It was Christmas Eve. Alone in his car, Dan Lytle had driven four and a half hours through the thick California fog. For the same four and a half hours he had followed the same white Volkswagen bug with the same green and white Washington plates through the same unending fog.
Dan hadn’t been this tired since his mission. But he had a diamond ring in his pocket, and there was a girl in San Leandro waiting up for him. Dan reckoned there would be at least another three hours of driving before he could put the ring on Callie’s finger.
Looks like a long night, he said to himself as he and a thousand other drivers rushed through the fog.
Dan turned the car’s radio dial, looking for Christmas music to help pass the hours. Funny, he thought, how sometimes at night your car radio can bring in Los Angeles or Salt Lake or Omaha—and how at other times the same radio brings in only static. He turned the radio off.
For perhaps another hour Dan passed through a foggy world where literally all he could see was the back end of a white Volkswagen bug with green and white license plates. It was tense, tedious driving, requiring full attention.
And then into his mind came a still, small, prompting thought: “Dan, pull over into the far right lane and slow down.”
Slow down? Why? Weren’t all the other cars and trucks doing just fine hurtling through the thick mist as if there were no such thing as ten-foot visibility?
Besides—it was late. Even if he kept to his present speed, Dan couldn’t hope to open the ring box until well after this foggy Christmas Eve had turned into a foggy Christmas day.
Dan wondered. Had the Spirit really warned him? Or had it been just the normal workings of a cautious mind? Couldn’t he just continue at the same speed as everyone else? Was it really important that he pull over to the right and slow down?
Again came the prompting: “Dan, if there were a wreck on the freeway, there is no way you could stop in time: You’d slam right into the wreckage. You really should pull over to the right and slow down.”
Dan Lytle had been taught that he should never ignore the promptings of the Spirit. Reluctantly, he signaled, then pulled his car over and cut his speed. The white Volkswagen bug with Washington plates sped on, and instantly was swallowed up in the impenetrable fog.
Better late than not at all, I guess, he thought ruefully. He calculated that at his new speed, he likely would be on the road for quite some time.
Dan’s thoughts turned to a story a favorite bishop had told him, something which had happened on another Christmas Eve many years ago. His bishop had been a soldier in basic training. It had looked as though there might be no Christmas leave—had looked as though Private Benjamin Clark would have to spend Christmas at Fort Ord, California, far from his friends and loved ones in Idaho.
And then at the last minute had come the welcome orders: Seven days’ Christmas leave, effective immediately.
It had been too late for Ben to make plane reservations—too late to catch a bus out of Monterey. It had been too late to ride with the LDS guys from Charlie Company—too late to do anything but walk to the highway and stick out one thumb.
A trucker named “Red” with a load of California produce had picked up Ben and carried him east into Nevada. He had joined his baritone voice with Red’s Irish tenor, and they had sung up all the Christmas songs either of them had known.
And then at Winnemucca he had stood in the cold for so long, waiting for a ride north on US 95 toward Boise. In the best of times there wasn’t much traffic on that stretch of road—and on a late Christmas Eve night, well …
But at last a pair of headlights had appeared, had slowed, had pulled to a stop, had picked him up. Thank goodness they had been going his way and said they could take him almost all the way to Boise.
Dan recalled how the bishop had described what came next: It was not until he and his duffel bag were in the back seat and the car had been moving that the young soldier realized the three young men in the front seat were drunk—and getting drunker. They had offered Ben a drink from their bottle and had been offended when he declined.
The young soldier in the back seat had become alarmed. The driver had been much too drunk; the car had been going much too fast; the car radio had been much too loud. A feeling of darkness, of foreboding had filled Ben’s mind as he considered his situation.
Finally, he had said it: “Please! Stop the car! I want to get out!”
The reply had been loud laughter from the front seat. “You said you were going to Boise,” they had reminded him. “Well, hang on, soldier boy, ’cause we ain’t stopping for nobody and nothing until we hit Nampa.”
For several fearful miles Ben had listened to the sound of the tires on the highway, the loud music on the radio, the reckless talk and the loud laughter from the front seat. He had endured the strong smell of cigarette smoke and cheap whiskey all around him.
With each mile, he had feared more for his life. In his fear, he had turned to prayer. “Heavenly Father, I’m in an awful mess, and I don’t see how I can get out of it. Please help me. Please protect me and preserve my life. Heavenly Father, I’m afraid, and I really need thy help. …”
Dan could recall his bishop’s very words: “And then had come a very quiet, very peaceful prompting telling me to get down on the floor and put my duffel bag over me.”
He had done so immediately. In the narrow space between the front seat and the back, Ben had hunched down, had wedged himself in tightly, had pulled the weight of the duffel bag over onto his back. Then he had put his forehead on the floor and his hands over his head.
A few minutes later the end of the world came. There had been the sound of screaming tires, the wild swerving of the car out of control—and the jolting, jarring, jamming impact of two high-speed vehicles fusing into one pile of scrap iron in the desert.
Much later, the young Latter-day Saint soldier had regained consciousness. He had found himself in a black world where he could move neither arms nor legs nor head. There had seemed to be no up nor down, no left nor right, nothing to help orient him. Nothing had stirred within the dead car—except for the smells of gasoline and of vomited whiskey—of sudden death in what had been a front seat.
Perhaps an hour had passed before a big diesel rig had pulled to a stop at the remote accident site. Two truckers had radioed for help, surmised that no one in either car could have survived such total destruction.
But the highway patrol had discovered otherwise. Along with the dead couple in one car and the three dead teenage boys in the other, they had found and then rescued Private Benjamin Clark.
“Young man,” one trooper had said, “you aren’t too good at picking folks to ride with, but I figure someone up there knows your name, rank, and serial number. I hope you do something good with your life, because you owe Him one. Only God could have brought you through this night with not one scratch on your body.”
What if Bishop Clark had not been in tune with the Spirit that Christmas Eve so long ago? thought Dan Lytle. Or what if he had ignored the prompting?
Dan Lytle peered intently through the fog. “Modesto, 12 miles,” he read. Got to be careful I don’t miss the Oakland turnoff. A fellow could drive right past it in this fog.
And then, suddenly, out of the fog came the red glare of tail lights. Flares appeared on the roadway, along with highway patrol cars with flashing lights. A trooper, walking between lanes of now halted cars, passed the word: “Terrible accident up ahead—dozens of cars and trucks in a big pileup. Be patient, folks—we’re trying to clear out one lane so you can get by.”
It took a long time for the four lanes of northbound cars to merge into one lane. Dan’s concern for the accident victims grew to disbelief and then near nausea as he was waved past the massive jam-up.
He saw crumpled cars, jack-knifed trucks, ambulances, patrol cars, paramedics—and motionless human forms under blankets at the side of the road.
As his car crept past the wreckage, Dan counted the demolished vehicles—10 … 20 … 30. How many more people on Christmas Eve, delayed at best, dead on the highway at worst?
And there: number 41. A horrified Dan Lytle recognized what had been a white Volkswagen bug with Washington license plates—now jammed into an accordion between the wreckage of number 40 and number 42.
For hours and hours I followed that car, thought Dan. For hours and hours—until the Spirit told me to move over and slow down.
What if I hadn’t been in tune to receive the warning? Or, what if I had received the warning and then had ignored it? He shuddered at the thought. Dan understood now as never before the principle his bishop had learned those many years ago.
With the massive accident scene finally behind him, Dan resumed his previous slow speed. He turned on the car radio, and from a station a thousand miles away came Christmas music, clear and sweet and reassuring.
There was not the slightest trace of static.