It had been a long and very full trip and it was a long way from over. I drove my pickup back east to retrieve my car. I left it stranded when the engine went kapooie last December, in the small town of Moosic, Pennsylvania. I found a mechanic who would change out the motor for me, and I could pick the car up at a later date.
While I was in PA, to get my car, I was able to have dinner and spend a night with my daughter, Delaney and her husband Jared. The next day I drove two hours farther north, to Moosic, loaded my car onto a rented trailer and started for home. I stopped along the way to visit my aunt Sally and uncle John, in Lewisburg. We had a nice conversation while I baked a cherry pie for them. When the pie was out of the oven, they treated me to dinner at a Thai restaurant downtown. Afterwards, Sally offered me a bed to spend the night, but I insisted I needed to put some miles behind me before the night was done. I wanted to drive as far as Ohio before stopping for the night and that was still 200 miles away.
I was pulling a steep hill in the mountains of western Pennsylvania, when it suddenly felt like the trailer was swaying really hard. I let off the accelerator and looked in the review mirror. The trailer was steady, but the weird feeling was still there. It occurred to me, I had blown out a tire on the truck! Great! I turned on my flashers, then pulled over, stopping on the shoulder, to get out and assess the damages. The tire was shredded.
It was after 10:00 p.m., very dark, cold and windy. I haven’t changed a tire on this truck, and truthfully, never even looked for the jack and tools. To make matters worse, I was on a hill, with a heavy trailer behind the truck. For the jack to lift the truck, I would probably have to remove the trailer. I started weighing my options. I could try to change the tire myself, or call AAA for roadside assistance. A tow truck would have the proper tools, including wheel chocks to keep the trailer from rolling down the hill. Calling for help would be the smart thing to do.
I pulled out my AAA membership card, picked up my cell phone and…no signal. Are you kidding me? I started laughing. When a state trooper pulls us over for speeding, we ask why they aren’t out chasing robbers? When we have a problem on the road, we wonder if they are out chasing robbers when they should be here on the highway to help. “I sure would be happy to see a trooper right now.” I said to my dog, June.
When I called AAA, I was on hold for about fifteen minutes. There were a lot of weather-related calls that night, and I would just have to wait my turn. When the operator came on, they gathered my information, then put me on hold again while they made calls to find out which tow service was available.
I heard the operator come back on the line. “Mr. Palen? Mr. Paaaalen? Are you there Mr. Palen” I snapped to, “Yes, I’m here.” I was embarrassed. I actually fell asleep while I was on hold. How did he know I was still on the line? Was I snoring? OMGosh! He told me a service ticket had been entered and I would be getting text messages to keep me apprised of the progress. A few minutes later I got a text saying the service ticket was opened. Then another saying, “Help is on the way.” A third text read, “McCandless Towing will arrive at 11:06 p.m.” When I saw amber lights flashing in my rearview mirror, I looked at the clock. It was indeed 11:06.
The driver looked over the situation, “I’m going to need your jack handle to lower the spare tire.” He said. I admitted I didn’t know where it was. “It’s under your back seat.” He said with confidence. I got the handle for him, then watched as he worked in his green fluorescent vest. I asked if he needed any help, he said, “Nope. This is what I get paid to do.”
Most cars going by moved over to the left lane, but several others did not. They didn’t even slow down, and one car blasted their horn as they went flying by. “What a jerk!” I said, “They’re supposed to move to the other lane.” The tow driver chuckled, “It happens all the time.” He said, and kept working. I started thinking about the different situations tow truck drivers find themselves in. Some are dangerous; some are the result of stupidity.
I recalled a time many, many years ago, when my brother Richard called me and asked, “What do I have to do if I hit a deer?” I answered with a question. “How bad did you mess up your truck?” He replied, “I didn’t say I hit a deer with my truck.” I questioned, “How bad did you mess up your van?” “I don’t think it did any damage to the van,” he said, “but the deer didn’t fair so well.” “Is it still alive?” I asked, he replied, “Yes, but her leg is badly broken and she’s bleeding.”
I told him that he needed to call the county sheriff’s department. They would send a deputy out to put the animal down and give him a deer tag, if he wanted to keep it. He explained, a deputy came out, but the deer had made its way up over the hill and was sitting in the tall grass along the fence line of a bean field. Richard went on, “I told him it was just over the top of the hill on the other side of the ditch, but he said he wasn’t going to walk up there to chase a deer.” Richard went on to tell me, “The deer needs to be put down so she isn’t suffering. I would go back out there but I don’t think my van will climb the drive into the field…but a four-wheel drive like yours would.” He suggested. I agreed to go help Richard find the deer.
