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Christmas in May: Pressing a 1949 Plymouth Into Emergency Service

By Lanny Knutson

Sara had a great idea. "Why don't we take Old May?" she said.

"We can't stupid!" Eric's reaction was just as predictable. "Old May'd never start in this weather. Joe McDonald says if a kid-"

"-walks in front of her with an ice cream cone, she'd never start!" Sara chimed in sarcastically with the detestable words.

"Wait now, Eric. Just a minute." Dad was speaking. "Maybe there is something to Sara's idea. There's really not much else we can do."

An emergency had arrived at the household. The New Year's baby they were expecting had decided to become a Christmas baby instead. Dad had hurried out to warm up the car so he could take Mother to the hospital in town, five miles away. But when he put the Volare wagon in reverse, nothing happened. The car just stayed there no matter how much he raced the motor. When he got out to look under the car, he saw why. There in the snow was a big pool of red. "The transmission let go," he muttered. "What a time for something like this to happen."

"Well, I guess I better phone the ambulance," he announced, "all the neighbors will be in church by now." But when he lifted the phone he got another what-else-can-possibly-go-wrong look on his face. "Line's down somewhere," he sighed, "phone's dead."

"Well, look's like our Christmas baby will have to be born right here in this house. Just like Grandpa was."

But Mother wasn't too sure about that idea. She reminded Dad about the doctor's warnings about "complications." He just started to say, "But I don't know what else we can do," when Sara got what to her was a "great idea" and so she said, "Why don't we take Old May?"

Old May was a 1949 Plymouth. Her name was really "Mayflower" because pictures of the pilgrim ship could be found on at least five places on the car, not counting the big shiny chrome sailing ship on the hood. "Ever since Grandpa brought her home, brand-new, in August of '49, he has called her 'May', " Dad would say.

"Best car there ever was," Grandpa would say, "she never let me down." But when Grandpa retired from the farm in 1972 he decided that it was time for May to retire too. So when he moved to his little house in town, he left May, with her worn-out engine, parked in the machine shed. Then he went and bought a new Valiant. "That slant-six's the second-best car I've ever owned," he would always brag to anybody who would listen, "never'll have to buy another one." And he probably wouldn't. Now, thirteen years later, he was still driving the Valiant. But it was interesting, as someone once remarked, he had never given this car a name.

Though Dad didn't farm the land, he and Mother had lived on the farm ever since Grandpa had retired. It was the only home ten-year-old Sara and seven-year-old Eric had ever known. And there was to be a new sister-or brother. Sara and Eric would argue over which it should be. Right now, Sara was really hoping it would be a girl, just to shut that smart-alex Eric up for a while.

Sara really loved Old May. Her good feelings for that nice old car began two spring times ago when Dad had decided to "fix Old May up." It all started quite by accident, or so it seemed. Dad was at a local farm auction when a combine engine came up for sale. "Rebuilt Chrysler flathead six," announced the auctioneer, "rebuilt, but never put back in the combine. Just like brand-new." While the auctioneer was chanting away, Dad had an idea: Would that engine fit in Old Mat? He raised his hand to ask. That was a mistake. As soon as he did, he heard the auctioneer saying, "Going once, going twice. Sold! To that gentleman right there!" and he pointed right at Dad. Dad was just about to argue that he didn't mean to buy it when the guy standing beside him congratulated him on getting what would cost him "ten times more" anywhere else. So Dad came home with a combine engine for Old May.

Then nearly every Saturday, and on some evenings and Sunday afternoons, Joe McDonald would come out to the farm to help Dad work on Old May. Joe McDonald was a rough-talking but good-hearted mechanic. If it wasn't for Joe, Old May probably wouldn't have been running again. He worked hard on her, but still he would always give Dad a rough time about going to "all this trouble to fix up an old Plymouth." Joe was a Chevy man, retired after working at the local Chevrolet garage for thirty-five years.

