I’d lived most of my life in Eastern Montana, famous for beastly winter blizzards and snowstorms. Double-digit sub-zero temps froze everything too slow to move.
“I’m so glad the worst of the storm passed,” Mom said. “There’s plenty of daylight to make the way back to your home.”
“Can you see Daddy and the girls up ahead?” Both hands squeezed the steering wheel, as I watched the slippery road.
“Yes. Daddy slowed to keep an eye on us. You’ll see his pick-up as soon as that eighteen-wheeler clears the hill,” Mom said. Susie* shifted in Mom’s arms at the sound of our voices.
The infant car seat had satisfied the baby for about an hour. After that, her screaming made Mom beg just to hold Susie. I’d agreed because her shrieks unnerved me. Susie fell into a deep sleep as soon as Mom set her on her lap.
The giant tires flung clouds of snow as the driver accelerated. Dad’s red taillights flickered through the puffs of the passing semi.
At last, I relaxed at the sight of Daddy’s pick-up. Nothing between us now but a car-length’s distance of light snow and inches of fluffy layers over ice. Looking straight ahead, I began to laugh.
“Do you see Jamie* and Deni*, Mom?” I tightened my grip on the wheel, lifting one arm for a quick wave at the kids.
The youngsters knelt backward on the bench seat next to my father. Their grins stretched across their little faces, while they wildly waved one hand, then the other.
As soon as Mom and I waved, I saw two little heads turn towards Dad. One quick final wave and both girls resumed the forward position on the seat.
“I wondered how long Daddy’d let the kids do that,” I said to Mom with a giggle. “He’d never in a million years have let us do that when we were kids.”
“Of course not. But then, he was your father. He’s the grandfather now,” Mom said in a whisper as Susie began to squirm.
Neither of us wanted to deal with a fussy eleven-month-old, so we stopped talking to one another.
Before long, the brilliant sun broke through the wintery calm. What a beautiful sight on either side of the county highway. Tall evergreens stood near frozen creeks, caps of snow topping every green bough. Even the jet-black Angus herd had a layer of the white stuff on their backs. We had plenty of time to notice because the solid ice kept the traffic at a snail’s pace of stop and go.
Finally, we arrived in the next town of our journey, crossed through using the main street, and picked up a bit of speed. The snowplows had been out ahead of us. Unfortunately, so had the not—so-careful motorists.
“Slow down, Honey!” Mom said, struggling to speak softly.
“I just started to pump the brakes, Mom. I see the Highway Patrol on the left up ahead.”
Susie no longer slept but remained calm in my mother’s arms. As we passed the last of three car accidents, I breathed a sigh of relief. Dad and the girls crept on in front of us. I maintained a car-length between us, continuing the same speed.
That had been Dad’s plan from the beginning. He knew the long stretch of bad roads could be problematic for a single woman with three little children in the car. He insisted on driving his pickup to check the road before us. I felt relieved Dad stayed within my sight, not to mention he had the two older girls with him.
At the exact moment, I noticed Susie’s feet on the wrong side of Mom’s lap, I realized I’d forgotten to warn Mom not to let the baby sit with her legs anywhere near the stick shift.
One strong kick and a grinding screech. I lost control of the vehicle. Before I could get the gear out of neutral, the bright red and white Cordoba shot off the road like a ski jumper off a ramp.
“Hallelujah, Jesus,” I whispered as my eyes took in a forest of dark green pine trees three hundred feet below us. The words left my mouth automatically--definitely, not my usual crisis prayer.
Throughout those air-born seconds, I repeated the two-word prayer, waiting for the crash. I listened for the sounds of breaking tree branches, followed by the shattering of glass. I heard only silence.
Finally, the car jolted, bouncing just a bit before coming to rest. “You okay, Mom?” I asked, reaching for Susie.
Mom’s voice didn’t shake, but her arms trembled as she handed the baby over to me. “Yes, I’m fine, Honey. Are you okay?”
“I seem to be okay, Mom. I’m so sorry I forgot to tell you not to let Susie sit facing me unless you held onto her legs. She just loves to kick.”
I passed my hands over Susie’s frame, checking for any tender areas. Familiar with this game, Susie giggled and kicked.
“Looks like she’s fine, too,” Mom said. “What do we do now?”
“I don’t know. I bet Daddy saw us leave the road and is worried. It’s so cold out there, though. I’m afraid to open the door to try to find help.”
