Toronto Star Wheels

Driving Home for Christmas is a Sentimental Journey

Written by Norris McDonald

Every December, Norris McDonald writes a column of anecdotes, thoughts and memories around a beloved Chris Rea holiday song.

This column originally appeared in Toronto Star Wheels on Dec. 23, 2017

Every December, around this time, I write a column of anecdotes and thoughts and reminiscences built around what I consider the greatest song of the season ever written, Chris Rea’s “Driving Home for Christmas”. So, pour yourself some hot chocolate, put your feet up near the fire, and return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. As is usual, none of the names have been changed.

Driving home for Christmas

I can’t wait to see those faces

I’m driving home for Christmas, yeah

Well, I’m moving down that line

And it’s been so long

But I will be there …

Most of my life has been about driving, in one way or another.

I learned to drive as a child, just by watching my father, John Allan McDonald. I would sit in the back seat of the family car and I would watch his every move, every shift of gear and every turn of wheel, like a hawk. The day I turned 16, I went and got my licence. You could do things like that in those days.

That was in November. We lived in Niagara Falls, and on Christmas Eve about a month later, my Dad let me drive when my mother suggested we go down to look at the lights on the falls. In those days, the 1950s, you didn’t go near them in spring, summer or autumn because thousands of tourists visited each year, and if you somehow got caught up in a traffic jam, it could take you hours to find your way out.

Things — and times — have changed, and those falls aren’t the magnet they once were.

So, I drove us down there, and my Mom and Dad and my sister, Jeanne, and I were standing near the brink of the Horseshoe Falls, right near Table Rock, and the lights were changing from green to red to pink to white, and right then and there, it started to snow. Great, big, fluffy snowflakes were coming down and passing through the beams of light pointed at the falls, and those flakes were red, green, pink and white, too.

I will never forget those snowflakes. It was a serene scene; magical, even.

I don’t think we were ever as emotionally close as a family as we were at that moment, on that night.

Top to toe in tail-lights

Oh, I got red lights on the run

But soon there’ll be a freeway, yeah

Get my feet on holy ground

I was on my third newspaper job in 1964 and working for the long-gone Oakville Daily Journal Record. I had a small apartment in that town above a store at the corner of Lakeshore Rd. and Dunn Ave., and when I say small, I mean small.

One night, two days before Christmas, we had a party in there, and about 50 people showed up, including everybody on the paper: John Strimas, the editor, was there, as was the women’s editor, Jennifer Amore, and five or six others.

The late Benny Grant, who went on to be a copy editor on the Windsor Star and the Toronto Sun (in fact, the Sun used to sponsor a bursary at Ryerson in his name), was on the Journal at the time, and since he couldn’t make it through the mob to get to the front door, decided to stick his head out the one window in the place to get some fresh air. Benny didn’t smoke, although just about everybody else did, and he was suffocating.

So, he pushes up the window and sticks his face out there, and he’s looking around and enjoying breathing when the window comes loose and crashes down on his head. Not wishing to spill his drink, albeit being in some distress, Benny decides it’s best to summon assistance rather than try to rescue himself.

I will never forget him saying, in a very calm voice, “Will somebody please get this window off my head?”

The force of the falling window burst a blood vessel in his left eye, and poor Benny had to walk around with a bloodshot eye for the next month or so. It was not a complete disaster, however, because he had flaming red hair and it was said that Benny’s left eye and his hair were nearly a match, and if anything looked out of place, it was his good eye.

So, I sing for you

Though you can’t hear me

When I get through

And feel you near me

Driving in my car

I’m driving home for Christmas

That was also the night when, after the party finally broke up, reporter Bob Blans “borrowed” one of the company cars, a brand new Ford Fairlane, to go for a drive to “clear his head.” He was heading east on Lakeshore Rd. at or about 3 a.m., when he missed the hard left turn in front of the old B.A. Petroleum Refinery at Clarkson, rolled the car over twice, and hit a transformer pole, knocking out all the power to what was then Toronto Township.

Blans, who, miraculously, was not injured, even though he was knocked clean out of his shoes, had the presence of mind to crawl back into the wreck to retrieve a camera and take a photograph of his own accident. This impressed the investigating OPP officer so much that, while he didn’t charge Blans, he insisted that the reporter promise to write some nice things about the police, if and when he was allowed to return to work.

Strimas, on the other hand, was not impressed. Far from it. “Total wreck,” he kept saying about the car, again and again. A great young editor, who was also a task master (the late Star columnist Jim Travers was among dozens of young journalists who quit the Journal rather than work the 12-hour days required to satisfy the boss), he soon left the newspaper business to go into corporate communications at Northern Telecom.

I look at the driver next to me

And he’s just the same

Just the same

I sing this song

To pass the time away

Driving in my car

Driving home for Christmas

During the Second World War, American GIs were fond of scratching (or painting, or writing — if they had a crayon handy) the expression “Kilroy was here” on just about everything. This was a signal of presence.

