Every time I hear the Best Christmas Driving Home Song Ever, I think of my old friend John Chatsko.
In 1962, when I was a cub reporter on the Orillia Packet & Times, I lived at Mrs. Brown’s boarding house on Nottawasaga Street with John and about six other guys – printer Reg LaHay and bush pilot Elliott Pitt, among them. The only trouble we ever had in that place was when somebody would forget to clean out the tub; harsh words at the dinner table inevitably followed.
John and I were both from Niagara Falls – our families lived right around the corner from each other, in fact – so as Christmas approached, we made plans to travel home together on Christmas Eve, which that year was on a Monday.
John, an optician, had a brand new car, a Ford Falcon, of which he was most proud.
Now, most of the fellows in the house owned cars. In winter, to get them off the street at night, they would drive them up and onto the grass of a small park on Patrick Street, which was right across the road from the boarding house. Winter had come early that year, which meant there was a good amount of snow in the park that had been packed down by the cars on the patch where they were parked. As luck would have it, it rained a bit on Christmas Eve morning that December, and then the temperature had plunged, leaving the “parking lot” icy.
So it’s about 3 in the afternoon and I’m outside waiting for John to come home so we can load up and get on our way. Another couple of the guys were also out there, as Mrs. Brown didn’t allow smoking in the house and they were having cigarettes.
Up Nottawasaga Street comes John Chatsko, driving his brand new Ford Falcon. It’s Christmas Eve and he’s excited. He honks the horn as he approaches Patrick Street, just to make sure we see him coming in his snazzy new car, takes a big, wide, sweeping turn around the corner and then flat-out floors it as he drives up over the curb, fully expecting to jam on his brakes and stop with a flourish in front of us in the parking lot.
Except the snowy surface he left that morning is now ice. As he hits the brakes of his brand new car, I can still see the look of surprise and then terror in his eyes when he realizes that the car isn’t stopping. In fact, it skids right past where we’re standing in the parking lot, plows through a snowbank and smashes into a telephone pole that’s near the corner of the park.
John Chatsko isn’t hurt but his pride and his car sure are. He’s dinged that pole with the left front of the Falcon and a headlight is smashed and the fender is pushed back into the left front tire where it’s just jammed right in there.
I won’t tell you what he said but the language was colourful. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, because what had just happened was hilarious. But I’m also thinking that there goes my ride home to Niagara Falls for Christmas.
Now, John — after he got over the shock of what had just happened — was very angry. I remember him as being a big guy — not particularly tall but built like a CFL linebacker — and he gets out of the car, leans over and takes that crumpled fender in his hands and just pulls on it with all his might in an attempt to get it away from the tire. In so doing, of course, he actually moves the car. So he has to sit down on the snow, brace his feet up against the left front wheel and pull again. This time it works; the fender comes away from the tire.
He backs up the car and says for me to get in. “We’re goin’ home for Christmas,” he says.
John, I say, the cops are going to stop us because there is only one light on this car and we have to get down Highway 11 from Orillia to the 401 in Toronto and then down Highway 27 to the Queen E. and then west and south on the QEW to the Falls and we’ll never make it.
And so John Chatsko then goes and does one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in my life.
He gets a flashlight (I’m not making this up) and a big roll of hockey tape and he used a whole roll of that tape to attach that flashlight to the crumpled left-front corner of his Ford Falcon where the headlight used to be.
Says John, “When it gets dark enough to turn on the real lights, I’ll stop the car and turn on the flashlight. It’s not much, but it’ll do. The cops can’t say we don’t have two lights on the front of the car.”
And that’s how John Chatsko and I drove home on Christmas Eve, 1962, with a crumpled left front fender on his brand new Ford Falcon and praying that the batteries in that flashlight would last long enough to get us to the neighbourhood near Drummond Road and Scott Street in Niagara Falls, where our folks lived.
And made it, we did.
So this afternoon, or tonight, or tomorrow, or on Christmas Eve Saturday, when you hear Chris Rea’s classic Drivin’ Home for Christmas song on the radio, if you don’t have your own Christmas Eve driving home memory, you can have mine as my gift to you.
Merry Christmas, everyone. And to you, too, John Chatsko. Wherever you are.