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Travel Horrors: Illinois : Crunch Time : Driving through a blizzard on assignment nearly leads to premature exit from the biz

October 29, 1995|JACK SCHNEDLER | Schnedler cashed in his travel editor's chips in December and moved to Little Rock, where he is assistant managing editor/features for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

At least the headline on my obituary would have been hilarious: "Travel Editor Totaled by Twinkies Truck."

And the secondary headline as well: "Victim Was Perfectly Camouflaged for Blizzard in White Rental Car."

Those gasps of gallows humor surfaced as I lay flat on my back in an ambulance making its way along a snow-drifted Illinois highway to the nearest hospital.

Stretched out next to me was Andy, the driver of the Hostess bakery truck that had smashed into my rented white Mercury Topaz in near-blizzard conditions the afternoon of Feb. 25, 1994. His head and shoulders were swaddled in a neck brace because volunteers Rick and Don from RMG Emergency Ambulance Service feared he might have a spinal injury.

They seemed less worried about me, and I also took heart from the fact that the ambulance's siren was off. Apparently our injuries didn't look life-threatening enough to warrant racing us at top speed the 20 miles to Galesburg Cottage Hospital, in the hometown of poet Carl Sandburg.

Headline humor aside, I could easily have been dead. And a cosmic observer might have considered my demise poetic justice for the kind of foolhardy decision travelers sometimes make when they're determined to get somewhere on time.

In this case, the gotta-be-there destination was a riverboat casino, one of 12 that I was aiming to visit on a five-day Illinois gambling marathon in the line of duty as Chicago Sun-Times travel editor.

Heedless of the wind-whipped whiteout conditions, I'd pressed my travel lucky streak too far. After 11 years and 1,700 days of unscathed professional globe-trotting from Albania to Antarctica and the Hebrides to the Himalayas, my good fortune had run out less than 200 miles from home.

But it transpired that a healthy dose of luck still rode with me--as well as the common sense to have had my seat belt securely fastened. I'd only been hit by a sweet roll truck, whose Twinkies and other empty-calorie confections lay scattered across two-lane Illinois 97. Had the vehicle that loomed out of the blizzard been a moving van, I'd likely have been splattered in bite-size chunks across the snow.

What's more, I was in my own state of Illinois rather than Tibet, Tanzania or some other Third World destination, where the emergency care after a serious accident might have been just enough to finish me off. America's health system may be in crisis, but give me a U.S. emergency room any time.

In fact, I wound up being overwhelmed with tender loving care by everyone who dealt with me--from the ambulance crew to the hospital staff to the driver of the tow truck that hauled away the totaled Topaz.

It proved to be a classic example of the generous help that a traveler in distress sometimes receives from locals with no profit motive in mind. And it demonstrated that America can be a kinder and gentler place outside the big-city orbit. I'd likely have gotten the same competent medical care in Chicago, but not so much genuine human concern for my plight as in the corn and soybean country of western Illinois.

Ambulance volunteer Rick, his weather-creased face marking him as a farmer, patted my hand several times on the ride to the hospital and assured me I'd be fine. Once I was on an emergency-room stretcher, he stopped by to wish me good luck before leaving. "I do this to contribute a little something to the world," he said when I asked his motivation for the unpaid ambulance duty.

*

The emergency-room staff practically adopted me. One of the resident doctors tuned in the Bulls basketball game for me on the overhead TV set in my cubicle while we waited for the X-ray results. The nurse on duty acted as my de facto travel agent to round up a sandwich, book a motel room for me that night in Galesburg and call the state police to locate the smashed-beyond-repair car, which had all my traveling gear in the trunk.

In turn, the state trooper she reached called the tow-truck owner to explain that the wreck he'd hauled to Knoxville, nine miles of southeast of Galesburg, contained the worldly possessions of a stranded stranger from Chicago.

Gary, the proprietor of Main Street Motors, was the kindest of all that day's good Samaritans--at the absolute opposite end of the spectrum from the rapacious tow operators of big-city infamy.

Because he didn't want to break into the car's trunk in my absence, Gary hauled the wreck to Galesburg at 8:30 p.m. after his long day on snow-slick roads. He gave me a ride from the hospital to the motel, then carried my suitcase to my room. And he wouldn't take a cent for all that extra effort.

The accident left me with a broken collarbone, a broken bone in my right hand, and assorted purple bruises and pulled muscles. I also got the shakes at breakfast next morning when the local newspaper told me of a motorist killed by a semi-trailer truck in similar whiteout conditions no more than 25 miles from my close encounter with the Twinkies truck.

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