True Tales of Harrowing Survival

Posted on September 8, 2010 By

I didn’t want to die in Nebraska.

To be fair to the cornhusker state (motto: “Show us corn and we shall husk it!”), I wasn’t keen on dying in Colorado or Iowa either, but hadn’t felt my life in any particular danger in either of  those two states. It was in Nebraska that our tire blew out.

The car was packed with myself, my wife, our two daughters, and a half-ton of blankets, toys, books, markers, and crumbs from the “eat this ’cause we’re not stopping for lunch” food group. The trunk was likewise packed with suitcases. We were on a road trip dressed in a black, a multi-state journey of mourning with a funeral as its destination. We’d been on the road since 7:00 and making good time.

The road was making a funny, rumbling noise. It was a construction zone, with odd pavement. No surprise. But then the noise got considerably louder and less funny. The steering wheel started tugging in my hands, like it had something really cool to show me over here, on the side of the road.

“I think it’s the tire,” I said, and started pulling over.

There wasn’ t much of a shoulder to pull off onto inside the construction zone. It was a narrow strip of highway, just wide enough for a single car and a person to squat next to it, peering at a tire. On one side was waist-high concrete barrier. On the other other was a constant death-stream of vehicles rocketing by at 75, shaking our car in their wake.

“It’s the tire,” my wife confirmed from the passenger side door. “It’s mostly gone.”

Very aware of how close the car was to incoming traffic, we got out and put the girls on the far side of the construction barrier. There was no actual construction going on over there, but there was a quarter-mile strip of mud, so they’d have something to occupy their time while not being reduced to pulp by passing semi trucks.

“Where are we?” asked my wife. I had no idea. I was just the driver; how should I know such things? There was a watertower on the horizon in front of us, suggesting a town of some sort. Behind us was… another vehicle? Yes, an SUV parked on the shoulder a little ways back with its hazards on and a woman inside. I decided to visit our freeway neighbor and see if she knew where we were.

“Outside Omaha,” our neighbor said. “I’m out of gas. Trying to call triple-A. It’s a rental. Thank you.” She rolled her window back up.

Back at the car, my wife asked, “Think we can change the tire?”

Of course! The spare! In my shock, my lizard brain had totally forgotten that we even had a spare tire. I pulled the suitcases out of the trunk and started digging under the secret floor. I found the tire, then the tire iron (which will always seem to me more weapon than tool), but not the jack.

“I don’t think it’s in there,” said my wife. She’d loaned it to a friend, who’d never returned it.

I headed back to the SUV, to see if I could borrow a cup of jack from our neighbor. She was on the phone and couldn’t be disturbed, but a Nebraska highway patrol car pulled up behind her while I was there. An officer who looked like he’d been spending all afternoon squinting into the sun looking for John Connor stepped out of his vehicle and asked what was going on. I explained, he nodded, and I headed back to the car.

“They’re sending a van,” I told my wife. “They’ll have a  jack.”

Here’s where I give a big shout-out to the volunteers of the Nebraska Motorist Assist Program. For it was these fine folks who had the van — and the jack — that made the rest of our journey possible. With the help of a retired dude in a fluorescent vest, we were able to get the spare on, get enough air in it so we could actually drive on it, and limp into Omaha to replace the blown tire.

Safe at home again, I’m thinking of writing a pair of letters to the state of Nebraska: the first praising its NMAP as the highway heroes they are, and the second suggesting they change to nickname to the “corn-and-tire husker state.”