“People think when you drive a tow truck you must get the girls, says Denny, because you have to tow women of course, I mean half the world is women, right, and their cars are always breaking down because they don’t change the oil, they just don’t…”
by brian doyle
My dad was in the Hurtgen Forest during the war. The Hurtgen Forest is a dense woods on the border of France and Germany. In the winter of 1944 the Americans fought the Germans there and some people say it was the worst killing field there ever was between two armies.
My dad never talked about the Hurtgen Forest at all until just a few weeks ago, when right after we said grace over the turkey at Thanksgiving dinner he got up and went out in the back yard and knelt down in the snow and cried. We thought he was going out in the kitchen to get salt or something but I heard the back door click and he was gone. I went out in the yard to see was he okay and there he was on his knees crying like a child.
That’s a hell of a thing for a son to see.
After a while I got him to come back in. His knees were all wet and he went and changed his pants. No one said anything. After dinner people drifted off here and there but my dad started to talk about the Hurtgen Forest.
We were all just boys, that’s the first thing to know, he said. Just boys. I was all of nineteen and there were none of us older than twenty. There were ten of us to begin with. That was the coldest darkest forest there ever was. The Germans were in there waiting for us. They knew we were coming. It was so cold you wouldn’t believe it. Everything was wet. The trees were wet, our socks were wet, our rifles were wet. Our sergeant was twenty. He was a good guy. He got shot about ten seconds after we went in the woods. We all dove for cover. It was so dark you wouldn’t believe it. You couldn’t see a thing. One guy got up to run to a bigger tree and he got shot. He was carrying the radio, so another guy went to get the radio, which we were trained to do, and he got shot, and a guy went to help him and he got shot. So now there are six of us.
We can’t see a thing and we are scared shitless.
We had one guy seventeen years old who lied to get in the army because he thought his girlfriend was pregnant, which it turned out she wasn’t, but she told him she was anyway, but this guy, he was a Mormon, a little skinny guy, he lost it, and he and another guy, who was older, they couldn’t stand it, and they jump up to run back out of the woods, a lot of guys did that in Hurtgen Forest, you don’t see the army history books talking about that, but the second they stand up they get shot to pieces. There’s brains all over. No one writes that down.
So now there are four of us, me and two brothers and another guy. The brothers start digging holes with their hands, figuring we are going to be here for a long time, and the older brother, they were from Boston, he reaches for his shovel just as a shell blows up in the trees right above us, and his arm gets blown off, and the kid brother, he screams and screams as his brother bleeds to death about five inches away.
Then the third guy, not the kid brother, he says well, we can’t do a thing sitting here, boys, and he jumps up and runs right at the Germans firing his rifle, and he gets shot.
After a while I crawl over to the kid brother and get him to stop screaming. We figure we’re done for. But the Germans never came after us, for some reason, and after a few hours some other guys came into the forest and get us out. We’re all covered in blood so they take us to medical. When we get there a doctor says hey, it’s Thanksgiving, Ike issued an order that every guy gets a hot turkey dinner today no matter what, can you believe that? Is today your lucky day or what?
I am waiting for my wife on the corner in front of the movie theater. One of those megacomplexes with about forty movies playing at once and so many labyrinthine corridors that you get lost when you go to the bathroom.
She’s late. Not unusual. We have children and getting the babysitter squared away and the children calmed down and fed takes time. I sympathize and empathize. Many’s the time it’s been my turn and I was the one who was late and she was the one standing impatiently on the corner.
This time though it’s me standing there and she’s really late. The movie we wanted to see started at seven and the backup movie we wanted to see started at ten after seven. Seven came and went and then five after and then ten after. I started getting antsy. Not annoyed. It’s important to be clear about that. I knew full well where she probably was. It’s hard to get kids squared away and then leap in the car and zip through the city at rush hour. One little thing goes wrong, a kid puking or an accident on the bridge, and there you are stuck in the car as the clock ticks inexorably past the previews and past the opening minutes of the movie. Most movies you can miss the first few minutes and catch the story line pretty easy anyway. Not a big deal.
Quarter after. I notice a woman waiting on the corner across from me. She keeps looking at her watch. I figure she’s waiting for someone too. Finally she tosses her head, you know how you toss your head defiantly when you make a decision suddenly, guys do it too but you don’t notice as much because when women do it they have more hair and it’s a more dramatic gesture, almost like a movie star gesture, and she walks across the street to my corner, headed to the theater, and something in me decides at that instant to go into the theater too, I don’t know why. I just wanted to see a movie, and I didn’t want to stand on the corner anymore. I wish I had a good reason for that decision but I don’t. It wasn’t that cold or anything and I wasn’t mad.
So I turn into the theater as the woman approaches the door and I hold the door open for her, just an automatic gesture, you know, you hold doors open for women, that’s just common courtesy, but she stops right there in the door and looks at me, eye to eye, and says thank you.
That’s very polite, she says.
You’re very welcome, I say.
Most men are not so thoughtful anymore, she says.
