It was just past midnight on December 24, 1983. The Midwest was shivering through a record-breaking cold spell, complete with gale-force winds and frozen water pipes. And although our suburban Chicago household was filled with the snug sounds of a family at rest, I couldn’t be a part of them, not until our twenty-one-year-old son pulled into the driveway. At the moment, Tim and his two roommates were driving home for Christmas, their first trip back since they had moved east last May. “Don’t worry, Mom,” Tim had reassured me over the phone the night before. “We’re going to leave before dawn tomorrow and drive straight through.We’ll be fine!” Kids. They do insane things. Under normal circumstances, I figured, a Connecticut-to-Illinois trek ought to take about eighteen hours. But the weather had turned so dangerously cold that radio reports warned against venturing outdoors, even for a few moments. And we had heard nothing from the travelers. Distressed, I pictured them on a desolate road. What if they ran into car problems or lost their way? And if they had been delayed, why hadn’t Tim phoned? (This was long before we had cell phones.) Restlessly I paced and prayed in the familiar shorthand all mothers know: God, send someone to help them. As I later learned, the trio had stopped briefly in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to deposit Don at his family home. Common sense suggested that Tim and Jim stay the rest of the night and resume their trek in the morning. But when does common sense prevail with invincible young adults?
There were only four driving hours left to reach home. And although it was the coldest night in Midwestern history and the highways were snowy and deserted, the two had started out again.They had been traveling for only a few miles on a rural access road to the Indiana tollway when they noticed that the car’s engine seemed sluggish, lurching erratically and dying down to ten or fifteen miles per hour. Tim glanced uneasily at Jim. “Do not”—the radio announcer intoned—“ repeat, do not venture outside tonight, friends. There’s a record windchill of eighty below zero, which means that exposed skin will freeze in less than a minute.” The car surged suddenly, then coughed and slowed again. “Tim,” Jim spoke into the darkness, “we’re not going to stall here, are we?” “We can’t,” Tim answered grimly as he pumped the accelerator. “We’d die for sure.” But instead of picking up speed, the engine sputtered, chugged, and slowed again. About a mile later, at the top of a small incline, the car crawled to a frozen stop. Horrified, Tim and Jim looked at each other in the darkened interior. They could see across the fields in every direction, but, incredibly, theirs was the only vehicle in view. For the first time, they faced the fact that they were in enormous danger. There was no traffic, no refuge ahead, not even a farmhouse light blinking in the distance. It was as if they had landed on an alien, snow-covered planet. And the appalling, unbelievable cold! Never in Tim’s life had he experienced anything so intense. They couldn’t run for help; he knew that now for sure. He and Jim were young and strong, but even if shelter was only a short distance away, they couldn’t survive. The temperature would kill them in a matter of minutes. “Someone will come along soon,” Jim muttered, looking in every direction. “They’re bound to.” “I don’t think so,” Tim said. “You heard the radio. Everyone in the world is inside tonight—except us.” “Then what are we going to do?” “I don’t know.” Tim tried starting the engine again, but the ignition key clicked hopelessly in the silence. Bone-chilling cold had penetrated the car’s interior, and his feet were already growing numb. Well, God, he prayed, echoing my own distant plea. You’re the only one who can help us now.
It seemed impossible to stay awake much longer. Then, as if they had already slipped into a dream, they saw headlights flashing at the car’s left rear. But that was impossible. For they had seen no twin pinpricks of light in the distance, no hopeful approach. Where had the vehicle come from? Had they already died? But no. For, miraculously, someone was knocking on the driver’s-side window. “Need to be pulled?” In disbelief they heard the muffled shout. But it was true. Their rescuer was driving a tow truck. “Yes! Oh, yes, thanks!” Quickly, the two conferred as the driver, saying nothing more, drove around to the front of the car and attached chains. If there were no garages open at this hour, they would ask him to take them back to Don’s house, where they could spend the rest of the night. Swathed almost completely in a furry parka, hood, and a scarf up to his eyes, the driver nodded at their request but said nothing more. They noted that he was calm as he climbed into his truck, seemingly unconcerned about the life-threatening circumstances in which he had found them. Strange that he’s not curious about us, Tim mused, and isn’t even explaining where he came from or how he managed to approach without our seeing him. And had there been lettering on the side of the truck? Tim hadn’t noticed any. He’s going to give us a big bill, on a night like this. I’ll have to borrow some money from Don or his dad. But Tim was exhausted from the ordeal, and gradually, as he leaned against the seat, his thoughts slipped away. They passed two locked service stations, stopped to alert Don from a pay phone, and were soon being towed back through the familiar Fort Wayne neighborhood. The streets were hushed, Christmas lights long since extinguished and families asleep. Still, Don’s street seemed the most welcoming they’d ever been on. The driver maneuvered carefully around the cul-de-sac and pulled up in front of Don’s house. Numb with cold, Tim and Jim raced to the side door where Don was waiting, then tumbled into the blessedly warm kitchen, safe at last. Don slammed the door against the icy blast.
“Hey, what happened?” he began, but Tim interrupted. “The tow-truck driver, Don—I have to pay him. I need to borrow—” “Wait a minute.” Don frowned, looking past his friends through the window. “I don’t see any tow truck out there.” Tim and Jim turned around. There, parked alone at the curb, was Tim’s car. There had been no sound in the crystal-clear night of its release from the chains, no door slam, no chug of an engine pulling away. There had been no bill for Tim to pay, no receipt to sign, no farewell or “thank you” or “Merry Christmas.” Stunned, Tim raced back down the driveway to the curb, but there were no taillights disappearing in the distance, no engine noise echoing through the silent streets, nothing at all to mark the tow truck’s presence. Then Tim saw the tire tracks traced in the windblown snowdrifts. There was only one set of marks ringing the cul-de-sac curve. And they belonged to Tim’s car.
~From “Where Angels Walk” by Joan Webster Anderson~