Winter nights in Wyoming are nothing but icy cold winds blowing the snow from Nebraska to Idaho at forty miles an hour. The night that I met the angel was one of those nights.
While recovering at home from prostrate surgery in late November of 1998. On a Monday morning I got a call from Don, the President of Superior Air Freight.
“Hello, Bear,” he said. “How are you healing up?”
“Well, hi, Don. I……..”
“Listen, Bear,” he cut in, “I had a driver quit and I have to have a load run up to Portland, Oregon, and then get a load of cedar fencing and take it over to Denver. I will pay you $800 and when you get back in I’ll add another $500 to the deal. It is that important to me. You will not have to do anything but drive, and the weather forecast is good for the next four days. Oh, yes, and from Denver you’ll just haul back a load of empty shipping crates and pallets. There is nothing heavy, and I’ll have the guys there help you load.”
“Don,” I protested. “I just had prostrate surgery and the Doctor said no heavy lifting for another thirty days.”
“There will be no heavy lifting. The most you’ll have to do is throw and tighten your straps to hold your load down. You have driven a flatbed 18-wheeler for years and know that this is the easy part.”
“Dadgummit, Don, the Doctor said not to. I….”
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll make it $2,000 for the trip and for three or four days that is damn good money. Come on now, I am in a bind here and I need your help. I promise that after this trip, I’ll give you all the time away that you need.”
“Don,” I said. “I own the truck. You pay my fuel for the entire trip and we have a deal.”
“Great,” he said in a relieved voice. “I’ll see you first thing in the morning. Say at 6 AM.”
“Okay, Don,” I said, begrudgingly. “I’ll do it, but just make sure you pay me $800 now and the balance when I get in or no deal.”
“Alright, you grave robber,” he said. “I’ll cut you a check……”
“Hold on there,” I butted in. “CASH, Don. Cash or no deal.”
“Well, hell. If that is what it takes, then cash it is.”
The next morning the sky was clear and the stars were still out when I drove in at 0530 and hooked up the trailers and did my pre-trip inspection of the tractor and two trailers. Don’s trailers were old but very well maintained.
Everything was loaded, and together, Don and I threw the straps and tied the load down tight. True to my form, I was on the road by 0600 hours.
From Ogden to Portland, it is roughly 733 miles and a ten hour non-stop drive. I planned to drive to Pendleton, Oregon, the first day and then get up at 0500 and run up to Portland, drop my load and run fifty miles up to Rainier, Oregon, to get the fencing, and then head back to Denver. It would be a cake walk.
When I got off-loaded in Portland at about 0900, I had plenty of time to run the fifty miles north on I-5 to Rainier, Oregon, get loaded, and be out of there no later than noon. Yeah, right!! The most constant thing in the Pacific Northwest is change. There was one hell of a storm coming in and I had just been told I had to tarp the load. Each tarp weighs 90 lbs. and there are two of them to lift up on the load, spread out and tie down. The wind had picked up and the tarps of the other drivers were blowing all over the place.
In good weather and health I could do it in an hour easily, but not being able to lift too much, I opted to try and outrun the storm and get back to Portland and tarp there.
By the time I got to Portland, the storm had hit with 30 to 40 mile an hour winds. Those tarps would be thrown all over the parking lot. I hired two other drivers to help me tarp, and just as we were about through, I was blown off the top of the load. As I was falling backwards, I caught onto one of the straps with my left hand and held on for dear life. I still hit the ground with a resounding thump. I did a self-check and saw nothing was broken, but then noticed the headlights of an 18- wheeler coming straight for my head. I rolled under my first trailer just seconds before the tire would have crushed my head
Tired and totally worn out, I paid my helpers and then found a good place to park and get some sleep. I woke up at 8 AM the next morning. I cursed myself for sleeping too long and, without eating anything, hit the road. It was 733 miles back to Ogden and then another eight hours over to Denver. I made it into Evanston, Wyoming, at 7 PM. I caught eight hours of sleep in my truck’s sleeper and then was off to Denver for another eight-hour drive.
The sunshine was getting hazy and the temperature had dropped to twenty degrees. When I got my load off, I was freezing. It started to snow a very slushy and wet snow. The load of pallets was a hard one to tie down, but I got it done. I told Juan, the Mexican man that was helping me, “I hope that I can get out of here without getting stuck.”
