Americans observe Thanksgiving in many ways. For some it means a day off spent with friends or family, the traditional turkey and trimmings, TV football games that blur together and maybe even some gratitude for the blessings life bestows.
When the Hoekstras gather for their Thanksgiving dinner today, an extra helping of thankfulness will be served up for all family members to enjoy. It's the result of Eddie Hoekstra and two of his young sons surviving a harrowing Oct. 29 auto accident and progressively rebounding from initially serious injuries.
The Hoekstra Thanksgiving also will celebrate a growing sense of awe over the calm, cool and heroic way 9-year-old Nathan acted that night. He climbed through the window of their wrecked Chevrolet Avalanche, walked a quarter-mile along Bear Creek Drive on one of the darkest and stormiest nights of the year and summoned help for his injured dad and older brother.
Eddie and Gina Hoekstra, 11-year-old Christian, his brother Nathan, and two of his younger siblings will join the extended family at a cabin in Twain Harte for Thanksgiving. And the mood definitely will be festive this year.
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"It could have been a horrible Thanksgiving. We are able to have an extra measure of thanks. By God's grace we were spared. It wasn't our time," Hoekstra, a dairy farmer and Merced resident for five years, says.
Nathan, a fourth-grader at Merced Christian School, said being tabbed as a hero feels pretty good.
"Not a lot of people are heroes. But I don't feel different. If I hadn't done that (gone for help), they would have gotten more hurt," Nathan says.
His brother Christian, a sixth-grader at Merced Christian School, had a lacerated liver, broken collarbones, a fractured elbow, cracked pelvis and slightly fractured tailbone. He doesn't remember that dark Monday night, the medical helicopter ride or the next day when he woke up at Children's Hospital in Oakland.
His arm now sheathed in a black cast, Christian will be able to escape a wheelchair in about three weeks. Now he doesn't feel the pain which was more familiar a few weeks ago and is only uncomfortable when he stands and puts pressure on his collarbones.
Christian said Nathan was totally cool when the accident happened, not the norm for the high-strung youngster who admits he is never calm and "freaks out" over little things.
Christian remembers being in the truck and watching the lightning as they returned from a cancelled football game. The gashes above his right eye are barely noticeable now. He spent two days in the Oakland hospital's intensive care unit and came home the following Sunday.
Gina Hoekstra said this is the best Thanksgiving she has ever had.
"I am so thankful to God who put everything in place so their lives were saved," Gina Hoekstra said. "The school and church community pulled together and I don't know how to thank everybody."
California Highway Patrol reports say the accident happened at 6:25 p.m. on a curving part of East South Bear Creek Drive, a mile west of Plainsburg Road.
Eddie Hoekstra, 38, told CHP officers he was going about 40 mph in the rain when the vehicle hydroplaned off the road, hit a paddle marker, went out of control and overturned. The demolished 2004 Avalanche came to rest on its wheels, blocking both lanes of the remote road.
Nathan, sitting in the right front seat, says it "felt like a roller coaster" when the accident happened. In a stern voice, he advises if he ever has children he will insist they wear their safety belts.
While they scrap as brothers usually do, Eddie Hoekstra said Nathan and Christian are very close and do many things together.
"I was thinking it was pretty scary," Nathan remembered. "My brother and my dad fell out. I just did it (went for help), on instinct. I think it came out good; we're healing up."
When he telephoned his mom and said matter-of-factly they had been in an accident, he said she first thought he was joking -- then she panicked. Right after the accident Nathan could not see where his father and brother had landed and did not know their conditions.
Eddie Hoekstra said the accident happened about three miles from their home. He said he doesn't remember much about the crash. Hoekstra was released from the Community Campus of Mercy Medical Center Merced the following Wednesday. He had lacerations on his head, severe bruising on his knee and leg, bruised ribs and a fractured vertebra in his back and admits he is still sore.
"It was one of those weird weather deals," he said. "I felt it (car) spinning and I could feel it going over. While there was not a whole lot of good in the accident, I could see friends and strangers going out of their way to help. You could see God's intervention. I can't attribute it to anything but that."
Many times you hear about accident victims being left for dead. Eddie Hoekstra praised Ramiro and Gabriela Villagomez, the neighbors Nathan enlisted for help. Ramiro comforted Hoekstra and his son as paramedics and firefighters sped to the scene.
Hoekstra belongs to Cornerstone Community Church in Chowchilla and said his family received considerable support from church members while Gail Hoekstra stayed a week with Christian at the Oakland hospital and he was hospitalized in Merced.
"In the midst of tragedy, that's when you see them (extended family and friends) shine. It's overwhelming -- you don't see that," he said.
Eddie Hoekstra said Christian does not complain about his injuries. He believes Nathan received cuts on his finger when he climbed out of the passenger window of the wrecked car. An unusual storm packing hail, driving rain and plenty of thunder and lightning quickly passed through Merced that evening, and the Hoekstras were caught up in the storm's fury.
For Nathan and Christian's grandmother, Marjorie Hoekstra of Merced, this Thanksgiving holds innumerable blessings. She said 24 members of the Hoekstras' extended family, some coming from Southern California, will be enjoying the holiday in the mountain cabins.
"I feel so blessed to have my family," she said. "The thought of losing a child and grandchild is almost too much to think about. Miraculously they weren't hurt seriously or killed."
Many prayers went out on behalf of them, Marjorie Hoekstra said: "We can thank God; he's the center of our life. Prayer is powerful and it works."
Despite his lingering discomfort, Christian agrees with his grandmother.
"We should be thankful for what God does for us," he said. "We were spared."
Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209-385-2485 or firstname.lastname@example.org.