(Updated 12/21/05)

papa e and sebastian excited about our train ride

Grandson Sebastian and Papa E get ready to board the Christmas train....

~Editor's Chair ~
Riding the Train to Bethlehem:
December 4, 2005

Several weekends out of the year, the Austin Steam Train Association's “Hill Country Flyer" makes pilgrimages to little bitty Burnet, Texas, from great big Austin. all aboard!Round trips take about four hours, often at dizzying speeds reaching upwards of 20 mph:-)

All along the way peals of laughter may be hard emanating from filled-to-capacity cars as the aging Flyer slowly and rhythmically winds upward toward 1500 feet above sea level.  (Here in Texas, that constitutes a mountain:-)  And while the HCF's springtime run affords passengers a spectacular view of Hill Country wildflowers and rural Texas scenery, the annual Christmas ride to Bethlehem--er, Burnet--affords passengers the most memorable ride, replete with Christmas songs, hot chocolate, Hill Country tall-tales, games, poetry, outlaw bandits, and even a visit from old Saint Nick to keep young and old kids entertained--all while rolling along past small Texas towns resplendent in festive Christmas decorations and twinkling lights. 

Every year since 1996, Gene and I have treated our family to Flyer tickets.  Once we discovered "Bethlehem in Burnet", however, that crown jewel of Hill Country Flyer excursions, riding the December Flyer together has become our family's annual tradition. 
Sebastian rides the train...
This year, as departure time neared, I sat outside the depot with Gene, waiting for the others to arrive, and marveling at how quickly the generic “Holiday” has replaced "Christmas" within our commercial vernacular.  Hence, our sojourn to Bethlehem in Burnet felt even more poignant to me. 

That day our grandson was so excited about riding the train, we were first in line and among the first to board.  We watched a stream of smiling faces soon fill our own car to capacity.  There were so many families, so many different ages, so many ethnicities--all unified in excitement and anticipation of our mutual rail journey.  And as the train pulled out and our journey began, each family began to visit with other families around them. 

We sat directly across from a young family from Pakistan who were making their first HCF excursion together.  Our car's porter endlessly recounted Hill Country legends and lore, while our children and grandchildren all played together. Yes, we were all sharing this most unique "Holiday" experience, one that I hoped in time might become indelibly etched in our grandson's memory.  

Pretty much the whole town of Burnet gets involved in the "Bethlehem in Burnet" experience, giving up two weekends each year to do so.  Mike,Tina and Sebastian ride the longe car...It is an active drama, somewhat hard to describe.  About 150 townsfolk contribute to what many reco,gnize as a masterpiece of "living" theater. It's not merely some static “manger scene” in the corner of some parking lot or field with maybe a actual cow or donkey thrown in. We were all traveling to witness an entire city block rebuilt to recreate a special night long ago in a tiny village far away--a village now lost to progress and tourism; once an humble place, now signifying the birth of a unique child who would become known as King to some--and, as history and supporting literature demonstrates--would later suffer a criminal's execution for the threat his life posed to the political/religious status quo. 

Indeed, the little town of Bethlehem we were all traveling to is now but a village recreated, but for two weekends it is one alive and functioning, and free to all who wish to enter. 

And as our train made its final ascent toward tiny Burnet, the reality of all of us happily riding through such a spectacular Hill Country landscape on this lovely old train together seemed quite overwhelming.

Soon everyone would disembark, scramble to secure a seat in any open restaurant, then afterwards head over to Washington Street (where hundreds if not thousands of curious would converge) in order to participate in one of the most unique dramas ever offered by an entire town to the public, at no charge. 

inside Bethlehem's gates.... And for such a privilege, we would all (some of us, once again) stand in the cold outside Bethlehem's gates for an hour and a half, while busload after busload of tourists are dropped off to stand with us in queue, the line behind us soon growing to more than eight blocks long, if past trips were any indication. Won't you buy my goose?

