By Greg Clark, December 12, 1936
“Let’s see,” said Jimmie Frise, “how long is it to Christmas?”
“Yes,” I said scornfully, “how long have we left to be hard boiled and grasping and normal and natural until the one brief day when we are filled with sweetness and light?”
“Oh, hold on,” protested Jimmie. “The spirit of Christmas is a little wider than that I can feel the Christmas spirit now. You begin to feel it even in November. And I am sure it sort of lingers through until about the second of January.”
“It seems dreadful to me,” I declared, “that we should segregate our better feelings into certain times and seasons. Patriotism on July first. The spiritual at Easter. Moving on May first. Marriages in June. Why should we concentrate all our tenderest sentiments at the one Christmas season?”
“Thank heavens,” said Jim. “there are seasons that inspire us. I begin to get the Christmas urge along about now. I find myself looking tenderly at my family. I note a certain generosity in my handouts to bums. A mysterious expectation begins to stir in me, as if something very beautiful and unexpected but highly deserved might happen to me.”
“Personally,” I stated, “I feel pretty normal until about five p.m. Christmas Eve. That is about the time the family expects me to carry the Christmas tree in from the back yard and make it stand up in the living room. I guess it must be the sentimental smell of the evergreens. But about five p.m. the Christmas spirit hits me with a bang.”
“How long does it last?” asked Jim.
“It’s almost unbearable by midnight Christmas Eve,” I admitted, “when I find myself sneaking in for the fourth or even the fifth time to peek at the kids asleep. It lasts all Christmas morning and right through Christmas dinner, which is about one o’clock noon. But by four p.m. Christmas Day I’m pretty well over it. I’m sound and sane again by, say, five p.m.”
“That’s twenty-four hours,” figured Jim.
“Yeah,” I said, “by five p.m. Christmas Day I’m my old practical self once more. I’m through with nonsense. I want all the colored paper picked up. I want the toys and presents carried to their proper rooms and put away. I want the electric trains and that sort of junk removed from the living room floor and taken to the attic where they belong for the remainder of their life. I want a little quiet and peace in the house and I send the neighbor kids home.”
“By five p.m.?” said Jim.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m pretty average.”
“It seems a pity,” sighed Jim, “that when we are aware of the Christmas spirit we don’t seize on it and hold it all the time. I mean, if we were ignorant of the possibilities of human nature it wouldn’t be so bad. But when we DO know about Christmas how is it we willingly surrender that knowledge? It’s like knowing about sunshine, like knowing about a day in early June, with the sun glowing like a dream and everything green and lovely and the last iris on the stems and the first roses blooming and then deliberately choosing to have a day in November.”
Aching To Do Good Deeds
“As regards the Christmas spirit,” I said, “human nature is sound. It knows there are days in June and also days in November.”
“Are we never to do anything,” cried Jimmie passionately, “about human nature?”
“You can’t change human nature,” I pointed out, “any more than you can change oak nature or horse nature.”
“We’ve done something with horse nature,” said Jim, “and I don’t doubt we could do things with oak nature if it was worth the trouble.”
“But human nature,” I explained, “is tougher. Nobody has ever done anything with human nature yet.”
“The Christmas spirit,” cried Jimmie, as we sailed along the gravel highway, “is on me. I feel like doing glad and kindly deeds. I am prepared to think you are a merry and artless little man. If I were to see some poor old man carrying a bundle along this cheerful country road I would be inclined to stop the car and give him a lift.”
“The bundle,” I said, “would probably contain something loose and smelly.”
“Or if,” cried Jimmie, “I were to see a farmer along here stumping or maybe lifting big stones on to a stoneboat I’d be inclined to stop and help him.”
“We’ve got a two-hour drive to Toronto,” I warned him.
“I need,” said Jim loudly, “to do a good deed. I feel I will have bad luck if I don’t do a good deed. Something dark will befall me if I fail to live up to this feeling in me.”
“The good deed you can do,” I informed him, “is attend to your driving and spare my nerves by not weaving all over this gravel. That would be a kindness.”
But Jimmie was turning his gaze eagerly from side to side, looking for something to vent his goodwill upon. In the broad farm country there was nothing to see.
