A Christmas story from Bob Sutton, of a time when Americans were not as fearful of each other.
Looking at a 2021 road atlas, particularly a trucker’s road atlas, the eastern ½ of the United States is a maze of 4-lane Interstate highways leading in all directions and connecting every major city to all the others. Let’s say I have to get about 1,100 miles from the Navy Base near Memphis, Tennessee to my parents’ home in a rural area west of Schenectady, New York. Out of Memphis, I travel east on Interstate 40 to Interstate 81 in eastern Tennessee, north on I=81 through Virginia and Pennsylvania to Interstate 88 in Binghamton, New York, and east on I-88 to Schenectady. I have to remember three road numbers—40 to 81 to 88—to get to the spot of my mom and dad’s house, and I mean literally, “get to the spot.” When I-88 was constructed in 1977, it crashed directly through their house.
If you were considering that same journey in 1962, my parents’ house would be there, but how you got to it from Memphis would be much less obvious and much more difficult. I don’t think that my fellow sailor friend and I had any real understanding of the distance or the complexity of the trip when we made a last minute plan to hitchhike from the Naval Air Training Station near Memphis to New York, three days before Christmas, December 23, 1962.
For both of us it would be our first Christmas in the Navy, and we both really wanted to be home. Also, my car was scheduled to get out of the repair shop and I wanted to drive it back to Memphis. I do not remember a single conversation relative to the actual “road atlas reality” of hitchhiking from Memphis to New York. He had to get to New York City and I had to get 150 miles north of that to Schenectady. We knew that we had to get north and east of where we were and that US Highway 51 out of Memphis ran north, and that seemed to be adequate travel information. Our only plan was that after Christmas my sailor friend would take a bus from NYC to Schenectady and would ride back to Memphis with me, in my car.
We agreed that we would travel light and would wear our uniforms, and in the early morning hours, December 23, 1962, we caught a ride from the Navy Base out to US Highway 51 North. I, as we agreed, was traveling light; my uniform, my Navy ID, and my wallet. I had saved up extra cash in my wallet to pay for my car repair back in New York. My sailor friend was travelling light, with one exception. He had a very large stuffed teddy bear, a Christmas gift for his little sister. We stuck out our northbound US Highway 51 thumbs and almost at the same time it started to snow very lightly.
Amazingly, a car stopped within the first 10 minutes. A man rolled down the window and said,” I am going to Wheeling, West Virginia if you want a ride.” (Wheeling, WVA, north, yes, east, not so much, it’s snowing). We hopped in the car.
The car we were hopping into was a fairly deteriorated two-door 1955 Ford. My friend climbed into the back seat and for the first time we noticed that there was a young woman in the back seat holding a very tiny baby, both wrapped in a blanket. I suppose we introduced ourselves and said where we were going and away we went. It became quickly apparent why the woman and her small baby were wrapped up in the blanket, the car heater was broken. The interior of the car was equally deteriorated, and because the heater did not work, the windshield defrosters did not work. The windshield wipers did work and kept the snow off the exterior windshield, but every so often it was necessary to take a cloth rag and clear the interior windshield so the driver could see the road. I do not have a clear memory of the outside landscape but I believe it was quite rural and I do not remember that there was very much traffic, so human intervention with a cloth rag provided all we needed for a clear view. As the snow continued, the roads became quite slippery. The car sliding around on the road indicated the tires shared the same worn-out performance standards as the rest of the “55” Ford. On the positive side, my new friend was a good driver. He seemed to have a good sense of his responsibilities and the limitations and frailties of his vehicle. We moved carefully, if a little slowly, across the Tennessee hills and farmland and into Kentucky.
The young mother kept the baby as warm as possible with the blanket and occasionally nursed the little child, and as I remember the baby stayed quite contented. However, my sailor friend in the back became very concerned and took off his Navy pea coat and gave it to the woman and she wrapped it around herself and the little baby.
The temperature went up slightly and the snow changed into a freezing rain. The temperature inside the car did not change but the protocol for maintaining windshield visibility had to be amended. The windshield still fogged up on the inside and, although the windshield wipers still worked, they could not keep up with the freezing rain forming ice on the cold windshield. This required that about every 20 to 30 minutes we stopped and I would jump out and scrape the ice off the frozen windshield.
