He was anxious to get home to his wife for the holidays. But an ill-timed ice storm meant he almost didn’t make it.
Posted in , Dec 27, 2021
My wife, Arbutis, and I graduated high school in May 1960 and wed that June. We couldn’t wait to start our married life! We set up house in Knoxville, Tennessee, enjoyed a newlyweds’ summer and watched the fall leaves change together. But that winter, on our first Christmas Eve as husband and wife, I was finishing up a job three hours away.
Money was tight, and I’d picked up work in Nashville for a few days, installing a marble floor in a bank. The construction company had set me up in a motel room and lent me a truck for the trip. I woke early on Christmas Eve morning more anxious than ever to get back to her. I’d wrap up the job by afternoon and hit the road home. I packed my bag, checked out of the motel and sprinted through freezing rain to the truck in the parking lot. I sat behind the wheel, warming up the engine to defrost the windshield, thick with ice.
Thoughts of Arbutis were enough to warm me. She’d no doubt have a special dinner waiting when I walked in the door for a cozy Christmas Eve. As soon as the windshield was clear, I headed off to complete my flooring.
My project manager stopped me in the hallway sometime in the late morning. “Doug, the weather forecast doesn’t look good,” he said. “If you’re determined to get home for dinner tonight, you need to leave now.”
“I’ll be done in a couple hours,” I told him. I didn’t want to have to come back. Being 180 miles away from Arbutis felt like being across the world.
My project manager looked at me with concern. “The Cumberland Mountains lie between here and Knoxville. If you wait and the state closes the highway, you could get stranded.”
I smiled with the confidence that only an 18-year-old can feel. “I will cross that bridge when I come to it,” I said. For the next few hours, I didn’t think about anything but the floor I was installing. When the job was done, I walked back out to the truck. The weather wasn’t letting up, as predicted, but I wasn’t worried. I grew up in the mountains of Tennessee. I knew how to drive through them, even in a winter storm.
I warmed up the truck to melt the fresh ice on the windshield and headed toward Knoxville. There were already a few abandoned vehicles at the foot of the mountain, next to a trooper’s car with its lights blinking.
Halfway up the mountain, my steering wheel turned sluggish as I rounded a turn. I tugged it to the left, but the truck veered to the right. I had to pull over to the shoulder. It didn’t take long to figure out the problem. My left front tire was almost flat. Probably picked up a nail at the job site, I thought.
I flicked on the caution lights and got to work changing the tire. It wasn’t much fun doing it in the freezing rain, but I knew what I was doing. In no time I was tightening the last lug. A couple more turns… The blare of an air horn made me look up. A Tennessee State dump truck had just rounded the curve and was bearing down on me, its lights flashing. God, please don’t let the driver lose control. I pressed myself tight against my truck. Instinct shut my eyes tight.
Everything went dark and silent. I felt warm and safe. The blinding lights, the air horn, the icy rain—all my senses were wrapped in a protective shroud. Did the truck hit me? Is this death? A hand touched my shoulder, and again I was aware of the cold, the rain, the fright I’d felt. I opened my eyes to the dump truck driver standing beside me.
“Are you all right?” The man’s voice was trembling. “I called the state police on my radio. I struck the person standing behind you.”
“The person behind me?” I said. “There wasn’t anyone with me.”
The driver peered into the freezing rain, as if in shock. He insisted he’d seen someone. State police arrived and questioned us separately. Sitting in the police car, I watched the truck driver and the officers search for the phantom person.
“There’s no damage to your pickup,” the policeman told me. “No sign that the dump truck hit anything at all.”
“I don’t know what that driver thought he saw.” As I said the words, I remembered the protection I’d felt when I shut my eyes.
“Thank your lucky stars,” the policeman said. “Judging by the tracks, the truck missed you by inches.”
I didn’t believe in lucky stars, but I did believe in angels. When I got home, wet and cold but happy, I told my wife all about the angel who got me home. We still talk about that night all these 60 happily married years later.
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