The two behind you

We were a young couple barely able to make it. With our little daughter, we were living in the house my husband grew up in. Cory was driving a delivery truck for the local plumbing distributor, and at the time I was working at a daycare center. Between baby formula and diapers, there wasn’t much extra.

We have generations of truck drivers on both sides of the family. As with every driver, there was a lifetime of stories to come with them. Cory’s grandfather worked on the TVA dam system back in the 1930s. My grandparents hauled hogs, chickens and lumber throughout the eastern Tennessee mountains. So there was no surprise when Cory passed his exam and received his CDL. About a month later he had a job offer. Even though it was his dream and he wanted to at least try, he was leaving his wife and baby girl at home.

A few weeks later, Cory called on his way home and said he was bringing somebody with him. I asked who. “Well, he’s just another trucker in need of a hot meal and a warm place to sleep,” Cory said.

I was curious but had no problem with it. Cory was a good judge of people. I told him I would make plenty for everybody and get some bedclothes out for him. A few hours later, two big tractor-trailers roared up to our little house. Crissy was squealing with joy and wriggling so hard I could barely hold her. The other driver came in and was introduced as Jasper. We offered him a couch with warm quilts and two fluffy pillows. He was so appreciative it looked like he almost had tears in his eyes. In the beginning he just kept eating and smiling, but eventually Jasper began to tell us about his wife and little girl in West Virginia and how his dad owned a shop and bought this tractor from a buddy who needed the money. Jasper thought he would have a go at running the roads. We began discussing how things had changed and that the respect of truckers somehow had been lost.

When everything was quiet, I asked Cory what made him think to bring Jasper home. “Well, we started talking on the CB and he told me that he was going to drop in Suwanee, Georgia,” Cory said. “I told him that was where I was headed. He asked if there were any cheap hotels in the area because his heater was acting up and it was pretty cold. It wouldn’t have been right not to offer for him to stay here.

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“We don’t have much, Melissa, but we have our family and a warm place to sleep and food to eat. He started talking about his little girl and wife. The one thing I’ve learned in the short time I’ve been on the road is you get lonely and missing your family pretty quick. I thought it might do him some good.”

Jasper got up with us and had some morning coffee. Cory offered to crank Jasper’s truck and asked if he needed anything for his rig. Jasper winked and said, “No, my friend, you’ve give me plenty. I should be fine for the next couple thousand miles.” They both smiled.

Jasper politely thanked me for cooking and allowing him into our home. He then shook Cory’s hand and went out to his truck. Little did Cory know that the favor to Jasper would be repaid sooner than he thought.

By Tuesday, news reporters were saying the winter storm in the Northeast had given them worry that it would turn into a blizzard. Later on that evening, Cory called and said that he had a load of contaminated rocks destined for Michigan and he’d made it to Kentucky.
He assured me that he would be fine. He had his CB and ham radio. If anything happened he would be able to get hold of someone.

Wednesday evening came and by 10 p.m. there was still no phone call from Cory. His cell phone was either dead or had no signal. The reports were that all interstates coming out of Tennessee and Virginia were shut down and emergency workers were shuttling people off the interstate to makeshift housing at local schools or motels. Praying and crying was about all I could do as I heard the folks on CNN and the local news talking about the weather deteriorating.

I woke up about 5 a.m. the next morning, fixed some hot chocolate and turned the TV back on to see what was going on. I held my breath. Then my worst fear hit – one of those moments where time stops and you hear words but don’t want them to make sense.

A reporter was on an interstate:

We are here on scene where the State Patrol is using the National Guard to get these truckers and passengers out of this weather. They have been doing this transport since about an hour ago. We hitched a ride with one of the sheriff’s officers to bring you this story.

Two solid lines of tractor-trailers and all kinds of other vehicles. Wind blowing so hard the reporters and officers had to hold on to the bumpers of the trucks and door handles of cars to stay on the ground. With the next few words my stomach sank to a depth I’ve never felt.

We have two fatalities due to the cold. The truckers pulled up to each other as close as they could to keep their trucks running and stay warm. Unfortunately, two of the trucks quit during the early morning hours and their drivers have been found deceased. We can’t release their names at this time as authorities are trying to contact next of kin.

But something should be said for a few of these drivers, who went to the line waking up other truckers to get them into National Guard vehicles. There is one gentleman who won’t give us his name, but he was the one who contacted the sheriff to let them know everyone was stranded and couldn’t move. The best they could do was make room in the center to allow emergency vehicles to get through. Let’s see if we can catch him for a few words.

I started crying, because there was the driver I’d had in my home, offered my momma’s homemade blankets and had seen leave with a smile. Jasper was bundled up. You could only see his face and the shy way he shook his head as he declined to talk to reporters. All he said was, “Too much to do right now, fellas.”

