Fonticulus Fides

Friday, December 25, 2009

My Uncle John's Christmas Story

My dad's elder brother John used to enthrall me with this story when I was a kid. At family gatherings, I used to sit on the floor by his chair (on the beer can side, not the cigarette side – he always had both going) and listen to him tell stories until I was told to go play with the other children.

Anyway, this is the story he told every Christmas when I was a little girl. I can’t attest to how truthful it is – John being John – but it’s a good story nonetheless.

John's trade was sheet-metal work. He started out as an apprentice when he was something like 14 – he was at his full height by then and had completed his eighth grade education. He enlisted in the Navy shortly after Pearl Harbor – he was only 17 but lied about his birth date in order to serve. He spent his time in the South Pacific, patching up boats as they floated and sending them back to the action, but he never saw any combat himself.

After the war, he returned to Chicago and continued his job as a sheet-metal worker. He joined the union (big union people, my dad’s family) and was guaranteed a steady income and a very nice pension, if he made it to full retirement age. Most sheet metal workers had to retire early because the work is so hard on the body. But my uncle was too tough to let history stop him – he was going to retire on a full pension, come what may.

Christmas Eve sometime in the late 60s, John pulled a second shift on the job site, counting on double pay (holiday rates) for a total of 16 hours. Four times the wage in just one day – John couldn’t resist that. Just as his second shift was starting, it began to snow. Some of the other fellows who had agreed to work the double changed their minds. "It looks bad," they said, choosing to go home lest they get snowed in and miss Christmas with their families. John stubbornly stayed on, with a handful of others. But they kept checking the weather and one by one, they all clocked out early.

Except John. He stayed until the bell rang, hoping his foreman would reward him with an extra bonus.

When he finally left, there were 14 inches of new snow on the ground – thick, wet drifts, courtesy of Lake Michigan and a hefty wind. It took him almost half an hour to locate his little yellow Volkswagen Beetle under the drifts. Actually, it wasn’t his car, it was his daughter’s. His car was sitting at home in the driveway, waiting for some sort of repair he hadn’t had time to take care of yet.

Using a shovel borrowed from the work site, John dug the driver’s side and rear out of the drift and then started up the engine to let the car warm up while he shoveled out a path to the street. The Chicago street plows had been by several times already, so he figured once he got to the street and then on the Eisenhower Expressway, he wouldn’t have any trouble getting home.

It took a long time to dig a path to the street, but John just whistled Christmas carols as he worked and thought about the best way to spend that extra money he had coming to him. A couple of times, he went back to the car to warm up a little, but all the Beetle could afford was shelter from the wind – the heater either was on the blink or just couldn’t compete with the outside temperatures.

John finally started on his way shortly after midnight, Christmas morning. The little Volkswagen was surprisingly easy to handle in the snow, John thought. He drove about three miles on city streets, then got up on the expressway and turned southwest, toward his home in the suburbs. The plows had been out on the Ike, too, but it was snowing harder than ever and the wind was blowing so bad, drifts were practically forming right before his eyes.

Then all of the sudden, the Volkswagen began to sputter. John looked down at the gages and slapped himself on the forehead – he was out of gas. He’d let the car run the whole time he was shoveling and spent most of the little gas that was in the tank while it had been idling.

John guided the car to the side of the road and weighed his options. He was about seven miles from home. The wind would be mostly at his back, but it was bitterly cold, and the snow was blinding. John calculated that he might make it home walking, but it would take a good three hours. And he couldn’t risk frostbite on his toes or fingers – that would mean early retirement and losing his pension.

He thought about getting to a gas station, but he was at least three-quarters of a mile from the nearest exit, and then he wasn’t even sure how close any gas station would be to the off ramp, let alone one open at 1 a.m. on Christmas morning. Anyway, he only had a handful of change on him.

He was already feeling the cold. John took off his gloves and blew on his fingers to warm them, stamping his feet on the floorboards to keep the blood flowing. He fished a cigarette out of his pocket, but his lighter was empty, so he couldn't smoke it.