Well, my mama trained her boys well, I say, thinking of my mom whopping me sharp in the back of the head when I was a boy if I didn’t stand when a woman entered the room and such. My mom is a pretty direct woman about her feelings.
The woman smiles and goes in to the theater and I turn to walk through the door but she holds the door for me now.
Thank you, that’s very polite, I say, grinning.
My mama trained her girls well, she says, smiling. She has a lovely smile, one that takes up the whole bottom of her face.
You have lots of sisters? I say.
Three, she says. And you have lots of brothers?
One older, two younger, so I am the well-balanced middle son.
She smiles that smile again.
Me too, she says.
Older sister a pain, younger sisters crazy?
Exactly, she says.
And I always thought it was just us.
No, no, she says. Me too.
She’s still holding the door as we talk and people are coming through half-smiling at her, you know, because she’s holding the door for them and they don’t know why, and I see one guy reach for his pocket as he comes through, he’s thinking maybe she’s the Salvation Army or something, and she sees the guy reaching for his money and she realizes what he’s thinking, so she steps back and lets the guy catch the door, she does this politely, you know, and he catches it and half-holds it for the next person, so she’s out of the holding-the-door loop now, and there we are just standing there in the foyer.
What movie were you going to see? she says.
Such and Such, I say. You?
Thus and So, she says. Guess we both missed our movies.
Well, my backup was This and That, she says.
Hey, me too.
You always have a backup movie?
Always, because so often we miss the first one.
My wife and I.
What’s her name?
Annie. And you were waiting for…
This makes me grin, the confident twist of the way she says not yet, and she smiles that wide smile again.
Well, I still want to see a movie, she says. I set out to see a movie, and I am going to see a movie, Kevin or no Kevin.
That’s the spirit, I say.
How about you?
I should wait, I guess.
Well, she says.
This has been very entertaining, I say, you well-balanced second child of a family in which the oldest child is fingernails on the blackboard and the youngest are the nuts in the fruitcake.
Yes it has, she says, you second child in which the oldest is the teachers’ pet and the youngest can do whatever bonehead things they want and daddy pays for their mistakes.
This was pretty right on about my family, I have to say, which makes me smile, and she’s smiling her smile, and for some reason I don’t want to wait in the foyer anymore. I want to go sit in the dark, I want to see previews, I want to taste popcorn with that fake butter the concession guy pumps onto the popcorn, I want the red and white stripes of the popcorn box, I want the way my seat slides back noiselessly, I want the cup holder on the right side of my seat, I want that assumption from the designers of movie theaters that all patrons are right-handed, I want teenagers with their huge puppy feet flopped over the empty seats in front of them, I want a little kid eating those disgusting red licorice ropes, I want the theater guy with the red vest and the flashlight, his spectacles glinting in the dark, his face grave, I want narrative and exposition and explosions and denouement and extras and overplaying and fades and dissolves and panoramic sweeps and credits and key grips and best boys and gaffers, I want that half-tired half-exhilarated feeling you have when the movie is over and you have to pee like a racehorse, so without a word, for no reason whatsoever, I hold out my arm, and she takes it, and we walk over to the ticket window, and she picks a movie, and I buy the tickets, and we go to the movies, her and me, and she lets me pick the seats in exchange for her picking the movie, which was pretty big of her, I think, because if there’s one thing that true about every human being, male or female, it’s that they think they know exactly which are the best seats when you go to the movies.
One night a while after that my car broke down and died not a mile from the shop where I had just spent more than eight hundred dollars on a new starter and timing mechanism and assorted other holy mysteries, and after I coasted it choking and lurching to the side of the road, and sat there silently banging the steering wheel so hard that my wrist still hurts on rainy days, and stepped out squelching into the mud, and hitched home in the furious summer rain, cars swerving and honking and one guy even giving me the finger, I called AAA to get them to tow the car back to the shop, because I couldn’t call my wife anymore, whereas she doesn’t live with me and the kids anymore, but the tow truck guy refused to tow the car that far because my coverage was only AAA standard, not AAA Plus, which your AAA Plus allows us to tow cars anywhere in these United States, said the tow truck driver, you could tow a car from Alaska to Florida technically, but your AAA standard coverage limits your emergency towing capability to three miles or less, that’s the way it is, he said, and he was about as big as a house, so I declined to argue, and he towed the car three miles down the road and was going to leave it there by the side of the highway in accordance with the AAA standard coverage limit, but I swore to high heaven that I would immediately purchase AAA Plus, even doing so retroactively if he thought that necessary, such was my good opinion of his professional judgment in this matter, and he took the compliment and took pity and took my car to my house, where my children poured out to watch his truck, which was indeed a majorly large truck, as one of my sons said.
So next day I purchase AAA Plus, which takes effect immediately upon issuance of your major credit card, says the operator politely, so we seal the deal and when I hang up the phone I am a member of AAA Plus.
I actually felt different, no joke. I felt taller.
