A Christmas Story

1977. The rusting, cranky VW Camper Bus sat on Old York Road, in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, with a flat rear tire.

Very dark: 1 a.m. Christmas morning. Not a single store or gas station open.

Very very stormy: Steady light rain. Joe and Dot Haitz, the fragile grandparents, fuming in the back seats. 

Night: Two babies, Sabbia and Cesare, sleeping snug in the back bed of the camper. No traffic on a normally busy road.

The grandparents had joined us for a traditional Christmas Eve fish dinner at a South Philadelphia restaurant, our tiny house being way too small to entertain them. Now we were moving the scene to the suburbs, where Mom would host a proper Christmas morning with a splendid trimmed tree and presents for the grandbabies to open. Then we would pack up again to go to South Jersey to celebrate with Italian cousins and aunts.

The car jack and tire iron on the ground. Tony, who wears leg braces and uses crutches, kneels precariously because the rain slicked into a slippery sheen as it hit the cold pavement and he can barely get purchase on his crutches. He works the rickety VW jack and gets the wheel a bare fraction off the surface. I’m clueless about how to work the jack, my hands cramping when I touch the freezing iron. Rusted lug nuts immovable. Welded to the rim bolts?

We need help. Tony begins to trek down the dark sidewalk, moving carefully because, if he falls, we are twice screwed. As it is, no signs of sentient life anywhere. I stay with the VW, the babies, and my mother’s blistering looks, waiting to flag down any vehicle that might pass by.

One car stops. A quiet older gentleman, a Jewish doctor returning home after hospital shift he volunteered for to give his Christian colleague time off. He makes an attempt, but car jacks are not his expertise, and he hesitates to attack rough metal edges with smooth fingers more adept at palpating flesh. He looks at me sheepishly, and I thank him for his effort, verify we are all OK, and ask him just to be on the lookout for a police car or something on his way. He lingers anyway.

Tony has progressed two exceptionally long, steep blocks away. A young black man is walking toward him, on a street where, at this time in this place (an upscale lily-white suburb), young black men walking a dark street late at night might bode trouble for a man alone on crutches. They pass each other, the black fellow looking just as suspiciously at Tony as he goes by (one doesn’t see beggars in Jenkintown outside a Saks Fifth Avenue branch). Tony looks down the street: no options in sight. So he turns back and calls after the young man: “Excuse me, but I need some help,” and explains. The young man has a similar problem: his car is on a nearby side street, out of gas, with a girlfriend steaming inside. They strike a bargain—help for help. The young man escorts Tony up the increasingly slippery sidewalk.

Meantime, another van stops by us, with a hefty EMT guy going home after shift. The doctor explains the problem, and in a few minutes the van is up on the paramedics own sturdy jack and he moves the rusted nuts with a firm boot slam on the tire wrench. The spare, luckily, is good. Tony and his new friend arrive just as he finishes up. 

Heartfelt thanks and holiday salutations all around. The young black man joins us in the van and when we can’t find any gas stations open, Pop tells him to drain the lawnmower tank in his garage. It’s enough to get him to his destination, and Tony drives him back to the stranded car.

My kids weren’t holy then or now, and I’m certainly no virgin mother, but I suspect we were visited by some magi on a wintry Christmas night many years ago.