Uncle Squeaky and the Blizzard of ’78

by

Jim Kolesar

 

Uncle Frederick Fuchs.  Yeah, I remember him.  But nobody could pronounce his last name when he came to Elburn, so they’d just call him Uncle Fred, or Uncle Freddie.  He wasn’t really related to anyone in town, so I’m really not sure why we called him Uncle anything.  Course, when I knew him, people called him Squeaky.  Reason being, he used to carry around a small bottle of WD-40, this metallic lubricant that people used to smooth out squeaks and quiet noises down with.  If there was a squeak, or a grind of some kind, you’d just ask Squeaky.  He’d fix it.  Fix it like new. 

Well, it was winter 1978, the worst snowstorm I ever seen.  Definitely the worst Elburn’s ever seen.  Closed school down for a whole week.  So counting the weekends, we got nine days off.  Reason they closed the school was that the buses wouldn’t start.  Or they’d start, but no one wanted to drive them on the roads.  Randall Road in particular.  Randall Road went out of town and climbed the biggest hill in Elburn.  The hill that separated the rich kids from the poor kids.  So, the bus drivers, who were for the most part poor, weren’t the least bit disappointed not to work that day.  They never really said anything, but I knew they didn’t care too much for most of the rich kids.  Reason I know this, one time, Delilah Pan, this black bus driver who drove us to school in the mornings, some afternoons, but mostly mornings, couldn’t get Margaret Mays to stop crying one day.  Delilah had this little metal box, like a radio clipped to her belt, with a wire that went into her blouse through the space between the buttons. I never asked her where the wire went, but she said it helped her heart stay happy.  She even wrote the words “Mr. Happy” on the outside of the radio with an indelible marker.  Well, Margaret used to sit directly behind Delilah, so she could watch the speedometer and tell Delilah not to go over forty or she’d tell her daddy.  Her daddy was a Lawyer in Elburn.  Kenny Flaghart was pinching Margaret the whole ride back, and she was crying louder and louder, right into Delilah’s ear.  Delilah kept fidgeting with the knobs on Mr. Happy, leaning forward and clenching her teeth.  Didn’t matter how many times Delilah told her to be quiet, Margaret just cried louder and higher in pitch.  Then, when Margaret was getting off the bus at her stop, old Delilah Pan waited until the last second and slammed the gate door shut, just before she was off.  Clipped Margaret’s leg right at the knee.  I was still on the bus when the ambulance came.  I’ve never heard anyone scream that loud before.  At least, not a person.  Some animals on our farm would squeal and cry right before daddy would chop their heads off, but Margaret, I thought was the loudest I’ve heard.  Ever.  Everyone on the bus just stopped what they were doing and didn’t say anything.  It was like I had earplugs on, and I felt like I ate something really bad and had to throw up right then and there.  This burning liquid creeped up my throat and just stopped, afraid to go  any further.  Well, Delilah told the police that the door got jammed, and she was distracted by the kids all hollering in the back of the bus.  But the paramedic who found Margaret’s knee-cap twenty feet from the bus, in the Jenkin’s front yard, had a different idea of what happened.  So Delilah and Mr. Happy lost their jobs that day, and Margaret May got her knee-cap sewed-in and came back to school the following week.  But she walked real funny ever since.  Not even Squeeky could have fixed that.

 The next day, our morning route was taken over by Squeaky’s wife, or wife-to-be I guess, Haddy Mouwth.  Not “mouth,” like on your face, but m-o-u-w-t-h.  Haddy was our afternoon bus driver sometimes, but now she was our full-time morning driver.  Haddy and Squeaky were supposed to get married in the spring, as soon as they saved enough money between them.  Reason I know this, is that ours is the first farm on the pick-up for school, which means I gotta get up a half hour earlier that Johnny Morton, who’s the last stop.  So I get ten minutes of listening to Haddy talk about her and Squeaky before we make it to the next stop and pick up Deenah Potts.  So I sit back and stare out the window as Haddy tells me about their plans for the future, and how she’s gonna stop driving buses soon, cause she wants kids and all.  She’d always start by telling me how she had to shake Squeaky over and over to get him up, then what she’d make for breakfast, and how she’d leave and he’d still be in bed.  She called him a lydock, but I never knew what that meant.  Squeaky didn’t have to be up until eight o’clock, and be at work down at the Mill until nine-thirty.  I wanted to work at the Mill so I could sleep until eight o’clock.  My dad told me laborers only worked there, and that I should go to college so I could do something better with my life.  Haddy wasn’t ashamed or anything about Squeaky’s job.  In fact, she said he had the most important job at the Mill.  Squeaky’s job was to sweep all the floors between shifts.  And the floor at the Mill had to be spotless, or one of the machines could suck-up a wood chip or a screw, which could make them shut down, maybe even break.  So Squeaky, in a round-about-way, kept the Mill from breaking down, just like he’d stop a squeak or a metal grinding noise with the WD-40 he kept in his pocket.

 Well, early that morning on the first day of the blizzard, Haddy probably made breakfast while Squeaky just slept as usual.  See, I only know the facts after this point from Mr. Potts.  He’s the editor at the Elburn Herald, our town’s newspaper.  He’s friends with my daddy.  I heard them talk about it one night while they smoked their pipes out on the porch.  “Not for anyone’s eyes,” I remember him tell daddy.  “Not even the Lord’s.”

