29: A Very Cherry Christmas

29: A Very Cherry Christmas

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

A Very Cherry Christmas

Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey.

~Fitzhugh Mullan

It was a cherry car. A shiny red 1977 Checker cab with black vinyl roof, dark tinted windows, and large silver wheels ringed with thick whitewall tires. The used car salesman said that it had been a taxicab in Niagara Falls, New York. The odometer read 450,000 miles, but he proudly announced that it was probably 1,450,000. In 1981, even though the Checker was no longer being manufactured, everyone knew that the car was indestructible. The smiling chrome grille and glowing red paint job sold me. It looked so cool!

I named the car Big Red, and after a wash and wax I would take the kids out for frozen yogurt. We’d count the heads that turned as we drove by. In the mile-and-a-half journey we counted twenty-two gawkers one day.

I featured the family grouped around the grinning grille on our 1981 Christmas card. That year, Jake and Kristen, aged eight and five respectively, were excited about the ride to their grandparents’ house in Sault Ste. Marie for a guaranteed white Christmas. I was excited about the first highway test of the new car. The cavernous backseat area was like a large playroom, big enough to keep both kids out of each other’s hair for the eight-hour drive from Toronto. My wife Brenda was looking forward to riding up front in peace. She packed games, sandwiches, coffee and juice so we could just keep moving.

Big Red sat tall and floated northward across the frozen brown landscape. Cocooned in a chunky mass of heavy plate steel, pulled along by a big six Chevy truck engine with an Oldsmobile transmission and heavy duty Cadillac brakes, I felt a wonderful sense of security. Still no snow as we entered Canadian Shield country. Out came the snacks. This was happy motoring.

With darkness falling I noticed a White Rose gas station north of Britt that would come in handy on our return journey. Gas stations were scarce in the North so you had to keep alert. And just how was our mileage doing? Our last vehicle, a VW van, could make it within an hour and a half of our destination on one tank. With night upon us we had just passed the halfway point, the zone where the kids normally started to get on each other’s nerves. To my alarm, I realized the old engine had really been sucking up the gas.

The fighting in the back seat started. Then the sleet started. The meagre defroster barely melted the ice accumulating on the wind-shield and the hard rubber wipers were smearing my severely limited vision. There was nowhere to pull over. The gas needle was on E. My hands grew tight on the wheel.

Whack!

“She hit me.”

“Ouch.”

“He hit me first.”

In frustration, I reflexively reached back to grab one or other of the kids, but they were so far back in that cavernous expanse they easily evaded my grasps. While pointlessly groping with my right hand, my left hand stayed oh so steady on the wheel. My right foot was doing the heel and toe dance between the accelerator and brake, and my left foot was tapping because of the thermos of coffee that I had finished 150 miles back.

We were on the Sudbury bypass with no gas stations or rest stops for miles. Creeping along at twenty miles per hour I jockeyed to keep the car from sliding off the road in the now raging full-blown blizzard. “Why didn’t I buy snow tires?” I asked myself. I prayed that the reserve tank would pull us through. Brenda used all of her mollifying skills to calm the kids. My left foot was really bouncing now.

Suddenly, above the swirling white headlight glare, a shining red star appeared in the sky. It was a Christmas miracle! Below the star, the sign read: Texaco OPEN.

Stepping into the deep snow in my slippery city shoes, I heard the gas station attendant say over my shoulder, “Washroom’s busted. There’s an outhouse out back.” I nearly ripped the door in half trying to open it against a snowdrift. During that long interval of heavensent relief, I realized I was still wearing light clothing. Outside the wind howled and the storm hit hard. I hobbled back to the car aching and shivering.

Invigorated, but slightly debilitated, I wheeled Big Red back into the storm. Comfort came from the car radio. Thank heaven for the CBC. It was Fireside Al, Alan Maitland on As It Happens, reading a story of a returning British jet fighter pilot lost at night over the North Sea. Out of the fog, a mysterious World War II Mosquito aircraft appeared off his wingtip and acted as his shepherd to guide him back to home base. Our family was entranced. Fireside Al and the shepherd became my control tower, guiding me, a wounded pilot through the storm.

Yes, we had a merry Christmas up in the Sault. The car did develop an electrical problem, but battery boosts for every start kept us dashing through the snow to visit kinfolk and friends. The big ex-cab was cheerily waved through every R.I.D.E. road check.

We headed home with the car packed with presents and Grandma’s snacks. Back on the road, the return trip in Big Red was filled with even more edge-of-your-seat drama. What I initially thought was ground fog turned out to be smoke drifting up from between my legs. The floor was on fire! We coasted to a stop near an open ditch. I ran out, scooped water into the thermos and doused the flaming floor carpet. We crept along in the gathering dusk to find a garage minutes before closing time. The mechanic easily replaced the burnt out headlight dimmer switch, the cause of our predicament. This, plus finally running completely out of gas and having to call a tow truck ultimately made for some great Christmas memories.

Since that eventful Christmas trip in 1981 I have driven the Toronto to Northern Ontario route many, many times. Each time I am thankful for a clear highway, a reliable vehicle, and a full tank of gas. And always, on the long night runs, I think of the shepherd, just off my right wing tip, guiding me home.

~Lloyd Walton

Orillia, Ontario

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