Wendell Williams stands in front of a Christmas tree.
Wendell Williams

It was December 1980, about two weeks before Christmas, when I was contacted by a group of broadcasters in Washington, D.C., who were considering purchasing a well-established radio station in D.C. and turning it into the nation’s first African-American talk-radio station. And they wanted me to be a part of it. At the time, I was working at one of the top rock stations in the country, in Dayton, Ohio.

They requested that I come down Christmas Eve to close the deal, so I drove to Washington on the 23rd and was up early and fresh for the interview on Christmas Eve morning. After I concluded the interview and accepted the job, I visited with friends and took care of some things for my upcoming move. As the day progressed, I began to worry because there was a forecast of snow for D.C., Pennsylvania and Ohio — my route home. As it turns out, I stayed in D.C. longer than I should have.

I did not set out to go back to Ohio until later that afternoon, on I-70 toward Frederick. The weather had started to get cold, and snow flurries had begun to fall. As I crossed the Pennsylvania line and climbed higher, the snowfall got heavier. I battled my way to Breezewood for entry onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Several inches of snow were on the ground, and an announcement on the radio had warned people not to use the turnpike.

I topped off the gas and decided to get on the turnpike anyway because I really wanted to be home for Christmas. It would have been my first and last Christmas with my girlfriend in our “new house” before the move for my new job.

So I took off on the turnpike. It was crowded, and the snow was so deep that the traffic was down to one lane and crawling at about 30 miles an hour. The snow just kept falling as we went through the mountains of Pennsylvania. One by one, cars pulled into the rest stops or pulled to the side of the road to wait the storm out. You could see people on the outside of the cars digging to keep their exhaust pipes clear so that they could run the heat while they sat on the side of the road.

But I and several others, including tractor-trailers, continued on the turnpike. As we neared Ohio, the snow continued to get heavier and heavier and I noticed that none of the toll plazas were open. Neither were any of the gas stations. I had not been paying attention to my car and realized I was almost on “empty.”

A few more miles and the engine started to stumble. A few miles later, it started sputtering. All I could do was to keep stepping on the gas and gunning the accelerator to keep it from cutting off.

Then, like the star the wise men supposedly followed years ago, I saw a light.

Way off in the distance, an Exxon sign stood tall. I hit the exit and followed that star/sign. After I went around a few curves and bends, the snow gave way suddenly to the station, like in an episode of The Twilight Zone. I coaxed my car to the pump, where it died after a sigh of relief.

“Boy, I dodged the bullet. I’ve made it,” I said to myself. In actuality, the Christmas miracle of 1980 had just begun.

After filling up, I jumped back in the car to continue my journey home. I fastened my seatbelt and turned the key in the ignition. Nothing.

I turned and turned, but it would not start. I cranked the engine until I wore out the battery. The temperature had really dropped, and the snow was still coming down hard. I began to panic.

I walked to the window and asked the attendant whether he had any jumper cables. No.

When I walked back to my car, the scariest yet prettiest thing I had ever seen pulled up. It was a red, loud, jacked-up Ford F-150 pickup with a Confederate flag in the back window. I was never so glad to see the stars and bars.

Three men jumped out, all red as a beet in the face and wearing little more than flannel shirts. They were trashed. But one of them asked, “Hey, man, you need some help?”

And, like Santa’s elves, they went to work.

The men retrieved jumper cables and a toolbox from the Ford. But the jump would not work, and they put their heads together to come up with all kind of ideas as to why the car was not starting. One of them thought the engine was frozen. They knocked on the window of the attendant’s booth, and it just so happened that the guy on duty was friends with the men. He got out of the booth and unlocked the garage bays so that they could push my car onto the lift. They began to empty the oil out of my car. It was as close to freezing as oil can get, thick and unable to lubricate anything.

Someone came up with the idea of pouring the oil into a bucket and placing it on a hot plate that was discovered inside of the garage. By now it was 2 to 3 a.m., and they had been working on my car for at least an hour. Once the oil warmed up, they very carefully poured it back into my engine, and we tried again to jumpstart the car.

After another half-hour of trying to jump it, one of the elves said, “Hey, buddy, we’ve got to get home, but we don’t want to abandon you here.” They came up with the idea to take the F-150 and push me all the way back down County Road until we got to the on-ramp for the Ohio Turnpike. Then they would push me as fast as they could go, and I would try to kickstart my car in third or fourth gear.

The snow was really deep, and there was barely a lane open to drive in as they began to push me down the ramp. Slowly but surely they got me up to 30 miles an hour, and I tried to pop it into second gear. No go.

They caught back up beside me and told me to stop, then tried it again. This time they pushed me faster, 40 or maybe 50 miles per hour. I tried to pop the clutch, but it still would not catch or start. One of the guys then said, “Hey, man, it’s Christmas Eve. I’m going to give it one last push. We’re going to get you as fast as we can get you, and we want you to try and pop it straight into fourth gear.”

They began to push me again. Faster, faster, faster still. I looked at my speedometer, and we were going close to 65 miles per hour in the snow when they finally blew the horn and I popped the clutch. My car rolled for another 50 yards, still not responding. Then, all of a sudden, it sputtered! The elves pulled up beside me and shouted, “Don’t let it cut off!”

The car sputtered and sputtered. But I did not let it cut off, and it started running, albeit rough.

The elves pulled up beside me again in the red F-150 with the Confederate decal. These were the kind of guys that today I might figure for voting for the current president. The kind of guys that I might cross the street to avoid, out of fear and prejudice. As it turned out, these were the kind of guys who would blow their horn and yell, “Merry Christmas! Get home safe!” after helping a complete stranger for a couple of hours.

The story doesn’t end there. I had another almost 200 miles to go to get home.

I continued to fight through the snow. I could only slow down as needed, never stopping, in order to keep the engine alive. Finally, I saw the sign for Dayton. I took the exit ramp and sputtered all the way home. The car cut off as I parked in front of the garage. It never started again.

I can’t recall any of their names, but those “rednecks” saved my behind in one of the worst snowstorms I’ve seen and got me home for Christmas.