December 23rd, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 51
Looking Back - John Kinnear
I’ll Be Home for Christmas
Looking Back
John Kinnear photo
59 Pontiac Laurentian
“I'll be home for Christmas
You can count on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents under the tree.”
Bing Crosby – lyrics Kim Gannon
Exactly 50 years ago, in 1970, I found myself on the road, heading home to the Crowsnest Pass for Christmas. The trip turned into a 600 mile nightmare that still leaves me shaking my head. It is only through time that dramatic events in our lives mellow and we can look back at them with some degree of humor. Such is the case with this story.

This Christmas odyssey started in Grande Prairie, Alberta, where I was working for a planning commission and engaged to a local girl from there. That year she decided to head for Swan Hills for Christmas to visit a friend and I wasn’t invited! The thought of being alone at that time of year in a city I hardly knew with no family or friends kind of worked me over and a serious case of homesickness set in.

At the time I was driving a blue 1959 Pontiac Laurentian, a lovely little 6 cylinder job we had jointly purchased from a Chinese fellow who had only (and this is no lie) driven it to and from the Buddhist church that he attended in Grande Prairie. This car ran so smoothly and quietly that at an idle you were never sure if it was still running. Earlier that winter it had survived a serious ditching on the forestry trunk road between Grande Prairie and Grande Cache and appeared relatively unaffected except for a mysterious distributor problem that surfaced shortly after.
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That homesickness overcame me and in spite of that tricky distributor I decided to try to make the long arduous trip home to be with my family at Yuletied. I set out two days before Christmas in -35 degree weather with exactly enough gas money in my pocket to get me home. The pull of family was strong and visions of Christmas cheer and home cooked meals danced in my head as I pulled out of Grande Prairie that clear ice cold morning. The recently replaced distributor began acting up immediately but I was determined to make it home and so I found that if I drove at exactly 53 mph the car would stop bucking and run relatively smoothly.

I was no more than thirty miles out, near a little town called Bezanson, when the first of many frustrating incidents occurred. An attempt to throw some mandarin orange peelings out my driver’s side window resulted in the window disappearing into the door and the crank turning freely on a stripped shaft. Now I don't know if any of you have ever tried driving in -35 below with your window down but I can tell you it was wild. At the nearest town I scrounged a piece of cardboard, fit it in to the window space, jammed two screwdrivers into the affair to hold it in place and continued on my way, ever determined to be home for Christmas.

It was three hours later when I hit Valleyview, which is sort of a halfway point between Grande Prairie and Edmonton. There is an infamous stretch of highway there which regularly ices up and before I knew it I was on that skating rink strip which was, just to make it interesting, enveloped in an ice fog. I don't think I can verbally paint just how bad this situation was but suffice it to say I managed to white knuckle it past logging trucks sliding sideways and a lot of other similarly terrified motorists.
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The whole way there that Pontiac rudely reminded me of my 53 mph handicap by bucking and backfiring till I returned to that sacred speed. Two hours later I found myself approaching the Yellowhead highway intersection at a service station junction called Gunn, about 30 miles out of Edmonton. It was there I decided to make my first gas stop and try to unthaw my hands. (that window repair leaked like a sieve). I pulled into the pumps, stepped on the brake and sailed on past them and piled into a huge snow bank the owner had built up from weeks of station cleanups. It seems I had somehow run out of brake fluid!

You'd think I would have noticed soft brakes sooner but chugging along at exactly 53 m.p.h. I hadn't had much occasion to use them. At any rate their tow truck pulled me out and back to the pumps where I gassed up and begged enough brake fluid from the owner to carry on, explaining that I wouldn't have enough money to get home otherwise for Christmas.

After Gunn I took the sneak route around Edmonton via Devon and headed south down the QE #2 Highway south. The occasional engine misfire kept me on edge and I prayed that distributor would hold together.

What I didn't realize back then was that that ditching on the forestry trunk road a week earlier had done serious damage to the engine timing gear, a part whose raison d’être escapes me. Needless to say it and the distributor were not getting along and it was only a matter of time before something serious developed.
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Halfway between Edmonton and Calgary the engine oil light came on, the car quit and I coasted to a stop on the four-lane. I bundled up and hitchhiked to one of those 24 hour superstations on Gasoline Alley just outside of Red Deer and "conned" the jockey there into driving me back with some oil. It took a push start from his tow truck to get me going 53 mph again which was probably a sign that the distributor was about to distribute itself into little pieces. The trip south through Calgary (pre Deerfoot Trail days) was managed with a lot of bucking, praying, cursing and body urging that cantankerous Pontiac through intersections and onto Highway 2 south again.

It was beginning to seem like I might make it all the way when just outside of Claresholm it happened. I took my foot off of the gas to slow down for an accident that had occurred up ahead. There was a loud ugly bang, a lurch, and then a backfire and that temperamental Laurentian coasted to a stop once more, this time for good.

The RCMP officer writing up the accident was good enough to drive me into Claresholm where I arranged for a tow truck. I then walked across town to the Bell Hotel lobby and made a desperate reverse the charges call to home where the whole frustrating story was poured out on the phone and I begged to be rescued. I had, I explained, suffered the slings and arrows of this outrageous Pontiac and by opposing had ended them. Then using my remaining gas money I entered the bar, surrounded myself with glasses of draft beer and waited.
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It's hard to explain just how lonely I felt there in that quiet little prairie town on the night before Christmas. It's not hard to describe, though, how I felt when my father and beautiful big brother walked through that lobby door hours later, all smiles and full of reassurance.

Being home that year for Christmas with my family was extra special. It is truly what the Yuletide is about. A family celebration with those you love. The wonderful thing about family is that they're always there when you need them.

I didn't realize it at the time but I was at a turning point in my life back then. I never returned to Grande Prairie and I abandoned my career in architecture and began working in the coal mining industry as had my father and his father before him.

Oh yeah. One more thing! I never drove that dam temperamental Pontiac again although my brother-in-law, whom I gave it to in disgust, managed to put over 110,000 trouble free miles on it. Go figure.

I am sure Lorraine joins me in wishing you all a very safe and Merry Christmas.
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December 23rd, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 51
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