"These old Plymouths were pretty good cars, I have to admit," Joe would say. But then time and again he would add, "I never did see one of them that liked to start in cold weather, though. All it'd take would be for a kid with an ice cream cone to walk in front and that Plymouth would refuse to start. Now take a Chev-" And then he'd go on about how a Chevy he had in 1951 had "started right up" when it was 40 below. Sometimes instead of "the kid with the ice cream cone" it was "a cloud passing over the sun", but the rest of the story was all the same. "Those Plymouths were lousy cold weather starters." Still, Sara was convinced, that deep-down Joe loved Old May too. Every Saturday morning that summer he was out for breakfast at 8 o'clock and after his third cup of coffee he would always say, "Enough of this wasting of time. Let's get at that good-for-nothing car of yours." Just the way he said "good-for-nothing" convinced Sara that Joe really did like Old May

Sara sure did. There was no question about that. From the first day they took off May's hood so they could pull out her tired old engine, Sara was right there watching Joe's and Dad's every move. Soon she was getting wrenches and things for them. It wasn't long before she knew the difference between each wrench or socket. She helped scrape greasy dirt from May's empty engine compartment until her hands were so caked with grease that they began to look like Joe's and Mother would complain that this was no way for a girl's hands to look. It would almost be the next Friday before Sara's hands began looking clean again -- just in time for another Saturday's work on Old May to get them dirty again. Yet somehow, scraping away May's old dirt just made Sara like her all the more. But the more she did, the less Eric seemed to care for Old May.

Eric would come out for a while "to help" work on Old May. He would off Joe and Dad a few important-sounding suggestions, but soon he would lose interest and be off somewhere else. Still, he seemed to figure that simply because he was a boy he knew a whole lot more about cars than Sara ever would. Just to get his sister mad, he would repeat Joe's good-natured put-downs of Old May. Only Eric wouldn't say them in a good-natured way. Every time she heard his superior know-it-all tone of voice, Sara would get mad. And the madder Sara got, the more she defended May. And the more she defended May, the more Sara liked her.

For Sara, the greatest day in Old May's life was the day when the "combine motor" came to life. She had helped as they sprayed silver paint over the original Massey Red. The motor had been checked out by Joe's masterful hands and then lowered into May's engine compartment that was now shiny with new black paint. Then Joe spent an hour or so in "tightening this" and "hooking up that" until he said, " OK. It's now or never. Give her a try!" Sara held her breath as the Plymouth started began with what was to become a familiar sound. Twice Joe had to get out and adjust something. Then it happened! May's engine started! Just like that. She was running! Dad was smiling. And so was Joe. They looked at Sara. She was smiling too. Then Joe and Dad burst out laughing. Sara was licking an ice cream cone!

By that Fall they had Old May in good enough shape to pass the safety inspection. She could now be licensed to drive on the road. Then she was put away for the winter.

The next Spring the body work began. Joe cut out the rusty pieces and welded in new metal. He pounded out dents and showed Dad how to use body-filler. Sara watched every move and was sure she knew exactly how to do it herself. But where Sara could really help was in sanding. First they removed all of May's chrome trim, including her grille and bumpers. Then Joe gave Sara a square of black wet-or-dry sandpaper and told her to dip it in the ice cream bucket full of water. Then he showed her how to paint May's faded grey paint. She sanded and sanded until she thought it was good enough. Joe ran his hand over the spot and told her to sand some more.

Every day that Summer Sara would be out with May sanding and sanding. Her hands began to look as grey as May, much to Mother's dismay. Some days it seemed like the sanding would never get done, but it did, finally. And Sara was delighted the day Joe said it was time to spray on the primer. She helped as they cut out newspapers to the size of May's windows and taped them on with masking tape. Then Joe hosed down the machine shed floor, hooked up his spray gun to the air compressor and began painting. May sure looked good being all one color again, even though the primer was not shiny. But then Sara's heart sank as Joe announced that once the primer was dry, they'd go over it with sandpaper. To Sara's disheartened "Why?" Joe said it wouldn't be so hard this time and Dad said, "Sara's done more than her share of the work. She can sit this one out." Sara began by watching, but soon she was dipping her piece of black sandpaper in the bucket and helping out.

The second-biggest day in Old May's new life came when she was driven home from the body shop with her bright new coat of Yukon-Grey paint. May never looked so good. "Pretty spiffy for an old gal," said Grandpa with a watery gleam in his eye.

The rest of the summer Sara rubbed down May's trim pieces with chrome cleaner and polish. Mother said with a sigh that she was pleased the cleaner seemed to be removing the grey from Sara's cuticles and finger nails. "But, I'm afraid your hands will never look like a lady's".

It was a most exciting day when Sara helped Dad and Joe put May's trim back on. First the grille, then the ribbed bumpers, then the trim and finally the "P-L-Y-M-O-U-T-H" letters on the hood.

