Christmas in Vermont


Part 1

Bob assumed that the trip might bring out some issues. Home, health, car, weather, and kids. Still, a postcard Christmas in New England with the entire family, with minor stops on the way, was certainly worth the gamble.

The Yuletide farmhouse near Underhill seemed least of a gamble. Bill, Paula and the three grandchildren had lived there a couple of years – ten acres of pasture not far from Mount Mansfield, with a three-level barn and a farmhouse somewhere in style between the Ethan Allens – the patriot and the furniture store. It featured electricity, running water, and a flock of sheep visible beyond the Rhode Island Reds.

Bob and Barbara felt so well, and so eager, that they left Lighthouse Point half a day early. He did have a bad tooth – who doesn’t – and something called plantar fasciitis, a foot problem driving would not affect. The driving itself should be a gas, which would mainly consist of unleaded regular which the vehicle ate like peanuts.

But the minivan had new tires, new CV boots, new shocks. They would head north on strong wheels. It did lack one option – four wheel drive which can be a blessing in northern Vermont in December. But then again they tend to plow the snow up there quite promptly. Weather should not be a problem..... with pennies in a stream , falling leaves, a sycamore, etc.

First stop would be Thursday in Atlanta to celebrate a relative’s birthday. Head north on Friday to Durham, if only to see if Duke had changed at all in 40 years. After that, there would be four days in the Yardley/Princeton area. They would be staying with son Tom in Buckingham, PA. Barbara would have lunch with former bridge friends, Bob with old high school friend Johnny McPhee and would sell some LPs to the Princeton Record Exchange. Time for Christmas shopping, too, and Wednesday night Bob would play badminton with the old group in Pennington -- maybe Joanne never forgot his drop shot. Then, on to Vermont for grandson Tris's 6th birthday on the 21st, more shopping around Burlington, tend some sheep, feed some chickens and other excitement, including maybe some Vermont snow for a change. On the way home, maybe a side trip to State College to seek a summer rental and maybe another side trip to Franklin, West Virginia, to check out some ancient relatives.

In sum, the ducks were all in a row as they headed north on I-95 from south Florida. Some ducks!


Part 2

The trip to Atlanta via Gainesville was benign. They stayed at a Comfort Inn and ate Chinese. Three enormous egg foo yungs, a yoke or two above the fondly remembered servings at Lum’s Garden on 49th Street. They voiced little worry over Bob’s lower right first molar, even though it was only half there and dark with rot, like a volcano dormant for several days?

As I-75 led them past Atlanta's airport and into downtown, Bob espied the blue domed Hyatt-Regency, now dwarfed by new colossi. But thirty years ago, it had almost alone transformed Atlanta into a city that awaited an Olympiad. Just beyond that view, the first stoppage appeared. Where I-85 was spun from I-75 in three lanes, town magi had reduced it to one. The van spent 15 minutes creeping, creeping, crawling before they decided to finesse the junction and take to the streets. Still, the birthday party went well.

Next morning, they encountered rain, mist, and fog – but nothing frozen – up I-85 to Durham. We’re from Duke, couldn’t be prouder. Even though students were heading home for the holiday, the place was full. There was no visible parking space anywhere, at any building, in any lot, on any road. Of course, this was a new Duke and, although East campus remained remarkably similar to Bob’s memories of it, the rest of Duke now resembled less a campus than a factory. The woods Bob once hid in to study ... a few times ... were gone! To the right of the engineering building the scene now looked like the sort of government sprawl one expects in Arlington. The empty woods behind Page was full of buildings. The stadium area was a whole new city. As for townie eateries and hangouts, except for Hartmans, no restaurant he recalled still existed. Not Harveys, Coles, the Duchess, the Blue Light, the Palms, the Oriental, Miles, Bailey's, Foys, the Chili House, or Rinaldi's. The Toddle House, now a Steak & Egg Kitchen, provided the worst meal he had eaten in several years.

Buckingham, PA, was once the county seat. But that changed and so did the county name, now Bucks. Tom’s pad was right in the middle of the seat, too, and across PA 413 from a new dining find. It was called the Candlewick, a dark, smoky bar with booths. Its menu was a buck or so below the Annex, too. Your daily special, a wonderful beef stew that Saturday, was $4.95. A stein of Black and Tan: $1.75.

