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Published November 26 2011

Swift: Rabbit wasn’t blizzard wizard

I was heading back to Fargo after a weekend visit with my parents, when a car whizzed by.

The older Taurus sedan contained four passengers. A guy in the backseat pumped his skinny arm in the air to some undetectable party song while the ponytailed driver headbanged in time.

I am no “rocket surgeon” – as my sister Mabel likes to call it – but the car obviously contained college kids, all returning to school after a weekend of Mom’s pot roast and laundry services.

In an instant, I was transported back to 1985. How many times had I driven that 250-mile stretch of Interstate between Fargo and my hometown during my college years?

The only difference is that we headbanged to cassette tapes of Def Leppard rather than iPods of Foster the People. And when everyone chipped in for gas money, you only had to pay about $2 apiece to fill the tank.

In my early years of college, I could catch rides with my sisters, as we all attended school in the same community.

It still amazes me how often our rickety, second-hand cars made it across the state and back in the middle of winter. Especially in the pre-cell phone era, when you just prayed that if you had car trouble, somebody would stop. And hopefully that somebody wouldn’t be Ted Bundy.

The most memorable of those rides occurred in before Christmas break of my freshman year.

My sister Verbena was the chauffeur. At the time, she drove an avocado-green Volkswagen Rabbit, which sported a dashing pair of orange racing stripes. (This sporty detail seemed unnecessary, as the Rabbit maxed out and began to shake at 60 miles per hour.)

At full blast, the car’s heater felt like a toddler blowing through a cocktail straw. The car had absolutely no insulation in the doors – possibly because a previous owner had removed it to boost the compact car’s already Vespa-worthy fuel consumption.

And, as often happens in these parts, the last day of school coincided with a storm, which brought high winds, low visibility and long, terrifying stretches of glare ice.

My father actually had to call in a favor to a mechanic friend in Fargo to get the tortoise-hearted Rabbit going that day. Even after it had groaned to life and been allowed to run for an hour, the car’s interior remained so cold that we could see our own breath.

We wore layers of clothes and swaddled ourselves in blankets, but it still felt like we were driving a Popsicle on wheels.

We puttered along at about 30 miles an hour all the way home, serenaded by howling wind, static-laced radio reports of bad roads and – I hate to admit this – my nonstop whining.

Finally, my sister couldn’t take it any longer.

“I know you’re cold,” she said. “We’re all cold, and listening to you complain isn’t going to help. Now sit back, grow up and shut up!”

I responded by giving her a cold shoulder, which wasn’t hard inside a 30-degree car.

For the next four hours, we clapped, sang, huddled together, stomped our feet and did whatever else we could to stay warm.

It was one of the longest nights of our lives. Never were we more relieved to pull into our parents’ driveway, feeling very cold but very grateful.

You may have heard of “Night of the Lepus,” the campy horror flick about radioactively mutated giant rabbits.

But this was the horrifying true tale of one woefully uninsulated tin Rabbit.

Call it “Night of the Heapus.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525

or tswift@forumcomm.com