They panned through the trucks again. I looked for Cory’s. “God, please don’t let it be him,” I said. “Please just get him home or let him make it where I can go to get him.”
All sorts of thoughts and bargains began to run through my mind and out of my mouth. Prayers became threats and then sobbing pleas.

The morning hours dragged on, and the TV kept showing little clips of the trucks lined up. Needless to say, I was glued to the television for the rest of the day.

They were using wreckers now to pull trucks off the road, and some of the trucks had gelled diesel. They were towing them back to a nearby truckstop. Then I saw just a glimpse of the back of some man’s head. Oh my God, is it? “Go back,” I pleaded with the TV, but it showed no more. About 3 p.m., the baby and I fell asleep rocking in the recliner.

We both woke with a start when the phone rang. I grabbed it before I was truly awake and said, “Hello!” First there was no answer. “Hello!” Then I heard him. “Baby, it’s me.”

All I could do was start crying. He asked if I was OK, and I nodded my head as if he could see me. I then said yes and asked what happened.

“Well, I started up the mountain with a bunch of other trucks and we had already been told it was icy up there,” Cory said. “But we couldn’t go back down. We were getting close to the top. We thought it would be better on the other side.”

Cory continued explaining that they were inching along until one of the rookies got spooked and jackknifed his trailer across both lanes. They were up against a mountain, and the CB was working. But the antenna for the ham radio had been broken by a tree limb.

“We just hunkered down and pulled close to one another trying to keep the trucks running,” he said. “We made sure everyone had food and blankets. Couple of the drivers pulled people from their cars and into the cabs of their trucks.”

Cory described it was getting colder and colder and the wind was blowing so hard a person couldn’t stand to be out in it. Walking out to get help was out of the question.

“I guess it was about 3 a.m. when someone was banging on my door because it was frozen,” Cory said. “When I got up out of the blankets, I realized my truck had quit. The water bottle sitting on the dash was frozen solid, and it was all I could do to open the door.”
Then Cory saw it was Jasper, screaming over the wind.

“Get your important stuff and leave the truck,” Jasper yelled. “People are dying, and we have to get out of here.”

“I was confused, but I did what he said,” Cory continued. “By the time we got into the old military-style wrecker Jasper had been driving, there were five of us. I finally asked him what was going on.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Well, Cory, by the time I got to you guys and realized the trucks were quitting, I started calling the police. No one knew youn’s were stranded. When I got to the back of the line, I started waking drivers up.'”

Cory said Jasper started blowing the horns on the trucks that were still running or had enough air pressure. Jasper told Cory the trucks that were behind him were exposed to the cold air filtering up from the valley. Jasper told Cory the drivers didn’t make it.

“Baby, I got a cold chill up my spine then,” Cory said as he begin to sob. “When he got in the wrecker, we started back to his dad’s shop. We let the other guys out and then we went back to get more. That’s all we done for the last 12 hours. I’m sorry that I didn’t call ’til now.”

Cory then told me how Jasper and his family were returning the favor of hospitality. He had to get his truck towed in and get the diesel heated up. He gave me a phone number to Jasper’s house. He said Jasper’s wife was running the CB there and it was a meeting place for a lot of locals, including the county police.

Cory promised he would call later but told me if something came up to call Jasper’s house. I hung up the phone, numb, then looked at little Crissy. She just grinned her little toothless smile.

Cory came home Saturday to his favorite meal, a hot shower, a warm bed and his two favorite girls. When we finally got the little one down to bed, I asked him again what happened on that mountain in West Virginia.

“I don’t understand how I got on that interstate,” Cory said. “I can’t figure it out. I was heading toward Detroit with that rock, but I somehow wound up there.

“Guess during one of those whiteouts, I took a wrong turn somewhere. Or maybe it was the right turn.

“Jasper said that it was worrying him, how bad the weather was. He said it felt like a responsibility since he lived so close to the interstate. He knew how those mountains were unforgiving, and that you couldn’t get any type of signal through them if someone was hurt. He just felt like he had to go check the interstate, and that’s how he came upon us – him and that old military wrecker. Funny how we crossed paths before, isn’t it?”

I told Cory I loved him and it would be a few days before I would let him go. He agreed to take a few days off. Once again, I saw that twinkling smile and thanked God for taking care of him.

There is a reason we cross paths with people. You never know when you’re going to need someone’s help. Angels come in all shapes, sizes and time of the day.

So keep your eyes open and your heart full. Welcome the next stranger who crosses your path.

About the Author
Melissa Sinyard of Canton, Ga., became interested in writing as a child. Because of her hot temper, her mother taught her to write down her feelings each day, a task that eventually became a bigger part of her life.

Sinyard says she enjoys writing because it allows her to remember certain aspects of life that would otherwise be lost to time. The main thing Sinyard hopes readers gain from her short story is the notion that we should all help people.

“The connection between helping someone and having that help being returned to you is really what the story is about,” she says.

Sinyard and her husband are volunteer firefighters and work for 911 in Forsyth County, Ga. They have two children and three cats.

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