So I call the tow truck guy again and he comes back to tow my car back to the shop where I got the new starter and timing mechanism and such. He’s cheerful as a jaybird now that I have AAA Plus. He can tow me from here to kingdom fecking come, he says. He can tow me from sea to fecking sea. His name is Denny too, he says, and he is a towing fool. You Blow, We Tow is written in letters a foot high on the side of his truck.
I’ve towed everything with an engine, he says. They all break down in the end. Cars, trucks, boats, ski-doos, even a biplane one time, this old guy dressed like fecking Charles A. Lindbergh landed his plane in a supermarket parking lot and hit a shopping cart and wrecked his plane and I had to tow him home. Guy was wearing a scarf and goggles and everything. The whole nine yards. Must have been eighty years old if he was a day. I tell you, the things I seen! One time I towed a car with a naked guy. Guy was driving around naked when his car blew. I made him stay in the car when I towed it. Which is illegal, but I didn’t want a naked guy in my cab. I’d like to see the cop who’d give me a ticket for that. Another time I towed a guy who I found out later he just robbed a diner but his car died after like three blocks, but he called for a tow, is that hilarious or what? Guy had AAA Plus too. Another time I towed a guy who when he opened his trunk looking for a jack or something I see his trunk was full of guns. I didn’t say anything to anyone about that. You rat a guy like that he comes and shoots you in the face. I don’t need trouble. I got enough trouble. We all got troubles. You got troubles?
I got troubles, I say.
People think when you drive a tow truck you must get the girls, says Denny, because you have to tow women of course, I mean half the world is women, right, and their cars are always breaking down because they don’t change the oil, they just don’t, I don’t know why, and a little smoke coming out of the hood freaks them out totally, but you take a guy, a guy would drive with fecking flames shooting out of his car, he would probably think that was cool, you know what I’m saying?
A guy, I say, would speed up to make the flames look cooler.
That’s exactly correct, says Denny. That’s absolutely fecking so.
At that point the guy from the repair shop comes out to tell me that my car will need another thousand bucks worth of repairs now, even though they just got finished fixing it, or saying they fixed it, and he says what do you want to do? and I say I don’t want to do anything, you owe me a car I can drive away from this crime scene after the last five hundred bucks I spent here, and he says it’s not their fault it’s a piece of shit car that hasn’t been properly maintained, and I say hey, I am not paying another cent for repairs that don’t repair, and he says okay, fine, they’ll junk it, and I say okay, fine, junk it then, it’s junk now anyway since you guys mangled it, and he stomps off, so there I am, up a creek and carless.
Denny gives me a ride home to the kids, whereas I have AAA Plus now and am golden, and he says in fact he can tow the car from the repair shop to my house if I want, whereas I have AAA Plus, and it’s a shame to leave a perfectly good car someplace ratty like that, which is true, so the next day he comes and gets me and we get the car and he tows it back to my house. That was a Saturday and the kids were going bonkers because I was supposed to take them up the mountain skiing and now we couldn’t go. But Denny, who turned out to be a good guy, says hell, you got AAA Plus, man, you are golden, I can tow you from here to fecking kingdom come, which includes of course the mountain.
The kids thought this was hilarious and they throw their stuff in the trunk and pile in the car and get in a huge argument about who gets to sit behind the steering wheel and who gets to ride shotgun and who is the total loser in the back seat. I ride in the truck with Denny and he tows the car with the kids in it all the way up the mountain, which is like a hundred miles away, and we ski all day and nobody breaks an arm or anything, and then Denny tows us to a little restaurant he knows on the east side of the mountain, where all the truckers go for the best pies and fries, and then late at night he tows us all home again, the kids all asleep in the car.
That was a really great day and the kids still talk about it. We were going to do that once a month or so with Denny but a little later he got a job driving long haul and he sold his tow truck to a guy who didn’t want to do AAA so that was the end of fecking that. But I still have my card, and that was a really great day, and I got this story out of it, so that’s good, right?
(illustration: kurt eisenlohr)
Brian Doyle is the author of six books, most recently THE WET ENGINE, about hearts and all. It’s not bad. Among his awards and such are (a) a woman married him, (b) the Coherent Mercy granted them three children, and (c) he was named to the 1983 all-star team in the Newton Massachusetts Men’s League, which was a really tough league, you drove to the hole in that league you lost fingers, one time a guy drove the lane and got hit so hard his arm came off, but he was lefty anyway and hit both free throws. Supposedly he then left his arm in a toll booth basket on the Mass Pike but that might be apocryphal. More from Brian Doyle can be found in the Vault of Smoke. (bio/2005)
Brian Doyle was the author of many books, including the sea novel The Plover, which has, no kidding, music printed in it, not to mention Mink River, Martin Marten, The Wet Engine, and more than we can recall. He won the 2017 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished nature writing for Martin Marten, which was plenty cool and much deserved. Brian passed away peacefully at his Lake Oswego home on May 27, 2017.
More, much more, from Brian Doyle can be found in the Vault of Smoke.