by Bruce A. Smith
As I write this story, I’m also preparing to get on an airplane tomorrow and fly back to New York to gather up Mom and then on Friday, Dec 23, head to Boston to see my sister and her kids for Christmas. It reminds me, oddly, of the first time I left home to go somewhere else for the holiday.
I was a kid, and it was a momentous journey to Massachusetts –epic, even – and it was one of the first stories I wrote when I became a writer over twenty years ago. It was such a monumental adventure in my view that to give it full justice I had to break it into two parts, both of which follow.
So, these two stories tell different parts of the one trip, and I am sensing that they are now a prelude to another Christmas journey, one that is about to unfold in the wee hours of the ‘morrow.
Mom is now 87, and we’ll be driving up in the family Volvo – one that she has never driven even though she and my dad bought it new in 1994. Dad passed away two weeks after Christmas in 2007, and now I’ll be at the wheel. Details are still emerging on whether I will also be ferrying my two nieces back up to their homestead from their place of personal refuge in New Hope, PA, where they have been testing their new adult wings in life.
So, if they come with Mom and me, they’ll be the new kids in the back seat.
In the meantime, I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Of course, I also wish many of you a Happy Chanukah, and on December 28 I’ll be lighting candles with another side of my family – one that I nurtured as a younger man in New York.
In my absence, there will be a number of postings of another Massachusetts-based story: The Men of Honor of Unity House. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but several readers have been asking for an update. Plus, it’s a story I truly believe in, and I hope you grow to love Willy and Trey, Kevin A and Kevin P, Deon and Naleef, and the rest of the gang as much as I do. To me, it’s all family.
And so, as I bid you adieu for a couple weeks I leave you in good hands:
A Miracle Santa
If you always expect your Santas to be jolly fat guys wearing red suits and laughing behind white, fluffy whiskers, you may miss the real Santas in your life. I know because in 1963 when I was thirteen, my family and I met a real Santa and he was a short, skinny guy dressed in green.
That was the year my Aunt Teddy and Uncle Bunny announced: “We’re not coming to New York for Christmas this year. We’ve driven to Long Island every year since Bruce and Sis were born, and now that they’re old enough to travel it’d be only fair if you came to Massachusetts. We want you here with us in Shrewsbury.”
Aunt Teddy was called “The Boss” by more than just family. Therefore, after her “request” my family prepared to head north for the holidays.
We planned to leave on the eve of Christmas Eve, December 23rd. Early that morning I was shocked to see my dad getting dressed for work.
“Hey Dad, we’re supposed to go to Shrewsbury today,” I said.
“I know son. I’ll be back in a jiffy. I just have to drop off some papers at the office. Help your mom get things ready and when I get back we’ll load the car and go.” Then he left.
After breakfast my mom commenced a pre-vacation house cleaning frenzy that stopped one inch short of total house renovation. By 1 pm – when my father had not returned – she turned her intensity toward him via the phone. Her shrieks got him on the next train out of Penn Station and back in our house by 3 pm.
By the time we got our 1961 Rambler station wagon loaded with ski gear, Christmas gifts, suitcases and bedding, and then stopped at the bank for cash for the trip, it was 5 pm, perfect timing for the Friday-evening-end of-the-week New York City pre-holiday-rush-hour crush. To top things off, the day-long drizzle turned into a downpour.
At the Cross Island Parkway we joined the bumper-to-bumper traffic. My mom didn’t say anything about the sorry state our voyage was taking, but instead served tuna sandwiches and grapefruit juice. We finished our supper before we reached the Whitestone Bridge, only six miles closer to Massachusetts.
It took us four hours to travel the one-hundred miles to New Haven, Connecticut. There the traffic thinned, and despite the steady rain we thought we’d be in Shrewsbury within two hours. But as we turned north on the Wilbur Cross Parkway, the outside temperature dropped quickly.
“I wonder if this is snow in Hartford.” my mother pondered. “You know it always changes to snow in Hartford when it’s raining here along the coast.”
I knew that to be true. Many times we had left New York in a cold rain and found it changing to snow in Hartford, while Shrewsbury itself would greet us with a full-blown winter wonderland.
“They didn’t forecast snow,” my father replied. “They said it would be rain the whole way with a chance of snow at higher elevations. The roads will stay clear.”
I don’t think so, Dad, I thought.
As my mom and I had presaged, the rain turned to snow at Hartford. In fact it had been snowing there all day.
The main roads were plowed, but it was snowing hard with a foot of snow already on the ground. Leaving Hartford and entering the hill country of central New England, the lanes emptied. By 10 pm we passed only an occasional snowplow, lots of snow and a deep, darkening cold.
