Advertisement
 
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsVolunteers

Really, he won't send you a bill

COLUMN ONE

Thomas Weller has been on a self-imposed mission to aid stranded motorists since 1966. But gas prices have cut into his good deeds.

July 24, 2008|Elizabeth Douglass | Times Staff Writer

Christin Ernst was in a fix. An errant screwdriver punctured her tire on a San Diego freeway, leaving her stranded.

That's when Thomas Weller -- a.k.a. the San Diego Highwayman -- arrived in his monstrous white search-and-rescue vehicle, complete with emergency lights flashing. A surprised Ernst watched as Weller slapped on her spare, inflated it and handed her a card.

It reads: "Assisting you has been my pleasure. I ask for no payment other than for you to pass on the favor by helping someone in distress that you may encounter."

Ernst assured Weller, "I will pass it on."

She was lucky. Because of wallet-busting fuel prices, Weller has cut back his good Samaritan runs to once every three days. Weighing more than 5,600 pounds, Weller's aging rescue rig is a world-class gas-guzzler.

"I sit home on the front porch a lot," he said. "It's killing me."

Weller isn't alone. High gas prices are forcing potential do-gooders of all kinds to stay home.

Meals on Wheels and other services that depend on volunteer drivers have had to scale back. In a June survey of U.S. groups that serve the elderly, more than 70% said fuel costs had made it harder to recruit and retain volunteers.

For a while, Weller had a benefactor. An Auto Trader executive saw a television report about his good deeds and arranged to pay his fuel bills from April 2002 until budget cutbacks ended the deal.

"The best time of my career of doing this was the 17 months that I didn't have to worry about the expense," Weller said.

He started his volunteer highway rounds in 1966. Now 60, Weller figures he's helped more than 6,000 motorists. He's been interviewed plenty, including by CBS newsman Charles Kuralt, who dubbed him the "Highwayman."

But Weller isn't out for glory.

"It's what I do for excitement," said Weller, who was vague about what his avocation costs.

Weller's usual companion is Shela, a black-and-white mix of Labrador retriever and smooth collie. Weller describes her as "a person in a fur suit" who once charmed her way into a party at the Viper Room, the Hollywood nightspot that usually attracts wolves rather than family pets.

Riding in the back of Weller's vehicle is a no-go. Instead of seats, there's a carefully organized assortment of things one might need to help a motorist in a jam.

Among the items: An electronic ignition, mechanic's tool kit, hacksaw, crowbar, fire-resistant overalls and a yellow hard hat emblazoned with "San Diego Highwayman." He's also got a first-aid kit, a wheeled stretcher and a kit for delivering a baby (never used, he says, with obvious relief). On one side hangs a pair of rifles -- "a little bit of self-preservation," he says, though he hasn't had to fire them.

Much of the equipment is there "just in case," Weller said. Mostly, he helps people whose vehicles are out of gas, have a flat tire or an overheated engine. In Weller-speak, that's an OOG, FT and OH. For those, he carries gas, water, compressed air and jacks capable of lifting an ambulance or a low-rider.

His vehicle is reminiscent of the "Ectomobile," a 1959 Cadillac that carried around Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and crew in the 1984 hit movie "Ghostbusters." Weller has embraced the comparison, even though his white chariot is a heavily modified 1955 Ford station wagon.

Weller estimates the rig has gone 600,000 miles -- the odometer broke 10 years ago -- and its lineage has blurred along the way. "Depending on which part you point to," he said, his ride also is a Mercury, Chrysler, Volkswagen, Dodge, Thunderbird and Buick, with components that date from 1955 to 1978.

The San Diego-area California Highway Patrol, which has 34 freeway service vehicles offering rush-hour assistance, doesn't condone Weller's highway hobby.

"It's obviously very dangerous," CHP spokesman Brad Baehr said. "But this is a guy who does this on his own, with his heart in the right place."

Weller says he's careful to stay out of the way of the professionals and to avoid making a hazardous situation more so.

It helps that he knows more than most about what's required. Weller works as a mechanic and trained as an emergency medical technician. He stopped short of earning EMT certification, he says, so he would be covered by California's "good Samaritan" law, which limits liability for non-professionals who provide emergency first aid.

Weller's desire to help others was ignited in 1964. Then a teenager in Illinois, the car Weller was driving slid off a freeway during a blizzard and plowed into a deep snowbank. It was after midnight, and his car was barely visible.

A man stopped, got him out and told Weller to pass the favor on. Two years later, after moving to San Diego and graduating from high school, Weller started his rescue rounds.

To make a living, he's been a roofer, car repair manager, tire repairman and security guard. These days, he fixes cars for a select group of regular customers. He says it provides enough money for his modest lifestyle and, until gas prices went up, also covered his daily drives.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|