 Most of the bus drivers didn’t know that school was going to be closed that day, including Haddy Mouwth.  She walked out her front door at 7:15am, like she always did, leaving Squeaky’s breakfast on the table, with another plate covering it to keep it warm.  She got into her bus and warmed it up for five minutes, like she always did, and backed out and drove down the road.  And like she always did, she looked in the rear-view to wave goodbye to the house, but because the snow was falling so thick, she couldn’t see more than ten feet behind her.  More importantly, she couldn’t see Squeaky chasing after the bus, calling out her name and waving his hands.  While Haddy was warming up the bus, Squeaky got a call from the school board, telling Haddy not to pick up the children because school was going to be closed.  He chased her a quarter mile away from the house, but soon ran out of breath.  Haddy always complained that he smoked too much.  Mr. Potts said it wasn’t so much the slick roads that caused the bus to skid down the hill, but rather the inability of the hydraulic cylinder that’s connected to the brake pedal, to send enough fluid to the calipers, to squeeze the rotors that stop the bus.  After the story ran in the paper, I asked Bob Wenders, the mechanic down at Stewey’s Service Shop, how brakes were supposed to work.  I didn’t know, and unfortunately, Squeaky didn’t either.

 See, the day before the blizzard started, Haddy complained to Squeaky that her brake pedal was really hard to push down, and that it would sound like metal grinding on metal.  Squeeky was racing outside with his WD-40 before Haddy finished her sentence.  He was out there, upside-down, poking around under the dashboard for hours.  After he was finished, he’d made it so that pedal would push easier than pressing your finger into a stick of warm butter.  The metal grinding noise was gone, but so was the connection between the pedal shaft and the hydraulic cylinder.  Squeaky put so much WD-40, the two disconnected everytime you pushed down on the pedal.  Especially when Haddy pumped the brakes going down the snow-covered hill-pass, out where the rich kids lived.  She pushed so hard, the pedal snapped off, just like the trees and bushes that were mowed down by the sharp edge of the bottom of the bus as she skidded sideways down the hill.  I saved the picture in my scrapbook.  It’s black and white, but you can see how the bus wrapped itself around the telephone pole like a boomerang.  It pinned her like a smushed sandwich between the shattered windshield frame, and the metal safety-pole behind her seat.  They put that pole there to act as a kind of guardrail between her and the kids’ seats.  The bar was supposed to save the kids in the event of a collision.  I remember it had a little sticker on it that said “Safety First.”  But it didn’t save any kids that morning.  All it did was stick out of the left side of Haddy’s stomach like a huge broken pencil.  It took three fireman to yank the pole out from her gut, and they had to leave a section of the windshield in her throat, because they thought it would stop the blood from leaking out all at once.

 They were right about the windshield.  Her blood didn’t leak out in the bus, but it did in the ambulance.  Haddy Mouwth died on the way to the hospital.  She wasn’t a bus driver anymore.  I’d never see her again.  She’d never see me either, or the kids she wanted to have with Squeaky, the husband she’d never marry.  Mr. Potts told daddy that the little bits of shattered glass from the windshield were sprayed into her eyes, so she couldn’t see.  And with her throat filled with the windshield, she couldn’t speak.  I guess she could only hear what was going on around her.  Thirty-eight minutes passed from the time she crashed into the pole to the point where she died in the ambulance.  I wonder if she was listening at all.

 When Squeaky learned about the brakes, he disappeared.  No one saw him in Elburn County for over two weeks.  When I went on my usual route, collecting for the paper, I stopped at Squeaky’s out of habit.  I almost turned around when I saw that the door was opened a little.  I gave it a push, and it swung open with such grace, just gliding on the hinges without a squeak, creak or grind.  It was silent.  And so was Squeaky’s body, lying face-down in the living room, with a bottle of WD-40 in his hand.  The lubricant had a very special smell to it, like stale beer when a little is left at the bottom of a can, and it lingers in the air.  The smell was all over the room, but strongest at his mouth and fingernails.  He must have drank the entire bottle, or what was left, because even his skin smelled like it.

 As I waited for the ambulance, I smelled the WD-40 all over, and followed the scent to each place it was the strongest.  The hinges on the front door first.  I noticed a small pool of lubricant that collected on the hardwood floor below the bottom hinge.  Then the living room doors.  A pool collected by its hinges too.  Every door in fact, had these little pools of WD-40 lubricant under the hinges.  Then I started to notice the little pools all over the house.  Wherever there was a hinge, it was accompanied by a little pool.  One hundred thirty-nine little pools to be exact.  I pictured Squeaky, locked in his house for two weeks, spraying WD-40 on every crack and metal connection he could find, thinking about Haddy and the brakes.  Haddy and the hill.  Haddy and the hill and the brakes and the telephone pole.  And boomerangs and hinges and chasing the bus down the street, a quarter mile down the street.  Too much snow, too many cigarettes.  Too much WD-40.  Too much on Haddy’s brakes, and too much in Squeaky’s stomach.

  THE END


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