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Have Christmas tree, will travel for good cause
griswold wagon
What began as a prank has Great Bend residents doing a double take after seeing what looks like Clark Griswold's station wagon making the rounds this Christmas. First United Methodist Church of Great Bend is sponsoring a fundraiser for the Community Food Bank of Barton County that entails parking the wagon, owned by Mike and Tana Newkirk, complete with uprooted tree, in front of local houses for a day. The fun will run through the Christmas holiday.

First United Methodist Church of Great Bend is offering residents the chance to put a little Griswold into someone’s Christmas holiday.

For a few days now, what appears to be Clark’s dirty brown station wagon has been making the rounds parked in front of selected Great Bend homes. The car comes complete with an 18-foot uprooted pine precariously perched upon the roof. 

The promotion is expected to carry through the Christmas holiday. A donation of $40 will send it on its way for a day. All proceeds from the prank will be donated to the Community Food Bank of Barton County.

Mike and Tana Newkirk are the brains behind the caper, which began a few weeks ago. Newkirk, who owns 281 Auto Salvage in Great Bend, was in Larned to pick up some vehicles purchased at C.O. Miller’s estate auction.

On closer inspection, one of the cars looked suspiciously like the Griswolds’ ride that appeared in National Lampoon’s 1989 “Christmas Vacation,” starring Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo.

“It wasn’t exactly the same model, but it looked pretty close,” Mike noted. “Originally, I was going to take it out, put a tree on it and park it at a friend’s house. Tana was like, it would be better if we could do something for the church.

“i was wanting to do something on the order of a fundraiser,” Tana said. “We would do it, give the money to the church and they could then decide what to do with it. There’s just so much need in the community.”

There were a few obstacles in the beginning. The car wasn’t running, so Newkirk made up a parts list and took it to Rich’s (NAPA) Automotive, who said they’d donate to the cause. The car went to the salvage yard on the highway for repairs. With the new parts and new tires added, the car was road ready in about four days. 

However, getting the tree and keeping it on the roof was another problem. “Mike wanted a tree that looked just like the movie,” Tana said. “We get wild trees growing out at the salvage yard, so he just took a tractor and tore one out by the roots.”

When they got the tree on top of the car, it dented the hood a little, but otherwise stayed put. “It looks very authentic.

“I was concerned that we would have trouble getting into town,” she continued. “All the while, we were wondering if the car was going to hold together.”

“It does take a little bit of nervy driving to get it down the street,” said Mike, who is a familiar face at Great Bend’s drag strip around funny car season. “It’s not something you’d really want to do after dark.”

They then took it to their pastor, the Rev. Tim Bevor, who was all over the idea, Mike said. “They saw it, wanted pictures, they put the flyer together and everything.”

On Thursday, Mike parked the car in front of their house on Broadway Avenue, and the reaction was almost immediate. “People would drive by and look, and then turn around and take pictures,” Mike said.

Movie purists will note that the car in the movie was actually a 1989 Ford Taurus panel station wagon. The Newkirks’ vehicle is a 1985 Mercury Colony Park wagon that has seen better days.

“The car was originally silver, but the paint is all but gone because it had set outside for about 20 years,” Mike said. “It didn’t just crank right over, we had to put some work into it.”

Meanwhile, with a photo of the car and flyer posted on the FUMC website, the bookings started pouring in. By Friday morning — the prank’s first official day — they only had two spots left on the days before Christmas. Those were soon filled, too. 

The basics of the prank is that the car will sit at the location of the donor’s choosing from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Then it’s on to the next house. The bookings have extended into the new year, so those wanting on the schedule will have to wait until next Christmas.

“It went better than we expected,” Mike noted. “When we started, we were doubtful we’d have enough to last till Christmas Day.”

That’s great news for donations to the food bank.

“When we think back on it, we wished we would have started Dec. 1,” Tana said. “Everybody loves that movie, everybody is loving the idea. We’ve been through a lot this year. Pastor Tim is good about getting us to think about giving back, paying it forward. So many people don’t have what they need for Christmas. The food bank is such a great cause.”

“Something like this really teaches us how much we need a laugh these days,” Mike said. “Any time we can get a laugh out of doing some good for people, we are on it. We get a lot of joy out of giving to people that need it. When it’s funny for everybody, that’s just a bonus.”