By Ken Lass
It was January 28, 2014. I was driving on the I-459 bypass on the way back to the TV station after finishing a feature story for Daytime Alabama. The temperature was in the high teens and there was a fluffy layer of snow on the ground.
As I approached the Highway 31 exit ramp, traffic came to a hard stop, backed up as far as I could see. After several minutes I shifted into Park, set the emergency brake and turned on the radio.
It was only then that I learned the snow had unexpectedly frozen on the streets and freeways. Schools, caught by surprise, quickly decided to let out early, causing thousands of panicked parents to get on the roads at the same time in an attempt to pick up their kids. The result was the equivalent of a carnival bumper car ride on the highways. Not only were passenger cars stacked up all over the interstates, but big rigs were jack-knifed and spread out horizontally across multiple lanes. The freeway in front of me had become a parking lot. The day would later become known as the Snowpocalypse.
An hour went by. Two hours. Three. The radio reports indicated the situation was only getting worse, not better. Clearly, this gridlock would not be resolved by nightfall. I called the TV station to see if they had vehicles on the road that might come and pick me up. I was told all units were out covering the situation, and they would come get me when there was a lull.
I had worked in television newsrooms long enough to know that, during a big weather story such as this, there is no lull. Coverage is continuous and chaotic. They weren’t coming to rescue me. I knew I was forgotten the moment they hung up the phone.
Dressed only in sport coat and open shirt, I pulled my collar up around my neck, and got out of the car. It was surreal. Hundreds of empty cars around me at a standstill. People walking in droves along a four lane interstate as though it was a pedestrian mall. It was like a scene out of one of those nuclear war aftermath movies.
The Highway 31 ramp was just a few hundred feet away. Even the ramp was blocked by collided cars. At the bottom was a gas station/convenience store packed wall to wall with folks just trying to get warm. My cell phone was almost dead. My only connection to people who might help me was about to go dark. I approached a frazzled employee, who was overwhelmed by the sudden flood of distraught fugitives. I meekly inquired if there was anywhere I might plug in my phone, fully expecting to be laughed out of the building. Much to my shock and surprise, he flashed a sympathetic smile, came out from behind the counter, and pushed the freezer containing the popsicles and ice cream bars a bit out from the wall, revealing an outlet with an available socket. He invited me to plug in.
That would be the first of an amazing series of kindnesses extended to me by people I did not know. And I needed them. Because, as the sun began to set, it started to sink in that, for the first time in my life, at the age of 63, I was going to spend a night homeless. And it was terrifying.
I remembered there was a hotel about half a mile down the street, but of course, they were completely booked up. Employees were hauling out blankets and pillows for stranded stragglers and allowing them to sleep on the lobby furniture and the floor for free. One precious lady unselfishly offered to give her blanket to me. I politely declined. She needed it more. Besides, there was literally nowhere left to lie down.
After more wandering, I wound up at a nearby Subway Deli, one of the few places still open. There was a handful of other frightened folks in the place. Rather than boot us out at closing time, the owner graciously told us we could stay there overnight. I spent the evening in one of their wooden booths. Didn’t sleep much but at least I was warm. There’s a lot to be said for just being warm. I will never take it for granted again.
At sunrise, I headed back out into the cold. My car was still blocked in. Might as well try to walk back to the TV station. A mile down the road, I was offered a ride by a friendly couple passing by.
Now, normally, I would never recommend getting into a car with strangers, but these were desperate times. They turned out to be sweet people who felt sorry for me because I looked so cold. They drove out of their way to drop me off at the TV station. I was safe, thanks to the kindness of others.
I would come to learn that the thoughtfulness shown to me was typical of the entire city. People pitched in everywhere to help those in need. Unselfish love. Service to others. What a concept.
It takes the worst of times to bring out the best in us.
(More from Ken at kenlassblog.net)