A Tiny Fragment of Steel

“A Tiny Fragment of Steel,” Ensign, Dec. 1981, 10

A Tiny Fragment of Steel

There in the small box was the missing fragment of steel Phil had thought was imbedded in his foot.

Early in December 1970 I was asked to speak at our ward’s sacrament meeting Christmas program. At the time, Susan and I, with our two small children, were living in Tallahassee, Florida, where I was working on a graduate degree at Florida State University.

For my talk I related a story written by Lloyd C. Douglas entitled “Precious Jeopardy: A Christmas Story.”

The story is about a man named Phil Garland, his wife, Shirley, and their two children, Polly and Junior. Phil was disgruntled on one particular Christmas Eve because he had just lost his job. His financial situation had been difficult enough even when he was working; now it seemed impossible.

That evening Shirley tried to include Phil in some of the Christmas Eve activities with Polly and Junior, but Phil just grumbled at the price of the gifts. He reminded Shirley that in their tight financial condition they really couldn’t afford gifts. He said Christmas was overly commercialized anyway. Eventually Shirley helped Polly and Junior get ready for bed. Then, tearfully, she retired to her bedroom.

A few minutes later she heard Phil calling from the hallway. He yelled for her to go get the pliers. “I’ve stepped on a needle.”

Shirley brought the pliers, and Phil clamped the jaws on the needle protruding from his foot and pulled. Out came half of the needle! He and Shirley discussed the possibility of his going to the hospital that night to have the other half of the needle removed. But Phil assured her it could wait until morning.

The next day, Christmas, Phil drove to the hospital but paused outside the door. Somewhere he had heard that if you get a tiny piece of metal in your body and do not remove it, it could eventually move to one of the vital organs and cause death. For some reason Phil decided to leave the needle fragment in his foot and take the consequences, whatever they may be. He drove home and told Shirley that everything had been taken care of.

From that moment Phil believed his life was in jeopardy. He really didn’t know if he was going to live from one day to the next, and so he decided he would try to make the most of life on a day-to-day basis. That Christmas there was a marked change in Phil. He treated Shirley with much kindness and spent time playing with Polly and Junior. Christmas Day was the first day in a long time that Phil felt truly close to his family. Tomorrow he might be dead, but today he would enjoy the important things in life. And, strangely, money no longer seemed important.

Tomorrow did come, and Phil Garland again found himself alive. For the second day he was especially considerate to his wife and children, because it might be the last day of his life. Each day thereafter Phil spent more time with Shirley, Polly, and Junior, taking odd jobs daily to support his family.

“Precious Jeopardy” ended, as it began, on Christmas Eve, one year later. The Garlands’ celebrations contrasted sharply with those of the previous Christmas, because Phil was happy and at peace. He had lived long enough to celebrate Christmas with Shirley and their children.

On Christmas Eve Phil played a few games with the children. Then the family exchanged a few small gifts each had made during the year. During those months Phil had made a beautiful walnut sewing cabinet for Shirley, and she wept at his thoughtfulness when he showed it to her.

As the clock struck midnight, Shirley handed Phil her gift—a small box containing a tiny fragment of steel pierced through red velvet. It was the other half of the needle Phil thought was in his foot. The story ends with Shirley in tears, asking Phil’s forgiveness. She had found the other half of the needle a few days after he had his accident, but had secretly kept it because it had, in a sense, given Phil back to his family.

Phil, gratefully realizing how his life has changed since the previous Christmas, puts his arms around Shirley and tells her not to cry—it’s Christmas.

The Church members in Tallahassee seemed to enjoy the story, and on later church speaking assignments in Florida I again used the story to stress the importance of placing our priorities in the right order and enjoying life with our families.

In 1971 I finished my degree, and we moved to Carbondale, Illinois, where I was to teach at Southern Illinois University. A few months later I had an unusual experience which brought Douglas’s story vividly to mind once more.

It was Saturday, and I had risen early to grade papers before getting ready for a Church leadership meeting. Finishing just in time to dress and get to the meeting, I hurried down the hall toward our bedroom.

As I reached the end of the hall, I felt a sudden, intense pain on the forepart of my left foot, a pain so intense I dropped to the floor and grabbed my foot. I had stepped on a needle! I called for help, and Susan and the children rushed to my side as I sat holding my foot, wincing with pain.

The whole event was painfully familiar. Susan got the pliers, and I pulled on the needle. It wouldn’t come out. We agreed that I should go immediately to the hospital. I found I could drive our station wagon even though I had a needle in my foot. Unlike Phil Garland, however, there was no question whether the needle should stay in or come out.

It was about 6:00 A.M. when I limped into the emergency room and told the nurse what had happened. The doctor arrived a few minutes later and did some preliminary examinations. He found that the needle was so deeply imbedded in my foot that he would have to call a surgeon to remove it. Instructing me to lie on the operating table and wait for the surgeon to arrive, he left me alone. For nearly forty-five minutes I waited there, with no one else in the operating room. During that time I began to think seriously about things that matter most when one believes his life to be in peril. I immediately recalled my Christmas talk in Tallahassee the previous year. What irony! Here I was, living Phil Garland’s experience. And like him, I found myself thinking about dying—and more importantly, about living.

The surgeon finally arrived and began his examination of my foot. “Is it true that a tiny piece of metal in the body can eventually cause you to die if it is not removed?” I asked.

The doctor smiled. “I think I’ve heard that before, … but I’m not certain it’s true. But you won’t have to worry,” he continued, “yours will be out in a few minutes.”

As the surgeon went to work on my foot, a scripture I had quoted many times as a missionary again came to mind: “As in Adam all die. …” (1 Cor. 14:22.) Symbolically, I thought, we all have a tiny piece of metal in our bodies. The Lord calls it mortality. I think it was at that moment that I fully realized for the first time in my life that I, too, would eventually die.

After the surgery I returned home to my family. They meant more to me then than they ever had before.

My foot eventually healed, but the vivid impression of the experience has never left me. Since then, I have thought seriously about my life. What is the purpose of this life? What matters most? Where do I spend most of my time?

One thought by Henry David Thoreau has been helpful. He went to the woods surrounding Walden Pond, he said, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear.” (Masters of American Literature, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1959, p. 405.)

Christmas means much more to me now, mostly because the Savior’s birth, life, death, and resurrection have all become more meaningful. I am beginning to realize the significance of his statement when he said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10.) Certainly part of that abundance is enjoying life with our loved ones. Our children are growing up, their grandparents are getting older, and we now realize that each Christmas—indeed, each day—is unique and not to be squandered on petty concerns. We hope we will be able to spend many more Christmas seasons together; but if we don’t, we want at least to spend the ones we have together well.

I have located and purchased a copy of “Precious Jeopardy: A Christmas Story.” I read it each Christmas season and reflect on my experiences, both those that are past and those that lie ahead. And like Phil Garland’s needle, my needle is mounted on velvet and placed on our dresser as a constant reminder of the uncertainty of life and the importance of priorities. It is a precious gift, one I will always remember.

  • Brent A. Barlow, associate professor of Child Development and Family Relationships, Brigham Young University, is a father of six children and serves on the high council of the BYU Sixth Stake.

Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten