Wednesday, December 23, 2009

COLUMN: Clutch

My friend Linn is a Christmas fun-hater.

Friday afternoon found us as every Friday afternoon does: under the I-74 bridge, in the back booth at Ross' Restaurant, sharing our relatively mundane tales o' the week. This week's primary topic: the holiday season.

I confess to a great child-like love of the magic of Christmas. I want to see my breath through falling snow while hearing jingle bells and smelling chestnuts. I want the smiles on children's faces as they see the tree atop Kone Tower. I want twinkling lights on houses, cold air upon my face, and to feel -- if only for a moment -- that everything is undeniably right in the world.

Linn's not having any of it.

"Look," she said, "don't get me wrong. I like giving presents and I like getting presents. But 'Christmas magic' stops when you turn twelve and you can't ever get it back." And with that, all the Whos down in Whoville could pretty much bite it.

But I wasn't one to give up. Not optimistic Shane. My girlfriend Amy and I are on a quest this year to rediscover the magic of Christmas, no matter how many festivals of trees, lights, and/or Victorian walks it takes. I'm proving my friend wrong, and with any luck, I'll make her eat her words AND the roast beast. Of course, she's vegetarian, so it might have to be a tofu beast.

It started last Saturday night. Every year, East Peoria takes one of their city parks and turns it into a holiday wonderland of lights, floats, elaborate displays, and merriment aplenty. Amy and I had exactly 4.5 hours to get down there, soak it all in, and get back in time for my weekend DJ gig. I went to their website for directions.

"From Decatur: ... From LaSalle/Peru: ... From Champaign: ... From Springfield: ... From Chicago: ..."

Hmm. Apparantly if you're from the Quad Cities, East Peoria doesn't care how you arrive.

What East Peoria's website SHOULD have said was this: "Directions - go to East Peoria. Look for the tallest hill you can find. See the infinite line of barely-moving vehicles crawling up it. Go to the end and pray you see lights prior to death from old age." I'm not kidding when I tell you the line of cars was roughly 3 miles long, and moving at a pace that made me jealous of snails.

"It's okay," I told myself, "we've got thirty minutes. I'm sure it's just around this next bend." It wasn't.

Meanwhile, let's talk about the car behind me in line. Well, it wasn't a car so much. More like one of those jacked up monster truck-a-majigs. All I could see in my back window was a giant grill and a forboding Dodge Ram logo. And the guy was riding my bumper like our cars were connected. Did I mention that we were in MY car, a stick-shift? And did I mention that we were in stop-and-go traffic up a 30 percent grade epic hill? The next twenty minutes were spent revving my engine to not slide back and have a Dodge Ram logo forever imprinted in the back of my skull.

Then I smelled it. And it wasn't chestnuts. More like toxic death. It was, in fact, my clutch screaming for help. We were out of time, my car was critical, and we had to get home.

Thankfully, Amy understood. We found a turnabout and pulled in.

"Ooooh, look!" Amy exclaimed, "You can see the festival! I'm taking a picture!"

Sure enough, through the trees lurked the East Peoria Festival of Lights. Or what I could make of it. There was a float of some kind, and loads of pretty lights, but I couldn't make out what I was staring at. Amy jumped out of the car with her camera and took photographic evidence of the display we had driven two hours to see... a dinosaur butt.

That's right, the well-lit rump of what appeared to be a triceratops. Which, from our angle, looked more like a big lump of lights. Sigh.

We got back on the interstate and out of Peoria with JUST enough time to get me to work. Which would have been swell, had my clutch not disintegrated 30 minutes later.

If you're wondering, folks, where the magic of Christmas lies, I can now safely tell you all that it is NOT alongside the shoulder of Interstate 74 ten miles east of Galesburg. I checked. Then I swore. I swore a lot. I swore so much that I'm pretty sure I'm on Santa's naughty list for the rest of my life. I swore so much that all the Whos down in Whoville will be in therapy for the next decade.

Then I calmed down and called for a tow. It turns out that there's only one tow company in Galesburg my insurance company relies on, and I had the pleasure of breaking down during their annual Christmas party. Instead, my tow had to come from someplace that I think was called Bobby Joe's. Or Billy Bob's. Or Bubba Boy's. Or Baba Booey's. The point is, they were located in... East Peoria.

That's right, I had to call a tow truck in Peoria -- to come get my car in Galesburg -- and drive it to Moline. Deck my tow truck driver's halls with gobs of money, fa la la la la. Oh, and a 70 minute ETA.

You know what's good about growing up in Galesburg? My parents still live there. In fifteen minutes, Ma and Pa Brown were there in multiple rescue vehicles. It was decided that my folks would wait for the tow while my girlfriend and I raced to Rock Island in the family mini-van. All that to only be TWO HOURS LATE for work.

Thanks to my comrade Jeff James for covering in the DJ booth those two hours. Thanks to my parents for gallantly rescuing us. Thanks to Bobby Billy Bubba Joe Boy Booey for the longest tow he's had to do in a while. Thanks to Precision Auto for what I seriously hope won't be a price quote that kills all Christmas joy (they're estimating as I type.) Thanks to Amy for being an understanding girlfriend, and to Amy's grandma for the short-term loaner car that's getting us around this week. And thanks to Linn, for helping me realize that the magic of Christmas isn't in a tree or a light or a dinosaur butt, but in the people we surround ourselves with at the holiday season. Happy Christmas, everyone. Now get back to shopping. Time's a-wastin'.

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