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The Complete Idiot's Christmas

Christmas Eve, 1970. My husband and I are leaving his mother’s house on Long Island and heading to visit his dad in Hartford. We load the German shepherd and Beagle in the back seat and the gifts in the trunk and fire up the Volkswagen for the final leg of our holiday journey.

We've just passed through the first toll booth when, accelerating, Seth utters an expletive. “What’s wrong?” I ask.

“The clutch just broke,” he says. “We’ll have to pull off and see if we can get some help. I don’t know if anything’ll even be open at this hour on Christmas Eve. What a bummer.”

Emergency flashers blinking, we limp to the nearest exit and pull off onto a side road. Seth tells me to wait in the car; he’ll go look for a gas station. I watch him disappear down the deserted street.

In the car the temperature drops, the windows fog, the dogs whine and fidget in the back seat. I try to quiet the them and calm my own growing anxiety. What if Seth can't find help? Will we spend Christmas Eve huddled in our Volkswagen? And what about his dad? How will we notify him?

A police cruiser drives by, turns on its flashing blue lights, and stops. An officer gets out, hitches up his heavy belt, and approaches my side of the car. I roll down the window. He asks what's going on and I tell him about the breakdown and my husband’s search for help. He shakes his head.

“He ain’t gonna find no help tonight. It’s Christmas Eve. Nothin’s open.”

“Well, what should we do?” I say.

“I donno, but you can’t stay here. It’s not safe. You gotta get outta here. Is your door locked? Lock it and when your husband gets back, get outta here. We’ll circle back around in a couple a minutes.”

Seth comes back. No luck finding an open gas station. I tell him what the officer had said.

"We don't want to be here when they come back around," Seth says "I mean, what if they search the car?"

My stomach lurches and I shiver. What can we do?

“Well, I don’t know if it'll help, but for Christmas I bought you a copy of that Volkswagen repair book. You know, the one for complete idiots.”

“You did? Let’s get it out,” Seth says. Running around to the trunk, he pulls the gift out of the pile. Seth rips open the package while I hold the flashlight. There's a goofy guy on the cover driving a cartoonish Beetle. The title reads How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Complete Idiot. Seth scans the table of contents, and sure enough, there's the information we need. While I hold the flashlight, Seth reads aloud the step by step instructions for driving a Volkswagen with a broken clutch.

“Nothing to it,” he says. “Let’s see if it works.”

It works. Beautifully. Soon we're on our way, accelerating until the engine revs to a certain point, then jamming the stick into the next gear. We don't dare stop at the many toll booths along the way, we just sail through, tossing our quarters into the bins, and laughing all the way to Hartford.

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