COLUMN: A different kind of Christmas story

Steven Abernathy, Author’s note

The Christmas season seems to bring out the best us.

With the exception of Black Friday and its preceding hours, a time that spawns self centered mobs intent on pushing and punching toward their goal of acquiring the latest Barbie, smartphone, or designer underwear, Christmas tends to be the time we are the most selfless and attentive to the needs of others.

Every Christmas season we hear of great deeds of personal kindness that make us proud to be members of the human race.

From the generous New York policeman who bought a pair of boots for a shoeless homeless man to the Missouri businessman who handed $100 bills to a thousand people in need from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, to the millions of you who contribute to food and toy banks for the needy, we show humanity for what it could and should be — if only for a few weeks.

Were it possible to harness that Christmas goodness for steady distribution throughout the year, we might find we have no need for government social programs, congressional pugilism, or even — I shudder at the thought — political columnists. We would take care of each other, and probably do a much better job at it than all the efforts of well and otherwise intended politicians throughout the nation.

It's a pipe dream, but a good one.

Rather than rail about a particular politician, government program, or society in general, I thought I might tell you one of my favorite Christmas stories. This tale is only peripherally political, and qualifies as a Christmas story only because it occurred during the Yule season, but it is one worth the telling.

It is based on an act of human kindness and it is packed with irony and historical significance that makes one regret it is an account almost lost from our history.

Robert Todd Lincoln was the oldest son of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. At the onset of the Civil War, he wanted to join the Union Army, but his mother would not allow it. She insisted he enroll as a student at Harvard University, and Robert dutifully did so, much to the chagrin of his father.

In what was probably the Christmas season of 1863, Robert was returning to Washington, D.C., by train to celebrate the holiday with his family. Just as now, it was a busy travel season, and train stations were packed to overflowing with cheerful travelers jostling on the platforms to load or disembark from crowded passenger cars.

As Robert slowly worked his way through the crowd and reached the edge of the platform, he was bumped and fell onto the tracks just as the wheels of the train began to move toward him. The narrow space between the train and the platform made movement nearly impossible, and the son of the president found himself trapped.

Lying helplessly on the rails and watching the massive steel train wheels moving in his direction from scant feet away, he was suddenly grabbed by a strong man who jerked him from the tracks and onto the platform an instant before the wheels would have crushed him. This man, who had no idea of Robert's identity, had put his life in great jeopardy to reach down into the narrow space as the train was moving to save the life of a stranger.

Contrast that story with the recent tragedy in a New York City subway, where a man was shoved off of the busy platform onto the tracks and was killed by the oncoming train.

Media reports say as many as 15 seconds passed while the unfortunate man hung on the platform within easy reach, but no one came to his aid.

Some even took pictures of the impending tragedy, but offered no help. Were the onlookers waiting for government intervention in the form of a policeman, a social program, or Barack Obama himself to come to the aid of this helpless man?

Human kindness is always better than government intervention. More and more, we seem to forget that simple fact. The disparity between the crowd reaction in the Robert Lincoln story and this recent subway heartbreak puts an exclamation point on our need to get back to the basic tenets of caring for one another.

It is my hope that each of us will take a moment during this hectic time to reach out and perform an act of human kindness to touch the life of another. You may not find the opportunity to save someone from the wheels of an oncoming train, but you can certainly save a life by giving blood; you can buy a meal or a pair of shoes for someone in need; you can even selflessly stand aside and allow a more desperate person than yourself take that last designer G.I. Joe from the shelf, thus avoiding an ugly shopping scene during this season of giving and good will.

By the way, returning to the story of Robert Todd Lincoln, there is an interesting historical footnote I failed to mention. The man who pulled him from the wheels of the train and probably saved his life? He was none other than Edwin Booth, brother of the infamous John Wilkes Booth, who would assassinate Robert's father, the president of the United States. Lincoln and Booth are names inextricably linked by history in a wholly tragic sense, but during a time of civil war, when ideology tore families apart and pitted brother against brother, Edwin Booth's selfless action must be woven into the fabric of our national story.

It was an act of human kindness that should not be forgotten.

Merry Christmas to all of you.

Steven Abernathy is a resident of Destin and author of the recently published novel “Noah.” He also co-authored the political thrillers “Nikita’s War” and “A Question of Character.” All are available through