My mom always worried I would end up “dead in a ditch.” I’m still alive, but I did take care of the ditch part last weekend.
Let me back up. As most of you know, the Dallas area experienced a bit of an ice storm last week. It started Thursday evening and dumped a few inches of sleet and freezing rain over the area. I had to work every night during the storm. By Friday morning when my shift ended, the streets in Dallas were slushy but still drivable. I slept a few hours in a Company-provided hotel room. It was a nice gesture, but due to a noisy heater and my constant expectation that the housekeeper was about to knock on my door, I didn’t sleep well and finally gave up around lunchtime.
By then the Dallas streets still looked the same – dirty slush and drivable. However, since the temperature was forecast to stay below freezing all day, I didn’t want to drive all the way home and then all the way back that night for my next shift. So I hung out in northwest Dallas all day. I ate unhealthy and delicious food (try the Cinnabon things at Taco Bell – oh my). I slogged up to the Cinemark and watched the new Christian Bale movie (great acting, OK story). I felt a little proud of myself for not being one of Those Texans who cower in their homes the minute a snowflake appears.
Trying to kill some time, I looked for a Starbucks where I could enjoy warm coffee and play on my iPad. However, the neighborhood I was in didn’t seem to be a Starbucks kind of place. So I parked at McDonald’s near a big shopping center that was surrounded by low-income apartments. Lots of people were wandering around in the parking lot, some walking to the grocery store or a restaurant, others chipping ice off their cars or trying to tweak something under the hood to get the engine running. My Sheltered White Boy senses started to tingle. I decided not to carry my iPad into this tiny McDonald’s and sip warm McCafe. Instead I hurriedly chipped ice from my wheel wells and hoped no one would ask me for Help.
Confession time: I try to be a generous person. I want to help people and like the idea of helping people. I give money to build wells in South Sudan and feed/clothe/educate needy children in Ethiopia and repair damage from tsunamis and chemical explosions and Storms of the Century. But there’s a catch – I always prefer to keep my distance.
By giving money through a computer rather than time, I can keep control of the situation. Actually getting involved with people’s problems directly and having conversations face to face and looking them in the eyes is way, way out of the comfort zone for a shy, introverted guy like me. Sometimes real people need something tangible like money, or a ride somewhere, or help with their cars, or gas, or a job. Situations like that involve talking to strangers and starting relationships. Relationships can be messy, inconvenient, and awkward. It’s easier not to get involved, especially with people you’ll never see again.
“You know where the nearest Wal-Mart is?” a voice from behind me asked. I turned and saw three young men. They seemed nice enough, but The Voice inside kept asking whether they were sincere and what else they might want. I have helped a few sincere strangers who approached me in the past. I have also gotten scammed. I once heard the same sob story from two different guys in the same parking lot a few weeks apart. For situations when someone might approach me needing Help, my default answer is no.
“Sorry, I’m not sure. I’m not from here,” I replied truthfully. They moved on.
I finished cleaning my car and found a Starbucks, a place where people who can afford to drop six bucks on a coffee and a cookie can hide and not get asked for Help. There, I felt safer, but also a bit ashamed. Those thoughts got stuffed into a dark corner of my soul as I warmed up with my venti cappuccino.
That evening I slogged my way to the office and worked my shift, finishing around 7:00am Saturday morning. The incoming morning shift people reported fairly good roads. Tired of hiding in Dallas and missing my family, I chose to brave the ice and drive home. Playing with my sons in a winter wonderland is a rare treat, and my wife was a bit stir crazy from being cooped up at home with all their energy.
As expected, most section of the roads and highway provided decent traction. However, the bridges, overpasses, and a few other areas were coated in ice. The slushy mess that covered the roads on Friday had frozen solid overnight as the temps dropped into the upper teens. I discovered my first so-called cobblestone ice, the tooth-rattling washboard of bumpy ice that tested both my shocks and my nerve. Along the way I passed a few cars that had gotten stuck and been ominously abandoned. Finally I turned north to highway 360, the final leg of my journey home. Just a couple of miles lay between me and my family.
