"What's that sound?" he asked, trying not to incite panic.
Ever the confident and highly attuned navigator, his wife had incorrectly assessed this particular set of external input. "I think that's just the truck next to us."
His twelve-year-old daughter possessed an even finer aptitude for the presence of discomfort and potential peril. Embedded in her backseat audio visual command center, she removed her headphones and pressed "pause," hoping to only briefly suspend her viewing of Have You Heard About the Morgans?
"Dad, is everything okay?"
"Yep. Don't worry."
He watched the truck recede into the distance, yet the sound intensified. The shimmying had rapidly transformed into a thud-thudding. "Nope. That's us." Tentacles of acrid rubber vapor slithered through the vents as a faint essence became an overwhelming stench. Blue smoke rooster-tailed in the rear view mirror, closer than it appeared according to the stenciled fine print.
"We've got a blow-out." Thank God he didn't say "Houston" first.
The navigator broke her silence with a reassessment and some sound advice. "Tim, pull over."
He guided the wobbling van to the right shoulder of Interstate 5. With the options minimal, the lame vehicle settled two feet from a guard rail on the right and approximately four feet from the white fog line on the left. Speeding automobiles shook the van with each passing.
"Dad, I'm scared."
It was the ending to a seven-day extended family vacation on the Oregon coast. Kite flying and bumper cars and boogie boarding and barbecuing and laughing and playing games and eating and drinking way too much had baked itself into the tastiest, most golden brown holiday casserole in recent memory.
Grandma and Grandpa came. So cute.
An uncle who, finally been released from prison after having served an eight-month term for importing counterfeit Depends from Uzbekistan, couldn't wait to sit next to a kids' picnic table in his socks and drink two beers at once.
Cousins, standing in front of a quick ocean portrait sketched by your humble author with a broken crayon he'd found under some pot holders, got a chance to reconnect.
But it wasn't all fun and frivolity. Here's a heart-wrenching image of the younger brother staging an intervention with his sister as their father looks on. As much as the family adores her, when that many people occupy one house with limited resources, a compulsive bathroom tissue eater cannot be tolerated.
This is the last photograph taken of her before she was driven to a treatment facility in Bend.
But now, the afterglow of the seven-day frolic had evaporated in the constant doppler din of the passing traffic. He quickly assessed his options:
He could unload all baggage from the cargo area, remove two seats and pry out that spare tire-ish thing that wasn't much bigger than the plate at Azteca that held the deluxe enchilada combo. Then, if he were able to change the front driver's side tire without getting his head JFK'd by a texting seventeen-year-old, he might be able to drive to the nearest tire store, wherever that was.
He could hop over the guardrail, leaving his wife and daughter in harm's way while he walked into the adjacent town to summon a tow truck.
Opting for the second alternative, he leapt over the guardrail, dropping six feet to the road below. Landing awkwardly, he nearly fell and stumbled off the half-sidewalk which wasn't designed for pedestrian traffic. He crossed the street and scanned the main thoroughfare through the town of Kalama, Washington, population two thousand, three hundred forty-six.
Two full service gas stations had been converted into mini-marts—no luck there. He ducked into a hardware store after canvassing the entire downtown area, and informed the shopkeeper of his predicament. Due to his own negligence and ill-placed hubris, his cell phone battery was dead, so the kindly woman found a towing company in a small directory and loaned him the shop's phone. He called the number, willing himself to stay calm while thoughts of his imperiled family members consciously electrified his voice, and was assured that a truck was on its way. After profusely thanking the woman behind the counter, he anxiously strode back to his hobbled vehicle and its inhabitants.
The van sat on the elevated interstate on the opposite side of the six-foot retaining wall, an obstacle he hadn't anticipated scaling upon his return. Built at an outward angle to prevent climbing, he flailed like a hapless boot camp trainee on the filthy concrete. The wall extended in both directions as far as he could see, so he persevered. Each attempt proved less fruitful than the one prior.
The sound of an approaching car engine forced his head to jerk backwards, and a small green pickup stopped behind him, its window already rolled down. "Go ahead and hop onto the bed. Then you can step over," the smiling Samaritan exclaimed.
"I must have looked ridiculous trying to get over this thing, huh?"
The driver smiled.
Hopping into the bed, he easily stepped over the rail and back onto the freeway shoulder. Mutual relief and anxiety betrayed the facial expressions of all members upon their reunion, and they huddled in the van with only the hazard lights and four feet separating them from ton after ton of rapidly moving metal and glass.
Like an oasis to a thirst-crazed desert crawler, each approaching vehicle resembled a tow truck, only to morph into an SUV or RV or F-150 hauling an Airstream. At length, the ongoing mirage materialized into a flatbedded vehicle of deliverance, and he couldn't resist contemplating the polarized emotions people experience at the sight of a tow truck.
The truck's operator moved with stealth and speed, wasting no motion at the expense of further time spent in a high-risk arena. He ushered the mother and daughter into the safety of the truck's cab while the father rode in the injured van, a mere figurehead in the driver's seat. The hydraulic ramp leveled off and the truck pulled onto the interstate.
He exhaled deeply from his perch, feeling slightly popelike while gazing over the top of the rig at the oncoming traffic.
Ninety minutes later, the van would find its legs again, thanks to the Les Schwab in Longview, a couple of kind people in Kalama, and around four hundred additional vacation dollars.
The family returned safely, nine hours after having departed their vacation paradise.
He entered his house, said hello to the cat and plugged in his cellphone.