The segment of favorite Christmas memories on the Today Show made me reminisce about my favorite holiday escapades, none of which seem normal, healthy or safe by today’s standards.
Top of my list is the winter of 1975. My husband and I and our three small children were traveling like gypsies about the southern United States in a 1949 Mac bus that we had converted to a home-away-from-home by means of removing the seats and decorating it like a house. It was marvelously comfortable with an oriental carpet, a mohair sofa and an antique propane gas heater. We had curtains and beds and a perfectly suitable kitchen. Our cruise control was a broom handle my husband jammed between the dash and gas pedal. I sat next to him as he drove, perched on a kitchen stool on the top step of the folding door entrance.
The weather was balmy and breezy; a welcome change from the snow in New York as we rumbled along Route 10 through Pascagoula and Biloxi. We were stunned by hurricane-ravaged mansions in Gulfport. Our first look at New Orleans was thrilling. Baton Rouge was beautiful. Before we got to Beaumont, Texas, all three kids had come down with chickenpox.
We headed south to Brownsville via Route 59, the most desolate, flat stretch of road I’ve ever seen. Our only breaks were occasional pit stops at rest areas where poisonous snake warnings scared us so bad we carried the kids to the restrooms. We stopped alongside the road to cut down a short, scraggly pine for our Christmas tree.
On Christmas Eve we crossed the Los Indios International Bridge from Brownsville into Matamoros, Mexico. In Matamoros traffic was stationary. The roads were parking lots of merrymakers. We inched our way in that lumbering bus past tiny cars, bicycles and pedestrians until we saw an opportunity to break out of line by turning down a side road. The street was narrow, the corner tight. People jammed the sidewalks making it difficult to maneuver the right-hand turn.
Halfway through the turn the mass of folks on the corner stepped back to reveal what must have once been a sign post. All that remained was the twisted, broken four foot high steel pole that caught the rear door of our bus and ripped it off with a screech of metal that silenced several hundred revelers for the space of a heartbeat.
Our bus was impaled. Toys fell from where they had been hidden in the rear bench seat through the gaping hole onto the sidewalk where they were immediately pounced upon. Folks started fighting each other for the privilege of reaching into the exposed interior of our home-away-from-home and grabbing anything they could touch. Only the fact my husband was about a foot taller than most of them, and he carried a big stick (our cruise control) kept them at bay long enough for him to rock that bus free, grab our mangled door and skedaddle.
We headed for a barren field where we parked the bus as the sun was sinking. To the right, in the far distance, we could barely see the ambient glow of Matamoros. To the left, lights glimmered from a lone house about a quarter of a mile away. Music, interspersed with celebratory gunshots and the sounds of revelry drifted faintly across the dark field from the house.
I was suitably impressed when my hero duct-taped the door to the bus as best he could. Twilight disappeared. Stars lit the heavens. We turned on the transistor radio and listened to Christmas music in Spanish as we hung ornaments on the tree in our brightly-lit bus. We were anxious to get our scabby little kids to sleep so we could bring out what remained of their presents to wrap.
But the shots got closer. And through the darkness we saw a group of men coming across the field towards our bus, which must have looked like a Boeing 747, all lit up, sitting in the middle of about a hundred bare acres. The men got nearer. The shots got louder. Their voices got angrier.
“Honey,” I said. “I think we should vamanos!” And so we did. We shut off the lights, started that bus and took off so fast the tree fell over and ornaments and kids tumbled around the floor as we bumped our way through that field towards the lights of Matamoros. It wasn’t enough to get out of the field. We wanted out of Mexico.
We made our way back to Brownsville where we spent the rest of Christmas Eve in a campground that was so full, they had us parked in yet another field. We righted the tree and re-hung the ornaments. Afterwards, we stuffed ourselves on corn-husk-wrapped enchiladas we bought from an old Mexican peddler. Then we tucked in the kids and settled down to wrap their presents and enjoy the remainder of one of the most memorable Christmas Eves we would ever experience.
We went back into Mexico on Christmas Day and spent the next few weeks having insanely exhilarating adventures on that bus. The only token I still have from that escapade is a tiny straw hat I keep in my jewelry box.
To this day, the aroma of diesel fuel sends me into a transcendental state.
Happy Holidays, Blessed Christmas and a Prosperous New Year!