“Es no problemo,” he said. “It es mucho freeo, so you better drive carefully.”
I hate Wyoming in the winter time. The state does not salt the roads. They just put down gravel and sand to help, but underneath it is very icy most of the 380 miles from Cheyenne to Evanston.
The wind and snow were getting worse, but I just slowed down and got in line with the other drivers who had the sense to slow down. Along the way, we would pass the “hot shot” drivers who were in the bar pit or off on the side of the road, usually on their sides.
By 5 PM I had run out of eyeballs and hours. ( A driver in those days could not drive more than eight hours a day without taking at least ten hours off for sleep, etc.)
I woke up in a panic. It was midnight and snowing. I quickly dressed and got onto I-80 westbound. Just before Evanston, there are two sets of hills called “The Sisters.” They are steep and dangerous.
I pulled out of the parking lot and worked my way onto the freeway. Visibility was very poor because the wind was blowing between 30 and 40 miles an hour and the temperature had dropped to a minus 20 degrees F.
I had just gotten about halfway down the first Sister, when a call came over my CB radio. “Driver,” a man’s voice said. “You are losing pallets behind you. You had better pull over and tighten down your load.”
Oh, great! I thought. This is not what I need right now. I could see a mile down the road and the lights for the Kemmerer junction.
Thinking out loud I said, “Okay, stupid, just don’t hit the brakes. Let the Jake brake slow you down.” In the soft wet snow, the truck was slowing down easily and I stopped directly under the lights so I could see what I was doing.
I was pulling a double set of trailers and it just had to be the last trailer. The wind was blowing right into my face and eyes and was so cold it took my breath away if I tried to breathe it directly. Thankfully, I had a scarf wrapped around my face and a ski cap pulled down tight. I tried to pull the straps tighter; however, because they were made of woven fabric, wet, and to top it off, frozen solid, I could not budge them.
I had to run back to the warmth of the cab three times to get warm. I could only stay out there for five minutes at a time.
Finally, I had had enough and trembling, I began to pray.
“Dear Father in Heaven,” I said. “Please help me get this load straight. It is too cold and because of the surgery, I just do not have the strength. Will you please send me an angel?”
No sooner had I closed my prayer than a truck passing by radioed to me, “Driver, do you need help?”
In tears I answered, “Yes, I need all the help I can get.”
Another voice said, “I’ll turn around and be right there.”
I sat there in the cab rejoicing that my prayer had been answered so quickly, not knowing about the turn of events that were about to happen.
I looked in my mirror and saw a large man standing at the last trailer motioning to me to come back. I was out of that truck in a heartbeat and ran back to him.
He said, “Looks like your straps have loosened. Let’s get them tightened up.”
Together we shoved the frozen load back into place. I asked him, “Are you an angel?”
“No,” was his reply. “I’m a driver just like you. My name is Bill. If we pull together with your bar, we can break the ice free and tighten up your straps. Boy, it sure is cold out here. Let’s go sit inside your cab for a bit and warm up.”
That was music to my ears. We quickly climbed up into the cab and the heat was almost too hot. I looked at the thermometer and it said the outside temperature was a minus 23 degrees. I cautiously looked at Bill and asked once more, “Are you sure you’re not an angel sent by God?” I explained the prayer and the quick response time of the answer.
Bill just smiled and said, “Well, we better get that tightened up. I don’t know about you, but I’m freezing.”
Twice we had to get in the cab and warm up before we could finish. On the last attempt we got the frozen straps pulled tight and the load was secure once again.
I looked long and hard at Bill, and then I said, “Well, Bill, you say you’re not an angel, but I have to tell you, tonight you are.” I gave him a big hug and we said our goodbyes and I hurried toward the cab. When I got to the cab I turned and looked back. There was no sign of Bill. There was not the sound of a vehicle or any headlights in that darkest and most freezing of all nights. It was just me, the truck, and the ever present wind of Wyoming.
To this day, drivers refer to that location as Angel Junction, and for good reason. On that night God answered my prayer and sent me the angel I had so sincerely asked for.
I looked long and hard at Bill, and then I said, “Well, Bill, you say you’re not an angel, but I have to tell you, tonight you are.”