There are some dates everybody remembers. National holidays, Christmas and New Year's and the like. Festive dates and dates not so. Birthdays, wedding anniversaries, the day your mother died. All personal markers. Some dates are historical markers. December 7, 1941. November 22, 1963. September 11, 2001. And still others are both personal and shared with your community. Because you've resolved not to forget them -- or let others forget them. Like December 21.
That's the date the stranger arrived in my small town -- 49 years ago to be exact -- and not on any crack express. His sleeper would have been a boxcar, his diner wherever he could scrounge a meal. And for him this was the end of the line.
Maybe he knew it, because he was still aware enough to lift himself off the train somehow, and wait for help. Or maybe he fell off. We never knew. He was just somebody passing through. Like the rest of us.
For some reason -- there's always a reason because for some of us there are no coincidences -- he'd wound up in a spot on the map called Pine Bluff, Ark., on December 21, 1967. Typing out the date like that makes it seem so long ago, maybe before you were born, Gentle young Reader.
Yes, it was decades ago, but for somebody who remembers, who makes a point of remembering the date every year, it was just yesterday. Even today.
It'll sneak up on you, December 21st. Like a thief in the night. That's the date the stranger would enter the town's history, though surely neither he nor the town knew it at the time.
Now, every December 21st, the man out by the tracks comes to mind. We didn't know it then, and surely he didn't know it, but he had come to tell us something. It would take a reporter days, weeks, to find out his name. It turned out to be Joe Telles, as in Tell Us.
He was nameless to the people who found him, just another bum down on his luck, riding the rails, and this was where he'd landed. He would never make it to wherever he was going. He wouldn't even make it to Christmas.
He'd arrived four days before all Christendom is to rejoice in the birth of Him who said, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."
He'd come at a bad time. People are so busy this time of year with their own plans. And along he'd come -- like still another chore to be done with, scratched off the list. In the words of the old gospel hymn they used to sing in black churches, We Didn't Know Who You Was.
And so, through the short, waning hours of that December 21st, the shortest day and longest night of the year, he was trundled from one station of his cross to another.
They said he wasn't sick enough for the hospital to take him in. And he was too sick for the Salvation Army to take responsibility for him.
So they put him up in the county jail -- not because he'd done anything wrong, but because there was no place for him anywhere else.
That would be the last place he would know in this world. They would find him the next morning. Sometime during the night, they didn't know just when, he'd died. In the dark. Alone.
At first the newspaper heard only a rumor -- something about somebody dying in the jail and the body being shipped out before an autopsy could be performed.
Strange how what turns out to be a big story will surprise you -- how it may not be about the great and powerful, about Roman emperors and their census and taxes. Sometimes it's just about people looking for shelter on the road, a place to spend the night on the way to someplace else. Joe Telles' story, it turns out, mirrors The Story, the one about there being no room at the inn.
The stranger left behind little but the usual, fragmentary chronicles of the poor and troubled. A brush with the law years ago, traces of a family, an illness only vaguely diagnosed. ... There was no way to know what he thought, what he prayed, that last night. Some of us still wonder about that every December 21st.
It hurts to think about it, but it's a saving kind of hurt. It reminds us there is still time. Four whole days of it. Time to wake up, to free ourselves from the hubbub, to slip off our numb, dying selves, and come alive to the least of these. Four days to bring Christmas.