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Brutal trip, but a holy night


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My own personal “Christmas Story” came in 1996 in a place many consider to be paradise.

While sportswriters certainly don’t share the same glamorous landscape as athletes, we often tie some of our more profound experiences to sporting events.

In this case, I covered California in football and was heading to Honolulu, Hawaii to cover the Golden Bears’ game against Navy in the Aloha Bowl on Christmas Day.

Such an assignment probably should have made me feel blessed and happy, but personal life struggles left me feeling like Scrooge after a stock market crash. I’m sure some of you have experienced the loneliness of the holiday season.

Making matters worse, I had just embarked on a scene from “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” just to get to Honolulu.

On the East Coast to cover a basketball tournament, I thought I had done my company a favor by booking a cheap trip on Tower Air from Kennedy Airport to San Francisco. The plan was to land in San Francisco, I would drive home for eight hours of sleep, then return to the airport for the trip to Honolulu.

Those of you who were unfamiliar with Tower Air are fortunate. It was Woolworth’s with wings.

My taxi dropped me off in front of the Kennedy Airport terminal four days before Christmas and I noticed a line headed into the terminal usually reserved for Disneyland’s Splash Mountain. I started to go inside the terminal when I was stopped by security and informed that, yes, the line had my name on it. Tower Air put 500 people on one of its jumbo airplanes and an earlier flight had been delayed, leaving a thousand people trying to push into an igloo. Since the terminal could only hold so many people by fire code, the rest of us had to wait outside ... in December. Nice. Survivorman would have been challenged.

After four hours of waiting, two hours outside, I finally boarded a plane. I arrived in San Francisco several hours late and had to cancel the drive home to get sleep. I slept for two hours in the airport before boarding for Hawaii.

Upon arriving, my back decided to protest those four hours standing on concrete, a night on a plastic airport chair and 10 hours stuffed in an airplane seat. It was three days before Christmas, and I couldn’t move.

Two days before Christmas, I spent the entire day and night in a paradise hotel room in bed. So much for snorkeling.

On Christmas Eve, I finally was beginning to feel human. Now a little aside here. Bowl games long have been a sportswriter’s favorite assignment because bowl committees want to promote their city to the rest of the country. Usually there are dinners or shows or entertainment for the writers. The promoters of the Aloha Bowl, however, always cut corners since Hawaii was its own draw.

Even so, a “press cruise” was being offered. Sounded like fun.

So I went to the dock, got on a fishing boat that had been hosed off right before we arrived and was basically held captive on a three-hour tour of some lovely refineries. Fortunately, they were serving Pabst Blue Ribbon.

‘Tis the season to be jolly.

One of the other writers, Ron Bergman, noticed that I was suffering. He asked me to join him that night for some entertainment. How could it get any worse?

We arrived downtown Honolulu and Bergie told me that he always had wanted to see Don Ho. “Oh please,” I begged. “Not that.”

It appeared we were fortunate when the show was sold out, but a guy at the door happily announced, “Two people just left. I can get you in for free.”

So Bergie and I sat at a table to watch a very drunk Do Ho run through his nightclub act. It was so bad it was unintentionally funny.

I’m not sure if there have many moments in my life when I have felt lower, but that had to be in the top five.

And just as I was wallowing in my situation, my bad back, my personal struggles, my unfortunate circumstances to be in such an awful spot on Christmas Eve, Ho stepped aside and allowed a very large Hawaiian man to come forward. The anonymous back-up singer performed the most beautiful version of “O Holy Night” that I ever had heard, or will hear.

As my body shivered from his penetrating voice, I began to feel both guilty and blessed.

For it was at that moment that I realized that Christmas was not about me, and that I was not alone.

Whatever your struggles or challenges happen to be on this upcoming Christmas Day, I hope you, too, can experience that kind of peace.

Merry Christmas.

Jay Heater is The Republic sports editor. He can be reached at jheater@therepublic.com or 379-5632.

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