Loader Santa and the 1970 Datsun – My New Year's Christmas Story


Not a long ago, I watched Smoke, the charming 1995 movie based on Paul Auster’s writings and featuring Harvey Keitel in the role of a tobacco shop owner. The film ends on a definite high note, with William Hurt writing a Christmas story based on the possibly made up on the spot account of Christmas Eve, 1976, called Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story.

Here’s mine. It might even all be true, you know. Would I make it all up just to fill a scheduling slot? Still, here goes.

I met Santa Claus, curiously, at New Year’s Eve. Perhaps you could say he had already returned to his day job, so it kind of makes sense. But a wet and watery Holiday season still required his presence even after Christmas.

It started with a phone call as I was browsing furniture more expensive than I could easily afford, more expensive than some of the cars I have bought and sold. “Remember that Datsun I had been talking about”, said the voice on the line. “Got anything to do on Tuesday? We could go pick it up then, from the old owner.” I considered my calendar, remembered I had made only vague plans about New Year’s Eve, and agreed on a whim. Fast forward to said Tuesday and I was on the passenger seat of a loaned Ford Transit, while it was still somewhat light outside. We made good progress in the slush, heading north with a trailer hooked up to the Transit. Over here, in the end of December, it gets dark by three in the afternoon so we had to be quick.

A rock chip on the windshield sort of started the chain of events, set us up on a certain note. “Damn it!” said the piloting friend, “I’ll have to mention that to the guy who loaned this. The screen’s already cracked, but still. No matter even if we got this with the tank dry as a desert.” We had had an easier time transporting my 1986 Polo with him, as it was quite a bit closer and the weather wasn’t as miserable then. I hadn’t mentioned my NYE plans, since I thought this would be a quick-ish job and I’d be back home in a whim.

As we got to the old man’s house, a sort of dilapidated two-story wooden building, it was already dimmer, with the slush turning to drizzling rain. We reversed the Transit-trailer combination to the yard and knocked on the door. No answer: the man who had agreed to get rid of his old Datsun was gone. “We need to start working anyway, it’s no use if we return empty-handed.” We walked to the garage door at the end of the adjacent building that looked as wet as my woolly gloves. “Will you promise me you won’t laugh when I open the door?” “Sure.” We cleared the door, pulled away a little trailer filled with dead remains of bicycles and assorted crap. The door was opened. I wasn’t laughing.

I only saw a small sliver of light blue metal and a little chrome. Somewhere under there was a 1970 Datsun, buried under years and years of garbage and unnecessary stuff. Plastic oil canisters. Mattresses. Light fixtures. Televisions. You name it, it was there and it was useless. We picked up some of the stuff and laid it aside, so we could free the Datsun from it’s 20-year or longer hibernation.

As we moved the things off the car one by one and managed to get the nose of the car visible, I asked what kind of car the owner drives. “A Nissan Almera”, said my friend, with two empty oil canisters in his hands. After seeing ten Almeras I stopped counting, it seemed like the slumbery town only had old Almeras driving around. Eventually the old man came home, and laughingly asked whether we had come to pick up his car already. “I thought you wouldn’t come on New Year’s Eve…” It was only then they started talking about money. In the back of his mind, my cheap car collecting friend had hoped he would be able to pick the redundant old Datsun up for just a song, but it wasn’t happening. “Give me something at least”, the old man said. “50?”, the first attempt was made. “Nah.” “100?” A long pause. “Give me a half more and it’s yours.” They shook hands on it and we could continue unearthing the car. “There, 150 euros received their wings”, my friend muttered. He was probably satisfied, since that still counts as cheap.

After half an hour’s work, the old car was visible and cleared. Despite all the stuff loaded on it for years and years, the metal and paint was straight and true. It was a rare enough thing: a 1200 wagon you just don’t see anymore, and they weren’t super-common in their day anyway. It had been jammed tight in the garage, and above it was a shelf full of lumber that looked perilously close to collapsing. And of course the passenger’s side was almost touching the shelf’s support beam.

We strapped the front axle to the Transit’s tow bar and slowly started pulling it away. The Datsun’s ancient tires were the emptiest thing on the vicinity, and it became apparent the brakes had seized sometime in the last century. Pushed, it would not budge, and pulling it only moved it five centimeters at a time. All the while moving it closer to the lumber shelf’s support, because we had to pull at the car at an angle. And it was getting darker outside.

