Friday, January 15, 2010
Christmas Eve, 1971
On Christmas Eve morning, 1971, at 5 a.m. in South Bend, with ten inches of unplowed snow on the ground, we were due to start for my folks in Atlanta, hoping to make it by midnight. We were young, married hippies with our 1963 Volkswagen bus. She was exuberantly pregnant with our only child, whom we named Ethan Siddhartha three months later; we had fifty dollars to our name. Enough, we hoped, to get there.
I was working at a center for mentally handicapped adults. My dad kept us on his Plutonium Blue Cross plan, but Ethan was upside down (he’s still upside down) and that cost money. Dad was a physician whose successful practice had begun to suffer from his long residence in the vale of booze. (Why do I keep bringing that up in these essays?) Dutiful son and loving wife were coming home to Atlanta for Christmas, fingers crossed for some Christmas money, both to get us back and to ease the next few months. First grandchild and all . . . I loaded up the car. It wouldn’t start; the battery was dead.
Ever push-started a mini-bus in ten inches of snow with a non-mechanically-inclined pregnant wife behind the wheel? I did that morning, and I’m little. The gasoline fired heater—the one luxury on those old shoeboxes—was cooking merrily away, so we were warm. The snow was getting heavier as we rattled down US 31 south.
Three hours later we were nearing Indianapolis, the heater stopped working; we had to rely on the engine flap heater until I could find a sheltered place to work on it. Next, at a stoplight I stalled the car in the snow and it wouldn’t start; the battery was not charging. I could push start it and it would go, but what about when it got dark. Would the headlights work that Christmas Eve?
I ran in for some coffee at a McDonalds, and asked the lady if there was a VW dealership in Indianapolis. She pointed me only a few blocks down, by the bypass construction. We chugged over and turned in; the service bay was open—our first piece of luck.
Out comes this short, round, greasy, cross-looking mechanic; working, on Christmas Eve. I explained our predicament; he glanced at her, in the full throes of dazed, dreamy pregnancy, and growled, “Pull it on in.” Dead battery; he and I had to push it on in. She and I moved to the waiting room. I sat and thought, how am I going to pay for this? It was Friday, they would deposit the check that evening and on Monday it would bounce and there was nothing I could do. Fifteen bucks in the bank; me in Atlanta. Overdraft protection was years away.
Up behind the parts desk steps a real live hippie. Now-a-days, today it’s hard to tell one alienation from another, but back then long guy hair was credentialing. Full throated Vietnam; President Nixon; flag decals on hard hats; you do the math. But there he was, and, for the Jameses, to think is to act, so I introduced myself—he also was a draft resister—and acquainted him with our plight. He said, “I’ll see what’s happening,” and eased back to the service bay.
He returned in short time. “He has the generator out, the gas heater’s out, parts all over the floor.” Oh boy, real money soon to be required.
A half an hour later the bus appeared on the tarmac outside, chugging away. I could see a new little exhaust pipe from the gas heater putting out visible waves. Someone called my name on the P.A. system. The mechanic slid the clipboard over the counter; the parts list included a new generator, an igniter and an exhaust pipe for the heater. Scrawled beneath the totals column was “Merry Christmas. No charge.”
My parents gave us a silver coffee service for Christmas that year. I borrowed some money from my sister to get us home. Two years later I brought the charge slip to that VW dealership and showed it to the owner when he asked why I had come all the way down there to buy a new van. A year after that my bride—ever the dreamer—left with our child to cohabit with two Notre Dame grad students. It didn’t matter that I also was incurably romantic.