Twenty miles north of Hartford we climbed our first big hill. Halfway up, the car began to make noises: sputz, spritz, britz… sputz.
“What is it Dad?” I cried out. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know. It sounds like the engine.”
The car lurched and shuddered. I leaned over the front seat between my parents and watched the speedometer drop from 50 mph to 25.
We made it to the top of the hill, and after a quarter-mile of level ground the engine cleared itself, sounding normal. We returned to highway speed.
“Maybe it was just a fluke,” my father said. “It sounds like whatever was wrong is okay now.”
“We should get it checked, Alan,” my mother said.
“Well, if they checked it now they wouldn’t find anything wrong. Besides where would we find a gas station around here?”
He was right. Northern Connecticut was a beautiful, snowy woodland and devoid of all service stations, especially at 10:00 pm on the eve of Christmas Eve.
My father relaxed and so, I did too. I felt cold, though. The heat never reached the back seat of the Rambler, so I ordinarily wore my parka. My sister, too, felt a deeper cold and we both put on another sweater and took blankets from the pile between us and wrapped them around our legs. I took a second blanket and put it up against the chill emanating through the door.
On the way up the following hill the engine began to sputter again, worse than before. “Alan, it’s doing it again”, my mother exploded. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know,” my father spit back, “but getting all-excited isn’t going to help the situation.”
“We have to find someone to fix it, Alan,” she pleaded.
“Yeah, Dad,” I added, “we’ll never make it to Shrewsbury like this.” We finally reached the top of the hill, sputtering along at less than twenty mph.
“Okay, okay, you guys, we’ll get off the road, but I hope we don’t get stuck trying to get off the exit ramp. The last couple of exits haven’t looked too plowed.”
But when we crested the hill top and reached level ground, the engine ran normally, again. “I don’t know if we should risk it, Frances,” my father said. “Everything’s okay now, and I don’t know where a gas station’s gonna be until we reach Worcester, and that’s miles away.”
My mother was quiet and I remained silent too, but I knew we needed help.
A few miles down the road, after two more sputtering hills, we saw a tall Mobil gas station sign advertising twenty-four hour service at the next exit.
“Rescue, dead-ahead,” I shouted.
I guess my dad agreed because he drove off the exit, gingerly following the half-filled tracks of those who had ventured before us. At the bottom of the ramp we could see the fully lit gas station advertising 24-hour service. But, as we drove on the tarmac and headed toward a repair bay, a mechanic from inside came up to the window and waved his arms cross-wise, like a football referee signaling an incomplete forward pass. He mouthed words we couldn’t hear, but we could read his lips saying, “We’re closed. We’re closed.” My mother rolled down her window.
“What do you mean you’re closed?” she shouted. “We need help. Our engine isn’t running right.”
“We’re closed,” he mouthed again, then turned and shut off the lights, including the sign that proclaimed twenty-four hour service.
“The-Sign-Says-Twenty-Four-Hour-Service-MISTER!” my mother roared, louder than the troubled straight-six under the hood.
“Frances, calm down,” my dad said. “He’s closed. It’s late. He wants to go home.”
“How can you say that,” she screamed. “We need help!”
“We’ll find it somewhere else. Roll-up your window.”
“Now, I know how Mary and Joseph felt being turned away from the inn,” my mother said, closing the window. “Twenty-four hour service. God!” she exclaimed, staring out the windshield as the blizzard flakes streamed straight at us in a magical, but scary, cosmic kaleidoscope. “Twenty-four hour service… twenty-four hour service…she whispered.” Then she took a deep breath, sighed, and we all settled-in, wondering what would happen next.
I silently prayed for a miracle, envisioning on the next hill the engine would run perfectly and we could continue without concern, gaily speculating on the engine-gremlins that had given us a scare. I saw them as little buggers evaporating, or going out the tailpipe and back to the void.
Soon we came to a small hill. The engine sputtered a few times, not as bad as before, but the hill wasn’t too steep.
Maybe my thoughts fixed the engine…
Then we came to a bigger hill and the engine began to self-destruct again.
How come my thoughts didn’t fix the car? I focused so hard…
“Maybe we should get off and find a motel,” I finally said. “Fix the car tomorrow.”
“I don’t know where we’ll find a motel, son. We might as well keep going as long as the car continues running.”
“But Dad, the car could stop anywhere on the road and we’d be stuck out here. Maybe we should turn around and ask the guy before he goes, if there are any motels around.”
“Let’s keep going, son, and see what we find.”
The hills came regularly, like slow, soft rolling ocean waves. On each downhill my dad put the pedal near to the floor, almost skidding out of the tracks in the snow. On each uphill the car faltered, the sputtering becoming a cruel, engine-slaughtering, ka-ka-knocking by the time we crested.
