Our saga began on Saturday, August 17, near Littleton, Massachusetts.
Marilyn and I were driving south on I-495 on the first leg of our journey home to North Carolina following three delightful weeks hanging out in Maine. We were headed to Old Lyme, Connecticut to meet some former Raleigh neighbors for supper, spend the night at a local inn, and drive on to the Philadelphia area on Sunday morning.
Marilyn was at the wheel when the Low Fuel warning light came on.
“You don’t have to pull off right away,” I said. “We have enough gas to go another 40 miles or so.”
Marilyn ignored me, which turned out to be our first stroke of good fortune. “I don’t like to take a chance,” she said, and immediately began looking for the next exit.
A couple of minutes later, we swung off the interstate toward Littleton. A sign pointed us to the west for gas but didn’t say how far off the highway it was. After half a mile, no station had appeared. Then a second warning light came on. “Check Tire Pressure,” it said, indicating a problem with our left rear tire.
“No need to panic,” I thought, because I had checked the tires just before we departed from Maine and had added air to that very one because its pressure was a couple of pounds lower than the others.
“That tire that I pumped up is probably still a little low,” I said. “I’ll check it when we get gas.” At almost that moment a gas station and convenience store appeared ahead. Marilyn pulled up to the self-service pump. As I pumped the gas, I could see that the tire was noticeably low and getting lower by the minute. “Uh-oh,” I thought.
When the tank was filled Marilyn moved the car to the side of an adjacent to a wash bay where the station’s air hose was located, but before I could do anything I saw that the tire was flat as a pancake. Knowing that our Acura’s spare tire was a “donut” or temporary spare than could be driven only a few miles, and then at 50 MPH or less, it suddenly struck me that we were in need of a tire in a unfamiliar town many miles from our destination at four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. I entered the convenience store and approached the attendant, who was talking to a customer. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” said, “but I have a flat tire and need to call Triple A. Can you tell me the address here?”
“It’s 25 King Street,” she replied. I thanked her and began dialing the AAA number on my cell phone as I returned to the car, where Marilyn was already removing our luggage, cooler, and other vacation detritus from the cargo area to get access to the funky little spare. As I navigated AAA’s phone system, a man and young boy came out of the convenience store and approached us.
The man gestured toward my hat, which bore a Carolina blue UNC logo. He asked, “Could you use some help from a fellow Tar Heel?”
“That would be great,” Marilyn told him, and introduced herself. “I’m Marilyn,” she said. “Patrick,” he replied, and immediately began pulling the jack and spare out of the car. I gave him a thumbs up and mouthed a “thank you” while I talked to the AAA dispatcher, who was sending a truck and said she would help me find a tire store nearby. Almost immediately a huge truck pulled up. On the door was painted “W.C. Gurrisi & Sons, Inc.” The driver jumped down, entered the truck’s cargo space, and emerged with a pneumatic lug wrench in hand. While Patrick handled the jack, our second Good Samaritan, who introduced himself as “Bill,” removed the defunct tire and mounted the temporary spare. The scene would have been familiar to anyone who has ever watched the pit crews at a NASCAR race. They were done in five minutes or less.
While Bill and Patrick worked, the AAA dispatcher was giving me a combination of good and bad news. The good news was that Sullivan Tire, a venerable New England company with which I had done business previously — including replacing ruined tires in Boston and Maine on two previous trips — had a location less than two miles away in Westport, an adjoining town. The bad news was that the store would close at five o’clock and would not be open on Sunday. I looked at my watch as I dialed the number. It was 4:20 PM. I hastily described my situation to the gentleman who answered the phone. “Get here as quickly as you can,” he said, “and we’ll see what we can do. I don’t know if we have your tire in stock, but as it happens this is Massachusetts’ tax-free weekend, so we will be open tomorrow.” I quickly scribbled down Patrick’s and Bill’s names, thanked them profusely but inadequately, and drove off.
We arrived at Sullivan Tire shortly before their closing time. After looking up my name and history in their computer system, the manager said, “I can’t do anything today because my technicians leave at five. I have a tire in stock that could get you back to North Carolina, but it doesn’t match the tire we put on your car last year, so you’d need to replace it when you get home. Since tomorrow is the one Sunday in the year that we are open, I can get the right tire in the morning and get you out of here by noon or a little after. That’s what I recommend.”
Astonished by our good fortune over having hit on a 1-in-52 chance to get a tire on Sunday, we readily agreed. While Marilyn called our friends to let them know we weren’t going to make it to Connecticut, I dialed the inn in Groton where we had booked a room for the night. When I explained why we wouldn’t be coming, the manager graciously canceled the reservation without penalty. At that point I exhaled fully for the first time in an hour and put in a call to a nearby Hampton Inn, which had a room available.
When we checked in at the hotel, our good luck continued. Upon learning that we were stopping for the night by accident, the desk clerk said, “Well, you reserved a king room, but I’m going to upgrade you to a king suite at the same rate.”
The rest of our bad luck/good luck story unfolded beautifully. The king suite was comfortable, the Italian restaurant recommended by the desk clerk was terrific, the new tire was on the car by lunch time on Sunday, and despite heavy traffic we made it to Kennett Square, Pennsylvania for dinner. After two delightful days exploring Longwood Gardens, Winterthur, the Brandywine River Museum and the Nemours Estate, we arrived home safely — and gratefully.
Looking back, we were amazed by our good fortune. Imagine how much worse our stroke of bad luck would have been if Marilyn had not exited the interstate when she did; we would have been stranded on the side of a busy highway instead of at the gas station where help was available. Who could have imagined the simultaneous appearances of Bill and Patrick, both of whom were away from their own homes when fate turned them into a team of tire-changing dynamos? How could we have anticipated that Sullivan Tire would be open on the one Sunday in the year that we needed them, that the Connecticut hotel would cancel our reservation at no charge, or that the Hampton Inn receptionist would upgrade our booking?
There’s no way adequately to thank these strangers for their kindness, and only one way even to try. We can only hope that someday, somewhere the opportunity will arise for us to pay them forward.