By the time we got to the place where he hit the deer, it was getting dark fast. We drove up into the field and along the fence line where he said the deer was laying but we never found the deer. “Are you sure it was here?” I asked. Richard said, “I know it was here. I came up and saw it.” “And you’re sure it was a deer you saw and not a clump of dirt?” Richard rolled his eyes, “It was the deer.” He insisted.
It was now dark. The bean field had been cut, so if we drove around the field for a bit, maybe we would find the deer. We went back and forth making passes about twenty feet apart. Finally, in a grassy draw, a deer stood up in front of us. “Is that your deer?” I asked. “I don’t know.” Richard answered, “They all look alike.” The deer took off running with her hind leg flopping. I took off chasing her in the truck. She was running toward a wooded area. I thought we should stop her and put her out of her misery. I passed the animal and quickly turned the truck in front of her. She fell down, and I jumped out with my shot gun.” Just as I approached her, she got up and ran again. I jumped in the truck, and resumed my pursuit but the truck was acting funny.
Richard told me, “You have a flat tire.” “What?” I said in disbelief. He explained, “When you made that high-speed turn, your front right tire came off the rim.” Flat tire or not, I did what I had to do, I locked in the four-wheel drive and continued the chase. “This is great,” I said, “A three-wheeled truck chasing a three-legged deer, after dark, in a field we shouldn’t be in. We’re going to jail for sure.” I was trying to head the deer off before she got any nearer to the woods. She really needed to be put down, but she beat me to the tree line.
At the edge of the woods, I stopped the truck, grabbed my shotgun and walked in on the path she took. We were able to get the deer, and put her down. It was the humane thing to do. Not wanting it to go to waste, we put the deer in the back of the truck. We knew a family that could use the meat. I would call later for a tag. Right now, we had to deal with the truck and the flat tire. I got the jack out, positioning it under the truck on a small board to keep the jack from sinking into the ground.
Richard started lifting the truck while I went to get the spare tire. Once he had lifted it high enough, I removed the flat tire. “You have to lift it a couple more inches for the good tire to go on.” I told him. “It’s up as high as it will go.” He insisted. “It can’t be.” I said, giving a look under the truck. “Crap! “The jack is sinking!” I said and hurried to get the bad tire back on the hub. Just as I was about to put the wheel back on, the truck fell off the jack to the ground. “This is not good.” I said. “There’s no way we were going to get out of this mess without a wrecker.”
The cell phone signal was week, but enough to make a call. “Deran, it’s Tom Palen. Are you busy?” He laughed, “What did you get yourself into this time?” “I’d rather not tell you on the phone, but I’m about a half mile off the road in a bean field.” I said. “Are the beans cut?” He asked, “Because I’m not driving into an uncut field.” He didn’t want to damage the crop if the beans were not harvested.” “The field is cut.” I assured him, adding “You better bring your four-wheel drive rig.” I gave him directions to where we would be. “I’ll be there is 25 or 30 minutes.” Deran said. I told Richard, “We need to walk to the highway to meet him.”
Richard and I started walking in the pitch-black night. The light flurries of snow had now turned into a steady snow and it was getting colder. It was a night where one could easily become disoriented and get lost. The temperature continued to drop while the wind was picking up. To make matters worse, neither of us were properly dressed for such weather.
Richard had on khaki pants, a dress shirt and a waist length brown leather jacket. I was wearing a wool suit and tie, and a long trench coat. I did have a hat that had ear flaps and a pair of thin dress gloves.
We walked side by side for a while, trudging across the field. Crossing a grass covered draw, both of us nearly jumped out of our skin when it seemed we disturbed a vicious animal! It was just a pheasant we flushed up between us. We were close enough to hear the whistle of her wings cutting the air as she lifted off and flew away. It sure scared the daylights out of us. Daylight. What a wonderful thought. It seemed to be getting darker as the snow came down heavier. Our saving grace was a streetlight on the road ahead that glowed in the night like a beacon, showing us the direction to go.
The wind continued to blow harder and we were getting colder. I told Richard to walk directly in from of me, so that I could block the wind from him. I put my gloved hands up over his ears to try to keep him warmer. “Okay, that’s just too weird.” He said, so I gave him the gloves and put my hands in my pockets. He could hold his own ears if he wanted to keep them warm.
The longer we walked, the farther we seemed to be from the road. Crossing another grass draw, we both stepped in a large puddle of water. The puddle was deep enough to fill our dress shoes with cold, muddy water.