Susie fell asleep in my arms. I should have checked her closer at that point, but I felt relief that she hadn’t cried or screamed. The silence made it easier to think.
“Okay, Mom. Well, at least, we missed all those tall trees. Somehow, we landed in the spot on the side of the forest.”
Suddenly, both of us started at the sound of a knocking on the driver’s side window right behind my head. I whipped back around and stared into the face of a uniformed Highway patrolman. He motioned for me to lower the window.
Pressing on the button, the glass moved down a couple of inches before he spoke. “Is everyone okay in there, Ma’am?”
“Yes, we are. We’re just trying to figure out how we’re gonna get back up there on the highway. My father and two daughters are in a pickup ahead of us. Did you see him? Do you know if he saw us leave the road?”
“Yes, I’ve talked to him. You need to leave the car right now. Turn off your engine and open the door.”
His words surprised me. I had no idea the engine still motored on while we sat there in the snow. “Okay, I’ll stop the engine,” I said, continuing to sit in the driver’s seat with the baby sound asleep.
“Ma’am, please hand me the baby and get out of the car right now. Your exhaust pipe is blocked by the hill.”
Sure enough. Susie’s little face was beet-red from the exhaust backing up into the closed car. Carbon monoxide had already begun to affect Susie. That’s why she fell asleep.
The kind Patrolman secured Susie’s winter jacket, mittens, and hood. Mom and I left the vehicle, fastening the closures on our coats and pulling down the hoods against the bitter cold.
We struggled up the steep, snow-covered hill, relieved to have the baby in the arms of the Patrolman. Cresting the top, I noticed Dad working hard to keep Deni and Jamie from running over to us.
“It’s okay, kids. We’re alright,” I said, reaching to hug the pair at the same time.
“Was it fun, Mama Dar? Did you feel like you were flying? We saw you!” four-year-old Deni said, her voice an octave higher, a wide grin spreading across her freckled face.
“Me and Deni seed you, Mama Daw. We wanted to do it, too, but Gwamma-gwamma said we can’t.” The two-year-old had a completely different view of the event than I did.
“I think your Grandpa wanted to keep you dry, Jamie. See how we got all wet climbing the hill?”
Both little heads nodded and let Dad turn them back towards the pickup. “We’re gonna get cold out here, girls. Let’s get back in the pickup.”
The Patrolman handed Susie over to me. Mom and I walked alongside Dad, as I told him what the officer had said. “The wrecker will pull the car out, but it’s hard to tell if there’s any damage to the car. He said it didn’t look like it to him. Do you want to come back to the station to wait with us? Or, do you want to keep going?”
“What do you want me to do, Punkin?”
“I think you can go on ahead. The road is completely flat from this point on. There’s snow on the highway, but the storm stopped so it should be fine. The snowplows are working that highway now. It’ll take about three hours for us to get back on the road, the guy said.”
Just then, the patrolman joined us, reiterating what I’d said and urging my father to continue on ahead of us. He’d asked a mechanic to look at my car, confirming that it’d be fine to drive as soon as the wrecking team got it up the hill. They’d drive it over to the police station to be sure there’d be no trouble.
“I’ll call Carroll from the police station, Dad. Remember where she lives?” I continued after his nod. “I know you can stay there until we get there. She’ll have a warm place, and I’m sure Carroll’ll feed you. It’s her favorite thing to do, you know? Dad laughed along with me, probably as relieved as I was to have a friend like Carroll.
“Go on, Honey,” my mother urged. “We’ll be fine at the station. This nice man’s waiting for us. He’s going to drive us back to town and see that we get something hot to drink. We’ll see you at Carroll’s.”
The Patrolman’s guess proved correct. Three hours later, Mom and I resumed the drive home. The baby slept most of the rest of the way in her car seat.
We had not a single bit of trouble for the remainder of the long, isolated county road.
After enjoying a hot bowl of Carroll’s homemade venison stew, we made the decision that Dad and I would get the coal-burning furnace going at home, and then we’d return for Mom and the kids. No point anyone else had to endure that freezing cold.
Of course, Dad and I hadn’t anticipated the horror awaiting us. We figured we’d get that furnace roaring and bring the family back to slip snuggly into warm beds. It didn’t happen quite that way.
Story thread begins at this link: With Just One Phone Call