CHRISTMAS SEASON, 2010: Just past the Gramercy exit heading west along Interstate 10, the smoothness of my ride suddenly changed into horror as my car began shaking while emitting a loud vibrating noise. Worse yet, I was in the left lane. I knew I had to maneuver the limping vehicle across the right lane and onto the shoulder while other vehicles were racing past me. The car wobbled mercilessly as I steered it off the road while hoping that all oncoming drivers were alert to notice a suddenly slowed vehicle in their path.
Within a few horrifying seconds I came to a stop and quickly got out of the car, not wanting to be a target for approaching vehicles that had eased a little too far to the right. A few inches too much could be fatal. I stood on the grass next to the shoulder and stared with amazement at how quickly the blown out right front tire had become shredded.
My Crown Victoria is an excellent machine, except that the Ford company really scrimped when it provided the feeble factory jack and an inadequate wrench. Nether were tools that anyone would want to be using while working alone on the side of an interstate. Instinctively I began pushing numbers on my cell phone, though still somewhat dazed by an incident that within 30 seconds had transported me from listening to Christmas music while cruising along the highway to standing on the side of the road and hearing the thunder of each passing vehicle. Getting to a holiday staff lunch at Houmas House now seemed out of the question; survival was more of the issue.
Instinctively I began pushing numbers on my cell phone somehow confusing 9-1-1 with 4-1-1 and then not having patience for the taped message at the state’s 5-1-1. Somewhere in the glove box was information about the insurance company’s roadside service system, but using that, I knew, would take hours, especially in such a remote location. And then there was the sky; an already gray day was turning darker; there would be rain soon. This was one of life’s “What to do?’ moments with the added danger of being in the line of a crash.
Then I noticed ahead that a white truck pulling a trailer had stopped on the shoulder. At first I thought the truck was having trouble, too, but it started backing in my direction. I walked toward it. The truck stopped. Two men each dressed in work clothes, probably in their mid-30s, got out. One of them spoke what I now realize is the most beautiful phrase in the English language, “Do you need help?” “Yes,” I responded eagerly while trying not to sound too helpless. Then the man who had inquired turned to his companion and spoke the language’s greatest phrase in response to blowouts along a busy highway, “Get the jack.”
Here were two men, not only able to help but who also had with them a proper jack and wrenches. Both were courteous and each spoke with a slight, but definite, southern drawl.
One jacked up the car while the other loosened the lug nuts. One took off the damaged tire while the other positioned the spare in place. When I started to place the ruined tire in my trunk, one of the men, who had the advantage of wearing work gloves, insisted that he would do the job.
While they worked I had nothing to do but look through my wallet for tip money. Had I been carrying two $100 bills I would have gladly pulled them out. The best I could do was $20. When they were done I handed them each a bill. Both backed off. I insisted. They refused; I insisted again. They refused again. Then one said, “Merry Christmas,” and then added, “Use the money to get a new tire.” Both returned to their truck.
I wished I would have known who the two men were. It happened so fast that I didn’t get their names. The only identity on their truck was for “Square D,” which an Internet search revealed is a line of electrical supplies. I knew nothing else. When they walked back to the truck I thought about the rescued villagers in the closing scene of an old “Lone Ranger” episode. They would watch the man on the white horse and his companion, Tonto, ride off into the sunset and then ask, “Who was that masked man?”
I was a few minutes late, nevertheless I was able to make it to the lunch at Houmas House – though I kept thinking about the incident. Without wanting to be too dramatic what happened seemed to be damned near to a miracle. Had the blowout occurred as little as five seconds later, the men would have been well ahead and not seen me. It isn’t unusual for people to help each other along a highway, but in this case they came so quickly, carrying the right tools and there were two of them so that the job, in a dangerous situation, could be done quickly. Then to refuse a tip!
For that moment at least, all was calm, all was bright.