So my mood was grim as I sat down in the auditorium to watch the 5th grade Christmas assembly.
But as fate would have it, my day was destined to improve. I sat down next to a guy whose day was worse than mine. Malfunctioning car needed towed, crabby customers at work and then to top it all off he came home to learn the stupid dog got skunked.
I wish no ill on my fellow man, but if it has to happen I hope it happens on a day when they wind up sitting next to me. I left that assembly with all my Christmas cheer restored.
Nothing warms the downtrodden like hearing some other hapless mope is enduring a worse cosmic screwing.
Today is the 10th anniversary of what was until the 2004 death of my father the worst day of my life.
Thus, it is the most popular story I’ve ever told. It is among my friends becoming a Christmas tradition for them to gather ‘round and ask me over and over “Please! Please, tell the car story! Please!”
It’s like the scene from “The Waltons” where all the kids goad Grandpa into telling the story of the time he wrestled presents from Santa.
A friend of mine persuaded me to share it here, even though the telling of it will take almost twice as long as usual. I rarely take requests, but I recognize the value of vicarious woe. Plus it is the season of giving . . .
It was a dark a stormy night. Honest. It was snowing like crazy. I was happily ensconced in my bar enjoying boozy fellowship.
It had been, for me, a flush year, enough so that I’d splurged on some fancy new duds, including a $375 Ibiza sports coat. It was worth more than all the combined garments worn by the 20 or so patrons, worth more even than several of the duct-taped jalopies in the bar parking lot.
And this I pointed out multiple times to everyone there as I asked if they wanted to touch it.
Paul was there. He’s always there. He refused several offers to touch me and my jacket and seemed put off that I’d shown up in anything besides my standard flannel over a 1983 Molly Hatchet concert T-shirt.
If he wasn’t liking the fancy new me, well, tough. I told him he’d better get used to it.
Our wives showed up to drive us to the party. It was in a friend’s new house about 20 minutes away. We’d never been there. It was dark and snowing like crazy with about two-inches on the already damp ground.
This is the part of the story everyone forgets: I wasn’t driving. Val was. Paul and his wife were trailing us.
When I told Val to turn left she was confused by the snow-camouflaged landscape. I don’t blame her for all that happened next while stipulating if I’d have been driving none of it would have ever happened at all.
Instead of turning on the Westview Court, she turned the 2000 Chevy Cavalier into an adjacent steep and unplowed driveway. Paul and Patti did not. They turned down the road and stopped after recognizing our error.
And we got stuck. Bad. She’d overshot the darkened driveway and wound up in the yard below the vacant house.
Paul and I would need to try and push the car back onto the driveway and up the slope.
Looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t think to take sartorial precautions. The ground was wet beneath the snow as we gave the car a mighty shove.
And I don’t know why what happened when Val gunned the accelerator only happened on the side I was pushing and not Paul’s.
It was like somebody had dipped a big paint brush and did one of those wrist flings that sprayed a two-inch-wide racing stripe of muddy grit from my knees, across my new jacket, clear up to my ears.
I remember looking up at Paul and seeing an expression of pure joy. It was like he was a kid on Christmas morning who’d just spied a big red wagon behind the tree.
Now, distraught, I’d need to go home and change. I told the three of them to go on without me. I’d meet them there later.
It was the first of three colossal mistakes. First, they’d get to the party without me. Everyone would ask where I was. They’d be free to embellish the story as they saw fit.
Second, there was no way I was going to get the car back up onto the road.
Third, I eventually told them everything that happened, inadvertently unloosing a legend.
The lay of the land made it look like I was 20 yards from a secondary road leading to an isolated house. In those pre-cell phone days, I thought I could drift the car backwards about 200 feet, find a friendly face and call for a tow.
I made it about 2/3 of the way there when the car drifted into a shag of bushes.
Emerging from the car was the moment I lost it because I immediately became ensnarled in jagger bushes. Dozens of needle-sharp barbs began snagging my pricey new jacket and tearing tiny cuts in my mud-splattered face.
It was the first time I’d ever engaged in fisticuffs with vegetation.
It wasn’t until I got free that I heard the barking dogs. I ignored the “Beware of Dog” signs on the fence and crept up to a beaten door with NRA and “No Solicitors” stickers in the windows.
I’m not ashamed to admit it, I was scared to death. The dogs sounded like starved Rottweilers and the cinder block structure looked isolated enough to make a dandy meth lab.
And here I was peeking through the window with a face streaked with blood and mud. I felt knocking might risk gun fire without warning.
So I crept back to the car, crawled in the passenger side and decided to take my chances drifting backwards. The car began sliding and I immediately lost all control.
I can’t say I thought I was going to die, but I did think my night was going to end with trauma surgeons scissoring off my fancy sports coat to assess the damage to my vital organs.
Because in mid-flight, the passing scenery proved I was wrong about my surroundings. This wasn’t a secondary road at all. I was picking up speed drifting backward through a string of about a dozen backyards about 1/4 of a mile long.
That I didn’t hit a fence, a tree, a swing set, a tool shed, a swimming pool or other immovable object was to me the greatest Christmas miracle since the Savior’s birth.
The last 20 yards were down a steep embankment that dropped me spinning onto a residential street where I was fortunate no cars were coming.
I remember thinking, man, it’s too bad none of my friends didn’t see that ‘cause that would have looked pretty cool.
My heart-pounding, I shoved the car in gear and drove home murmuring ceaseless prayers of gratitude I’d survived and that the day would not get any worse by having me get partially consumed by a flesh-eating bacteria I’d picked up outside the meth chef’s house.
It’s been 10 years since I spun out of that hilly hell.
And in those 10 years, the story of one of the worst nights of my life, a night of unrelenting pain, fear and humiliation, has brought nothing but joy and laughter to the hearts of friends who revel in the misfortunes of others. I’m sure I’ll hear it all again tonight as we return to that same neighborhood for that annual party.
Know what I have to say to that?
And be careful making that sharp left onto Westview.