Ill Be Home for Christmas

960327785 Ill Be Home for ChristmasSanta came early in 1972. My older brother had taken a civilian job on a military base in Greenland. Out of the blue, he gave me his 1963 Corvair. It was my very first set of wheels. Instead of bracing myself for the thousand mile-long hitchhike from Iowa to Baltimore in freezing weather, I was driving home for Christmas in comfort. But there was a catch: Santa had deputized me. I had a present to deliver, and deliver I would, come hell or high snow.

My brother was flying in from Baltimore for the Christmas holiday. To repay him for the gifted Corvair, I promised to give his long-suffering girlfriend a ride to our family home. I was really jazzed to see everyone; my sister was coming from Alaska. I envisioned a smooth journey and a joyous reunion.

Although I was already a walking automotive encyclopedia, my practical experience was limited to oil changes. My most ambitious wrenching to date: pulling the cylinder head off the lawn mower years earlier. And it never ran quite the same again. But like most first-time male car owners of my age, I was brimming with mechanical enthusiasm and imagining all kinds of improvements. But it was winter in Iowa and I had no garage. I was just thankful it ran.

Just a few days before the big trip, an ominous metallic clattering arose from the depths of the Corvair’s engine compartment. It would change its timbre when I depressed the clutch pedal. The problem clearly originated in the bell housing.

I weighed all the symptoms, scratched my hirsute head and declared a diagnosis: a bad clutch throw-out bearing. I knew it wasn’t the sound they normally make when they die, but I was stumped for an alternative theory. And forget about getting a second opinion. Nineteen year olds are unassailable experts at everything– unless proven otherwise

I had heard about a co-op garage, where shade tree mechanics could rent semi-warm floor space by the day. I bought a new bearing and drove a couple of miles into the frozen countryside to discover a few hippies attending to their VW buses.

My tool inventory: a box of cheap wrenches and a scissors jack. Normally, the 250lb engine would be lowered on a cradle with the car on a lift. My improvised solution: unhook everything, take the rear wheels off, lower the body until the engine rested on a timber, wiggle and slide the engine back a bit, jack the body up, and then slide the engine out. The only help I got was from John Mayall; it blared on auto-repeat all day.

Miraculously, everything went back together, and it fired right up – with the clanging! I was totally devastated. I broke the bad news to “the present” and my family. I could still hitchhike out alone, but I wasn’t really up for it now. But they kept the faith.

I needed divine intervention. The next afternoon, I saw a Corvair outside a small machine shop; a sign. I entered its machine oil-scented environs and related my sad story to the white-haired owner. With a twinkle in his eye, he told me that the rivets in two-piece Corvair flywheels come loose and cause that sound. “I’ll fix it for $10 bucks.”

Back to John Mayall’s blues and the co-op garage. By the time I finally got the flywheel out, it was 1AM and ten degrees. I’ll never forget that three-mile walk back into town, under a starry sky, carrying that heavy flywheel. A wise(r) man bearing his heavy gift.

The next day was the twenty-second. I got the flywheel re-riveted and put it all together again– a lot more quickly the second time ’round. I fell exhausted into bed that night, anticipating the next day’s drive. But deep in my heavy, youthful slumber, I suddenly bolted awake (hooves on the roof?). It was 3AM. I looked out the window, and snow was coming down so thick, I could hardly see the street light. And there was already six inches on the ground.

Blizzards blew in from the west. I decided to go for it; I’d try and outrun the wintry blast. It was now or never. With its rear-engined traction, the newly-purring Corvair cut the only set of tracks through Iowa City that night.

I-80 was deserted; we were the only drivers foolhardy enough to be out there, or maybe they were covered by the swirling snow. Luckily, I’d practiced for this. I had the right car for the job. And I relished the challenge. I worked-up my speed to about forty, hoping the storm wasn’t moving faster than us. Once across the Mississippi, the snow started to thin. My brother’s present and I shared a relieved smile. We’d be home for Christmas.

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