Putting his gloves back on, he got out of the car to see if his daughter had any emergency supplies stashed in the trunk. He found the spare tire, a flashlight, and a flare, but no matches to light it...nor a cigarette. No blanket, no food.

He pocketed the flashlight and slammed the trunk lid down. The snow was already starting to drift around the tires of the car. He took a handful of it and ate it to quell his thirst, then did 50 jumping jacks to warm himself up and climbed back into the car. He cracked the passenger-side window open a bit to allow for oxygen, and sat there, thinking.

His chances of another car passing him on the road weren’t good, and he knew it. He figured the snow couldn’t last more than a couple hours, so he’d better just wait it out.

He spent the time singing Christmas carols and mentally spending the extra earnings he was counting on. Every 20 minutes or so, he’d hop out of the car to do jumping jacks, clear the snow from the back tail lights – just in case somebody happened to drive by – eat a handful of snow, and climb back inside.

But he was mightily tired. A double shift, then all that shoveling. John was finding it harder and harder to stay awake. He knew that if he fell asleep in the car, he’d die there. He slapped his forearms against his chest, stomped his feet, laid his cheek against the cold window, sang louder and louder…and still, he fell asleep.

* * * * *

In a tiny walk-up apartment nearby, a young couple was anxiously watching the snow and praying that it would stop. The woman’s belly was swollen with their firstborn, and the contractions had already started coming five minutes apart.

"We have to get you to the hospital," the husband said.

"We’ll never make it," she gasped between contractions.

"It’s five minutes on the Ike."

"Not in this blizzard!"

The husband jumped up, "Well, we have to do something," he said. He picked up the phone and dialed the operator.

"My wife is in labor, and we don’t think we can make it to the hospital," he said. "Can you get us an ambulance?"

The operator apologized. All the rescue vehicles were already out on calls. Soonest anybody could be there was an hour or two. "Fine," he said, "I’ll take her myself." The operator offered to call the hospital to say they were on the way, and he agreed, telling her the route he planned to take.

Grimly, the husband slammed the receiver back into its cradle and fetched coats and blankets. "We’re on our own," he told his wife, "and I am taking you to the hospital, now."

The poor woman huddled in the back seat, alternately terrified and stricken with labor pains. "Drive slowly," she begged. "Don’t get us killed." And then another pain would overtake her.

He drove carefully, easing onto the Eisenhower with his emergency lights flashing. The plows had given up, so the roads were worse than he thought. Five miles to the hospital, and he was sure it would take them at least a half-hour to get there.

Four miles to go. Every time his wife shrieked in the back seat, he jumped. But he set his jaw and kept right on going.

Three miles to go, and she cried out again, "Baby’s coming! Baby’s coming!"

He panicked, "Don’t let it!"

"I can’t help it! Stop the car, please, stop! Stop and help me!"

He pulled in behind a snowdrift, hoping that would block the wind. He had no idea what he was going to do – he didn’t know how to deliver a baby!

But as he climbed out of the car, he saw the flashing lights of a police car coming up behind him. The operator must have notified the police for them! He stepped out into lane, waving his arms. The squad car stopped alongside the couple’s vehicle and two cops jumped out.

"My wife is in the back seat, she’s having a baby!"

The husband opened the back door and climbed in behind his wife, while one cop went around to go to the other side. The officer slipped as he turned in front of the car, putting his hand out to the snowdrift to stop his fall. But it wasn’t a snowdrift, it was something solid, completely covered with snow.

It was uncle John’s Volkswagen.

The cop called to his partner to check out the other car while he helped deliver the baby. John was sound asleep and headed toward hypothermia. When they got him to the hospital, his body temperature was very low, but there was no frost-bite, and he recovered completely, going on to be the first man ever to reach full pension retirement age from the Chicago Sheet Metal Workers Union.

"And that," Uncle John would say to finish the story, "is how one Christmas morning, God used another newborn baby to save my life, after sending the Christ Child to save my soul."

We've now spent quite a few Christmases without Uncle John here to tell the story. But I guess he’ll be spending the Holy Day singing "Gloria, gloria, in excelsis Deo" with the choirs of angels. He never could get enough of that song.

And now you know why.