“A fence I could mend,” he was muttering. “Anything at all. A kind deed, in the name of Christmas.”
Ahead a car was standing by the roadside and, as we drove near, Jim let out a shout of joy.
The hood of the car was lifted. And nobody was in sight.
“Here’s the answer to my prayer,” said Jimmie, stopping opposite the derelict and shutting off the engine.
“What are you going to do?” I demanded. “It’s four o’clock and we said we’d be home for dinner.”
“Some poor fellow,” cried Jimmie, switching off his overcoat and digging into the pocket of the car door for an old pair of cotton work gloves he always carries there, “some poor fellow has gone for help, and it’s three or four miles to the next village. When he gets back his car will be fixed.”
“Don’t be fool, Jim,” I protested. “Maybe he doesn’t want anybody tinkering with his engine.”
But Jimmie had walked back to the other car and started his inspection.
“O.K.,” he called “He’s left his key in it. Just as I expected. Some gentle, innocent fellow, with no knowledge of mechanics.”
I got out and joined him.
“We’ve no time to waste,” I declared.
“It won’t take me five minutes,” said Jim. “You know me, I’ve owned all the crocks that are made. What I don’t know about engines hasn’t been invented yet.”
“It may be some serious injury,” I warned him. “Like the rear end gone or something. You might only wreck it.”
The Role of Unknown Friend
Jim got in and stepped on the starter. The starter hummed and turned the engine over. But there was no responding ignition.
“There you are,” cried Jim gaily. “Ignition. Or dirty points. Or carburetor trouble. I’ll find it in two shakes.”
“I wish you’d leave it alone,” I insisted.
But as he went to work with his wrench, taking out plugs and examining them, and rapidly checking over the wiring, he told me:
“If he isn’t back by the time I’m done, I’ll fasten down the hood again and leave a note. ‘Fixed. With the compliments of an unknown friend.’ Can you imagine the feelings of the man?”
“Suppose,” I asked, “he has gone and got a garage man? Suppose they come away out here in a tow truck? What will the feelings of the garage man be?”
“This car,” said Jimmie, “bears every evidence of belonging to a poor man, a man who cannot afford to hire tow trucks. I think he is more likely in one of those farm houses ahead, asking some farmer to come back and help him.”
“Hurry up,” I urged him. “It’s four-fifteen.”
So Jim wrenched and examined. He tested all the plugs and all the wiring. He removed the carburetor, cleaned it and put it back. I sat in the car, and as each step in the overhaul was completed, Jimmie asked me to step on the starter and see if she responds. But she did not respond.
“I would also say,” said Jim, resting his back, that this car belonged to a careless, happy-go-lucky man. Probably a very lovable type of person. Everything is neglected. The plugs were filthy. The wiring is almost rotten.”
Carefully adjusting the mixture on the carburetor, he asked me to step on her again. I did so.
“Jim,” I cautioned him. “I think by the sound of it this battery is getting weak. We’d better not do much more stepping on it.”
“Oh, it’s all right,” he said, bending into the vitals again.
He checked the starter connections and the timing. He followed all through the battery connections and removed and cleaned the terminals, which were caked with green corrosion. I stepped on it, still it wouldn’t go.
“Jim, this battery is certainly getting weak,” I insisted, “Let’s get going. You’ve done enough. You’ve done your best.”
“My best, ha?” said Jim, now quite greasy and smudged. “You’ve not seen my best yet, my lad.”
“What are you going to do now?” I begged.
“It may be water in the cylinders,” said Jim, “or leaky gaskets, or it might be the valves so sticky they won’t let go. In any case, off comes the casing.”
“Aw,” I said, getting out and starting to walk up the road in the hope of seeing the owner coming in the distance. But nobody was coming. And no smoke came from any of the chimneys of the distant farms. And no birds or animals or dogs moved.
The Owner Appears
When I got back, Jim had the car practically disemboweled. With the casing removed the valves stuck up black and gummy and decayed-looking Jim was wiping them and feeling under them with a nail file.
“The gasket was entirely worn out and retted,” he said, “He’ll have to have a new gasket anyway.”
“How will he get it?” I inquired. “Walk back for it or will we run his messages?”
“He’ll probably have a garage man with him,” said Jim easily. “I hope he has. What time is it now?”