Cold and now wet, we continued on. “Do you think Deran has already driven by?” Richard asked, “Could we have missed him?” “No, we would have seen his headlights go by.” I assured him. Just then we could see headlights in the far distance on the highway to the south. That was a good sign. It meant we were getting closer to the road. Thinking it might be Deran, we ran the rest of the way to the pavement, coming out the same entrance to the field, from which we entered. We started walking down the shoulder, headed south toward the lights.
The headlights got closer and finally a car drove by. They never even slowed down. Richard said, “You know, if I was driving down a remote country road after dark, and saw two guys in dress clothes walking in a blizzard, I would stop to see if they needed help.” “Yep. Me too.” I said.
We continued walking south, keeping an eye out for Deran. The road was quite a bit higher than the fields on either side. The wind seemed to be getting stronger, blowing the snow almost horizontally. We decided to go down the bank of the ditch where we would be sheltered from the wind. Exhausted, we laid down in the cold grass. Despite the nasty weather and being cold, there was a calmness in the night. We rested there and talked about irrelevant things just to break the silence and pass the time.
“I think I hear a car coming.” Richard said. He jumped up to check. Seeing it was another passenger car, he came back to the sheltered bank. “Did you give Deran good directions?” Richard asked. “Yes,” I said, assuring, “He’ll be here soon.”
We heard another vehicle coming. It was my turn to look. I ran up to the road. “It’s Deran.” I called out to Richard with relief. “How do you know?” He questioned. “I can see the amber marker lights on top of his cab.” Richard jumped up and joined me on the shoulder, standing beside me.
The deep treaded snow tires on his duals made a high-pitched whine on the pavement. We both waved our arms in the air as the vehicle approached. The whine deepened in tone as the vehicle slowed down. The truck pulled onto the shoulder, driving right up to us. The passenger window was lowering. Inside, Deran grinned, “You boys looking for a ride?” He asked. I climbed into the warm cab, Richard followed. Both of us began rubbing our hands in the warm air coming from the dash vents. Richard said, “Don’t get the wrong idea, Deran, but you look more beautiful right now than I’ve ever seen you look before.” We all laughed, “Yeah, well just stay on your side of the truck.” Deran replied.
I pointed to the driveway that led into the field. “Up that way.” I said to Deran. He stopped at the end of the drive and pulled the lever to lock his transmission into four-wheel drive. “Do you want to know what we’re doing way out here?” I asked Deran. “Nope.” He replied. “Why not?” I questioned. “Because if I get subpoenaed to testify against you in court, I can honestly say, ‘I don’t know what those two fools were doing out there in a snowstorm.’” We all shared a good laugh over that.
I had been worried that my truck might have to sit out in the field until spring, but Deran made quick work of it, lifting the front end. I grabbed the good tire, but he took it away from me saying, “I’m getting paid to do this. You stand back.” “You’re going to charge me for this?” I asked in jest. “I thought we were friends.” Deran laughed. “Everyone thinks I’m their best friend when they’re stuck a half mile off the pavement, in a field where they shouldn’t be, during a snow storm.” We all laughed about that.
Deran picked up the bad rim and tire. “You’ll probably want to have this looked at before you try to use it again.” He said, laughing as he put the wheel in the bed of the truck next to the deer. “Tisk, tisk.” He said shaking his head. “It’s not what you think.” I said. “I don’t want to know.” Daren said.
“What do I owe you?” I asked. Deran said, “Oh, just give me twenty bucks.” He said, and I did. “Now get in your truck and get outta here. I’ll follow you to the road in case you guys manage to get stuck again.” I often think of that night, and many other times when Daren pulled me out of messes, I’d gotten myself into.
Back on the interstate in Pennsylvania, the tow truck driver had my good tire mounted. He lowered my truck to the ground and took his jack back to his tool box. He came back up and put the bad wheel into the bed of my truck. “Do I need to pay you or sign anything?” I asked him. “Nope.” He replied, “AAA took care of it already.
As he was getting ready to leave, I said “Thank you, Deran.” “How did you know my name?” He asked, looking puzzled. I was surprised myself and said, “I’m sorry, I was thinking about a friend of mine that runs a towing business in Iowa. Is your name Deran, too?” “Oh, no.” He replied, laughing, “I thought you said Derek. My name is Derek.” We shared a good laugh about that.
Derek’s phone rang. When he answered it. I could hear the person on the other end asking, “How much longer will you be on this call?” Derek answered, “I’m leaving now.” The voice said, “Good. I need you to go to...” The voice tapered off as Derek waved, and walked to his wrecker with the phone against his ear.
As he pulled away, I thought about Derek, Deran and all of the men and women who operate tow trucks. The way they’re always putting themselves in harm’s way on the edge of speeding traffic to help us out. To each of them, I give thanks for your help in our times of need.
a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!