By Rick A. Richards
This trip to Indianapolis was supposed to be like any other. My daughter, Meredith, was competing in a gymnastics meet at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, representing her club, Platinum Gymnastics of Michigan City.
Yeah, my wife, Mary Ann, and I knew bad weather was coming, but we convinced ourselves we would be back home before the worst of it hit. But by the time the gymnastics competition was over last Sunday afternoon, it was snowing in Indianapolis. And the farther north we went, the worse it got.
By the time we reached Lafayette, the weather was noticeably worsening. Another 50 miles up the road near Monon and we were convinced we should have grabbed a motel room in Lafayette. But we pressed on hoping against hope we’d make it home.
We didn’t. Instead, we wound up in a ditch three miles north of U.S. 30 in LaPorte County. But before we had a chance to wonder if we were going to spend the night in a freezing minivan, a tractor showed up and yanked us out of the ditch. The Good Samaritan was a volunteer firefighter who directed back to the fire station in Wanatah. It was an invitation we couldn’t refuse.
There, we were greeted by assistant fire chief Todd Martin of the Cass-Clinton Township Volunteer Fire Department. He apologized for the Spartan conditions, but it was warm, had a television, tables, chairs and a restroom. It was four-star accommodations on a miserable freezing night.
It was nearly 11 p.m. We were 20 miles from home, but it might as well have been 100. As we settled in, more stranded motorists and their families began trickling in. Within a few hours, some three dozen people were settling in for the night.
Everyone had a similar story, and everyone was eager to compare notes. Throughout the night, Martin gave periodic weather and road clearing updates. The news wasn’t good on either account. The weather was still bad (by the time the snow ended Tuesday morning, the National Weather Service reported 33 inches of snow in Wanatah).
It quickly became apparent we were going to be together for a few hours. Martin and his crews did remarkable work. They rescued stranded motorists and pulled vehicles out of ditches pretty much around the clock.
So while volunteer firefighters spent the night away from their families and warm beds, the three dozen of us who were stranded got to know each other.
There was the young couple with their cat on their way to South Dakota .
There was the family of four with their two dogs who were headed west on U.S. 30, which had turned into a parking lot full of snowbound cars, minivans and tractor-trailers.
Next to us were four Muslim men from India on their way to Glen Ellyn , Ill. They discreetly asked Martin if there was room for them to spread their prayer rugs so they could pray at sun up. Between the parked fire trucks, they were able to quietly pray, facing northeast.
And there was the Romanian family on their way to Aurora, Ill. Grandfather, grandmother and 14-year-old “Dan” were quietly talking among themselves when, at 3 a.m., the proud grandfather asked if anyone wanted to hear Christmas carols from his grandson.
“Dan” (he explained his given name was too hard to pronounce so he Americanized it) pulled out his violin and began playing. The music was beautiful and when the it ended, the fire house was filled with applause.
Sleep was fitful at best and everyone grabbed a catnap when they could. By morning, Martin was working the phones to find some hot food for his unexpected guests. About an hour later, a restaurant owner was convinced to open his kitchen and shortly thereafter boxes of hamburgers and French fries were delivered. It wasn’t your typical breakfast, but it was hot and welcome.
“Just pretend it’s a tailgate party,” said my wife.
By mid-morning on Monday, road crews had made progress. U.S. 30 was slowly being opened. The crowd inside the fire station began to thin. And by 2 p.m., it was our turn. Our preferred route – U.S. 421 north – was still closed because of four jackknifed trucks at the intersection of U.S. 421 and U.S. 6 near Westville about seven miles north, so we decided to take the long way home.
We hopped in our van and headed west on ice-covered U.S. 30 toward Valparaiso. Then we headed north on Indiana 49 to Chesterton where we then headed east on Interstate 94 to Michigan City. Finally, by about 3:30 p.m., we were home – 29 hours after left.
We can’t thank Martin and his volunteer firefighters enough for their hospitality and dedication. The service they provided to a group of total strangers was unsurpassed. And for a group of strangers suddenly piled together into Spartan conditions on a miserable night, the result was magic. We talked like long-lost friends, traded stories and looked out for each other.
It’s an experience my wife and I won’t soon forget. And for my 13-year-old daughter, she hasn’t stopped talking about the adventure.