atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#6041: Only In A Jeep

"Only in a Jeep," they say. Right.

Let me tell you about a Christmas miracle.

I'm an RF engineer--I design radio systems--and I work about ninety miles from home. My commute is a weekly thing; I drive to work Monday morning, stay in an extended-stay place during the week, and drive home Friday night. My job pays a lot of money, but it doesn't pay enough to make me want to live closer to it. I tried to retire from it, but they kept raising my salary until I couldn't resist staying a few years longer. They pay the extended-stay. They pay my mileage. I insisted, and they didn't balk, because I'm the only person who knows everything about our products. Kids these days--if it doesn't have some kind of microcontroller in it, they can't hack it; half our customer base uses analog radios, they like them fine, and they don't want to change to digital because it would simply cost too damned much. Regardless of how you're modulating it, in the end, RF is RF, and it's analog.

When I was in engineering school, I chose to go into RF precisely because it--from the outside--looked like black magic. The physics courses and the math courses and the electronics all blended into one hellish blur of electromagnetism and calculus, but at the end of it I was top of my class, and I understood it. Long after digital systems became commonplace I still preferred analog circuits; digital was stultifyingly simple by comparison. And most of the time, a problem that a digital guy could solve for five dollars a unit, I could solve for half that.

RF is tricky stuff, and the higher the frequency goes, the trickier it gets. Once you're in the microwave bands, you're pretty much in rarefied territory. So when I made noises about retiring--yeah.

So happened that Christmas Eve was a Friday that year, and further, we got hit with the kind of blizzard that only comes a couple of times a century. Now, I'd always been a Jeep guy. My first new vehicle had been a CJ-6--what they later called the "Wrangler"--and these days I drove a Grand Cherokee, an '04, the last year you could get them with solid axles. I didn't like the independent suspension versions, so it had been years since I bought a new truck. Jeeps go and go, anyway, so that was fine.

So when the weather folks started talking "winter storm warning" I pretty much ignored it. Living where I did, that usually meant "we're getting a few inches of snow; everyone panic." It gets cold in winter here, more often than not, but we just don't get a lot of snow.

And when I left work that evening, around 4:30--which is typical for Fridays--there were a few inches on the ground, maybe four or five, nothing the Jeep couldn't handle easily. A couple of hours of driving, maybe a bit longer because of the snow--and then I'd be home with my family. Kids anbd grandkids were supposed to be coming to stay overnight with us; I'd been looking forward to that. I wouldn't even have been there on Christmas Eve if it hadn't been for a top priority rush job for one of our biggest customers, needing a new feedhorn design for a satellite downlink. I'd put three solid weeks in on that one, hoping to have it done by the 22nd, but the inevitable spec changes kept me working on it a couple extra days. Make up your minds before you send me the spec and I'll hit your deadline. If you start changing things--

But I was only a day past it, and it was done, and I was off for the rest of the year, so I brushed the snow off the truck humming "Let It Snow" while the engine warmed up a bit.

Once inside and belted I put her in drive and tested the traction. The rear settled and the wheels spun, the truck inching forward; with a grunt I stepped on the brake, pulled the transfer case lever into 4H, and tried again. This time she eased forward properly, wheels biting and pulling her ahead. The dash light confirmed it was in AWD mode; if I really needed pulling power I could go into part-time 4WD, where all the differentials were locked--and in the worst case, 4L, which was the underdrive gear that multiplied the torque available at the wheels.

The streets had been plowed not too long before, but there was maybe an inch of fresh snow over pavement. It was only a little slick. I drove about the speed limit, instead of speeding along above it as I normally would. Got on the highway; it was pretty normal there, too, maybe just a bit slick. I settled into my seat and flipped on a station playing Christmas music and relaxed, expecting a normal commute home.

Perhaps an hour into my drive, though--fifteen minutes after I'd left the highway for the country road that went by my house--things suddenly got worse.

Although it had snowed the entire time, it had been moderate; now, suddenly, it turned into a near-whiteout. I had another forty miles to go, and the weather had just turned bad. Belatedly I recalled that the weather forecast had said the snowfall would be moderate until something like six PM, at which point it would turn into a blizzard. For crying out loud, why was this the one time the weatherman was right?

I pulled off the road into an accident investigation site and considered my options. About twelve miles back was the interstate, and perhaps another fifteen minutes along there I'd find a hotel. Thirty minutes of driving in this junk, probably more due to worsening conditions. On the other hand, an equivalent amount of time--more or less--and I'd be home, with my family.

I could not stay where I was, that was certain. Forward or back? The choice was obvious.

Fifteen minutes later I began wondering if I'd made the right decision. I'd slowed, and slowed again, and now I was barely making 20 MPH, my hazard lights going. I could barely see the limit of my headlights; the road had barriers on one side but all I could see of that was the shape it made in the deepening snow. Fortunately, the wind swept a mere quarter of the two-lane road clean of snow, so that I had one narrow track in which my passenger side tires could run. The driver's side tires were wallowing in six to eight inches of the stuff. Every so often I'd plow through a snowdrift and find myself driving by Braille until things cleared enough for me to see. As it was, it was falling so fast I had to keep my windshield defroster on high; I was sweating my ass off even with my coat off and the windows cracked.

That's when the deer came.

Stupid animal ran right out in front of me. I was not going very fast, but I reflexively stood on the brakes; and because my speed was really too slow for the antilock system to do much of anything, the truck went into a skid, and the next thing I knew the truck was off the side of the road, nose-deep in the ditch.

