Category Archives: Destinations

Who Do You Never See? A Christmas Story

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[Listen to a reading of this story by Joe and Keri Pagetta above, or on SOUNDCLOUD]

[If you enjoyed this story, and I hope you do, please consider donating what you can to the Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville Emergency Response Fund at The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. Grants from the Fund will be made to support the affected communities and nonprofits that are helping victims address their ongoing needs.]


“Who do you never see?”

The woman sounded like she was from New Jersey and had been smoking for 40 years. But we were in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, standing in front of a window display of nativities.

“Who do you never see?” She asked again, leading our eyes toward one particular set.

“Give up? The little drummer boy. There he is.”

She was right. My wife and I had never seen the Little Drummer Boy in a nativity.

“A lot of people don’t really know the story of the LDB, as we like to call him. But he was there.”

At that very moment, snow started to fall. The streets of Gatlinburg, usually heavy with tourists, were suddenly empty. Night descended, and above us a single star rose into the sky and shined as bright as a full moon. The nativity before us came alive, as if we were watching one of the animated stop-motion classic TV specials from the 1960s.

You’ve heard that there was no room in the inn. 

It was a disembodied voice from above us, but we knew it was the smoking lady from New Jersey, her voice now tender and clear.

And you know that Mary and Joseph had to go to the stable in the back.

That is all correct. But did you know that the LDB lived in that Inn? His parents owned it. He helped with the garbage and changed the sheets and did a variety of odd jobs. With his small allowance, he purchased a set of drums and several percussive instruments, and would often practice late into the night, playing Jewish hymns he had learned in the temple. He’d sometimes attempt them in complex time signatures.

He was at the front desk when Mary and Joseph arrived, and helped them with their bags back to the stable. Joseph tipped him a few bronze coins and asked him to come back in an hour to check on them. The boy noticed that Mary was with child and offered to return with more sheets and extra straw for the pillows.

When the boy returned, Mary was breathing heavily and appeared to be in pain.

“She has gone into labor,” Joseph told him. ‘We’re now counting the beats in between her contractions.’

‘I think I can help,” said the LDB, and he ran back to the Inn. When he returned, he carried with him a small jembe.

“I can play, and she can breathe along with my beat. It might comfort her and help you to count.” And so the LDB play his heart out, slowly first and then faster, using all the rhythmic skills he had learned in practice, to not only to guide Mary in her breathing and Joseph in this counting, but also to entertain.

“I’ve heard that it is good for babies to listen to music while still in the womb,” Mary said at one point. “But it’s even better when they’re out!” The three of them all laughed, the LDB never missing a beat.

Miles away, kings who had been following a star to greet the family and their newborn son, heard the drumming. They had begun to doubt their navigation, and were considering turning back. They took the distant rhythmic sounds as yet another sign that they were headed in the right direction, for what else should signal the arrival of the Lord but music!

By the time the kings arrived, the Christ child had been born and lay in a manger, surrounded by Mary and Joseph, the animals that were in the stable, and the LDB, who now sat exhausted, but proud, on his jembe.

“What child is this?” asked one of the kings

“This is Jesus,” said Mary. “The king of kings.”

“Of course. But what child is this?” gesturing to the boy sitting atop his drum.

“This,” said Joseph, putting his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “This … is our little drummer boy. The birth of our son has brought joy to the world tonight. By playing his best for Jesus, the Little Drummer Boy has brought rhythm to the world for us all to share.”

With that, he asked the LDB to play some more, to entertain their new guests. He played through the night and into the morning, as more guests arrived to greet the newborn King.

Pa-rum-pumpum could be heard for miles.

“Who do you never see?” The voice startled us. It was the smoking lady from New Jersey, right back where she was before. It was day time again, and crowds of tourists reappeared behind us. The snow had stopped, leaving only a chill and the smell of barbecue in the air. The nativity before us, once again, became a collection of inanimate objects.

“The Little Drummer Boy,” I responded.

 “That’s right! This is only Nativity that has him.”

“We’ll take it!” 

“You sure? There’s a lot of other ones inside you might want to look at.”

“Yes, we’re sure. We’ll take this one, too. The one in the window if you don’t mind.”

“All right. Give me a minute and I’ll wrap it up for you.”

The smoking lady from New Jersey went back inside the store and my wife and I looked at each other.

“Who do you never see?”


[Listen to a reading of this story by Joe and Keri Pagetta above, or on SOUNDCLOUD]

gatlinburgfund Donate to The Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville Emergency Response Fund at
Sacrario Militare del Monte Grappa

Memories of Monte Grappa

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The 19th stage of this year’s Giro D’Italia is a time trial from Bassano del Grappa to Monte Grappa (elevation 1,775 m / 5,823 ft). I climbed Monte Grappa in 2011 as part of my stay at the Italian Cycling Center. It remains to this day the greatest thing I’ve ever done on a bike, and maybe one of the greatest physical things I’ve ever accomplished. Second only to that time in my teens when I beat the previously undefeated Frankie Masi in a game of Wiffle Ball in my neighborhood.

I rode Monte Grappa alone on the second to last day I was in Italy after asking George Pohl, who runs the Italian Cycling Center, if I should do it. “No one checks your passport when you leave the country to make sure you did ,” he said. “But yeah, you should.”

And so I did it, on my Bianchi Eros, on the classic route that starts at Romano D’Ezzelino. And it was hard and lonely and dispiriting, until it wasn’t anymore. I kept going until there was no turning back and I started to think I might be able to do it. I kept pedaling until the mountain became one big metaphor for everything I had been through and would still go through. That’s when it became beautiful. When I noticed the landscape, and the curves of the road and hillside animals grazing in the distance. And when I started to bike into the clouds, I knew I was getting somewhere.

I had to stop a few times to get my breath, and while I hated that I had to rest, I knew beating myself up over it wasn’t going to help me get up the mountain any faster. I was recently separated from my first wife. I had started smoking again. My life was falling apart. But I was determined to keep myself together. I took a minute. I looked around. I got back on the bike and started pedaling. At one point, I stopped along the way to take some video of paragliders setting sail off the mountain, which I’ve posted below. I’m not even sure I was a third of the way up at this point, so it gives a good sense of height of the mountain. Looking back at the video now, I’m struck by the stillness of the scene. The reverence with which the gliders prepared themselves and then launched, giving themselves up to the whims of the wind. It was mesmerizing.

Sacrario Militare del Monte Grappa
Sacrario Militare del Monte Grappa

Closer to the summit, I also snapped a pic en route of the Sacrario Militare del Monte Grappa, monument and burial site for soldiers killed on both sides of World War I. Designed by architect Giovanni Greppi and sculptor Giannino Castiglioni in 1932, it holds the remains of 22,910 Italian and Austro-Hungarian soldiers.

I never got a picture of myself at the summit. I was exhausted, exhilarated and contemplative, all at the same time, and didn’t feel like asking anyone up there visiting the memorial to take it. Instead, I had a caffe doppio and a pastry at the cafe and considered what I had done.

And then it was back down. I put on the extra layers and the wind jacket I had brought, and hands on hoods, made my way. While the trip up took several hours, the trip down took about 45 minutes, plenty of time for lunch at Locanda Montegrappa dalla Silvia in Borso Del Grappa, where I shared my experience with the other cyclists, some of whom had climbed the mountain in years past.

“Never stop when climbing,” I was told when I revealed that I needed to rest a few times. And they are right. But considering what I felt I was climbing against, in addition to the grades of the mountain, I don’t really feel like I stopped. Just took a moment. And then kept pedaling.