The Wheel Fell Off – Diet Coke and Toby’s Towing

Posted: November 22, 2013 in Non-Music, Storytime
Tags: , , , , ,

In 1999, my friends Al and Kelly and I went to Houlton, Maine for the 4th of July. Al originated there. Kelly and I learned to love Houlton for other reasons. They had a modest carnival for the 4th, but they always had the perfect musical act to play, one that was big at one time but had definitely seen better days. I remember catching John Cafferty and Survivor at the Houlton Fair, and the fireworks display, while no rival to that of a big city, was enough to make you clap and cheer. In 1999, I honestly don’t recall anything about the Houlton Fair except the ride home.

We traveled to Houlton from Massachusetts in Kelly’s Volkswagen Fox, which had seen better days, but was still rolling on four wheels. That was soon to change. The ride up was of no consequence – we got to Houlton safe and sound, and we enjoyed our time at the Houlton Fair. Then we headed home on Sunday, July 4th, 1999. The trip was usually about six hours. But that day, just south of Augusta …

I was driving. Al was in the passenger seat. Kelly was sleeping in the back seat. I heard a loud bang, felt the car tweak a little bit and then decided to pull over, knowing that something had gone wrong. Kelly woke up and said “What the hell was that?” We figured we had a simple blowout. However, when I tried to slow down, the brake pedal went to the floor and was useless, so we had to coast to a stop instead.

Not knowing exactly what happened yet, Al jacked up the car for the tire that went flat. Funny thing is, though … instead of having to undo the lug nuts, the entire wheel came off in his hands after the car was jacked up. It literally just fell into his hands. Why? Because the wheel housing had sheared loose of its connection to the axle. Forget lug nuts – this wheel had bigger ambitions. I started laughing heartily. Think about it … how bad could the outcome have been? The WHEEL fell off!! Theoretically, had it actually rolled away from the car while we were doing 65 mph, this story might very well be different.

But nope, it stayed close, and we got to tell the story, which had only just begun to unfold. Kelly didn’t take the situation so well, but understandably, because she and Al were supposed to catch a flight to Ireland out of Boston that night, and clearly they were going to miss their flight. Turns out that Al proposed to Kelly on that trip, so I don’t know if the universe was making a statement or not. Al and I had a good laugh about it, but soon enough we had to start figuring out what we were going to do about our dilemma. Consider that it was Sunday, July 4th. We were stuck on the interstate in blazing summer heat with nowhere to go for cover. The next exit was miles away. We called AAA for a tow, but as one might expect, it was a little difficult to find an available and willing tow truck driver. They said it might take an hour …

For the next 3 hours and 45 minutes, we sat by the side of the road. In all that time, no one stopped to help, with a single exception, which I’ll get to momentarily. I mean, this was MAINE of all states. The Maine I know was a place where people helped their neighbors, but I guess that theory breaks down when you’re on the freeway and most people driving by are just out-of-staters trying to get back to New Hampshire and Massachusetts. After a while, Al and I tested the “damsel in distress” theory. He and I sat in front of the car while Kelly messed around with stuff in the trunk. Not 30 seconds went by before two guys pulled over, expecting to help Kelly. When they saw us, they quickly went from “Hey, how can we help you?” to “Oh, the next exit is just a couple miles up the road.” And off they went.

At one point, a state trooper stopped to make sure we were OK. We were probably 2-3 hours into our wait by this point, and we told him that we were waiting on a tow truck. He told us that his cruiser was air conditioned if we wanted to hop in the back seat for a bit to chill out. He also let us help ourselves to his lunchbox beverage – a Diet Coke. Normally, I find Diet Coke to be among the most repulsive beverages on the planet, and I avoid it at all costs, but this one was the best tasting thing I’d had in years. Amazing what a little perspective will do.

So, after almost four hours, Toby’s Towing showed up, and based on the tone of his voice when he got out of his truck, I could tell he wanted to be anywhere else. But hey, so did we. Getting the car up onto the flatbed was easy enough, but when the time came to drive away, naturally he told us that the law allowed no more than three people to sit in the front of his truck. Sadly, there was nowhere else to sit, and we mentally started drawing straws for who would stay behind. To Toby’s credit, he risked the punishment and let us all cram in there. His manner softened up a bit as we drove.

The ride to his shop wasn’t terribly long, but long enough for us to learn that he left a 4th of July BBQ and pool party to come rescue our sorry asses. The party was at his house, and his shop was in back, so we ended up basically at his house. While Toby and Al took a look at what was going to be required to fix the car, Toby’s wife invited us to enjoy some BBQ food, which we happily ate. The entire wheel had to be replaced, and Toby needed to visit a junkyard to get the parts, so he and Al went off to do that, while Kelly and I hung out with the Toby family, which included their three young children. Once they came back and installed the wheel, it was getting dark, and they were going to head into town to watch the fireworks. At some point, Kelly or Al had taken care of getting a later flight booked, so we actually had some time to kill. We piled into their two cars, leaving Kelly’s behind, and we all went into town and watched the fireworks.

Toby’s family wanted to go for ice cream afterward, but we thought it would be best to get going, since we still had the long ride home, and then Al and Kelly had to get to the airport as well. But we were downtown in Toby’s family cars. In pure Maine fashion, unlike what we experienced on the interstate all afternoon, they let us take one of their cars by ourselves, drive it back to their house, leave the keys, and get into our car and go. How trusting is that?? We were happy to get back on the road, but we were ever grateful that Toby and his family intersected our lives in such great fashion that day.

From the moment the wheel fell off, I never expected the afternoon and evening to turn out as positive as they did, nor did I expect to enjoy a Diet Coke when I woke up that day, but 7/4/99 had strange things in store for us, and wherever you are now, Toby, I still thank you and your family for your kindness.



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