I also started to notice a rather rhythmic thump…..thump….. thump….. coming from underneath the car. I do not know if it had been thumping from the outset of our journey and I was just getting around to noticing it, or if it represented a new level of concern. Having messed around with old cars much of my teenage life I had an uneasy suspicion, but, the driver showed no worry.
By late afternoon we were still in a very rural area of Kentucky, and we needed gas. Luckily we came upon a little service station out in the middle of nowhere. We had agreed, when we were first offered the ride, to help pay for some of the gasoline costs and this stop was our turn. We fueled up, paid the owner and headed out. However, just as we were about to get back on the road, our driver, who up to this point had driven carefully and safely, accelerated the car, spinning the wheels on the icy blacktop surface. The rhythmic thumping increased rapidly, there was a loud bang, the thumping stopped and the car stopped. We got out and saw our driveshaft lying on the ground underneath the car. The driveshaft is the mechanical connection between the engine/transmission and the rear wheels of the car and when the driveshaft is lying on the ground the car goes nowhere, we were going nowhere.
I personally could not understand why our very dependable driver, carefully nursing his old car north for a “Home for Christmas” in West Virginia suddenly turned so erratic, spun the tires wildly and broke the driveshaft. I also could not understand what my sailor friend and I were going to do.
The service station owner came out to see what happened and, understanding our predicament, offered a solution. He knew a man that sometimes did work for him who could fix the problem. The man owned a junkyard, probably had the necessary part (the actual broken part is called a universal joint) and was a good mechanic. He called the man, we pushed the car up on to the service station lift and about 3 hours later the car was fixed, the weather had warmed up and we were back on our way.
Well, not quite on our way. The service station owner handed the driver a bill for the repair and his only response was, “I don’t have the money to pay this.” We are in the middle of rural Kentucky; I am trying to get to Schenectady for Christmas; and my driver, his wife and tiny baby, have no money to pay the bill. No-one is saying a word. It quickly becomes obvious to me that I am the only one that happens to have (ironically) car repair money in his wallet. I paid the bill, and now, we were on our way.
As the weather warmed we made our way out of Kentucky and into West Virginia. Around midnight we came to the cross roads where Wheeling, West Virginia, was to the left and New York was to the right. We thanked our West Virginia friends and we stuck out our thumbs hoping to get a ride, at least to Pittsburgh about 30 miles away.
Even though it was quite late at night, our hitchhiking luck held out and in a very short time a car stopped, the driver rolled down the window and said, “If you want, I can drop you off in downtown Pittsburgh.”
On our way into the city, my sailor friend and I discussed how our original travel plan was not meeting expectations. Neither of us had any idea how to hitchhike out of Pittsburgh and we began to believe we were not going to make it home by Christmas under any hitchhiking scenario. We agreed that the Greyhound bus was our only alternative.
But we had a more immediate situation. Our driver had dropped us off in a late night very alive section of Pittsburgh. Within seconds of exiting the car we were befriended by a welcome wagon of local residents. They were all very friendly and quite outgoing, but their conversation seemed to focus on “Can you help me out?” We were not exactly flush with cash ourselves, but we gave some of them a little change, and one of the more helpful men actually walked us to the bus station, not far away. The bus station was our hitchhike salvation.
Well, not entirely. At this juncture two busses were required, one that went north and east to Schenectady and one that went straight east to NYC. We went to the ticket window and I bought a Schenectady ticket. My sailor friend went to buy a ticket to NYC, but then I heard what was becoming a familiar refrain, “I don’t have the money to pay this.” I still had a little car repair money left and it was enough that both of us together, were able to finance the two tickets and now both of us were broke but, headed home for Christmas.
I don’t remember many specifics about that particular Christmas, but both of my sisters would have been home from college and being in our family’s house at Christmas is always a beautiful time.
The only less than pleasant news was that my car had not returned from the repair shop, and so now I had to reconsider the logistics of my Navy return. My Navy leave was from 12 midnight, December 23 to 12 midnight, December 29. The military is very strict about observing the actual leave time and date. Sailors must report their return from leave to the Officer of the Day (OD) in the uniform of the day. Any absence from the base after midnight December 29 would require the OD to file an official report. If late, I would be listed as absent without leave (AWOL), a serious and punishable offense. I had absolutely no cash, my plan to provide a ride for my sailor friend was no longer viable and was in direct contradiction with his plan to take a bus from NYC to Schenectady. I had no way of notifying him of the change of plans. I had not had the good sense to get his phone number.