After each piece was bolted in place, Sara had to step back and say, "May, you're getting prettier all the time!"

Now May looked just perfect. From the outside. Next summer they would have to work on May's shabby-but-useable interior. It was Fall now. Time to put May away once again for the winter.

But this time May would not rest all winter. It was a cold, snowy Christmas Eve, and a family was going to have to depend on her.

Sara had pulled on her snow pants and boots and was putting on her parka when Dad came up the basement stairs carrying May's battery. Dad said, "I wonder if the chains are still around?"

"Chains?" asked Sara. "What are you going to pull?"

"Nothing," Dad chucked. "There are chains to put around the wheels to keep them from spinning in the snow or on the ice in the winter. I know Grandpa had some. They're two long pieces of chain hooked together by a number of short pieces."

"So, they look like a ladder?" Sara asked.

"Yes, if they're hung up, I guess they'd look like a ladder."

"Oh I know where they are!" said Sara. "I saw them once hanging on the wall behind that old fanning mill. I'll get them for you, Dad!"

"Be careful! They're heavy."

Sara had lugged both sets of chain to the car by the time Dad had the battery connected. "Now, let's give May a try," he said trying hard to sound confident.

"What's this spray for?" asked Sara.

"That's starting fluid. We might need it.

Sara knew about the smelly ether. Her friend's dad used it to get his tractor started in cold weather. "Come on May," Sara whispered, "you won't need that stinky old stuff."

As Dad sat down behind the wheel ready to turn the key, Sara leaned under the hood. She was pleased once again with the bright silver paint and the shiny black wires, hoses and accessories she had helped put there. "Come on May. Come on May. You can do it. You can do it. I know you can!"

"Hey Daddy, I heard the click!" shouted Sara. The "click" came from the electric choke which Joe explained should go on automatically when the key was turned. And the choke had to be on for the motor to start when it was cold.

Now May's starter began turning. "Raaaaa-ooow-raaa-oooow-raa-oow, raaa-ooow." Just as Sara's heart began sinking, Sara heard, "ra-ra-ra-ra" real quickly. Then it stopped. "Why'd you stop Dad?"

"To give the starter a rest. Don't worry Sara, she's going to go!"

Again the starter began with a couple slow "raaa-ooow, raaa-oooows." Then four fast "ra-ra-ra-ras." Then a couple "pop-pops". She had fired twice! Then a shudder. Then nothing. Dad was resting the starter again.

"Come on May. Come on, girl. Come onnn!" pleaded Sara, "you can do it!"

Then "raa-oow, raa-oow, ra-ra-ra-ra" together with the clanking of the throttle linkage as Dad pumped the carburetor. Then "pop-pop" and "arooooohhhhaaaaah." The wonderful soft roar. The familiar, welcome sound of May's Plymouth motor. She was running! May was running and Sara was jumping, up and down. "Oh, May, I knew you could do it! I knew you could!"

Quickly Sara helped Dad lay out the chains in front of May's rear wheels. Then Dad drove May forward over the chains. Sara watched as he brought them up over the wheels and hooked them together. Then he snapped on two black rubber-band kind of things (he said they came from old inner tubes) in a criss-cross manner to keep the chains tight. "Now for those bags of cement we have somewhere."

"What do you want them for?" asked Sara who thought everything was now ready.

"To put in the trunk so we have weight for traction," explained Dad. "Better put in a couple shovels, too."

With the trunk loaded, May was now ready to be driven up to the house. Sara loved the way May seemed to confidently plow right on through the snow.

The heater was getting the inside warm by the time Dad helped Mother onto May's back seat. There she was to lay on May's soft cushion, using Sara's lap for a pillow. But Sara felt a tug or resentment when she saw Eric sit down in the front seat with an important-looking smugness on his face. She should be the one to "ride shotgun" behind Mary' woodgrained glovebox. But Sara knew her mother needed her. That was more important.

Now that they were settled, Sara realized that they were bound to have rough going through the snow on the way to town. She thought of the "big dip" in the farm lane that always filled up with snow first. Sure enough the snow was deep there. Sara's heart jumped to her mouth as they hit it with a dull, soft "thud" and she felt May's chained wheel, which was almost right under her, begin to spin. But with a soft jerk it caught hold and May kept on moving. They made it through the first rough spot. What about the next?

