Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Cautionary Winter’s Tale

A Cautionary Winter’s Tale
            There is nothing humorous about my story. It is a story that I need to tell, a personal story of my son-in-law Chris and the icy grip of winter.

            Chris, my daughter Dee and granddaughter Antoinette moved to Glendive last fall from Tulalip, Washington. Chris, who hails from Florida, had been in the Navy most of his adult life, most of it in Pacific climes. Chris is a big man, tall and lanky with a few extra pounds for insulation. He is such an outdoor person that it takes an extreme stretch of the imagination for me to imagine Chris behind a desk. Montana has given Chris his first taste of Real Winter, but nothing like the portion served up to him this week.

            Chris had an appointment at the VA Hospital in Bozeman. This required him to take two days off work. He left Glendive after work on Tuesday. He was almost to Billings when the motor in his car blew up. A friend rescued him, towed the car into Billings and took Chris to the airport to secure a rental car from a nationally known name-brand rental company which I’ll not name but the name contains the last letter in the alphabet.

            He stayed the night in a Billings motel and headed to Bozeman early the next morning. An hour out of Billings, near Columbus, the motor on the rental car blew up, an identical repeat of the night before. Chris called the rental company. The clerk told him a tow truck was on the way. It would take an hour.

            We Montanans are on intimate terms with weather’s split personality. We know it sweet; we know it ugly and vicious. We treat it with respect. We take precautions. Chris was in a rental car, on the way to a doctor’s appointment, dressed for winter but with nothing extra; naked, so to speak. His winter survival gear was back in the first disabled vehicle. The thermometer showed minus twenty-four with wind chill at minus thirty-five.

            After waiting about half an hour, a Montana Highway Patrolman pulled up behind Chris. Chris sat in the patrol car talking with the officer for the next half hour, grateful for the warmth and shelter. The patrolman had to respond to a call up the road so Chris returned to his disabled vehicle, thinking, no problem, help should be here in a few minutes.

            Another hour passed. Chris had sent several incoherent messages to his wife who was teaching school and getting more worried by the minute. When the AAA company dispatcher called to ask Chris if help had arrived yet, Chris could barely talk. Finally, the dispatcher asked Chris where he was. Understand, the dispatch is from a national center in California. Once the dispatcher understood the situation, she panicked. The tow truck had not left the shop. Moments later the truck was on the way, but, still an hour out from Billings.

            When the driver arrived, Chris could neither talk nor get out of the car. The driver tugged, not gently, shoved Chris into his cab, and turned the heat full blast while he hooked up the car. By the time Chris got back to Billings he felt thawed, and being Chris, didn’t do what he should have done, which was go to the emergency room immediately. I take this as evidence that his brain was still frozen. (Sorry, Chris.)

            The story gets really ugly now. At the rental car office back at the Billings airport, the agent refused to refund Chris’s money and charged him mileage and an extra fee for not filling up the gas tank of the car which was hooked up to the back of a tow truck. Corporate policy. And criminal behavior.

            Another friend brought Chris home to his grateful family. I ask Dee Dee to check his feet daily. As of today, he still has all his toes.

            Please, please, please, fill a sports bag with extra clothing, survival blankets, water, candles and matches, boots and mittens. Add to that whatever you think you might possibly need. Then like the spy in the old cold-war movies, lock the bag to your wrist whenever you climb in the car.

My own survival gear includes all the above plus a shovel with collapsible handle, flares and orange danger triangles to place on the road, front and back of a disabled vehicle. I added a tarp for shelter from the sun. I’m in sunny Mexico for the winter, but I never know when the life I save might be my own.

The Montana Highway Patrolman no doubt saved Chris’s life; him and the dispatcher who thought to check tow truck status. Our family thanks you both.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
March 6, 2014


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