March 16 - March 22, 1995

[Out There]

Life Savers

By Kevin FranklinTHE TEMPERATURE IN the compartment soars past 150 degrees Fahrenheit. The faithful creature strains to do its work, but the load proves too much. The poor critter expires and dies.

Enjoying frosty beverages as the truck rolls along Highway 2 in Mexico, the Out There gang remains oblivious to the fatality in the engine compartment. The alternator never made a peep.

After spending a weekend camping, we fire up the engine. It turns over sluggishly, but is able to get going and we consign the starting difficulty to a cold morning.

On the way back to the United States, the truck dies on the road. Fortunately we happen to be passing one of the few safe places to pull off that dangerous thoroughfare. Even more fortunately, Bruce Thurston, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum's maintenance manager, is traveling with us--and driving his new and reliable Dodge Cummins Turbo-Diesel pickup. Both are as handy to have around as a helicopter on the Titanic.

Suspecting a bad battery, we jump it and are on our way again. After another stalled engine incident, we decide the alternator must be the culprit, but try a run for the border anyway. The truck dies again.

The border beckons to us 100 yards away. We opt to simply push the old rig across. A pair of pint-sized street urchins, usually employed washing tourista car windows, lend us a hand. We reward them for their efforts and they scurry back into Mexico. The customs agent just shakes his head as we grunt and heave the great metal beast into the U.S. under human-power.

In the truck box of many wonders I keep a spare alternator, among other things, and before long the old Bronco is ship shape. This story could have had a very different ending if the battery had been sucked dry somewhere other than a main road, or if we hadn't been in a convoy of sorts.

Which brings me to the point of this sorry little tale. As you can see, I've been on the receiving end of many a mechanical mishap. Having had these experiences, I look at disabled cars along highways and byways with a sympathetic eye and tend to lend a hand. Apparently, so did UA Music Professor Roy Andrew Johnson, and for his kindness some worthless bastard killed him.

The good-natured music professor, who was on his way home from an organ concert, was murdered for a few credit cards two weeks ago. The Pima County Sheriff's Department suspects that Johnson may have fallen victim to a roadside ambush, says spokesman Michael O'Connor.

At this writing no one is certain what happened yet, but someone feigning car trouble may have flagged Johnson down, O'Connor says, then jumped him.

Years ago I never passed anyone on the side of the road without lending a hand, much to the annoyance of my passengers. While my technical talent only rates as shade-tree mechanic at best, I always carry a variety of tools and parts and have often solved people's problems. As our culture has grown more violent, I've become more selective about who I help. That's why Johnson's murder affected me so much. Initial reports indicate it was a woman who flagged him down. After being lured in, some hidden thugs may have emerged and grabbed him.

Not to be sexist or ageist, but women and old people are the only people I help anymore. It's a plain fact that women commit a hell of a lot fewer violent crimes than men and old people probably even less than women. I probably would have stopped to help this person the way Johnson did.

Which has made me rethink my stance on roadside aid.

I wondered just how common such incidents are.

"It doesn't happen all that often," says O'Connor, "but the number of incidents like this are increasing."

O'Connor says there are two scenarios in these robberies. In one instance there's the insidious plot involving a creep who stages a breakdown with the intent of luring in good Samaritans. The other is the crime of opportunity. Some murderous jerk might actually be broken down and a neighborly person offering a hand just makes a readily available target.

In either event O'Connor suggests a means of lending aid while protecting yourself.

First order of the day is a judgment call. If things don't look right, they probably aren't. Keep driving. You can pull into a rest stop, call the police and have them go check it out. They're always happy to do so, O'Connor says.

If you're in remote country or something about the situation appears to require more immediate assistance, you can go to the next level. Pull up behind the disabled car and talk to the other driver, but stay in your car and maintain adequate distance for a quick escape. You want to keep an eye in your rearview mirror so you know what's going on behind you. Keep your vehicle running and ready to go.

The other driver should respect your desire to maintain a safety cushion, O'Connor says. Be blunt and say something along the lines of, "I don't know you and you don't know me, so let's keep our distance."

If someone ignores that and continues to come closer, that's not normal behavior. Drive away, O'Connor says.

"Your biggest ally is distance," he points out.

If they keep back, then you can ask what sort of help they need; tow truck, make a call for them, whatever. There may be nothing you can do by getting out of your car anyway, so don't.

For folks traveling in the great outdoors in remote country, lending a hand is especially difficult. Tow trucks and the like are often far away. This is all the more reason to help. On the other hand, police are far away, too. This is all the more reason for caution.

One thing O'Connor suggests is having the person try to start their car before you get out of yours. If they're reluctant to do this, be suspicious--there may not be anything wrong with their car. Of course, they may have intentionally disabled it, but that's just one more check you can do.

If you're showing suspicion and asking questions, a would-be roadside bandit might get nervous and tell you to forget it and drive on. An incident like that is definitely something you want to report to the police before someone less cautious comes along.

If you do reach the point of getting out of your car to help, ask the stranded person to step away. Then you can hook up the jumper cables or whatever needs doing yourself. Once again it's not foolproof, O'Connor says, but by this time you should be getting a good feel for the kind of person you're dealing with.

O'Connor's best advice? "Have a good healthy mistrust of everyone until they thoroughly prove otherwise. I hate to say that, but it's a reflection of today's society."

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March 16 - March 22, 1995

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