I was not a teenager. In fact, I was only twelve days away from my 21st birthday. As I have thought back, it occurs to me that from the start of my “Home for Christmas” project, I was making decisions that were inconsistent with reasoned adult thinking and that ultimately the consequences would require adult intervention. Over the years my parents had certainly recognized the impulse-driven flaws in my decision making. I know they hoped and had faith that someday I would, as they say, “grow-up.” But in the meantime, my father agreed to pay for my ticket back to Memphis. My sailor friend showed up on schedule and I explained the change in plans. His response was something I had become accustomed to but my father could not have known: “I don’t have the money to pay for this.” My father also paid for his ticket.
There is a certain gravitational magic about Christmas that pulls people back to their family and their childhood hometown. There have been hundreds of songs written about the happiness of going home for Christmas or sadness about not being home for Christmas. For the most part home is defined as the place you lived as a child, and on December 23, 1962 there were five people in a beat-up 1955 Ford just outside of Memphis, headed 1,000 miles north in pursuit of that happiness. Confronting the actual reality of the situation however, it seemed much more likely that their song would be written about the unhappiness of not being home for Christmas.
Christmas in the Middle of Nowhere
The old Ford sat silently,
The rhythmic thumping ended,
The cold travelers lost in thought,
Christmas joy suspended.
But my story, written 60 years later, is a journey of true Christmas joy, a story of mutual responsibility and concern for each other, a story of quiet grace and sharing the little that we each had.
The tiny baby in the back seat wrapped up in the old blanket and my sailor friend’s Navy pea coat was peaceful and seemed satisfied that her mom and dad were doing everything to keep her safe and warm and comfortable. Her mother held her constantly. Even when the car was on the lift in the service station she stayed in the backseat with her baby child. The mother never complained once about the cold or the weather or the car or anything. The sailor in the backseat gave up his coat, snuggled up his Christmas stuffed bear close to the mother and baby for extra warmth, rolled with the punches and accepted his lot in life in a very cold back seat. The sailor in the front seat cleaned off the fogged interior windshield, scraped off the iced exterior windshield and financed the unanticipated travel expenses. The service station manager got involved in the driveshaft problem and suggested and delivered a viable solution. The second driver, who picked us up late at night, got us into downtown Pittsburgh. The local residents helped us locate the bus station. Everyone contributed to the slow but steady Christmas journey. And my parents contributed totally to getting the two sailors back to the Navy base on time before midnight December 29.
Before I could tell the end of my story in 2021, I needed some serious professional automobile mechanical advice. Fortunately, I have a neighbor who is an excellent mechanic and has in fact rebuilt and restored many 1950’s cars since his teenage years and he is now in his 80’s and still doing it. I asked him if my initial intuition when the 1955 Ford started thumping was the universal joint failing and that it totally failed when the driver spun the wheels wildly on the frozen blacktop surface. He agreed spinning the wheels caused the worn-out universal joint to shatter and the driveshaft to fall off, but, he added, that at some point, it was going to happen anyway and we were very lucky that it happened at a service station. Back to my story.
Since we left Memphis, the West Virginian had been the most careful driver. He drove slowly in the snow and the icy rain. He knew the route so well he did not need a map, and he clearly understood the limitations of his car. He cared about his wife and child and he drove accordingly. Up until now I thought it was just some West Virginia thing, spinning the wheels showing off a little and that would have been my story. But that was so out of character with everything else about the man. My neighbor mechanic had said something that changed my thinking.
“You were very lucky” he said “that it happened at a service station.”
.I don’t think we were lucky. I am sure the West Virginian heard the rhythmic thump and I am sure he knew what it was. He knew the landscape and that we were headed into a very rural and hilly part of Kentucky, on a snowy late afternoon. He knew that we would have real problems if the driveshaft fell off late at night, in the middle of nowhere and that everything about that would be unsafe for his family. He knew exactly what he was doing. It was his gift to us all.