“Four-fifty,” I said quietly.
“Step on it again.” said Jim
I stepped on it. But nothing happened. The starter suddenly stuck.
“There,” I said, “the battery’s quit.”
“She’ll be all right in a minute or two,” said Jim. “Well, it isn’t the valves and tappets.”
With the big wrench, he began to work on the nuts of the cylinder head.
“Wait a minute, Jim.” I shouted. “That’s a major operation.”
“It will have to be done by somebody,” he replied, with Christian fervor. “And now that I’m at it…”
He bent and swung at the corroded nuts. One by one he loosened them, drawing out the long pins and bolts. One of the corner nuts would not budge. He left it to the last. Then he went back at it with determination. With a grunt, it broke off, level with the top.
“A fine condition to let a car into,” cried Jim, angrily. “Now she is in a mess.”
“Anyway,” I informed him, “here comes somebody.”
Up the road, in the distance, a figure approached. He was carrying, we saw as he neared, a gasoline can. When he saw us at his car, he began to hurry. He was a small man, dark, foreign-looking.
“Hello, vot’s diss?” he called as he hastened towards us.
“We were just seeing if we couldn’t make your engine go for you,” replied Jim, heartily.
“You couldn’t make it go widout gas,” said the gentleman, and then he saw his engine. “Oy, oy, oy, oy!”
“It must be,” said Jim, “water in the cylinders.”
“It’s gas it run out of,” cried the little man, wildly. “And now you got it in pieces.”
“It was in bad shape,” said Jim. “I cleaned up your plugs and points …”
“Bad shape?” wailed the little man. “Bad shape? It was a good car. All she needed is a little gas.”
“She was positively dangerous,” stated Jim, heatedly. “In a dreadful shape.”
No Sense of Gratitude
“Fix her together again,” commanded the little man with sudden angry dignity. “Fix her right away together again.”
He pointed dramatically at the ruin.
“Well,” said Jim.
He tried to screw the cylinder head on but the broken nut at the corner left slight gape that both Jim and I knew would be fatal.
He fastened the lid back over the tappets, but there was no gasket except a few rugged tags of rotted cork. And he knew that would be bad.
Meanwhile the owner poured his can of gasoline into the tank at the back.
“There,” said Jimmie, hopefully, “get in and start her up.”
The stranger got in and stepped on his starter. No response. He trumped and stamped.
“You killed my battery,” he accused angrily, “Crank her.”
He got the crank and handed it to Jimmie. Jim cranked and yanked and swung. No results. The little stranger was getting madder every moment. He rolled his eyes to heaven in helpless expostulation. Jim rested a moment and the stranger leaned out the window:
“What do you want to fiddle with my car anyhow?” he asked
“You wouldn’t understand,” said Jim. “It was just an impulse to do a kindly act.”
“She was running beautiful,” wailed the stranger. “And how she won’t run at all. Crank her again.”
Jim cranked and I cranked, and we adjusted the carburetor and altered the mixture and choked and unchoked.
Suddenly the stranger got out.
“Look,” he said, “I’m a business man. I got business. I’m in a hurry. I tell you I’ll take your car and you take mine. When you got her going bring it here, and get your car back.”
“No you don’t,” said Jimmie.
“No I don’t?” shouted the little man furiously. “I leave my car and go to get some gas. I come back and two…”
“All right, all right,” said Jim. “We’ll drive you back into town and pay for the garage man to come out.”
“I got business,” said the stranger. “It’s me will drive you into town and you come back with the garage man…”
And that’s the way it was, Jimmie going in as a passenger in his own car and returning in half an hour, in the dark, with the tow truck. The garage man towed us in the stranger’s car to his repair shop, refastened the cylinder head, twiddled this and that and cranked her, and away she went. Four dollars.
It was seven p.m.
“Jim,” I said, as we drove carefully homeward in the rickety car, “the least you can do, the Christian thing, would be to have his battery recharged.”
“To heck with him,” said Jimmie “He has no sense of gratitude.”
Editor’s Notes: Some jurisdictions had traditional “moving days” in the past when leases would come due and many people would move. In New York City, it was May first. It was the same in Quebec, until moving day was moved to July first, in 1973. It still exists today.