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Ernest Hooper: I gave a great Christmas gift one year

We started kicking around holiday story ideas in the newsroom the other day and the conversation ultimately turned to gifts.

Last year, many of the Times staff contributed to a package about the best gift we had ever received. I wrote about the simple joy of being with family during the holidays as my best gift. Others talked about special keepsakes, goofy gifts that somehow grew endearing, and memories they cherish.

This year someone suggested we write about the best gifts we ever gave.

I fell silent.

For reasons that remain unclear to me, my gift-giving abilities always fall short. If my wife knew I was writing about the best gift I had ever given, she would laugh until she cried.

Or she might just cry.

Honestly, I thought the Simpsons nightshirt was cute. When she said she wanted a toaster, I took her at her word and got the best Target had to offer. Another year, I got giddy about the sandwichmaker.

I still argue that it could toast up a nice ham-and-cheese melt.

My kids would say I give great gifts — when they identify what they want down to the brand, model and serial number.

Every year, I move further and further into the world of gift cards and cash. The chorus of "Where's the receipt?" wears on a guy.

But there's that one year when I gave a great gift. Maybe the best ever. Sadly, no one in my family was the recipient. In fact, I have no real idea as to who benefited from my generosity.

In 1983, Tallahassee endured one of the coldest Christmas Eves recorded by meteorologists. I found one website that listed the low for that December day as 20 degrees. My memory recalls temperatures in the teens.

Still, I was home from college and eager to go out and catch up with old friends. I strolled into a club near the Florida A&M campus wearing my father's London Fog. Inside, people filled the dance floor — only because they wanted to stay warm.

As I drove away, I worried that the radiator in my Chrysler Newport — a hand-me-down from my parents and a behemoth of a car — might freeze over. So I drove up to the all-night Gulf gas station on Tennessee Street and asked if someone could check my radiator fluid.

Back then, believe it or not, they had attendants who carried a basic knowledge of auto mechanics.

The guy deemed my radiator good, but another car did not receive such a rosy diagnosis. It wouldn't start and the four guys who were riding in it simply stared at the engine, their deep sighs creating puffs of smoke as they mixed with the night air.

I recognized them from the club, but beyond that, I had no idea who they were, where they lived or how they were going to get home.

I just knew no one deserved to be stranded on Christmas Eve.

I offered four strangers a ride home. And when they told me they lived in Jefferson County — more than 30 miles east of Tallahassee — the offer stood. They loaded up in the Newport, we made small talk and I delivered them safe and sound to their homes.

I share this story often during the holidays, and friends always wonder if I worried that they were going to overtake me, steal the car and leave me on the side of U.S. 27.

That never crossed my mind. In my heart I believe some greater power meant for me to help those guys. I'm thankful I had the chance to give a great Christmas gift.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper: I gave a great Christmas gift one year 11/22/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 2:27pm]
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