I would be exiting to the right, so I stayed in the icy right lane instead of moving over briefly to the smoother, drier left lane. Suddenly, I felt the back of my car start to slide. I’d driven on ice a few times over the last several years and recognized the feeling, but I had always managed to keep the wheels straight and pull out. This time, though, my back end kept sliding left. It happened so fast that I can’t remember exactly how I tried to recover. Soon I was spinning sideways into the left lane with my front end pointing toward the right shoulder. I kept spinning and started moving forward toward the shoulder.
“Hmm. This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
I kept sliding. A shallow ditch appear on the other side of a wide, icy shoulder. Finally, I came to rest with my left wheel in the ditch on a patch of icy grass and mud and my right wheel on ice.
Beyond feeling out of control, the experience wasn’t particularly scary. No other cars were nearby at that moment. My car was mostly on the road. The ditch was shallow. All I needed to do was back out and turn around. This was an embarrassing but minor inconvenience, I thought.
The ice and my front-wheel-drive, 100-hp Honda Fit had other plans.
Using reverse only spun my wheels. I tried rocking forward and back, turning right and left, and got absolutely nowhere. I got out and tried pushing but couldn’t get any traction on the ice. I wasn’t going anywhere. I had stumbled onto a problem I couldn’t solve on my own.
I needed Help.
After I flailed about for five to ten minutes, the first car stopped and backed up. A man climbed out and walked toward me. I initially waved him off, embarrassed and determined to fix this mess myself somehow, but he kept walking toward me. His message was simple: you’re screwed, so call a wrecker. I had already suspected that, but he helped me accept it. So I guess that was helpful.
I called my insurance company to get some use from my roadside assistance coverage. Due to all the other people who had crashed or gotten stuck on the ice, the wait was at least four hours. That was an awfully long time to wait in the car. On the other hand, my house was far enough away that if I walked there in those conditions, I would need to come back soon after I arrived. I didn’t want Jenny to pack up the kids and come rescue me, nor did I want to ask my dad or a friend to go out in these conditions. There was no good option.
As I debated, another car spun out directly behind me in the same icy lane. That’s when the gravity of my situation became a bit clearer. If I waited in or beside the car, I might get hurt or even killed. If I walked home, I might return to find my car smashed. I sat in the car trying to decide which bad option I would choose.
That’s when Help arrived.
The next car to stop contained two guys about my age or a bit younger, both wearing service technician uniforms from a Grapevine car dealership. For all I knew, they could have lived near the McDonald’s from the previous day that made me nervous. They said they couldn’t just leave me alone beside the road. They drove a Civic Hybrid and offered to try to pull me out with a tow chain. As we were discussing that plan, two other cars stopped and three more guys got out, probably on their way to work. First we tried it with the Civic Hybrid. One guy drove while the other four guys tried to push me out of the ditch. The Civic didn’t have enough power to get me out, so another guy hooked up his pickup to me while the other four pushed. After a few cautious attempts, Plan B worked. I was free.
And it was only because five strangers interrupted their commutes, took pity on a guy they’d never met, and helped him out of a bind he couldn’t undo himself.
I thanked them profusely. It might have been appropriate to pay them something for their trouble, but my car was blocking traffic and they needed to get going, so it didn’t work out. The guy who drove the pickup left me with a big smile and a simple, “Be safe!”
I tried not to cry.
At the very least, those strangers got me out of a major jam. In light of the other cars that could have spun out in the same spot and potentially crashed into me, it’s possible they even saved my life.
I’ll probably never see any of those guys again, nor can I ever repay them for their kindness. What I can do is remember this experience the next time I see someone who needs Help. Few things can humble a man like needing a hand from a complete stranger who has zero obligation to do anything for him. Perhaps one day I’ll have a chance to pay this forward. Until then, all I can do is be grateful and tell their story.