It’s the late 1960s and Diane Brown, her three siblings, their parents and their dog have just set off on a Christmastime road trip to Disneyland.
But, as Brown recalled at the annual storytelling event The Flame: Holiday Season Edition on Nov. 7 at The Cultch, this family vacation didn’t go exactly as planned.
“Three days later, we’re still driving and now we’re in the mountains of Northern California, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a snow storm,” says Brown, an actor and artistic director at Vancouver’s Ruby Slippers Theatre.
“All of a sudden, out of nowhere, there’s this gigantic crash, and my dad hits the brake and I fly through the air and I plough into the dashboard and I thud to the ground.”
The family’s Rambler station wagon skids on black ice. When it comes to a halt, the passengers are OK, but the Rambler is not. It won’t start.
“The whole back end’s completely smashed in. There’s glass and there’s metal all over the snow, and whoever did it has taken off.”
The six of them have no choice but to seek help on foot. As they are walking, Shadow, their 11-pound Sheltie, stops and lets out a deep, guttural growl. “And then, boom, the leash comes out of my mom’s hand and he leaps into the darkness, into the forest, and he attacks something.”
There are growls, yelps and then silence. Bravely, Brown’s father ventures into the woods and retrieves the now blood-covered dog.
“My eyes are welling up with tears,” says Brown, “but I can see there’s a little blurry, yellow light through the woods.”
It’s coming from a tiny trailer. They bang on the door and a “flowery fat woman” ushers them inside. Her male companion motions to put the dog on the kitchen table and the woman leads the kids into living room where they watch TV, drink cocoa, eat graham crackers and try not to listen to Shadow whining in the next room.
“I fell asleep with my hands over my ears,” Brown says. “The next day I think I hear my mom’s voice, and she says ‘Merry Christmas Di,’ and Shadow’s face is looking at me. He’s got a little twinkle in his eye, and a little wag in his tail, and it’s Christmas Day.”
In a serendipitous turn of events, Brown’s family just happened to have stumbled upon the trailer of a retired veterinarian. In later years, Brown has often pondered the odds of this most fortuitous Christmas Eve. And ever since, she has been a firm believer in random acts of courageous compassion.
“We didn’t make it to the Magic Kingdom,” she says, “but I think we were already there.”