Memories of Christmas Past or, So You Think this Holiday Season is Sad?

2020 has been a year to forget.  And now we are looking forward to a Holiday that is limited by a pandemic – a Christmas or Chanukah without our usual parties or family gatherings.  This got me thinking about other Christmases that were less than perfect.

There have been a few, but one stands out in my memory as the worst.

In December of 1969, I was teaching, living in Southern California, and busy falling in love with Tom who would later become my husband.  His career as a ship’s engineer took him away for long periods of time, and that year I expected him to be away.  Then late at night on December 22nd, I got an unexpected ship to shore radio phone call.

Tom was excited. “The ship is coming into San Francisco the day after tomorrow but instead of only one day, we’ll be in dry dock for about a week!”  He asked if I would drive up to the Bay area and spend the Holiday with him.

Of course, I said yes!   “I’ll be on the road first thing on the 24th,” I promised.  “I’ll see you on Christmas Eve.”

The next morning, I visited my parents to let them know I would be gone over Christmas.  My mother’s main objection was that she would worry if I drove my Volkswagen microbus. Though only four years old, it had seen many thousands of miles. “Why don’t you take my Karmann Ghia,” she offered. “It’s got fewer miles, and it will make the eight hour drive easier and quicker.”   I accepted her offer, not because I was worried about the safety of my van, but because I thought driving her little sports car would be fun.

Christmas Eve morning, I set off. On Tom’s advice, I took the newly completed Interstate 5 now linking L.A and San Francisco through the farm country of the California Central Valley. It would be much quicker than the old Hwy 101 and I expected to arrive in Tom’s arms before dark.

Somewhere in late afternoon, about 2 and a half hours south of the Bay Area, I heard an explosive sound from the rear of the Ghia. With all power gone from the car, I managed to make it to the side of the road.  I was surrounded on all sides by flat farmland stretching off to the horizon.  Because the highway was so new, there were no off-ramps or gas services for many miles either way.

Now remember, this was 1969.  I did not have a credit card or a cell-phone. I did have an Auto Club membership card and, as it turned out, a savior.  A middle-aged gentleman had pulled up behind me and stopped.  He had seen a puff of smoke shoot from the rear of my car and stopped to offer help.  With the lack of fear many of us still had in the 60s, I accepted his offer of a lift into the nearest town to call a tow-truck and locate a Volkswagen dealer.  Luckily both were easy to find.   I arranged for my mother’s car to be towed to the VW dealership parking lot and I left a note for the service department on the wind-shield.  Now, I needed to get to Tom.

I asked my new friend if he would give me a lift to a nearby small, district airport. I hoped to find a car to rent but, when we got there, the terminal was totally dark and closed down.  My new friend, who was heading for Walnut Creek (just north and east of Oakland), offered to take me as far as the Oakland Bay Bridge.   He dropped me long after dark on the east side of bridge. There, I was able to find a taxi to take me across the bay and to the maritime dry-dock.

Imagine a worried Tom, striding back and forth near the shipyard gate, looking into the darkness and hoping that his girl-friend wasn’t lost or in an accident along the new, deserted Interstate.  Now enjoy his surprise as I exit from a taxi with my overnight bag.

Tom, on the advice of one of his shipmates, had booked us a motel room in Daly City, a place close to the shipyard but far from the delights of San Francisco.  The hotel was also far from romantic.  Plain and drab, it did have a surprise feature – a coin-operated, vibrating bed. We fell onto the mattress and fed the bed quarters.

The next day was December 25.  We rented a car and drove into San Francisco to look for Christmas dinner.  From past experience in the city, we had reason to anticipate celebrating with a gourmet meal.  We tramped the hills of Little Italy and Market Street in the Financial District. Every restaurant we passed was closed.  After hours of searching, we found Lefty O’Doul’s. Mainly a bar, for this special night they offered a steam table buffet. Tom and I supped on roast turkey, dry from hours under the heat lamp, accompanied by soggy stuffing and tasteless gravy.

For the next few days, we dealt with the issue of my mother’s car. This included a full day to drive south to pick it up and finally return the rental car.  Happy to have the Karmann Ghia to drive the hills of San Francisco, we spent much of the twenty-ninth enjoying Golden Gate Park and the rocky edge of the Pacific Ocean.  On our way back to Daly City for an afternoon nap on the vibrating fingers bed, Tom heard a strange and unpleasant noise from the Ghia’s engine.  He insisted on stopping by the Volkswagen dealer only a few blocks from the motel.  Next thing I knew, my mother’s car was again in line for a major repair. The service manager promised me it would be ready on the morning of December 31.

The next morning Tom’s ship sailed out under the Golden Gate Bridge.  I was left all alone with the vibrating bed, a bucket of fried Chicken, and the beginnings of a cold.

You would be within reason to assume that my drive home would be without incident.  I certainly couldn’t wait to crawl into my own bed, back in Laguna Beach.

Nursing my evolving cold, I entered the traffic of Los Angeles at dusk on New Year’s Eve.   I chose to take the new Interstate 5 route that ran close to Griffith Park, behind the new Dodger Stadium, and near Chavez Ravine. That year, on the evening of December 31, this historic Hispanic neighborhood suffered a devastating mud-slide. Tons of earth slid down the hill, carrying houses with it, and engulfed the nearby Interstate.

The highway was closed.  The California Highway Patrol redirected all the growing New Year’s Eve traffic, myself in my mother’s little sports car included, to the old Hollywood Freeway. Everyone seemed in a hurry to get somewhere, rushing forward when lanes were open, then screeching to a stop as jams inevitably occurred.

It happened very fast.  I saw the red lights up ahead and put on my brakes.  I had plenty of room to stop. Suddenly a pickup truck without enough space in his own lane veered in front of me. Still, I stopped just short of tapping his bumper. Then CRASH! A car smashed into my rear-end with enough force to ram the Ghia into the truck.  I was sandwiched between two other vehicles.  Luckily, I seemed to be uninjured.  As I assessed my limbs and my situation, the traffic ahead opened for a moment. Without hesitation, the truck that had caused the accident sped off, leaving a track of rubber in his wake.

There were police to convince that I hadn’t caused the crash. There was the need to get my Mother’s car towed again.   And luckily there was another savior.  This time a young man about my own age who, finding himself alone on New Year’s Eve, offered to drive an unknown, young blond to her home 60 miles away.  I’m afraid he did not receive much of a reward beyond a cup of hot tea and a wave good-bye.

After this experience, I can enjoy a small, quiet Holiday like we will have this year. I am thankful that I will share the Holidays with my daughter and my partner, Ron, and I look forward to a zoom gathering with my family.  All our friends and family are well, we are sheltered in place around a decorated tree, and we have a duck for our Christmas table.  For 2020, it is more than enough.

Happy Holidays!  Merry Christmas!  Season’s Greetings!  Hanukkah Sameach!

¡Feliz Navidad!    Kwanzaa yenu iwe na heri!


One response to “Memories of Christmas Past or, So You Think this Holiday Season is Sad?”

  1. You do have some great experiences! I love the way you write because it flows so easily and lots of descriptions to awaken my imagination! Happy Holidays to you!

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