So, it’s near the end of May this year, and I’m on a shuttle bus going from the Vancouver airport to a downtown hotel, when Luc-Olivier Chamberland — one of the journalists I’m riding with, who is in deep conversation with another reporter — casually reaches up and almost subconsciously writes with his finger in letters ever-so-small on the felt wall of this luxury bus, near a window: “Big Red was here.”

Well, I’ll be darned, I thought. My suitcase is now an icon.

I know this all needs ‘some ’splainin’. So, I’ll start at the beginning.

The communications staffers at Mercedes-Benz Canada were sitting around one day last spring, talking about what the company could do to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary.

How about a cross-Canada drive, someone suggested?

In as many of our company’s cabriolets as possible, chipped in another.

We would have to go to all 10 of the provinces, said another.

All 10 capitals of those provinces, added another.

And the nation’s capital, too, said yet another.

And so, on May 21, several of those Mercedes-Benz PR people and six journalists gathered in St. John’s, Nfld., for the beginning of what was, for me, one of the highlights of my year, if not my life: a five-day drive (we had to fly some of the way) from Newfoundland west to Vancouver Island. And we did it while driving in a total of eight exquisite Mercedes-Benz cabriolets.

We did it exactly as it had been envisioned. Everything went off without a hitch. The whole thing was just fantastic, and I wrote about it — at length — in the July 1, 2017, issue of Toronto Star Wheels.

Now, when auto journalists mount up and head out on the trail with manufacturers, the trips are frequently short. Two days or maybe three, max. As a result, they travel light. All have a carry-on bag (you travel mostly by air), plus a personal bag for computers. But this wasn’t a two- or three-day trip; we were going to be on the road for at least six. I like to wear fresh shirts. And, unlike John Candy in the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles, I don’t like washing out my underwear in the bathroom sink, either. So, I took a suitcase: a big, red, suitcase, chock full of dry-cleaned shirts and laundered socks and Fruit-of-the-Looms. And a pillow. I really like my own pillow.

I never heard the end of it.

When we left downtown St. John’s and got to the airport at 4 a.m. on the Monday to board a plane for Halifax, I checked my bag. It started then and continued in the air, all the way across the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

“Whaddya have in that thing — yer tuxedos? We’re all wearing jeans.”

“They’re taking us to eat at restaurants, ya know. Ya didn’t have to bring yer own pots ‘n’ pans.”

“I didn’t know you were a ventriloquist? When are ya going to take out the dummy and put on a show? Or are you the dummy?”

And on and on.

Later in the week, when we stopped to overnight in Toronto, one or two of them wagered on how long it would take me to collect the bag. I was so embarrassed that I considered taking a cab to my house in Mississauga and getting a carry-on, just so I wouldn’t have to hear any more of the ribbing. I was just about to head out when Marc Bouchard, a Quebec automotive journalist who writes for newspapers as well as television, walked up to me and said: “You know, it was smart of you to bring Big Red. I wish I’d done the same thing.”

Big Red? Big Red?

It turned out that my colleagues had coined a name for my suitcase. And, apparently, when they thought of me, they thought of it, too. We were a couple: Norris and Big Red. I even got a postcard not long after, addressed to us both.

When we landed in Vancouver on the Thursday night — we rode the ferry to Vancouver Island on the Friday, where we finished our journey — it marked the last time everybody had to wait for me to retrieve my bag and so — what else? — a group picture was in order.

Big Red — the centre of attention. The perfect colour for what really was an early Christmas present.

So, I sing for you

Though you can’t hear me

When I get through

And feel you near me

Driving in my car

Driving home for Christmas

I started this series of Christmas columns, written around this song, many years ago now. I wrote about a boarding-house roommate in Orillia who taped a flashlight to the front of his car one Christmas Eve after breaking a headlight against a pole, and about a cab driver in Pembroke who drove a mobbed-up ex-prize fighter to Rochester on Christmas Eve — and discovered that a sister he hadn’t seen in years lived in that American city, and about me having to run out into the middle of the road on Christmas Eve afternoon at the intersection of O’Connor and Woodbine in Toronto to retrieve my young son’s shoes that had fallen off the top of my car (don’t ask), and so on and so forth.

Last year, I was full of melancholy because I wrote a farewell to my late childhood friend, Andy Arnott, and then told what I thought was a funny story about my great Pembroke radio and TV pal Roger Stanion, only to discover at the last second that he was gone, too.

And it turned out that my Orillia buddy had died along the way, as had the cab driver.

It’s Christmas. Hold on to your memories all the time, but particularly now. Treasure them. Hug everybody you’re with just a little harder and a little longer. My youngest son had an expression when he was small: “You never know, daddy,” he’d say. “You never know.”

And you don’t.

It’s been so long

But I will be there

I sing this song

To pass the time away

Driving in my car

Driving home for Christmas

With a thousand memories …

Have a Merry Christmas, everybody.