Slowly, what seemed like an inch at a time, the Datsun moved out from what had been its lair for years. We banged on the wheels with the largest hammer we could find, but the brakes would not free. The Transit started to dig trenches in the ground under its front wheels, and we had to change towing angles to make any progress. The support beam was strengthened with a piece of wood, but I still didn’t feel comfortable standing under or around it.

After what felt like an eternity, we got the Datsun out, the wheels still steadfastly immobile. The car dug long trails on the ground behind it, as we got it to a position we could attempt to get it on the trailer. But in all honesty, it was an impossible task. With the car not rolling, there just wasn’t a way we could safely try to pull it on the trailer that evening. It felt like it all was a mess, nothing was happening, and the humble old Datsun would end up ruined by our efforts. The support beam had already lightly scratched some of the paint despite our efforts, and trying to work up a kludge just wouldn’t end well. And by now it was blocking the driveway. And we couldn’t return the next day or the following weekend.

My friend thought for a minute. “Know anyone with a wheeled loader”, he asked the old man. “A WHEELED LOADER”, he had to repeat as the man was clearly in his eighties and hard of hearing. “Sure, there’s a guy on the other side of the town. You could probably ask him.” We made a few feeble attempts at winching the car on, but someone had stolen the handle of the manual winch on the trailer and it was as useless as ever.

We retreated to the Transit, wet and cold, and decided to drive to the loader man, whoever it would be.

The lights were on at the loader man’s lot, and the electric gate slowly whizzed open for us. Perhaps our late-model Transit didn’t look too dodgy. A well-built, amiable-looking man with a white beard was standing at the hangar door. If he wasn’t Santa, he could very well play one at the drop of a hat – he would make a far more believable one than half of the mall Santas I’ve seen. “What’s on your mind?” he chuckled when the Transit’s window was rolled down. “We have a little problem. We bought a car and we can’t get it on the trailer. The brakes are jammed.” He looked incredulous. “Well, that’s not a problem at all, with the loader I have. Just recently I picked up a dead Saab with my four-meter spike. Come on in for some lemonade and we’ll talk it over.”

Inside the hangar, around a table with lemonade poured into plastic cups and some biscuits offered at us, the Santa-lookalike laughed as he recounted tales of how he had easily lifted immovable-looking cars in and around the town. “I’ve done this business for forty years.. the stuff you see. And my wife won’t come to these premises, so I get to work in peace and quiet here.” I noticed a familiar-looking, orange Citroën 2CV parked inside the hangar for the winter, next to some RV:s. “I rent the space for people who need to bring in their vehicles for the winter, too. There are some government boats in here as well.”

After Loader Santa had moved a container with the apparent ease of his sturdy JCB loader, he followed us back to the house, with the Datsun standing in the rain, the dust on its flanks almost washed away by now. The trailer was hooked back on the Transit and towed a bit further away. Loader Santa aimed the machine’s lifting spike under the Datsun with his 40-year skill.

What happened was a sight of wonder and amazement. In the JCB’s floodlights, the wet Datsun slowly rose up into the air and flew away from the yard that had housed it for such a long time. Drizzly rain danced in the JCB’s light pattern and it all reminded me of Jurassic Park’s opening scene with the raptor container for some weird 1993 reason in the back of my mind. In slow motion, the Datsun found its resting place on the Transit’s trailer, not before the underbody had been examined with a flashlight, since it was conveniently hoisted up anyway. It had surface rust but it was all solid, a definitely decent buy. With a little but not overdone restoration it would make an exceptional addition to anybody’s cheap car collection, with the brakes freed up and the engine examined and overhauled. We strapped up the Datsun onto the trailer, breathing a sigh of relief.

My friend paid Loader Santa a 20 euro bill, a piffling amount for the work done especially on New Year’s Eve in complete darkness on such short notice, but it was all he wanted for his trouble. We thanked him and made sure the Datsun was properly secured, with some townsfolk appearing out of nowhere to ogle at the purchase. “Isn’t it a Datsun? And a wagon? Where did you find this?” We waved goodbye to the car’s old owner, up to that point the only owner, and drove away, the blue Datsun making its first journey anywhere in ages.

I was dropped off at the local supermarket parking lot, where my BMW stood as my girlfriend had driven there to pick up some supplies for the evening’s festivities, which we made in time. As I sat on a friend’s couch, opened up a cold bottle of Sam Adams’s Boston Lager and poured it in a glass, I wondered what on earth had just happened. Was it all a Christmas miracle in the end? For what it’s worth, I didn’t hear a Tom Waits soundtrack.

[Copyright 2014 Hooniverse/Antti Kautonen]

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