The story of the Night Before Christmas has a local corollary from about 50 years ago. Dick Ethier always said he did a lot of crazy things when he was young and foolish. Then he would add that he was not young any more, as he set about proving the other part of his statement.
One December, Dick put a Christmas tree on the back bumper of his ‘53 Chevy. It was held up with ropes tied to the back door handles. Every time he or one of his friends finished a beer, they’d tie the can to the tree. This was in the days before deposit cans or pop-tops.
Late one night, a cop pulled him over as he drove through Tewksbury. The cop, never identified, evidently did not have the Christmas spirit. He didn’t even ask a question about the tree or the empties. All he said was, “Take it down.”
So Dick untied the ropes from the door handles and the tree fell off the back bumper, with noises you might associate with a tree full of empty beer cans. A couple of lights came on in nearby houses. Was Santa’s sleigh arriving early?
No, it was just a Christmas tree, now on the street, with lots of empty cans.
“Okay, get rid of it,” said the cop, who obviously hadn’t given much to what might happen next.
“Where?” said Dick. Every move of the tree made additional noise, and more lights would come on. With considerable clunking, Dick hauled the tree to the police station and then proceeded on his way.
There wasn’t a thing the cop could get him on. He hadn’t been drinking. There was no beer in the car. The beer cans were just empties, collected over time.
Dick worked for Valley News, the tenant of the Town Crier in the North Wilmington depot. He was quite a sportsman, and was quite fond of hunting and fishing. He and Butch McFeeters would sometimes bring their catch to the Town Crier for a photograph. Dick was also a good ballplayer, and was catcher on several softball teams in Wilmington through the 1960s.
He would often pull pranks on certain people. One of his favorites was Rusty Brabant, who ran the North Wilmington Taxi. Once, Rusty parked his cab so he could go inside the railroad depot. While he was indisposed, Dick removed the distributor rotor from the car. Rusty got back in the car, and of course, it wouldn’t start. Pretty soon, he was chasing Dick around the depot, in one door and out another, yelling and swearing.
Another time, Dick went up on the roof of the depot with a garden hose and waited for Rusty to come out. Same results.
Riding with Dick was always an adventure. Valley News distributed the Boston papers in a five-town area, Wilmington, Tewksbury, Billerica, Burlington and North Reading. One time, Dick was riding in a truck in Burlington. He suddenly yelled, “Stop!” and jumped out of the truck. A minute later, he got back in with a large bullfrog. He took the frog back to the office and put it in a desk drawer. Bookkeeper Don Taylor was quite startled when he opened the drawer.
Dick’s boss, Doug Archibald, known as Archie, had a 1959 Corvette. One day, about 1960, Dick introduced me to what a Corvette could do. I was in the back room at the depot when he came out and said, “Come on. Take a ride.” That usually meant a ride in one of the trucks or in his old Chevy. But that once, he took the Vette. On Route 93, which was newly built and not at all busy, he opened it up. It put me right back in the seat. I looked over at the speedometer, which went up to 160. It read about 120.
A co-worker, Billy, traded in his ‘56 Ford for a little German station wagon, called a Borgward. It was not up to the rigors of newspaper work. There was nobody in Wilmington who could work on it, so Billy had to take it to Newton for service. On a super-cold January day, Dick and I followed him in a 1956 Chevy station wagon. We were bombing down Route 128, trying to keep the Borgward in sight. Then in a construction zone, a cop stepped out and held up his hand. Dick just kept on going, muttering something about not losing sight of Billy. We managed to squeak past a huge earth mover coming down a slope on our right.
The return trip was even worse. We were headed north on 93, going down the big hill just north of 128, doing about 75. Dick was driving, Billy was in the middle, and I was riding shotgun. Billy stomped his left foot on top of Dick’s foot on the gas pedal, saying, “Won’t this thing go any faster?”
“What?” said Dick. “You want to drive?” And he jumped into the back seat. We were still going about 70. Billy slid over and took the wheel.
“It‘s getting hot in here!” he said, and rolled down the window. The temperature outside was in the single numbers.
Dick, in the back seat, wearing a heavy coat, rolled down both back windows.
Then Billy said, “Nah, I don’t want to drive!” He jumped into the back seat. The two of them were sitting there, both freezing, neither wanting to admit it. Mind you, these guys were stone-cold sober.
The only thing moving faster than the car was me as I slid behind the wheel. By then we were passing Concord Street, and the car was starting to wheeze and sputter. It only had a six-cylinder engine, about six years old with pretty high mileage, and it had just had a long, punishing run.
By the time we turned off at Route 62, I was wondering if the car was going to make it. It wasn’t rapping, but the motor was definitely sick. After a left turn off the exit ramp and a slight rise over the overpass, the road back to the office was mostly downhill.
I parked in the North Wilmington parking lot. The motor was smoking and the car smelled like burned oil. I don’t think it ever ran right again.