(first posted in 2013) I was living with my brother in the dumpiest rental house between Cheyenne and Denver at a railroad crossing on the fringe of town. The tracks shipped unfortunate cattle south to be slaughtered in Greeley. The land, houses and trees surrounding it had been stripped and demolished. It was the last to go. At night in the darkness, the red crossing gate lights would strobe through the windows into each room. Coupled with the continuous sounds of lowing cattle soon to become hamburger and the fresh manure odors, it would have made the cover of Better Homes and Gardens – the Zombie Hell – edition.
The taped broken windows, and dirty ambiance was tolerable when beer was available and living there meant sleeping off a nice buzz. It was not, however, a place to be when you were sober. The toilet flushed when someone thought to flush it, but everything was so worn out that it looked the same whether it was cleaned or not. During the summer nights our lights attracted the Miller moths which flooded into the house by the dozens to trap themselves in light fixtures or anything that reflected light, like your beer. Every month we were warned that we should expect to move on a moments notice, as the house was on Death Row.
However, it still stood when the High Plains winter arrived. The furnace didn’t work. My brother and I abandoned all the rooms except the kitchen where there was an oven. We slept on the floor. Two weeks before Christmas, my brother was laid off. The part time university library job I had barely kept gas in his 1967 Plymouth Valiant and beer in the refrigerator. We ate ramen noodles and something claiming to be frozen pizza. We knew the jig was up and we needed an escape. We saw Christmas as our ticket to real food, warm beds and Christmas presents, so we needed to return somehow to Chicago which was 1,000 miles away.
Our boyhood friend lived nearby. We concocted a plan to get back home on his dime. He wouldn’t want to go because there was a reason he lived 1,000 miles away – his family. So, behind his back, we told our parents that he was coming home with us and to let his parents know. In their excitement, they called him to express their joy, resigning him to the trip. His MG was too small and unreliable, so we put $50 into making the Valiant roadworthy. Since we were using our car, he provided gas money, just as we planned. We jammed the huge square trunk full of dirty clothes, beef jerky, beer and rumbled away from the frozen hovel we called home with high hopes. We couldn’t afford to stop or eat, but could buy gas.
The Plymouth might have been old and worn out, but it was a Valiant. Nothing killed them. On weekends when we had cash, we took it into the mountains to camp, ski and party. We did need to be careful driving it because the brakes were worn out and the tires were bad most of the time. The old V8 had a clutch fan that continually ran and there were leaks, but hey – it wouldn’t quit. The body was very worn and covered in dents. At one time, someone installed an 8-track player, so I found an old copy of Talkingheads ’77 at a flea market. So the car didn’t go anywhere without “Psycho Killer” played at full volume. We drove non-stop. We were desperate to escape our poverty into the land of Christmas plenty!
Throughout the trip we talked about the turkey, the cookies and the food waiting for us. We imagined getting cash and receiving bountiful and glorious gifts from our families. The new year was going to be splendid and we imagined getting great jobs in Denver when we returned with our Christmas booty. We were expecting a Christmas miracle. When I was handed my gift from my parents I couldn’t fathom what riches were inside. It was a two slice toaster. Open-mouthed, I thought it was a joke. Then I saw my brother open a similarly wrapped gift. It was the same toaster. We got identical toasters? It was like giving a Haitian squatter a tennis ball. “I got those on sale last summer when you two were living on your own. I didn’t know you would end up moving in together,” our mother explained upon seeing us looking like the Grinch had stolen our Who Hash. We went next door to get our buddy out of his house to learn that his Christmas morning was a reminder of why he moved 1,000 miles away. My older brother saw the look of utter disappointment on our faces and decided to do something.
He and his wife married as teens and immediately had three children who were then toddlers in diapers. He had a job, but every dime went to living costs. He couldn’t afford to get us new gifts, so he loaded us down in used clothes, a thirty year old television and tableware. Then he gave us an old 1972 Ford Mustang Grande. It was no longer driven and he was tired of it leaking on his driveway. It was very rusty and greasy, but it was a Mustang!
But being as poor as I was at the time, I didn’t care about that. All I saw was the guy whose old clothes I grew up wearing, the guy whose introduced me to heavy metal, the guy whose work ethic is an inspiration as the guy who saved Christmas. Driving back to Colorado with two old cars barely roadworthy, spurred my brother and I to take the next step – move to Denver and find success in the Mile High City. Our big brother’s gifts helped us make it a Grande Christmas that year.