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As soon as I pulled into the rest area in Wiggins, Colorado, I noticed a man on the far end of the truck and trailer parking area. He was changing a flat tire on his pop-up camper. His wife stood to the side to assist if needed.
Poor guy. Campers don’t come with jacks or lug nut wrenches, so, when dealing with a flat tire, one has to depend on the tools that came with their car. These tools are usually tucked under a cover in the back of a smaller sport utility vehicle. They are never easy to get to, especially for a man on vacation with his family.
The back hatch on the SUV was raised. There were sleeping bags, baskets of toys, coolers, pillows and blankets and suitcases sprawled about the ground, with some setting on the top corner of his camper. He had to unload everything to get to the jack.
I had empathy for the poor guy, as I have been in his shoes many times before. Trailer tires always seem to be a challenge to change because inevitably something doesn’t fit or isn’t quite right. They are especially trying on such a hot day, as it had been, but at least he had some relief from the higher temperatures earlier in the day.
It had been a long, hot drive across Nebraska. Mid-day temperatures had been in the mid to upper nineties with high humidity. It was the kind of day where stepping out of an air conditioned car, or building, was like entering a blast furnace. The sun beat down on me from above. It was hot on my arms, head, shoulders and anywhere else it touched. My t-shirt felt like it just came out of a hot dryer, which might feel good in the winter, but today it was just miserable. Sweltering heat rose from the asphalt to greet me, making it hard to breathe.
By the time we reached Colorado, rain showers came and went and the sun was making its way to the lower western sky. The precipitation was welcome. Not only does the state desperately need the rain, but the storm front dropped the temperatures between ten and fifteen degrees, bringing welcome relief from the oven-like conditions.
I parked alongside a semi. Although a bit cooler, it was still in the 80’s. I would leave the car running with the air conditioner on for June and Edgar. The shadow cast from his rig would keep the hot sun off my car while I visited the men’s room.
The driver was working on his truck with several side compartments open. I greeted him, “It’s a hot one today, isn’t it?” He sighed and said, “Too hot.” as he continued digging though his tool box. I looked up at his cab and saw his dog looking down at me.
The driver’s dog hadn’t noticed June sitting in our car and she hadn’t seen him yet, either. I didn’t want them barking at each other so I got back in the car and backed up far enough where the two dogs would not have sight of one another. The driver, with a curious look on his face, watched as I backed up.
When I got out of the car, I smiled and explained, “It wasn’t anything you said. I didn’t want my dog barking at your dog; I moved back so they wouldn’t see each other.” He was a friendly man. “Thank you for that, “ He said, adding, “My dog will bark at anything and the last thing I want right now is to hear him barking.”
After our break and taking June and Edgar for a walk, I started to drive away. Melissa suggested we should go ahead and make sandwiches before getting back on the road. I parked again, this time closer to the man who was still working on his tire. I fixed our meal from the cooler in the back of the car and handed the plates to Melissa. Then, I went over to see if the man needed any help.
“Can I help you with anything?” I asked the man. He had removed two of the five lug nuts with his socket wrench by hitting the ratchet wrench handle with the backside of his hatchet. “The nuts are really tight, they don’t want to come off.” He said. “I’ve been working on these two for quite a while.
He held his hand up showing me his skinned up knuckles and scraped backside of his hand. “The handle is too short, I keep slipping off the wrench. My hand has about had it.” He said, then asked, “You wouldn’t happen to have any kind of a breaker bar, would you?” “I’m sorry, I don’t.” I said, “but there is a truck driver over there working on his rig. You might go ask, he might have something.”
The man thanked me, then walked over toward the truck. He was a well built, muscular younger man, well capable of changing a tire, he just didn’t have the right tool. I felt bad driving away, but there was really nothing I could do to further help him.
Next to the rest area was a truck stop. I noticed a couple guys working in the parking lot and quickly turned the wheel to pull in.
One man was a bit husky, taller with short hair. The other was about my height, thin with long hair tied back. Both men were dirty with black dust stuck to their skin, shirt and pants. The two men were patching spots in the asphalt. I said hello then asked, “Would you have a breaker bar I could borrow?” The guy with the long hair immediately set down his shovel and said, “Let’s see what I’ve got.’
He jumped up into the open box of an orange Chevy crew cab truck and began digging through tools, holding up a large pry bar. “Will this work?” He asked. “No, I need a pipe to slip over the end of a ratchet.” I explained why I needed it, then asked, “You wouldn’t happen to have a four-way wrench would you?” “I sure do.” He said and jumped from the back of the truck.
He dug through more tools in the backseat of his truck, then came up with the wrench I was looking for. “You have no idea how much I appreciate this.” I told him, then assured him I would be back shortly with his wrench.
I returned to the rest area, pulling up alongside the man’s camper. He hadn’t made any more progress on the three remaining lug nuts.
I smiled, walking toward him, holding up the four-way wrench and told him, “I really wanted to help you out, but didn’t have the tools. When I saw your pregnant wife standing here and your little kid sitting in the car - man that was a clincher. I knew I had to help.” “Hey!” He said with a full grin. “Where did you get that?”
I handed him the wrench. He had been struggling with that tire for over an hour and clearly wasn’t going to get the lug nuts off with the tools he had. Within a minute, using the right wrench, he had the remaining nuts off the wheel.
We chatted while he finished changing the tire - Melissa kept his wife company. I learned his name was Brandon; a firefighter from Eerie, Colorado. He, along with his wife and daughter, had been camping at Lake McConaughy in Nebraska. “We’re still 70 miles from home.” He said, “I don’t know what I would have done without this wrench. I can’t thank you enough! ”
Brandon told his wife, “We have to get one of these four-way wrenches to keep in the camper when we get home.” She held up her phone, “I already put it on the list.” Brandon tightened the lug nuts and took the trailer off the jack. He checked each nut again, then handed me the wrench. We said our farewells. Brandon started repacking his car, and we drove back to the truck stop.
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you letting me use this wrench.” I said, setting the wrench on his tailgate. The long haired man said, “No problem man. Don’t worry about it.” The guy with the short hair said, “You don’t have to thank us - you’re going to get a bill in the mail.” We all shared a good laugh about that.
I drove away feeling really good. I’ve helped a lot of people in my time, but this was more special - probably because Brandon was a firefighter. Firefighters put out fires. But far more often than putting out fires, they are putting out helping hands. At accidents, medical calls, disasters of every kind; in our schools, communities and neighborhoods; in their local towns and towns far away - on or off the clock, a firefighter always has a helping hand.
It felt pretty darn good to return a helping hand.