Québec beckoned, and I could not resist. When had I fallen in love? Perhaps it was the first time that summer when I’d gazed out over Montréal from the lookout point. Or maybe it was listening to strains of “La vie est belle à Place Royale” sung with heart to the accompaniment of a concertina on the cobblestone streets of the OldCity. But whenever it was didn’t really matter. What mattered was the letter I held in my hand, an invitation to return. Sixteen months later, I was going back to this little piece of France in Canada, and I couldn’t be more delighted.
The three days in Québec flew by, as I took in its winter wonders. Having said my goodbyes to friends, I turned the nose of my Plymouth Horizon southeast, heading back to Boston’s south shore and my last semester at college. Thoughts of my fiancée back on campus were on my mind even as music from my latest tape filled the tiny car. My wipers kept time, brushing away the snow flakes that began to fall. The miles crawled past as I crossed through the customs checkpoint and continued down the lonely highway, passing through the Big Woods of Maine on that that cold New Years’ Eve.
“Is it my imagination,” I thought, “or is the music getting slower?” There was no mistaking it now. The tape was slowing down, but the snow fell harder, turning into an icy storm, as the wind began to howl. The dashboard glowed more dimly, then not at all. I struggled through the blinding white to make out the road ahead of me even as my headlights quit. An eighteen-wheeler slammed on its brakes behind me, the driver angrily blaring his horn as he passed. My tail lights out, I was an accident waiting to happen.
My first thought was to pull over to the shoulder and pop the hood. Surely someone would give me a hand? But cars were sparse on Route 201 that night, most folks having the sense to stay in on a frigid New Year’s Eve. Besides, what guarantee did I have that once I turned the key off it would start again? Foolishly, I had forgotten to put gloves or a ski cap in the car, and my winter jacket was getting colder by the minute.
The headline in tomorrow’s paper was only too clear: “Frozen motorist discovered in snow.” No, there had to be another way, as I said a quick prayer.
That’s when I remembered Ken’s directory. Ken, a retiree, worked part-time on campus in the print shop. Years before the internet was born, he’d taken on the huge project of compiling a telephone directory of churches in our denomination. Before break, he’d wished me a Merry Christmas and handed me a directory. “What am I possibly going to do with this?” I secretly thought, but took his gift and thanked him. Before my trip, I’d tossed it into my bag and forgotten about it, until now. Little did Ken know that his book was about to save my life.
By now my Horizon limped along at a mere 30 mph. Somehow, I’d managed to stay on the road long enough for a passing vehicle’s headlights to illuminate an overhead road sign: Waterville, ½ mile. Taking the ramp, I groped towards town, as the car sputtered and died by a public phone in a deserted parking lot.
“Maine,” I thought. “Who do I know in Maine who could possibly be in this book?” Scanning through the pages, Skowhegan rang a bell. Quickly dialing the number as I shivered in the metallic phone booth, the voice of a middle-aged man came on the line. “Is this Pastor Gary?” I asked. He remembered me from the choir concert our college had performed at his church the previous spring. Aware of my predicament, he took my number and asked me to wait while he made arrangements. A blustery ten minutes later, the phone rang and my numbed fingers lifted the receiver from its cradle. “Greg,” he said, reassurance in his voice, “I just spoke with my Aunt Gertrude. She lives just a quarter of a mile up the road from where you’re standing. It’s an old school that they’ve converted to senior citizen apartments. Just ring her buzzer, and she’ll let you in. She has an extra bedroom and you can spend the night.” Thanking Gary profusely, I locked up my car, then set out to meet my new friend.
“What will Gertrude be like?” I wondered. Pushing the button, I heard the buzzer ring, then her voice came over the intercom. A few minutes later, standing in the hallway, I gently knocked on her door. “Come in, Greg,” she said, as she opened the door and invited me in. “You must be freezing! Would you like some hot chocolate?” I sat down on her couch and took off snowy shoes, my nearly frost-bitten toes grateful for the comfort of a warm carpet. While Gertrude busied herself in the kitchen with our hot chocolate, I looked around her simple apartment. The clock on the wall registered 11:55 p.m. as it quietly ticked away the last moments of 1984. Gertrude came back into the living room and handed me a piping hot cup of cocoa. We sipped together in silence and watched the television as a luminous apple dropped down the huge pole in Times Square.
The next morning, Gertrude made me a hearty breakfast of eggs, toast, and oatmeal. She let me use her phone to call mechanics, but I frankly wasn’t optimistic. Who in their right mind would be working on New Year’s Day? And even if I did find someone, I had no credit card. Would they agree to fix my car for what little I had in my wallet? After reaching answering machines at a half dozen shops, finally on the seventh call a real person answered. He said he was just working half a day, but when I explained my situation, he agreed to take a look at the car. A few hours later, I had a new alternator belt, and the big-hearted mechanic had $ 25.00. Waving goodbye and thanking him again, I turned one more time toward Boston, my tape deck booming and my mind thinking again of a special someone back on campus.
Québec still beckons to me. My special someone – now my wife – and our two sons visited the Old City together a few years back. They, too, appreciate its charms, but I have to admit it. It’s hard for me to think about Québec without being grateful to a retired printer, a kindly preacher, a hospitable old lady and a generous mechanic who in wintry Maine did a foolish college boy a good turn.
Photo credit: Bill Dodge Auto Group