I was excited. This was the way adventures were supposed to be in the spooky-dark, in the cold, all the way to New York. I looked at Timmy, my little brother. He never did what he was supposed to be doing. He was staring out the window. We were supposed to be coloring. Maybe it was better he wasn’t coloring. He never stayed in the lines and everything he colored just looked like somebody had scribbled over the picture. That’s exactly what always happened. I’ll bet I colored better than that when I was three.
“Mom, how many pictures do we have to color?” I asked.
“Let’s shoot for at least five.”
“Aunt Elisabeth will want to see his, too.”
“Too bad,” I said, but nobody was listening.
Dad was driving. Mom was in the front seat with, Travis, the baby brother. Travis didn’t have to color. He just ate the crayons anyway. He was none. His birthday was coming up in March. Then he would be one.
“Are we there yet?” I asked.
It was the question kids always asked, usually long before they were close to their destination. I was no different.
“We’re just leaving Chicago,” Dad said. “So we’ve still got a long way to go.”
“How far?” Another question kids usually ask, even though the answer doesn’t mean much if it can’t be related to a walk around the block or a drive to the mall.
“About 12 hours,” Dad answered.
See, it didn’t mean anything. Twelve hours or twelve minutes were pretty close to the same thing, a long time. I was six years old, maybe six and a half, but adults always laughed when I said that. Once I told dad he was 41 and a half. He said that made him 41. I guess the half didn’t matter much to adults. Twelve hours seemed like a long time, but so did two hours.
“It just got dark a little while ago and we won’t be there until morning,” Mom said trying to clarify things.
Now that meant something, but I still wasn’t sure how if that was a long time. After all, I went to sleep when it was dark. Then it was morning and I woke up, not long at all.
Timmy and I kept asking questions about our trip and who we would see.
“Grandpa, most of my brothers and my sister, Aunt Elisabeth. I already knew that, but I wanted her to talk about our cousins.
“I’m not sure who will be there,” she said. There were three cousins about my age, all girls.
Timmy spent most of the time he was awake reciting his three favorite questions: “I’m hungry,” or “I’m thirsty,” or “I have to go to the bathroom.”
Gradually we made our way across Indiana and Ohio. About the time we crossed into Pennsylvania it started snowing.
“Oh no,” Dad said.
“What?” I asked because the way he said it woke me up.
“It’s snowing. I hope it’s not going to amount to much.”
“I like snow,” Roger said.
“I know you do, but when you start driving you’re not going to like it as much.”
Driving. I knew I had to be a lot bigger before I could do that.
“Snowing,” Mom said. I guess dad woke her up, too.
“Yes,” dad said, sounding even more irritated. “And it better stop soon.”
Out the front window I saw my favorite kind of snowflakes, fat and fluffy. They were already coating the road. Watching them fall made me drowsy and I fell asleep again.
The strident sound of his Dad’s voice woke me up a little while later, “I will Alice. If we can just see when we get to it,” he was saying.
“Maybe if there’s a rest area.” Mom said.
“That would work, too.”
I had no idea what they were talking about, but it didn’t sound good.
The fat, puffy flakes were still falling. All I could see outside the car was white, but on the other side of my window it was just black, no lights in the distance anymore.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“In Pennsylvania, in the mountains,” Mom said, “Now quiet down so your father can concentrate.”
I sat back and listened. Everything was quiet. Timmy was sleeping, his sounding like little waves. The gentle thump, tha-thump, thump sound the tires usually made were gone and the engine seemed to be humming softly rather than making its usual gentle growling noise.
“Will it be snowing when we get to New York?” I asked
“Lord God, I hope not,” Dad said.
The car suddenly moved funny, like when my tricycle hits a crack in the sidewalk.
“No, no, no!” Dad whispered loud. “C’mon, c’mon, straighten out. Good, good, now keep going just to the top of the hill. C’mon, you can do it.”
I know something’s wrong whenever dad starts talking to things, like when he was trying to make one of the suitcases fit in the trunk before we left.
“There,” Dad said. “We’re on the road again. Alice, I don’t think we’re going to make it much further. I can’t see the road at all. The snow’s above the bumper now.”
“Maybe you should pull off to the shoulder,” she said.
“I can’t tell where… Oh, no.”
The car stopped.
Dad groaned, then made the car rock back and forth, but the tires just spun and the car slid a little to the side.
“That’s as far as we go,” Dad said.
“So, now?” Mom asked.
“So, we’ve got a half tank of gas. If I turn the engine off, when we’re warm and on when we’re cold, we should be okay till morning.”
“If we’re lucky a plow will come before then and we can be on our way.”
“And if not?”
“Then I give you the keys and I start walking as soon as I can see where I’m going.”
“Can’t tell, but I don’t see any light anywhere.”
“There’s another blanket in the trunk,” Mom said, “You should get it.”
Dad tried opening his door, but it wouldn’t open more than a crack.
“The snow’s got me blocked, try your door.”
Mom tried to open her door, but it wouldn’t move at all. Dad rolled down his window. A lot of cold, wet snow blew in.
“Darn,” he said, “It’s up to the door handle.”
“I’m cold,” Timmy said.
“You’ll be okay,” Dad said. “I’ll leave the car running till its warm again.”
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Timmy said.
