest at a rip-roaring pity party.

Running true to form, things took what I perceived at the time as a turn for the worse. The pilot announced we were making a brief unscheduled stop, all the while assuring us it would only delay our flight about 30 minutes. Great, just what I needed – another couple of chances for a FPC (Fiery Plane Crash) and a delay in what was already an insanely ridiculous late arrival time. I was not amused.

Despite the frightening weather conditions, the pilot made an incredibly smooth landing and, true to his word, we were back in the air in less than 20 minutes. No one disembarked, in fact no one even woke up, and only one passenger got on.

Why does this always happen to me? With a whole big empty plane for him to choose from, the new passenger sat down right next to me. I think I have a “pick me!” flashing sign on my forehead visible only to psychos and weirdos.

I took him for an old oilfield hand - he certainly was built like one. He had one of those giant beer bellies that you see so often on old petro-chem guys. “Suffering from Dunlap Disease”, my west Texas cousins would wink and say if they saw him. “His belly done-lapped over his belt”.

Also right in character, he hadn’t bothered to change out of his big black work boots before boarding the plane. AND he was dirty. His 1960s style long white hair and beard were wind-blown and matted into tangled wild peaks and spotted with ashes and soot – probably from leaning too close to the fireplace at the last bar he had visited. He had the overly rosy cheeks and nose of a man who had spent way too much time with a drink in his hand – another dead give away that he was an oil worker.

His carry-on bag was slung over his shoulder as he walked toward me, and as he placed the bag in the overhead compartment I couldn’t help noticing how empty it appeared. I thought to myself, what the heck was he doing carrying an empty bag on board?

It was then he spoke, turning to look me straight in the eye. “It’s not really empty, you know. There’s something in it for you.”

I would have jumped out of my seat and ran, except something in those eyes and the tilt of his head, soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread. He smiled knowingly at my reaction and when he smiled, his whole face came alive. There must have been some trick reflection from the Northern Lights visible outside the plane window, because the twinkle in his eyes was like fireworks.

He chuckled softly from deep down in his belly. It was really more of a hmm, hmm, hmm, than a ho, ho, ho. Seeing my confusion and slack-jawed amazement, he reached over and patted my hand reassuringly.

And suddenly I felt that everything was right with the world. I forgot about my aching back and how tired I was and just relished how great it felt to be alive right then and right there. I remembered how lucky I am to get to see and do things out there in the wide world. I thought about how truly blessed I am with friends and family and a loving husband that is the best on the planet. I felt peaceful and wonderfully warm and relaxed.

I must have drifted off, for the next thing I knew, Chris was patting my hand and telling me we were about to land. I sprung from my seat with such a clatter I nearly knocked Chris to the floor. My midnight seat companion had vanished and was nowhere to be found. Where was he? Where had he gone? No one else had seen him aboard the plane.

Was it a dream? I prefer to think not. I can’t prove a thing, of course. But I like to believe it all happened exactly the way I’ve described it to you. Because you see, that Christmas night, on a plane bound for somewhere near the North Pole, I received a very special gift designed especially for me. Did it come from that seemingly empty bag of his? I can’t say for sure. All I know is how I felt in my heart when he touched my hand.

I was given the gift of thankfulness. And with it, peace and a renewed spirit – exactly what I had needed most in the world.

And while I plan to hold tight and cherish my Christmas present, I also want to share it with each and every one of you. God bless you for being a part of my life.

Merry Christmas to all, wherever you may be, and to all a good flight.