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Driving A Tow Truck During The COVID-19 Pandemic

A car scraper taped to a broom handle tapeed to a Swiffer taped to a microphone in front of a man in a blue jumpsuit next to a tractor tire.
Erica Heilman
Ralph Rockwell runs a tow truck in North Wolcott, where he recently spoke to Erica Heilman ... at a distance.

Ralph Rockwell lives in North Wolcott. He’s a certified mechanic, and he runs a tow truck. Erica Heilman visited him — at a distance — and they talked about what it’s like to run a tow truck during a pandemic. 

I balanced my microphone, taped to a Swiffer, taped to a snow scraper, taped to the end of a broom handle, on a folding chair. Ralph sat inside his shop next to a tractor, and I sat outside the shop. We talked for awhile.

Me: “How would you say people around here are thinking about this virus?”  

Ralph: “Some of them are taking it serious. ‘Course we don’t get out much, but some of the people we meet, like we went out yesterday to do a tow, our first one in a long time, and a gentleman in Craftsbury — I tried telling him as soon as I got out of the truck — I said, ‘I’m at the perfect age to get this virus, and I don’t want to get it, and I certainly don’t want to give it to you, so we gotta stay our distance.’

“And because he knew me, he like wanted to get really close. He opened the back door of the garage so I could come in to jump start his mother’s car, and he still come around, and when he come around I kind of backed up, you know. But he thanked me for getting it started. I think some people don’t realize how serious it is. Can’t really get a handle on it.  

A car scraper balanced on a folding chair.
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
Erica Heilman's socially distant recording device.

“One guy called last week, said he needed a car towed. It was in Craftsbury, and take it to Barton. Turned out it was in another shop’s driveway. It’d been there four months, and the guy decided that day was the day that he wanted it towed to Barton.

“And AAA always say the member’s gotta be there to show the car, and I called the member, and I said, ‘Nobody needs to be there. Leave us the keys.’ So she agreed and we get up there and the owner of the car’s there. And the owner of the shop comes out and they both wanna talk, and I’m trying to back up and stay my distance. I didn’t even want to get in the car there.

"Mike Detton told me, ‘The inside of a car is more dirtier than your toilet seat if you stop and think about it.' That’s real close and confined quarters. Everybody’s coughing and sneezing, blowing their nose or whatever, and very seldom gets sanitized, you know? 

“So I had him put it in neutral and just got it on the truck and got it up there, unloaded it. The guy, I’m watching him. He’s over there pumping gas, and somebody comes in, and he’s standing within a foot or two with the guy. No gloves, no mask on or nothing. Just talking away.

“And it was like, you guys don’t get it. So finally I hollered over to him and told them the keys were in it and the window was down and they could secure it, and he come over and like he wanted to be my best friend or something.

“We try to do everything we can to be safe like you’re doing today. But it’s hard for people to visualize when it’s something that can’t see, hear, smell or taste. I just believe a lot of the things they tell you and I try to use common sense. I don’t have hand sanitizer, I couldn’t find any. I had some Preparation H … things that were dried out. Poured alcohol on them so they should work good for sanitizing wipes, you know.”

A sign for Rockwell's Auto Repair next to a dirt driveway.
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
Ralph Rockwell said some people are taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously, while others aren't, and he's trying to keep his distance.

Me: “How old are you?” 

Ralph: “I'm 67. Lord-willing, I’ll be 68 in June, if I make it.”  

Me: “Are you afraid for yourself?” 

Ralph: “No.”  

Me: “Why?” 

Ralph: “Because I know the Lord. And I know if I die, I’ll be in better place. But the thing that bothers me the most is the burden it’d be on my family. My wife or my loved ones. And I pray every day that nothing happens to either one of our kids, because that would be heartbreaking. But we just pray to the Lord every day we get up. And thank Him for what we got.  

“Sometimes it gets confusing. You say, ‘I want this, I want that.’ You convince yourself you need it. You’ve gotta have it, you know. And realistically you don’t. Like we lost our Channel 3. And my wife and I, especially my wife, she liked the love shows that come on. And our life revolved around that, to watch them and they come on from 12:30 to 1:30, 2:30. And all of a sudden it went off. And it just wouldn’t go. We found out we live just fine without it. It wasn’t a need. You need food to live. You need clean water. You need loved ones. Makes a different perspective on life.  

“What do you need and what do you want?”

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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