Once inside the gates we would find ourselves caught within a swirling river of participants flowing like rapids within this truly indescribable, heart-stopping work of love--a feat incomprehensible.  And before us we behold Bethlehem within Burnet, brimming with real people and real animals--camels, donkeys, sheep, goats, chickens, geese, ducks and doves...with real Roman soldiers directing real prisoners (unable to pay their taxes) toward the town jail, past priests and bakers and blacksmiths, past innkeepers, candle makers and transients, past merchants and racks of merchandise, through homes and alleyways, walking and talking along winding dirt paths lit only by torchlight---and just when you think you're lost amid the swirling chaos, you behold the Star shining brightly o’er the village roofs, as children rush by  shrieking, “Have you seen Him?  Have you seen Him?” and the children played....

“Who,” we ask. 

“The Babe,” they shout, "the Babe!! Just follow the star...”

And so we follow.

We follow, even though we now know the end of the story, and yet, somehow each successive year we anticipate going on this journey even more than before. 

And, as always, there will be fresh hot chocolate and warm cookies for all who emerge from Bethlehem's gates--this welcomed food gift also provided free to all, by the good townspeople of Burnet and members and friends of the First Baptist Church of Burnet.

curly horned sheep  camels by the blacksmith's standthe town moving, swirling by us...

following the Star....The best part is this gift speaks for itself--no hawkers necessary; no Bible-thumpers, no solicitors--no strings attached.  Just one town offering an "experience" of the Christmas story.  Oh, instead, I suppose they could all just go into Austin and stand on a corner and hand out tracts like many do.  But there is no promotion for this event, save for word-of-mouth. 

That's why even after living in Texas for 21 years we had never heard of Bethlehem in Burnet.  I cannot tell you how overwhelming it is to be part of something so heartfelt, so beautiful, so selfless, so meaningful.  And we weren't the only ones who felt drawn to it because the lines to get inside are simply unbelievable. 

This year, while waiting for the gates to opne we had visited with people who had come from as far away as El Paso and Houston to see this event.  For some, it wasn't their first visit, either. And like us many looked forward to returning and bringing their children and neighbors, and their neighbor's children.  Sop we passed our time in line sharing stories of past trips and other incredible train rides. 

As we left Bethlehem's gates that evening, my husband and I clutched complimentary cups of steaming hot chocolate, and headed out across the square toward the train depot where we would all once again board for the slow ride home through the HIll Country. 

Our family finsihed our visit to Bethlehem and returned to the train ahead of schedule. The night air had dropped into the 30's, so I carried my cup of hot chocolate in both hands, favorite furry hat pulled down low over both ears.  S
lowly we walked back to our seats while peering into cabins and sleeping quarters to see what they were like. 

One by one, everyone else also wandered in and took their seats, settling in for the journey home, so I removed my hat and coat and sat watching the weary travelers board—those we had ridden to Burnet with--now tired, rosy cheeked form the cold—one by one they trickled on board: cowboys with cell phones, city slickers, business men and women, mothers, fathers, children--Americans, Afro-Americans, Scandinavians, Pakistanis--teachers, cowboys, soldiers, musicians, all.  As our car filled, I wondered how many had finished dinner in time to walk through

The Pakistani woman riding next to us asked if we had.  She said her family hoped to go, but ran out of time--it was their first Hill Country train ride--and that next year she would really like to see Bethlehem, even though her family was Muslim. 

I  smiled at her and folded my hat into my pocket, when all at once there appeared an intense flurry of activity at the opposite end of our car.  I stood up to see better.  A man appeared to have fallen and was thrashing in the aisle near a woman and another passenger trying to restrain him.

“He's having a seizure...” someone muttered.  A cowboy seated near us appeared to be scrolling through football scores on his cell phone.

I waited for a response.  Nothing.  I could see the man thrashing around on the floor at the opposite end of the car from where our family was.

“Turn him on his side so he won't choke," I shouted. 

