Sometimes the most important gifts are given unwittingly. I set about checking the instruments in preparation for my last flight of the day, a short hop from Atlanta to Macon, Ga. It was 7:30 P.M. Christmas Eve, but instead of forking into Mom's turkey dinner, I was busy getting other people home to their families.
Above the low buzz of talking passengers, I heard a rustle behind me. I looked over my shoulder. Just outside the cockpit doorway was a fresh-faced boy of about nine gazing intently at the flight deck. At my glance he started to turn away.
"Hold up," I called. "Come on in here." I had been about his age when I first saw a flight panel lit up like a Christmas tree and I could hardly wait to get my pilot's wings. But now that I was 24 and first officer at a commuter airline, I wondered if I'd made the right choice. Here I was spending my first Christmas Eve away from home, and what was I accomplishing? How was I making my mark in the world, let alone doing God's work, just hauling people from city to city?
The boy stepped cautiously into the cockpit. "My name's Chad," I said, sticking out my hand. With a shy smile he put his hand in mine. "I'm Sam." He turned to the empty seat beside me. "Is that for the captain?"
"It sure is and that's where Captain Jim sits." I patted the worn fabric. "Would you like to try it out?"
Sam blinked at me from under his ball cap. "I don't know . . . I mean . . . well, sure if it's okay." I lowered the seat so he could slide into it. The captain loved to give demonstrations of the plane's gadgets to kids, but what would he think about one sitting in his seat? Well, it's Christmas, I thought.
I glanced out at the luggage carts being wheeled toward the plane, thinking of the gifts I wouldn't be able to give in person to my parents and friends the next day. Sam told me he and his family had flown in from Memphis. I checked my watch. The captain would be in any minute, but Sam looked so thrilled, I didn't want to cut short his fun. I gave the instrument panel another once-over, telling Sam what each button and lever did.
Finally Captain Jim clambered aboard. "Howdy, partner." He gave Sam a broad grin. "You know, son," he drawled, "I don't mind you staying with us for a while if you'll switch with me." Sam let the captain take his place and I made introductions.
We began previewing the startup checklist. I kept thinking the captain would send Sam away, but the boy was still peering over my shoulder when the ramp agent radioed to ask if we were ready to turn on the first engine in start sequence, number four.
I relayed the question to the captain, who was studying the weather reports. "I'm still going over these," he said. "You guys go ahead and start it."
"Okay, starting . . ."I said, positioning the switches. Then I did a double-take. "Did you say 'you guys'?"
"Yeah, go ahead."
I looked over at the captain, and back at the flight panel. "Right." I flicked on the plane's flashing red beacon to signal the start.
Then I turned to my new assistant.
"You ever start an airplane before, Sam?"
Eyes wide, he shook his head. Following my instructions, Sam carefully turned a knob on the overhead console that switched on the igniters. Then he pressed a button as big as his hand to start the engine. Finally, with both hands he slid forward a lever to introduce the fuel. The engine hummed to life.
Sam slowly let go of the lever and stepped back, awestruck. He'd gotten to start an airplane, an honest-to-goodness airliner. I'm not sure if I'd have believed it myself at his age. I thanked Sam for helping us out.
"No, thank you, sir," Sam said. "This was really great!"
As he backed out of the doorway into the cabin, the plane resonated with the sound of the engine he'd started. "You have a merry Christmas, son, you hear?" the captain said.
Sam looked like he was about to cry with happiness.
"I will, sir, I will. Thank you!" With one last look at the flight deck he turned and walked down the aisle. We started up the other engines, took off, and arrived in Macon about 4o minutes later.
Early Christmas morning, as we settled into the cockpit for the trip back to Atlanta, one of the gate agents ducked in. "Hey, guys, some kid's mother came by this morning. She wanted to make sure I thanked you for showing her son around last night. Said he couldn't stop talking about the cockpit. She left this for you."
The gate agent set a red tin on the center console.
"Well, I'll be," the captain said. He bit into one of the chocolate chip cookies from the tin. Then he unfolded the note taped to its cover and read it silently.
He sighed deeply and turned to me, "Boy's got cancer," he said, and read the note aloud:
Thank you for allowing Sam to watch you work on Christmas Eve night. Sam has cancer and has been undergoing chemotherapy in Memphis. This is the first time he has been home since the treatment began. We drove Sam up to the hospital, but since he loves airplanes, we decided to fly him back home. I am not sure if he will ever get to fly again.
His doctor has said that Sam may have only a few months left. Sam has always dreamed of becoming an airline pilot. The flight we took from Memphis to Atlanta was exhilarating for him. He wasn't sure flying on one of your "little" airplanes would be as much fun, but you two gentlemen gave him the greatest Christmas gift imaginable. For a few short minutes his dream came true, thanks to you.
I looked out at the runway gleaming before us in the sun. When I turned back to Jim, he was still staring at the note. A flight attendant came in and said the passengers were ready for departure. She stowed the cookies away and we went through the checklist. Then Captain Jim cleared his throat and called out, "Starting number four."
I'd wanted to be home with my loved ones, exchanging gifts for the holidays. But that little boy showed me that sometimes the most important gifts we give are given unwittingly and the most precious ones we get come from strangers. I can serve God's purpose no matter where I am, as long as I let the spirit that moved me that night guide me always.