New Year's Eve

TALKING TO MYSELF: 31 December, 2012 Bing Crosby may have dreamed of snow, but my Christmases in the Bluegrass have been mostly muddy, and have been better for it, in my opinion.  I have, however, been stuck in a blizzard with a blind date on New Year’s Eve.  Because of that singular experience, New Year’s is painted forever white in my memory. 

 My parents and I, along with several ancient relatives, had been invited to a holiday dinner at the home of my G-Uncle Murf Hudson, Aunt Bessie, and their teenage son James.  They lived near Dry Ridge about 20 miles north of our Owen County farm, and the weather was okay on our late afternoon trip to their place.   I mention this to emphasize that blizzards, like the storms in life, can catch us by surprise.

I looked forward to the evening because I adored my cousin James.  He, like me, was an only child, having come into his parents’ lives deep into their middle age. He and I substituted for the siblings neither of us had.   A few years older than me, he had movie star good looks (I told people he was kin to Rock Hudson and they believed me) and he was – still is – one of the funniest people I’ve ever known.  Already my ideal big brother, he now had the aura of a college freshman and had acquired a beautiful girlfriend. 

When we arrived, he pulled me aside. “I’ve promised Sally I’ll take her to Cincinnati to the movies and to walk around Fountain Square at midnight to see the lights and hear the bells ring in the New Year.  If your parents will let you go, my buddy Gary* says he’ll come along and we’ll make it a double date.”

My heart skipped.  I was fifteen and a half, and my hottest date thus far had been sitting by a boy at church.  Was it possible the life I’d envisioned might be about to begin?

To my surprise, my parents said I could go.  Perhaps they knew that my old-fashioned aunt and uncle, nearly a generation older than them, wouldn’t let James out of the house unless I went too, and Mother and Daddy would’ve understood the importance of a New Years Eve date to an eighteen year old boy.  They also trusted James to take care of me.

As soon as dinner was over, he and I slipped out, making our get-away before our parents noticed it had started to snow a little.  By the time we reached Sally’s house two miles south in Williamstown, the roads were white.  Like us, she hurried out before her parents could say no.  We then drove five miles north to Gary’s house in Dry Ridge.

Gary, tall and lanky, climbed into the car and I thought my prayers were answered.  He looked like Buddy Holly with a flattop in his dark framed glasses, navy blazer and skinny tie.   I tried not to giggle when we were introduced.  Gary – a college freshman like James - was not impressed by me, however.  A year or so later and his reaction might have been different, but on that fateful night I looked every awkward minute of my fifteen and a half years.  After a polite hello, he didn’t say another word to me the entire evening.  I spent the night worrying that James had paid Gary to go out with me.

By this time deep footprints were tracking in the fresh snow, and James nixed the trip to Cincinnati and opted to go to the drive-in theater at Dry Ridge.  This was disappointing, but I figured it was still more glamorous than welcoming the New Year with the ancients and Guy Lombardo on TV.

The first clue that we were in trouble should have been the vacant lot at the drive-in.  If there was another car there I don’t remember it.  Within 30 minutes of our arrival, we were in a whiteout, unable to see the giant screen much less the movie.  James attempted some self-deprecating wit about our exciting New Years Eve, but Gary was mostly silent.  Finally, the guys decided they’d better get out and evaluate our situation.  They stepped out of the car -- and vanished into a drift.  That’s when I got scared.  We needed to get home. 

Gary volunteered to push the car out of the drift while James steered and accelerated.  That flailing effort produced nothing more than the odor of burnt tire rubber.   Then, in a surreal frenzy, they both began to shove the car like madmen.  After an eternity, it budged.  With visibility near zero, we set out for Gary’s house because it was the closest.

By the grace of God we found our way through the blinding snow to Gary’s basement garage. I offered up a silent prayer of thanks that we were still alive while the guys began putting snow chains on the tires to get us home.  Alas, neither of them had ever done this before, and the complicated process was slow and noisy.  I’m also guessing they didn’t ask permission to borrow the chains from Gary’s dad.  Anywise, he stomped down to the basement after a while and threw a full-fledged temper tantrum in our direction replete with wild hand gyrations to punctuate the tirade.

James and I came from quiet families, and we’d never seen an adult pitch a fit like that, much less at us.  And to this day, I have no idea what the man expected us to do.  I don’t recall his inviting us to spend the night, or even offering us a cup of hot chocolate or the use of the bathroom.  At that point I decided I didn’t care if Gary didn’t like me.  His dad was not appropriate grandfather material.

That’s when I began to laugh.  And then James did too.  Sally and Gary looked at us like we were crazy, but we couldn’t stop. We laughed and laughed and laughed even though we knew we probably shouldn’t.

Eventually the chains snapped on, and we got back to James’ house in one piece, though my family couldn’t get home to Owen County until the next day.  James and Sally broke up not long afterwards, and I never laid eyes on Gary again. 

This is not a holiday memory that would inspire Bing Crosby to dream and sing, but real life is, after all, more like an abstract painting than a Currier and Ives engraving.  We stared at the New Year in a whiteout, uncertain of our way forward – but who, I ask now, can ever see into the future with clarity?  We made it through, however, and even laughed.

*Of course, Gary’s name has been changed. 


Excerpt from Butter in the Morning (Wind, 2012)