Then we saw it, a giant hill, but with a lit gas station sign on the summit. My father put the pedal-to-the-metal. We slipped out of the tracks in the valley but my dad steered us back in just before we started our climb. Spritz, sputz,…baddda, dada, bangga, bang-a-danga-banga… sputz,… Ka-BADDDA, KA-BANGA, KA-BADDDA, KA-BANG! Twenty-five mph, twenty, fifteen… ten…five. I saw the gas station ahead on the right.
“We can push it from here if we have to,” I shouted.
GOODALL’S GARAGE proclaimed a red, neon sign atop the bay doors. All the lights were on inside. It had to be open.
We pulled onto the exit ramp. Blessedly, we found tracks cutting through the twelve-inch plus snow leading right onto the tarmac past the pumps, and directly to a bay door. The door magically opened, but I didn’t see anyone in the shop. My dad drove right in.
“Don’t turn it off,” said a voice with a flat New England ‘pak-thah-cah-in-Hahvad-yahd’ accent. A small, slender man dressed in a green one-piece uniform walked toward us from his office. He wore a red, five-pointed star on his chest signifying himself a Texaco mechanic.
“What’s the matter?” he asked as we stepped out of the car.
“The engine’s misfiring,” my father said. The man in green stuck an exhaust hose on the tailpipe and closed the bay door. My kid sister and I breathed in the warm, dry heat blasting from the propane floor heaters.
My father popped the hood and the mechanic leaned in. We all got close. Seeing my father’s hesitation, I spoke.
It misfires bad,” I said, “especially on the hills going up. But it’s okay on the downhills. I didn’t think we’d make that last one.”
“Do you think it’s serious?” my mother asked.
He shrugged, and gave us a whimsical, but reassuring, “Hmmm.”
The engine was running smoothly. He pulled the accelerator cable a few times. “Rhum… Rhumm… RhummmMMMMM.” The engine sounded great.
How come it couldn’t do that out in the snow, I wondered.
The mechanic checked the wires to the spark plugs, and pulled one off. The engine lagged. He put the wire back near the head of the spark plug so that it almost touched, causing an intermittent firing.
“Did it sound like that?” he asked us.
“Yeah,” I said. My dad got alongside the mechanic.
“We just had a tune-up,” my father said. “It can’t be the spark plugs.”
“Yeah, they look fine, (which was pronounced in the accent of mid-New England, ‘fy-ene’),” said the mechanic.
“Then what is it?” asked my father.
“Don’t know for sure, but I have a good idea.”
The mechanic walked over to his trash barrel, pulled out an empty Valvoline Oil cardboard box, and tore off a section about one foot-by-two feet. He slid this sheet of cardboard behind the front grill, but in front of the radiator.
“These new Ramblas have a lot of space between the cooling fins,” he said. “On a night like tonight, a lot of that frozen ice and snow can fly past the fins and land on the spark plug wires. They melt and short-out the wire, giving ya the intermittent misfire. On the uphill ya’ll notice it, baht on the downhill, where ya don’t need the same power, ya won’t. This cardboard shield will block out the snow.”
“But won’t it cause the radiator to heat up?” my father asked.
“It might, so keep your eye on the gauge. If it runs too warm, tear off a corner. Let a little more air flow past the fins. But, it’s cold out and getting colder; where ya’ going?”
“Worcester,” my father said.
“Shrewsbury,” my sister and I corrected.
“Shouldn’t be a problem. That’s only forty miles, I’m sure ya’ll be fy-ene.”
“Ahh…” I breathed a sigh of relief. Everyone felt the same. My mom asked the little man in green if she could use his phone to make a collect call. She wanted to let Teddy and Bunny know our situation.
“Sure lady, right on the desk.”
My mom was back in less than two minutes saying, “Teddy picked up on the first ring. She’s been sitting by the phone for the past two hours wondering where we were. She’s had Bunny camped out next door at the Liuvetschi’s, calling the State Police of New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts every fifteen minutes to see if we’d run off the road. Plus, she’s got the Michalski boys shoveling the driveway to keep it clear for us. They’ve got eighteen inches on the ground and expect more.”
Wow, I thought, the skiing’s gonna be great.
We climbed back into the car and thanked our benefactor. My mother told him we had tried to get help at the Mobil station down the road but that they had closed in our faces.
“How come you were still open for us,” she asked.
“I guess I knew you were coming,” he said, chuckling. “But now I guess I can go home, too. Merry Christmas, folks.”
“Merry Christmas, to you too, mister,” I called out. “You really saved the day for us.”
“Thank you, Mr.-Man-Who-Wears-The-Star,” my little sister said through her open window.
“You’re very welcome sweetie,” he replied. “I hope Santa’s good to ya this year,” he added, winking at her.