People were just staring but no one moved forward to help.  Without thinking I walked across the floor to where he was thrashing and stooped down to put my hands beneath his head.  It seemed important to keep his head still and his airway clear. Then, supporting his head with my left arm, I slid my soft furry hat between his head and the floor.  His eyes fluttered as he began to regain consciousness.

“Everything is going to be all right sir," I reassured him, “you are going to be just fine...are you here by yourself?’

“My, my wife…” he moaned. 

A man across the aisle pointed beside me.  The woman--his wife--was kneeling down, shaking.

“What happened?” I asked her.

“He just fell over," said the man across the aisle.

“He must've fainted…” said the wife, though neither seemed certain what had happened.

"Did you hit your head, sir," I continued, "did you hit you head when you fell?"

“I can't remember...” he said.

I glanced down aware that I was supporting his head with both hands, and realized that he was entirely covered in vomit. "Do you hurt anywhere" I asked him, unable to see my watch to take his pulse.

"No, I don't; think so," he answered, his voice faint.  "I just felt a little dizzy."

Uncertain as to whether or not he had injured himself in the fall,  I looked around for someone who could help us and noticed that vomit covered his bench seat as well as the wall by the exterior door. I tried to remove my left arm from beneath his head to take his pulse. After what seemed like an hour, a conductor from the next car down appeared in our doorway and asked if we needed help, observing that our engineer was a doctor, though an orthopedic doctor.

What took you so long,
I wondered, explaining that we needed a doctor, any doctor…then with one hand free, began to take the man's pulse—it was weak and thready. The conductor disappeared into the next car. 

Suddenly another man, a younger one, appeared at left shoulder.  “I'm an EMT (emergency medical technician).  What happened?”  He asked as he knelt down.  He obviously wasn't from our car.

The man across the aisle recounted what he'd seen. 

I was counting heartbeats...."Do you know where you are, sir” I continued.

 “On the train," he answered. “How will we get home if I go to the hospital?”

The EMT asked him if he had a heart condition.  

“He had one ten years ago,” his wife answered, now behind me.

 “Are you on heart meds?” I asked. Quietly he said, “Lipitor,” as voice trailed off. 

“He needs to get to a hospital," I observed to the EMT. 

The conductor returned to the doorway with another man.  “I'm a fireman,” he announced. 

I instructed them to call for an ambulance, and turned around to ask his wife if she had any relatives in Austin who could come and get them.  “Our sons, our sons live in Austin,” his wife said as she pulled out her cell phone.

The conductor was scratching his head with his hat, still in the doorway, confused; "I don't know if there's a hospital in Burnet..."

 I smiled at the sick man's wife, “Call your sons. Everything will be OK.” 

"Please call 9-11," I urged the conductor through clenched teeth.

 “He can't just lie there in the floor blocking the aisle, “ came his response.

I turned to comfort the man's wife, “Burnet is just a little ways from Austin. The hospital can find out what has happened to him.”

 “You may have had a heart attack, sir," the EMT continued. “Do you have any chest pain?”

 “No,” said the sick man. “I just felt dizzy…”

 “...and he threw up when he fainted; you can have a heart attack without pain, you know,” added the man across the aisle.

Incredibly, the conductor was becoming impatient.“He can't lie in the floor—he’s blocking the aisle!”  

“I'm so sorry,” the man apologized. 

 “We've radioed for help,” called a voice from in the next car. “EMS is en route.”

 "Can you sit up sir? " I asked.  As he began to raise himself,  against my judgment, I began helping him to his seat. The man across the aisle assisted me. “Don't be afraid, sir, everything is going to be fine," I assured him. “The doctors will take care of you.” 

He smiled.  I reached once again to touch his forehead—it was cold and sweaty. He lookedIncredibly, the conductor was becoming impatient. so pale.

“Do you think you can sit on the bench?  I asked.   "I think so..." he muttered as his wife reached to help us.

