Terror on Interstate 5
By Russ Towne
What started as an exciting adventure turned into the most terrifying time of my life. It happened in the early ’70s in the middle of the night on a long and lonely stretch of Interstate 5 between distant small farming communities.
My mom and her friend, Mary, were taking their children to Disneyland. Mary was driving late at night so the smaller kids would sleep during most of the 400-mile trip. All seven of us were jammed into our Travel-All, a large SUV-type vehicle with huge, heavy tires made for 4-wheeling.
At age fifteen, I was the oldest of the kids and got to sit with the adults on the less-crowded front bench seat. It was warm and quiet, and I was excited about Disneyland but already missing a girl at school.
BLAM-BANG! Our vehicle began wobbling wildly as if the big beast was trying to decide whether to flip over sideways or end-over-end. We started spinning while bucking from side to side. A kaleidoscope of zigzagging spinning lights streaked all around us as we grabbed for something to hang onto in sheer terror. We braced for the inevitable crash or roll.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl while our world spun out of control in a fast-motion nightmare. When we finally stopped spinning, we were hit with a shockwave of the blaring horns and glaring lights of two rapidly approaching eighteen-wheelers. Our dazed brains realized that we were straddling both lanes facing the wrong way on the freeway.
With no time to react, we watched in sheer terror as the big rigs roared past, inches from each side, violently rocking our rig. We were all shaking even after our vehicle stopped moving.
Mary drove the stricken Travel-All to the side of the freeway. After making sure the kids were not hurt other than bumped noggins and knees, Mom told them to stay in the rig. She, Mary, and I got out to see what happened.
The stench of burned rubber hung in the air. In the intermittent light of passing cars, we saw that both a front and rear tire diagonally opposite each other had blown. We were lucky to be alive. But, we remained in a dangerous situation, stuck on the side of the freeway with one spare tire and two flats, on a dark night with traffic whizzing past.
A big rig stopped and two men got out. They checked our spare tire then jacked up the Travel-All to replace one of the damaged tires. They took off the second tire and offered to take one of us to the nearest town where they knew someone who worked in a garage and could help us.
I didn’t want either my mom or Mary to be alone with two strange men on a dark highway, and I knew they didn’t want to leave their little ones. As the oldest kid, it was up to me to go. I was scared, but going with them seemed the best of several bad options.
The men smiled and seemed friendly enough so my mom reluctantly agreed to let me go with the men for help. She gave me some money to pay the garage guy.
The men put the ruined tire in a spare tire rack under their trailer. They said the garage guy would fix the tire and then come back with me to put on the fixed tire.
I saw the worried looks on Mom’s and Mary’s faces as one of the men said in a friendly voice, “C’mon, son, climb in.” I grabbed my jacket, waved goodbye to my mom and climbed into the cab.
It was dark inside. At the time, I didn’t think to wonder why the truck’s dome light didn’t come on when the doors were opened. The driver told me to sit in the back. As I turned to do as he said, my right hand touched the top of the driver’s seatback and felt something semi-liquid and sticky. I pulled my hand away and wiped it on my pants. It was too dark to see.
I’d never been in the cab of a big rig before. Behind the front seats was an area with what felt like a bed nearly the width of the cab. I guessed it must be where truckers slept when they were on long hauls far from home. The men didn’t say anything as the driver pulled onto the highway. I was surprised by the loud noise of the engine and noticed the extra gear shifts it took to get up to highway speed.
I sat on the edge of the bed hoping the trip to the garage would be short. After a few miles, we passed a lighted exit, a glowing oasis in a desert of darkness. As we drove past, the light lit their faces for a moment just as the men turned to glance at each other. The cold looks on their faces drove a big chill up my spine.