The next came while they were still on the gravel road that led to the highway. Just past a windbreak was a growing drift of snow. May hit it pretty hard. Just when her wheels began to spin, Dad put her in reverse and backed up for another run at it. This time May was almost through when she went skidding sideways, back and forth. Sara was afraid they would be stuck for sure or might even end up in the ditch. Suddenly May's wheels grabbed again and they surged ahead.

They didn't know it then, but that was the last real tough spot. Sara's heart skipped a beat just once more. They went barreling past the stop sign as May raced up the incline onto the highway. Dad hadn't seen any headlight coming either way so he didn't chance getting stuck by stopping. Now, they were all pleased to find that the snowplow had just gone through. Though the snow continued to accumulate and drift, the going was much easier now.

The road no longer being a worry, Sara's concern turned to her mother. Every so many minutes Mother's breathing became heavy and she would give a little cry of pain. Sara would stroke Mother's head and say, "It's all right Mom. We're going to make it." But it gave Sara a funny feeling to be trying to comfort Mother. Before it had always been Mother who comforted her when she was hurt or sick.

Though Sara kept on saying, "It's all right Mom, we'll make it. May's a good car. She never let Grandpa down. She won't let us down either," she was beginning to wonder if they would ever make it. With the chains on, May couldn't go very fast. The town that was only five minutes away on the highway now seemed never to come. The lights just didn't seem to get any closer. But the times between Mother's "contractions" (as she called the) were getting much, much closer by the time they did finally reach town.

Dad kept on driving May as fast as he dared. By the time they swung up to the hospital entrance, he had instructed Eric to jump out and run in to tell them that his mother was out in the car ready to have a baby any minute.

"I felt the baby drop!" Mother said in a kind of whispered shout. Just then an orderly ran up to the car and shouted for Dad to drive around and into the ambulance garage.

"Nice old car!" he shouted as Dad spun May's chained wheels and went skidding around the corner. He kept right on going, aiming for the garage door that was silently rising. It seemed they just missed scraping May's shiny grey roof as they went shooting through the door.

The orderly, a nurse and a doctor were waiting as Dad brought May to a stop on the clean concrete floor. The door opened beside Sara as a nurse's aid took her by the arm and helped her out of the car. The others then rushed into May's back seat to help Mother. Sara wanted to stay and watch, but she didn't say anything as the aide took her into the waiting room where Eric sat looking at a magazine.

Sara expected them to come rushing right behind her, through those big doors, with Mother on the wheeled stretcher. But they didn't come. And they didn't come. Sara started to worry about the "complications."

She was getting "real worried" when finally the doors did open and Mother came through on the stretcher and Dad and the doctor and the nurse. But they weren't hurrying.

The nurse was carrying a little bundle. Then Dad ran to them with a big smile on his face. "You two have a new baby sister!" he fairly shouted. "She was born right there in May's back seat!"

Sara and Eric rushed over to where the nurse held the little baby. Sara was sure she had never seen anything so sweet and new in all her life. Even though her sister wasn't cleaned up yet from her birth, she still was the most beautiful thing Sara had ever seen. And Eric even agreed! He was definitely proud of his new sister. Maybe even of May?

Then they took the baby and Mother away to be settled in their room. And Dad went with them.

After a while Dad returned to tell them they could go up to see Mother and their new sister before they went over to Grandpa's house to spend the night.

"We decided to name her Kristin Marie," Dad said, "after the Christchild and his mother. After all, she was born on Christmas Eve!"

"That's nice," said Sara in a not-too-excited tone of voice. "But-" Then she stopped.

"But what?" asked Dad.

"But-well I-I was kinda hoping we could name her May," stammered Sara. She felt a tear coming that she didn't want to be there.

"That's an idea," said Dad, "but May's only a car."

"I know," replied Sara, "but if it wasn't for May, we might not be here and maybe little Kristin wouldn't be alright, and Dad, the baby Jesus was born in a kinda garage too, wasn't he?"

"Huh?..I-guess he was. Yes, he was!" mused Dad as he hugged Sara with one arm. "Perhaps May could be a second middle-name. Anyway this is the greatest Christmas present any of us ever had. And she did come to us in May."

Hey Dad," said Sara with her special giggle. She caught on to a double-meaning. "Christmas-Christmas in May!"

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