I had driven the first nine hours our cross-country family trip to the East Coast, and had just turned over the driving to Bridget in the mountains of Pennsylvania so that I could take a little nap, when I heard a horrific thumping sound.
“Is that a helicopter hovering over the car?” Bridget asked.
I had heard that sound before. “No, that’s definitely a flat tire. You need to pull over.”
“There’s nowhere to pull over.”
I looked at the side of the road and saw what she meant. The traffic was going by at 70 MPH and there was only the slightest shoulder on the side of the road. Another car passed us and was pointing frantically at our tire.
“We have to pull over,” I said.
So, Bridget maneuvered the minivan into a small space that passed for a shoulder. The car that had been pointing to the tire, pulled over in front of us. Needless to say, the trip was not exactly off to a great start.
“I’ve never changed a tire in the minivan,” I told her. “Do you have any idea where the spare tire is even kept?”
“No,” she said.
I had pulled the operations manual out of the glove compartment when I saw the guy in the car in front of us, gingerly exiting his vehicle. This was an extremely dangerous location. We were just around a corner, the cars were coming at 70 miles an hour, and there was no way anyone could see us until they were right on top of us. He looked a little scared. I hopped out of the passenger side to greet him. It felt a little safer there.
“You OK?” he asked. “I saw that tire blow out. I mean it just exploded back there when you were changing lanes.”
Of course, the tire was on the driver’s side. The incredibly dangerous side.
“I don’t think I’m going to risk changing it here,” I said. “I’m calling AAA.”
“You sure?” he said. “It could take them a couple of hours to get here. You’re in the middle of nowhere. The nearest town is about ten miles away.”
As he was saying that, a state trooper pulled up behind us with his lights flashing. I hadn’t seen a police car in hours, and here, suddenly out of the blue, one arrived. He also made his way over to our little accident site.
“This is a dangerous spot,” he said. “How long you think it will take you to change it?”
I looked at the operations manual in my hand. “Um…”
“I’ll help you,” the first driver said. “I bet we can get it changed in twenty minutes.” He must have sensed my ineptitude and just took over. “I’d really appreciate it officer, if you back up about twenty yards so people can see the flashin’ lights a little sooner,” he added.
That’s when I did my one and only job–I found the tire. Bridget found the jack. And this complete stranger from the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania literally took his life in his hands and began changing our tire on the side of a dangerous mountain highway.
“Can I ask you a favor?” he said, when he was about to jack up the car.
“Sure, anything,” I said.
“Can you get the kids out of the car?”
Oh, them. Right. I did as he said, and as God is my witness, all three boys were playing on their DS machines on the side of the turnpike, without even missing a beat. I don’t think they even realized what was going on, other than they needed to get to the next level.
I was holding my breath the whole time our good Samaritan was changing that tire. Cars were whizzing by us, and his back was on the actual road. They weren’t missing him by much. Every now and then he looked up when a car passed as if to say, “this is crazy. We’re all going to die.”
Within ten minutes that tire was changed. I didn’t know what to say or do to thank him. He wouldn’t accept any money or praise for his work.
“I just did what anyone else would have done,” he said. And with that, he drove away.
The state trooper said: “You know, these spares can’t go more than twenty miles. I’ll give you directions to the nearest tire store. Make sure you drive there with your flashers on. I’ll follow behind you for a few miles to make sure you’re OK.”
And he did. That tire store had exactly one tire that fit our car. One tire. The store was closing in forty five minutes, and we were their last job of the day. If we had arrived an hour later, we would have been out of luck. They had our new tire on in ten minutes.
When we got back into the car, Bridget and I looked at each other with disbelief. After having a tire blowout on a dangerous mountain road in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania, a family with a complete moron dad who had never changed a minivan tire in his life was somehow back on the road with a brand new tire in less than an hour.
I’m not normally a big believer in miracles or guardian angels or even good Samaritans, but I must say, this cynical city boy from Chicago was taught a lesson that day in Pennsylvania. My faith in humanity, which is shaken every time I watch the news, has been completely and officially restored.
I didn’t get the names of those guys who helped us, but my hope is that they will somehow read this, and know how much I appreciate all they’ve done. I’m not exaggerating when I say they may have saved our lives.
I know it’s not enough, but all I can do is say again, what I said to them that day.