Put her into reverse, and the wheels just spun. Locked the diffs and she moved--sideways, not backward, and after a few moments of finagling I ended up all the way in the ditch.

Still more annoyed than concerned, I threw off my seat belt and pulled my coat on, then got out and opened the liftgate. I keep a pretty well-stocked tool chest back there, with things like jumper cables, a tire repair kit, tow straps--all kinds of things. In fact, this time I was carrying my acetylene torch set, because I'd loaned it to a coworker and he'd just returned it to me that week. But what I was after this time was the folding shovel.

I dug the folding shovel out and started working on clearing a path out of the snow. After about twenty minutes I realized I should call my wife, so I pulled out my phone. No signal.

"Perfect," I sighed. There was one dead spot on my route home; of course I'd found it. Nothing for it, so I continued working on my digging.

"This is ridiculous," I said after a while, having dug trenches in front of my wheels almost all the way up to the road. "Shoulda told them to stuff their deadline. Shit."

Tossed the shovel into the front passenger footwell and tried again. The Jeep moved forward perhaps three feet, and then started screwing sideways again. No matter what I did, I could not get the nose to point up the bank to the road. Even when I got her pointed so that her front end was perpendicular to the slope, it simply would not climb; instead it would go sideways.

I stopped to think about this. Traction was the problem. Would the old floormat trick help?

I tried it--jamming the floor mats under the front tires and the rear ones under the back. It got me about two feet up the embankement, after which I hit snow and she started screwing sideways again. But I retrieved the mats and did it again; and to my surprise, after repeating this process about half a million times, I was on the road again.

It was nearly nine PM.

After catching my breath, I put her in gear and headed homeward again. "I really am getting too old for this horseshit," I commented to no one in particular. "I'm retiring in January. My mind's made up!"

But I was crawling homeward at 10 MPH, and the weather was deteriorating, and now I was only catching glimpses of the road; it was perhaps 90% covered now. My headlights were thrown back by seemingly solid wall of whirling snow, and saying I had twenty feet of visibility would probably be an exaggeration. I was still maybe twenty miles out, and now the Jeep was starting to have trouble with the snowdrifts. If I didn't get home in about the next hour or so, I realized, I might not make it at all.

I hadn't even seen another vehicle on the road since stopping at the accident site.

I stopped and checked my phone. Still no signal. Sighing, I pressed onward.

The wipers--now on high--were barely keeping the windshield clear, but I could see that ahead of me there was a kind of thickening of the snow; and after a few moments I could see a ruddy glow, like taillights, so I got ready to slow down.

I'll be dipped in shit if there wasn't this crazy guy there with a team of horses and a frigging sleigh. I counted some eight or nine animals in harness, which seemed excessive but for the sleigh itself, which was massive. I mean, it was the size of a U Haul, mostly open. I couldn't see what was in it, though it looked to me like some kind of excursion thing--but who would do that on a night like this? It was ornate, painted a deep cherry red, the runners and ironwork elaborate and beautiful. Anyway it was hanging off the road at an angle, just like I had been an hour earlier.

The guy was even wearing a Santa Claus outfit.

I stopped the Jeep and got out. "Hey, you need help?"

"Yes, my friend, I certainly do!"

He shook my hand, and in the Jeep's headlights I could see this guy was fully in character--big curly beard, rosy cheeks and nose, and he had the voice you'd expect a Santa Claus to have. "I haven't seen a blizzard like this in--well, a long time," he said with a chuckle. "I'm not sure why, but my sleigh is actually stuck."

"Let me look," I said. It took only a couple seconds with a flashlight--the runner, on the left side, had broken, and now the support dug into the ground beneath it, immobilizing the sleigh. I pointed this out to the guy, who clucked.

"My, my," he said. "This is certainly a pickle. I don't have anything that could fix this."

I remembered the torch. "As it turns out, I do, I think," I said. I explained what I meant, and the guy helped me with the gear. We rigged the Jeep's jack to lift the sleigh up, and then I welded the runner back together before welding it back to the support strut. It took some time, but not as much as I'd feared; it was an ugly kludge compared with the beautiful ironwork, but it was fixed and it was strong. Shortly we were putting the gear back into the Jeep.

The guy got back into the sleigh and took the reins, but the animals couldn't pull the sleigh out of the rut it was in. "This early I'm afraid the load is heavy," the guy said, the chuckle still in his voice.

"I've got a tow strap."

"Perfect! Bring it to me, friend, and I'll bend it on!"

So there I was, waiting for his signal; and when he bellowed, "On, all!" I eased onto the gas. The Jeep's tires clawed at the snow, but soon things moved, and after a moment the guy yelled, "All right!"

Retrieved my tow strap--and by now I could hardly see five feet in front of me. "You all right from here?" I asked him.

"I will be; but you may not. Why don't you follow me? You don't have much farther to go, do you?"

"Not very."

"I'll lead, then."

I was tired enough by now that I didn't think to ask any questions. I just got into the Jeep and followed the guy; and after a little while I saw my driveway and turned into it. The sleigh stopped, though, so I got out and went to the front of it.

"Merry Christmas," he said, handing a wrapped box to me.

"Oh, you don't have to," I said.

"No, but it's what I do," he said with a wink; and then he slapped the reins and they were off again, belled harnesses jingling merrily. By some chance of the wind, the snow cleared enough for me to watch the sleigh glide into the night; and just before I lost sight of it I could have sworn I saw it lift into the air; but after a moment, a rosy light begin to shine from the front of the team.

And that's when I knew: I'd just helped Santa Claus out of a ditch on Christmas Eve. Only in a Jeep.

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