Monday, Barbara had her planned lunch beside the Oxford Valley Mall with three former bridge cronies, while Bob shopped for white socks at his vintage supplier, Spector's in Bristol -- through eight inches of slush in a gray, dank day and eight levels of growing pain in the dark brown molar. By late afternoon, his whole head was throbbing, not a good condition approaching Christmas. So, Bob called his root canal man, Dr. Friedman of Newtown, who, through great luck, had an opening next morning. Not so lucky was the forecast – blizzard coming. Bob called friend Johnny. They would still meet in Princeton at noon at the Annex, rotted molar and all.

Part 3

By Tuesday morning, snow had fallen – lots of it. Tom crashed out to work. Bob called Johnny again and left a message. He would still be there at noon, but, if the snow looked so bad that Johnny wanted to head home, no worry. Bob was heading to the Record Exchange anyway. Barbara held a very lonely fort as Bob broke out and headed with extra care toward Newtown. But Route 413 was snow-covered and drifted shoulder to shoulder, driving snow, cars in ditches. Petrified. Very religious. He even had his seat belt on. It took over 30 minutes to make the seven miles. The van arrived in time. Friedman took one look, took one x-ray, and said decay and infection were eating away the nerve. Bob needed either an extraction or a root canal. He chose the latter @ $550, up $75 since his last, two years before. Dr. Friedman prepared the Novocaine.

Lip inflated, snow continuing, Bob still made Princeton by 11:45. Plenty of parking, of course. The snow storm had sent people home. He trudged across Nassau Street and up past the library through the snow and slush – down jacket, gloves, and boots – past the chapel and up three flights to Johnny’s office. Nobody home, which probably suggested that Johnny had more snow sense than Bob had. Oh well. Back to the Record Exchange. “Closed due to storm.”

That evening, after spaghetti, utterly snowbound at Tom's, the repaired tooth began to hurt. In ten minutes, the pain level rose from moderate to off the chart. Bob called Friedman's pager. He called back. The infected tissue’s bacteria were issuing gas, and because the temporary filling was sealing the cavity, the gas was pressuring the nerve. The only chance of relief was to break through the temporary filling. That would release the gas that the infection was generating inside the canal. Bob gulped. Break through a filling? He had no choice. Tooth pain is unmatched and this edition was approaching level 9. Bob and Tom searched for a pointed tool. He used Tom's Swiss Army knife, small blade. Scrape and probe, eyes closed, ugh, twist, thrust. It took ten minutes. And the paid was gone. Rinse.

Wednesday morning Friedman approved Bob’s piercing procedure. He re-packed and changed anti-biotic. Bob must see him again to finalize the work and install the permanent filling. His first opening after Christmas was Wed, Dec. 28. Later that day, more shopping and more spaghetti. But that day still had a final bolt in its quiver. Because of the weather and the schools' closing, badminton was impossible. Great! Down were lunch, tooth, LPs, badminton, and snow shoes. So far, so bad.

Thursday morning, they headed for Vermont. Except for some strange sounds from the van along the hills of I-287, the trip as far as Albany was snug and sunny. Around I-787, the Albany by-pass, however, flurries began to fly. Trucks and ducks and geese better scurry. Slush was in ruts on the road. Splatter was on the windshield and all over the van. Then came a goblin. In the hills between Glens Falls and the Vermont line, the van’s transmission began to shift in and out of lockup on its own dime. On every incline, it shifted once each second. By Vermont 22A, a beautiful, lonely, snow-swept road, the constant shifts had become a little frightening. Theirs was usually the only car in sight. At the tops of hills, Bob could smell burning fluid. Here was Chaos and not even in New Jersey! By the time they reached Shelbourne his palms were well moist. But the traffic was crawling there, which was a relief. Unrequested shifts were fewer. Bob could lock it in "2" and leave it there. Another “down” for the trip? Probably. The transmission problems were only postponed.

They made Poker Hill Road in time for Tris's birthday dinner. It was still snowing, adding to the fun perhaps, and, as if continuing in key, the farmhouse was without running water. A pipe in the ground had split somewhere east of Jericho. Just grand, spake the son of Job.


Part 4.

Friday morning, still snowing, Barry's Transmission Specialist in South Burlington (“We also do auto repair and sell used cars on sight...”) said on the phone there was no fixing a transmission. It had to be replaced. Cost: $1400. Bill and Bob took the car down. Barry would do the work Tuesday, Dec. 26. That’s Boxing Day, when peers of the realm would put their extra gifts in boxes for the serfs.

Barry thus booked, Bob called Friedman. Wednesday, December 28, had to be postponed thanks to Barry. Freidman, however, had a window the following morning, when they would get to the root of the problem. The delay also had a western effect. The two side trips to State College to see Tom and to West Virginia to see the ghosts of Bob’s past were officially out. This was in a way a mixed blessing, since both localities were under twelve feet of snow, through which the van, even newly transmished, might not make it.

