My ’65 Malibu sprang to life; its 350 horses rumbling under the hood. With a throaty roar, tires spun, snow flew, but no movement. Gritting my teeth I shifted into reverse, again the engine roared, again nothing.
“Dang, it,” I muttered pounding the steering wheel. I knew better, but I was having a bad day, and this snowstorm was the last thing I needed.
When it started yesterday, I was thrilled, snow, beautiful snow. Rose-Hulman turned into a winter wonderland. All over campus, engineers improvised sleds out of cardboard, plastic sheets, garbage can lids, snow shovels, and even one crazy guy’s car hood. It was glorious, anything to relieve the stress of midterms. Then the snow fell, and fell, and fell – all night it fell. It was still falling when I awoke. With 12 inches on the ground, Rose called off class. Soon ISU followed suit. Despite the snow, I dug out my car – a man on a mission. Driving to town the highway was snow covered. In town, however, Wabash Avenue was clear but eerily deserted. That should’ve been my first clue, but I was in a hurry. I had a stop to make before getting my girlfriend.
Outside the store, I pulled to the curb and rushed inside. There stood the owner, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep. Recognizing me, he sadly shook his head.
“Sorry Bud, but I got caught in Indy. I just made it back,” he said. “It’s not done, but I can have it Monday.”
“But, that’s Christmas Eve!” I stammered.
“Sorry, that’s the best I can do.” He was disheveled, unshaven and sounded exhausted, so I thanked him and left. In the car, I took out my frustration on the pedal – not a good idea. Composing myself, I remembered that you couldn’t power your way out of a snow bank, so I backed off the gas. Patiently I rocked her back and forth, shifting from reverse to drive and back again. With each cycle, I made progress, eventually breaking free. At Elain’s dorm, I parked more carefully; actually, I just stopped in the driving lane. Elain waited by the door, bag in hand. She ran to the car, and we were off.
“Mom called,” I said. “We have to go home through Greencastle.”
“Greencastle, that’s out of the way. Why? Is the road better?”
“I don’t now, could be, but we need to get Karen at DePauw,” I explained. “Mom told Uncle Doc to stay in Richmond. He’ll drive over when the roads are clear.”
“The roads don’t look too good here,” Elain laughed. Heading east, highway 40 was a mess, and we made slow progress. An hour and a half of blowing snow and ice later, we had Karen and turned toward Crawfordsville.
North of Greencastle the road rises to flat prairie. That’s where I hit the drifts. With the southbound lane drifted shut, and mine slick, I slowed to a crawl. My shoulders and hands ached from gripping the wheel. The wipers thumped back and forth, back and forth, slowly collecting ice. Periodically I stopped to clean them. The Malibu, always light in the rear, fishtailed as I struggled to maintain control. Fortunately, today was not my first time battling a skid.
No, my journey started a week earlier and almost came to a sudden and tragic end. Needing funds for my Christmas secret, I skipped my last lab and drove to the bank in Crawfordsville. The roads were clear, the weather crisp. I made excellent time – well good time until the bridge south of Rockville. That Iron truss bridge is now gone, but not the memory. Driving too fast, I hit black ice. The rear end skidded to the left; I tried to turn into the skid, but overcorrected. The rear spun around to the right. My heart raced – the guardrail ominously close. I’ll never forget the sight of the bridge looming ever larger, or my sense of helplessness. I corrected again, this time the spin stopped. Still a bit sideways, I missed the guardrail. Halfway through the bridge, I regained control. My heart thumped, and my hands shook, I slowed but kept driving.
“That was close,” I muttered to myself. “Not so fast speedy,” I heard Dad’s voice in my head. Driving with increased care, I reached Crawfordsville. Two hours later, I was returning to school, five crisp one-hundred dollar bills in my pocket – the fruits of a summer driving a detasseling machine. A summer of hard work and sweat, but my secret was worth it. Well, it wasn’t just my secret, sister Nancy was in on it.
That’s how I found myself driving through a blizzard, with my girlfriend, my cousin, and no Christmas secret. An eternity later, we reached Crawfordsville. First stop, Elain’s home. From there I called Dad to check on their road. It was passable, so Karen and I continued. At home, Nancy could hardly wait for us to unpack. With sister Martha and Karen otherwise occupied, Nancy pulled me aside.
“Let me see it,” Nancy whispered. I quickly laid out the problem. Ever the clever one, Nancy had a solution. “I’ll tell everyone that I still have shopping to do. Monday you and I can go back and get it.”
“Ok, that should work.” I agreed.
In Indiana, if you don’t like the weather, wait, it will change – and change it did. On Sunday, Temps climbed into the 50’s, and it rained. On Monday, Nancy and I drove to Terre Haute, picked up my Christmas secret and finished our shopping.
Christmas morning my family arose early to open our presents. Before lunch, I drove to Elain’s home. With great ceremony, I handed her a shoebox-sized present.
“Is it breakable?” she asked, hefting the box and giving it a shake.
“Will I like it?” she asked, suspicion on her face.
“You said you wanted it,” I answered, fighting to keep from laughing; I knew what she thought was in the box.
“How exciting,” she laughed, eagerly tearing at the paper. Suddenly she stopped and read the box, “It’s b-o-o-t-s?” she stammered.
“Yep, like mine,” I stuck out a stylish brown suede boot with the waffle tread. “Just like you wanted.” In 1973, these were the latest fad, and a little hard to get. Disappointment showed in her eyes. I gulped.
“Boots!” yelled her sister Wendy. “He got you boots?”
“Yes, and I love them,” Elain said bravely. “I’ve wanted a pair for some time.”
“I bet you did,” Wendy laughed, rushing into the kitchen. “Mom, Amy, can you believe it, he got her boots.” To her credit, Elain’s Mom said that the boots were lovely and that they would keep Elain’s feet warm. I always liked her for that.
“Put them on,” I urged. “Let’s take a walk.” Dutifully donning her new boots, Elain gushed how great they were. Grabbing our coats, we closed the door on her sisters’ laughter.
Holding hands, we walked toward the elementary school, talking about nothing and everything. Since neither of us wore gloves, our hands grew cold, so I popped them into a pocket of my Snorkel Coat. Elain stopped, giving me a puzzled look.
“What’s this?” she asked, pulling out a small box.
“Is it what I think it is?” she asked, carefully peeling away the paper. Then she understood, and her face erupted into a grin.
“Open it,” I laughed.
Gingerly, she peered inside, “Yes, Yes,” she screamed. Taking the diamond solitaire out of the box, I placed it on her finger; Elain hugged and kissed me, a moment forever frozen in my memory. A moment from which nearly everything I value originates.
We stood in the cold and admired the ring on her finger, and then returned to her house with the news. Of course, the look on Wendy’s face was priceless. Once the excitement settled, we drove to my house to give them the news. A long day later, we returned to Elain’s home. We found that saying goodnight was difficult – neither wanted the day to end. At last, I got up to leave. Opening the front door I stopped, and turned to look at Elain.
“I have a question,” I said.
“What?” Elain asked, worry on her face.
“So, you really didn’t like the boots?”
I have been blessed with many great Christmases, but it is this one that I cherish. Forty-three years ago, my love agreed to marry me, certainly my best Christmas ever.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!
Read about Olivia’s Story: Protector of the Realm