“He already has,” my mother said to our savior.
We backed out of the repair bay and headed for the highway. He returned our waves, then turned out his lights. We were on our way and he was gone, but he has never been forgotten by my family.
Rudolph and ZZ
If you think only the reindeer flying through Christmas skies have red noses and guide sleighs, then you may miss the real Rudolphs of your stormy Christmas eves. I know, because in 1963 when I was thirteen, my family and I met a real Rudolph.
That was the year my Aunt Teddy and Uncle Bunny put their foot down, “We’re not coming to New York this Christmas,” they told my mother. “After thirteen years it’s time you and Alan brought the children to be with the rest of the family here in Shrewsbury.”
My mother’s entire family lives in the greater Worcester, Massachusetts area, and is all of Lithuanian decent, the older generation having “come over on the boat”. In Lithuania, the family name was pronounced Zhiez-Zhish-Cuss, but here my great-uncles shortened it, each using a variety of “z’s” and vowels. My cousins in Brockton were Zizes and my mother’s immediate family in Worcester picked Zizis. Uncle Henry stood out with Zizys. But all of this carried too many “z’s”, or perhaps too much ethnicity for some of my mom’s friends, who decided to call her simply “ZZ.”
When I was a kid and answered the phone, if the caller asked for ZZ I knew it was somebody from the old neighborhood and it gave me a warm feeling. The Lithuanian/Worcester side of my family was the fun side. They joked and drank beer, went swimming and fishing every weekend in the summer, and always had time to play with kids. Going to Massachusetts for Christmas seemed like a good deal to me.
But, on our trip north we got caught in a surprise blizzard, and by 10 pmwere only at Holland, Connecticut, near the Massachusetts state line. At a friendly gas station named Goodall’s Garage we gathered strength, fixed a sputtering motor, and made a phone call to Teddy and Bunny to assuage their anxieties.
My mother held the receiver two-feet from her ear, and we all heard her sister scream that she had been calling the state police of New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts every fifteen minutes for the past five hours to hear if we had run off the road. Our Christmas was getting off to an all-too-familiar hysterical start.
By midnight we reached Worcester. Then, cautiously we descended down the Lake Quinsigamond hill, crossed the Route 9 Bridge and headed toward Shrewsbury.
Although chilled with fear by being the only car on the road in two feet of snow, we were also filled with Yuletide enchantment. Laying two miles ahead of us through the entire White City Shopping Center complex were red and green traffic lights blinking synchronistically like a greeting from Santa’s realm. All of the gaiety from the store windows shone for us, too, as if we had discovered an abandoned Santa’s Village.
And all of it hinted of what was to come, one of the greatest Christmas Eve gifts I’ve ever seen – all decked-out in a set of industrial-strength orange and white strobe lights.
Driving to within 100 feet of the lights, we discovered they belonged to a Shrewsbury, MA Department of Public Works snowplow parked in the middle of the roadway. The driver hopped out of the cab, and motioned for us to stop. My father braked and rolled down his window as the snowplow guy came alongside. But, instead of speaking to my dad, the DPW guy looked across the front seat at my mom.
“ZZ,” he said, “is that you?”
My mom leaned far to her left to get a good look, hesitated, then shouted, “Eddie!… Eddie Tamilevisch! Is that really you?”
“Yeah, ZZ, it’s me.”
“My Gawd, Eddie, I haven’t seen you since high school! What are you doing here?”
“Me?” he roared. “ZZ, I’m driving a snowplow – that’s what I’m doing here! There’s a blizzard out here in case you haven’t noticed, so let me ask you. ‘what the hell are you doing here?’” Our laughter warmed us like grog from Tiny Tim’s table.
“Bunny called me an hour ago,” Eddie continued, “saying his crazy New York relatives were driving up and were sure to need a plow to get through. Since I’m the Superintendent of Public Works for Shrewsbury, I figured I’d better make sure you’d be okay. I wouldn’t want Teddy Zizis’ kid sister to end up in a ditch, because I’d never hear the end of it.”
ZZ and Eddie shared another, more private laugh together, knowing fully what Teddy’s year-long wrath could be like.
In a minute we were following behind Eddie T, his International Loadstar 6000 throwing a giant wave of snow forty feet to the side, and his orange and white halogens a-glowing. Seeing the strobe lights flick across snowdrifts draping endless strings of holiday house lights, I knew the joy and wonder Santa must have felt on that night long ago, when he too, needed a Rudolph to guide himself home.
© Bruce A. Smith 1990
BTW: New York weather forecast for Friday, December 23, 2011 is “spinkles” with increasing cloudiness, high temps in the mid forties…I’ll keep you posted.