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Unexpectedly, it was the best Christmas gift I've ever given

The best Christmas gift I’ve ever given?

To be perfectly honest, I’m not one with a strong track record for giving inspired Christmas gifts. I once gave the love of my life, Hedy, an electric hand mixer. Though that was eons ago, the story is still told around our hearth at Advent.

It’s become the prime illustration for “What were you thinking?”

My most meaningful gift, perhaps, was given in December of 1988 when I was in Israel on a Holy Land tour.

Early one morning we boarded Israeli command cars in the mountaintop city of Jerusalem. The military Dodge 4x4 vehicles took us on a daylong excursion into the arid Judean wilderness. The rough hill county covers a vast expanse between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on the west, and the Dead Sea to the east.

Jesus went there to be tempted.

Roads in 1988 — even dirt roads — were virtually nonexistent.

Our three vehicles carried eight to 10 people each in the exposed truck beds. We brought sack lunches consisting of a sandwich, cookie, orange and juice box.

We drove through a rugged and windblown landscape, jarring kidneys and bladders alike. We stopped numerous times to take in the desolate but breathtaking scenery. We listened expectantly for “The voice of one crying in the wilderness.”

At 12:30 p.m. we paused for lunch. I ate my sandwich and cookie, drank the juice, and shoved the orange into my heavy jacket for later.

About mid-afternoon we spotted a Bedouin encampment in a barren valley about a mile away. Our guide, David, decided to take us for a closer look. It was not on the itinerary.

Bedouins are nomadic people of Middle Eastern deserts. They live in tents and most are animal herders.

David advised us to stay together and not wander into the encampment itself or to make efforts to engage villagers in conversation. We were to be polite and respectful.

Our command car pulled up in a flat, dusty area next to the village. We clambered out and David began telling us about Bedouin culture.

Curious children ran eagerly toward us and surrounded our group. Adults arrived more cautiously. One man identified himself as a village elder and David went to him to explain our presence. They communicated in Arabic.

After several inscrutable head nods, the man told David we were welcome to stay for a brief time to look around. He told us about his village and David translated.

As David spoke, I happened to notice a young girl standing at the periphery of the crowd. She was wearing a heavy garment, and was about the same age as my youngest daughter, 11.

It was Christmas week and I dearly missed my three girls back home.

The Bedouin girl looked in my direction. I smiled, and she gave me a furtive smile back.

I then remembered the treasure tucked away in my jacket pocket. It was an Israeli orange, bigger than California varieties.

I gave her a look that said — in international body language — “Guess what?” I reached into my jacket pocket, and looked around to make certain no one was looking. I pulled out the orange and the girl’s eyes lit up.

I nodded my head toward the fruit as if to say, “Would you like this?”

She paused a moment, then shyly nodded.

I looked around again. No one was paying attention to us. The eyes of the American tourists and the villagers were on David and the elder.

The girl was about 20 feet from me. Quickly, I hurled the orange in her direction. My underhanded toss replicated a shortstop’s lob of a double play ball to a second baseman. As luck would have it — or something much greater — my lob was perfect.

The girl deftly snagged it and pulled it into the folds of her clothing.

She looked at me, smiled, and ran into the village.

No one was the wiser, and she was clearly delighted.

As we continued our trek in the command cars that afternoon, I reflected on her innocent joy. I could hear my girls back home saying, “Way to go Dad!” For one brief moment, that Bedouin girl became my fourth daughter.

It was the best Christmas gift I’ve ever given.

JIM CARNETT, who lives in Costa Mesa, worked for Orange Coast College for 37 years.

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