By the time they returned from Barry’s to Poker Hill Road, local forces had dug a hole in the farm yard next door and unearthed the leak in the water pipe. Not without legal affectation, however. The oh-so-neighborly neighbors had insisted on Bill signing a quit-claim to cover eventualities the hole might contain that not even Ethan Allen might have suspected. Apparently, the spirit of Christmas never includes what neighbors might levy upon your water supply. By now, amongst the tooth, the gear box, and the water pipe, varied professionals of the Eastern Seaboard were going to have a somewhat merrier, or at least more lucrative, Christmas.

Saturday, still snowing, daughter Jill and her husband arrived. More Christmas shopping. Sunday, son Rick and his wife arrived, then son Tom, making twelve people, three cats, seven sheep, about six chickens, Toby, and Peddler, the distinguished dean of canine candor. So, by now, all rough edges had been smoothed, all problems had been addressed.

Naturally, Tristan chose this moment to come down with a fever of 104.4°. Since Greta and Peter had both been ill as well, Bob made sure he washed hands several times a day to avoid kinderplague. This sort of medical precaution was reminiscent of one New Years Eve when he spent all night in a room, all windows open, separated from the rest of the family, all of whom were spreading several viri without restraint. He caught one of them anyway.

Christmas itself, almost incredibly, was fine, in all measurements and directions. Tris was even cured without professional help. Showed home movies that night, kids starring in adventures, especially adjacent to the railroad in Hudson. Outside, off the screen, it was still snowing.

Tuesday, still snowing on the sixth consecutive day, they picked up the van and next day, Wednesday, snowing for the seventh, they headed south on 22A and I-87, slipping and sliding with thrilling moments as far south as Albany. There’s always something nicely challenging about following eighteen wheelers on an interstate covered in slush while ecstatic in the confidence a re-built transmission bestows upon the driver. They made Tom's in Buckingham by 3:30, somewhat frazzled after the 300 miles of slush. Unfortunately, Tom was at work an hour away and had forgotten to leave his door unlocked.


Part 5

Tom’s apartment, a lower piece of a former mansion, was impregnable. No loose doors, windows, or milk chutes. No hidden key hidden beneath a floor mat, a flower pot, or cistern cover. There was a nearby pay phone. Tom promised to appear within an hour. He did appear in 45 minutes. Dinner that evening was a second experience at the redolent Candlewick, of course. Chicken Parmesan on a bed of spaghetti, big bread, salad: $4.95.

Thursday. Tooth day. And, lo, Dr. Friedman at 10:15 pronounced the root canal well healed. They saw no sign of snow either. So, with the water pipe, the transmission, Tris, and now the tooth all effectively repaired, they hit I-95 at 10:45, heading south, sailing into Philadelphia. They hit the first stoppage just before Cottman Ave.

It was not a blockage from construction, a wreck, or road crews at lunch. It was just traffic. Everybody who owned a car in the eastern United States was heading south, 90 per cent of them on I-95. The first delay was about half an hour. Five feet at a time. A second stoppage occurred in Wilmington. Another twenty minutes. Just before the I-95 toll barrier in Delaware, the wait was 15 minutes, the backup half a mile long to pay a buck. With nerves serrated and less than enthusiastic about facing Baltimore and Washington – equal versions of what they had faced in Philly and Wilmington – Barbara suggested they leave the freeway.

They found the left turn onto 896 most amiable and took utterly empty back roads all the way down the Eastern Shore to the Bay Bridge. This was the old route – US 50 and 301 through the woods - all the way to Petersburg. Comfort Inn. They could not find a Chinese restaurant in Petersburg. But found very nice chili at Wendy's. And the motel was good, too. No bed bugs, broken shower, or faulty TV. Bob was beginning to look toward sunlit uplands.

But next day, I-95 was a moving jam all the way south. That’s all the way across both Carolinas and coastal Georgia, where they hit another stoppage. Okay, why not try another detour? US 17 through Brunswick and the boondocks to their Kingsland motel, two miles from Florida. But this freeway departure was not quite so amiable. Many slow cars and stop lights. Southern speed traps and bumps. Next day, Saturday, December 30, they left at 6 a.m. to beat the traffic but inched through one more stoppage, and were still home in Lighthouse Point by 11:30, a.m.

Two days later, despite his multiple hand washing, Bob had a fever of 102°. The kinderplague had struck again.