We’re late. Two hours late.
Cutting through the Shoshone National Forest on U.S. Highway 14, the ground is wet with snow, it’s dark, and I have no cell phone service.
It’s taking much longer than I expected, and we almost hit a moose, and we’ve already stopped once to replace a tire.
What if we’re too late? What if he’s gone to sleep or won’t see us? Please, please don’t let anything else happen.
I’m going as fast as I can. If we can make it to Greybull by 6 p.m., I tell myself, it’ll be OK.
I’ve been waiting for this, given up on this, and then gotten excited about this all over again when I get a phone call and e-mail earlier in the day. Today, he’s home in Greybull, my last shot before Christmas. I’m going to see Wilford Brimley.
You’ll remember him for a variety of jobs: “The China Syndrome,” “Cocoon,” “The Natural,” “The Waltons,” “Our House,” Quaker Oats commercials, spokesman for Liberty Medical supplies, an advocate for diabetes awareness.
I remember him for something a little different.
• • •
This is how it went, every year:
My brother and I would pull out the book just before bed Christmas Eve. Ours was the 1988 Hallmark pop-up “The Night Before Christmas,” which unfolds like a stage. Sugarplum candies dance at the spin of a wheel, Santa flies up the chimney at the tug of a paper arrow.
We loved everything about it. The colors were bright, and it felt like you could live inside that house if you were just a bit smaller. Our grandparents had the same version. When we’d visit, we’d find their copy and flip through the pages, even out of season.
Christmas Eve was the only night we would listen to the cassette that came with, an audio recording of Wilford Brimley reading the story.
The tape made the story different, better than turning the pages alone at other times of the year. His voice was a smooth comfort, like it could be your grandpa reading to you, even though you knew it wasn’t.
It’s not that our Christmas memory is exceptional or any different than anyone else’s. In fact, it’s pretty ordinary. Everyone’s got something: a fruitcake Grandma always makes, matching pajamas, etc.
It’s just that last year I moved 1,130 miles from where I grew up to Wyoming. And in the least-populated state in the nation, I’d find the one guy who made Christmas for us every year by reading a story that lasts no longer than seven minutes.
• • •
This is Brimley’s part of the country.
He was born in Utah, worked the family farm, then life went on. He worked throughout the Rocky Mountain region, coming to Wyoming as early as the 1940s.
I found out Brimley was a Wyoming resident in July. We got a press release at work about a parade for the National Day of the American Cowboy and 100th Old Timers Celebration in Hyattville. Attached was a photo of Brimley getting ready for the parade the previous year. I held on to the e-mail. Getting in touch might be a long shot.
Earlier this month, I contacted the co-chairperson for the event, explained my story and got Brimley’s information two days later.
It’s OK that we’re late. They let us in.
Wilford and Beverly Brimley came to Greybull three years ago. They raise cattle for slaughter on a ranch just east and live right downtown in a house that displays on the walls Brimley’s hunts: bobcat, elk, coyote, steer. (“ ‘That’s what happens when you jump the fence too many times.’ ” Beverly quotes him on that last one.)
He was looking to move from New Mexico, liked what he saw here, so he came.
Brimley will tell you he has spent time just about everywhere. He still acts when asked to, but he says he’d be OK if he never did it again.
“I’ve done everything you can think of and some you haven’t even heard of,” says Brimley, 75. “... I try to do what’s underneath me to do.”
I ask the man who’s made more than 70 film and television appearances (not including commercials) if he remembers the book.
He does, and he remembers it was a hit. People, not just me, remembered him for it. He thinks his three sons might have copies of the recording, too.
Then he tells me something else. Wilford Brimley, the guy I associate most with Christmas, doesn’t really care too much for the holiday.
His wife gets anxious about sending gifts and such, he says, but not him. He doesn’t get the fuss over a few days of giving. Coming out of the Depression, he doesn’t get all this overabundance.
“If you’re going to be a giver,” he says, “I think that should go on most of the time.”
I ask, then, if he tries to be a giver year-round.
Consciously? Probably not, he says.
But there are things he doesn’t tell you. His wife does.
Since moving here, the Brimleys created Hands Across the Saddle, a nonprofit designed to help anyone facing financial difficulties or unforeseen problems in the Big Horn Basin. It had its first event in July and has helped 15 families since. It has grown to 10 committee members across the basin, and all money goes directly to those who need it.
There was a need for this, so they did it.
“Would you do it if you could?” he tosses out.
Beverly will also tell you this: Every December for at least nine years, Wilford grows out a beard and travels to both Virginia and Florida to visit with children through Liberty Medical.
Brimley, the one who says he doesn’t care a whole lot about Christmas, plays Santa. He calls them his kids.
We talk some more, about how his grandkids always ask him to tell stories, and so he does.
“He can make a poem come to life,” says his wife, “but he won’t tell you that.”
“I think she’s done being interviewed, too,” Brimley says of this mushiness.
It’s getting later still, so we wrap up, exchange goodbyes and say thank you. This was everything I wanted to know.
He asks if this is my personal copy of the book sitting on the table. It is.
“Beverly, where’s my pen?”
He signs across the cover, adding a “Merry Christmas.”
And with that, the man who was Christmas to me, doesn’t like it himself, cares enough to be Santa but doesn’t mention it unless you talk to his wife, that man gets up, says goodbye one more time, and goes in the next room to watch TV.
Contact Margaret Matray at firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-266-0535.