“Sorry pal,” Dad said, “You’ll have to hold on awhile longer.”
“Can I have a candy bar?” Timmy asked.
“Let’s wait a bit on that,” Mom said.
When it was warm Dad turned the car off. Timmy and I fought for space under the blanket. It was really dark; the only light anywhere was the little green one on the dashboard. As far as I could tell that was the only light left in the whole world.
It didn’t take long before I was cold again. Dad waited a little while then turned the car back on for about five minutes. Every time he turned it off just about the time I was starting to get warm.
After about ten times doing that I think he got tired of doing it because he left it off for a long, long time. I was shivering. You know, like when your whole body is shaking and you can’t stop.
“Honey, maybe you should turn the engine on again,” mom said.
“It’s not staying warm long enough,” Dad said as he turned the key again. “I wonder how cold it is out there.”
“What’s that smell?” Timmy blurted after a minute or so.
“Carbon monoxide,” dad said as he turned the car off again. “The snow’s got the exhaust blocked now.”
“We’ll freeze to death,” Mom said.
“There’s nothing else I can do, Alice. I can’t get out. It looks like the snow might be over the top of the window now. I could try running the engine awhile and hope the heat from the exhaust will melt the snow, but we could die before that happens. If we all get together in the back seat under the blankets we might be able to stay warm enough till dawn.”
So, that’s what we did. Still, I got terribly cold. I was holding the baby. Mom held us both. Timmy was on dad’s lap and dad had his arms holding the blankets around all of us. It wasn’t long before my toes were so cold they felt dead.
“Roger, please try to relax,” Mom said. “You’re banging your head against my chin.” I tried, but it was no use. All I could think about was how cold I was.
Tommy fell asleep and I felt so tired that I thought I’d fall asleep too, if I could stop shivering.
A sudden thumping on the roof snapped me awake.
“Is the snow crushing the roof, John?”
“It’s a grizzly bear dad,” I said.
“No, it’s not,” Dad said. “Here, we’re in here,” he shouted.
There were some muffled noises from above the car.
“Okay, we will,” Dad shouted. I don’t know how he figured out what they were saying.
“It’s rescue, Alice. Its highway rescue. Oh God. I thought we were going to die, Alice.”
“I know, John. I know,” Mom said.
“Mom, the baby’s cold.”
“Hand him to me.”
She pulled the blanket off us and wrapped it around the baby.
“Is he okay?”
“He’s cold, but still breathing.”
I don’t know how long it took them to dig us out but eventually someone was pulling me out dad’s window. We rode off on a great big tractor with gigantic wheels. They took us to a fire station and gave us some hot chocolate. On the way I heard their story. They spent the night going up and down the highway finding stranded motorists. This time it was especially difficult because many of the cars, including ours were completely covered and looked like little bumps in the snow. It was a surprise storm but it had already dumped more than three feet of snow. They didn’t know when we would be able to leave.
An older woman took us to her house. She was very nice, made sandwiches for us and we got some more hot chocolate. She lived all alone in a big, kind of spooky old house. What made it spooky were the guns. About 50 guns hung on one wall and there was a round glass case with another 20 pistols of different shapes and sizes.
“Why do you need all those guns?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t need them,” she said. My late husband collected them. They’re from all over the world.”
“Did he shoot all of them?”
“Oh dear, I don’t know if he shot any of them. Those are the ones he collected. His hunting rifles are in the garage.”
I wondered why anybody would want so many guns just to hang on a wall.
We stayed there another day, and then they took us back out to the highway. Dad hadn’t rolled his window back up so he had to shovel the snow out of the car first. While he did that they shoveled a path for us to get back on the highway.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” mom said when were finally back in the car and on the road.
“Yes it is, Timmy, and everybody’s waiting for us. We’re late, but we should get there on time.”
“They said the highway’s clear all the way,” Dad said, “So there’s no reason we shouldn’t.”
“How far is it?” I asked.
“Three four hours,” Dad said, “Not long at all. We almost made it.”
When we finally got there, Grandpa and Mom’s sister and some of her brothers were waiting for us.
Years later my dad would tell me that outside of when he was in the war, it was his worst Thanksgiving ever.
On the other hand, Mom called it one of her best Christmases ever.
“Wait, before we go in for coffee,” my aunt said, “I have something to show you.”
“I knew you wouldn’t be here for Christmas this year,” my aunt said, “So we did this.”
I looked at Mom and there were tears in her eyes. “You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble,” she said.
“What?” my aunt said, “And have you missing Christmas. You almost missed Thanksgiving as it was.”
“But we’ll have Christmas when we get home.”
“And I can’t be there,” my aunt said, “that’s why we have to do this.”
I didn’t know it but that was my last Christmas in New York. It wasn’t that my parents didn’t want to go; the family just got to be too big too fast so that there wasn’t enough room in the car for the kids and the luggage. I was twenty years old the next time my family made the trip to New York for Christmas. Tommy was in the navy and I was in the Army.
When I was in my thirties there was a time when I drove from Chicago to New York. I paid attention to every one of the exit signs along the way through Pennsylvania, especially through the mountains. Nothing triggered a memory, though. I remembered asking where we were and the guy driving that giant tractor told me. It meant nothing to me then. I was only six.