Just then the ambulance attendants burst through the door of the lounge car and, pushing us gently aside, took over; "Can you tell us what happened, sir?"

Turning back to his wife, I asked her if she had been able to reach anyone on her cell phone. “Our son is going to come and meet us at the hospital,” she answered.

I felt my face smile again and heard my voice reassure her, “Everything is going to be fine, just fine….”

As they whisked the couple away into the night,  I made my way back to our reserved seats, past all the other passengers, still stting quietly----Americans, Afro-Americans, Scandinavians, Pakistanis--teachers, cowboys, soldiers, musicians--families seated all around on either side of the aisle playing cards, reading to their children, talking among themselves, and past those guys keeping up with the ball game on their cell phones--I made my way back to where my own family was sitting at the opposite end of the train car. And as I sat down beside our younger son, I realized that no one else had risen to help us.  Not one of the twenty-five or so passengers traveling with us, my own family included, had  offered to help.

Suddenly the porter for our car arrived.  He, like all the others who worked on the Flyer, was a volunteer for the Austin Steam Train Association.  Where had he been? 

Quickly he announced that a cleaning crew was on its way to “tidy up” and that, while regrettably we had “lost a couple of travelers due to their bench seat having been soiled,” he hoped we wouldn't lose anyone else.   My heart pounded.  Someone had the audacity to get upset because a helpless man had gotten sick on their seat? 

 “I'm proud of you, Momma,” came a soft familiar voice beside me. 

"Are you a doctor?" the man from Pakistan inquired.

"No..." I replied.

"I thought you were one when you went to help," he remarked.

Soon our train left Burnet for Austin. Our two hour trip passed quickly, and quietly.

Monday morning, I called the Hill Country Flyer reservation desk and inquired concerning the man.  They hadn't heard anything about a sick passenger.  They knew nothing. 

As the days passed and Christmas neared, I kept thinking about that sick man and his wife and of our journey to and from Bethlehem.  Soon a childhood story I had learned began to replay in my mind:

 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

 "What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

 He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' ”

 "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

 In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

 The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."

  Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

I thought about my furry hat, my beloved memento of a trip to Ireland nine years ago -- how, if I'd had enough time to think, would I have been so quick to place it under a sick man's head? And as I now write this, I realize that what happened on the train was a lesson for me—not in how much I did--not about my qualification to help, but about my willingness to help.  And I wonder, do we now live in a world that can only rise to the needs of others if such a need is vividly splashed across the TV screen?

There were small signs posted along the exit gates of Bethlehem in Burnet, Bible verses regarding one night long ago. They go by quickly as one departs, swept along in the stream of visitors pouring  out of the gates.  But somehow, those words stick, indelibly etched... “For God so loved the world…”

History now demonstrates that the One who was indeed born long ago, lived and died in such a way as we ourselves are unable to.  He also loved as we often can not, blessing those who were the despised of society--the sick, the lame, the blind and demon-possessed.   During His too-short life, eyewitness accounts tell how He demonstrated mercy and compassion on many who didn't deserve it, and loved those who called upon His name--those who loved Him...those who would later call him, Lord.

Our unforgettable train ride to Bethlehem this year reminded me even more poignantly that, at Christmas and always--but especially now as this world inexplicably appears to be digressing into unmitigated destruction for profit or personal gain, and despite prevalent hypotheses attesting to humanity's alleged evolution--those special gifts that Child came to offer us one night so long ago in Bethlehem--His life, His love, His mercy, compassion, and forgiveness—are the only gifts truly worth sharing with one another.  We do not have to be qualified to do so.  We simply must be willing to do so.

"Love one another as I have loved you," He said.

Pass it on.

And they found the babe, wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger....
Poor were the first to see....

P.S. A good place to learn more about the Christmas story, or the Parable of the Good Samaritan, is in the Bible. (or Google them)
You may also wish to read about that parable here:


Email me if you have any questions or comments, and, oh yes---do have a blessed Christmas.

-- Betty
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