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The Red Flag and Steel Beams

(reading time approx. 9 ½ minutes)

Rain or shine, I had to make a buck.  My wife and I were married for just three months and she just told me she was expecting a baby.   This was no time to take a day off just because of predicted snow, on this March day in 1946.

I knew I could sell anything.  I chose to sell printing and advertising novelties. Why? Because with any deposit I received, I would get my commission immediately at the time of the sale (usually 20%).  I needed cash and the cash commissions provided money in my pocket, on the spot. I used all of the earnings left over from yesterday’s commissions to fill the gas tank of my 1940 Buick “Limited” sedan. It was a big tank, and a gas-guzzler.  I bought the car from an undertaker. To pay for it, I used part of the proceeds from the sale of my Esso Service Station business, in October 1945.

My first appointment this day was with the owner of the upscale Fort Side Inn Restaurant, near Fort Washington, Pennsylvania. He was waiting for me to bring the printing proofs of his new menus for approval. I expected to receive a sizeable cash deposit of over $50, which in 1946 was a lot of money. I needed it badly.

The temperature was just below the freezing mark, about 30 degrees.  Upon leaving the gas station after filling up, rain started pelting the streets, and then quickly froze. Everything glistened with a coating of ice – trees, bushes, power and telephone lines.  After the freezing rain coating, a light covering of snow obscured the vision through my icy windshield. There were slip hazards everywhere, even for walking.  I approached an intersection at the top of a steep quarter mile long hill that was going down.  The street was Germantown Avenue going down to Allen’s Lane at the bottom of a valley.  The other side of the valley was an uphill approach to the area of Chestnut Hill. In the middle of the street, there were slick icy trolley tracks.  As I entered the intersection, I saw a large tractor-trailer truck stopped behind a trolley car at the bottom of that long, long hill.  It was carrying huge steel I-beams. Two of the beams protruded at least five or six feet beyond the end of the truck’s trailer.  The lower beam had a small 12-inch square red flag hanging from it.  As I headed down hill, I lightly touched the brakes and put the car in low gear, hoping to stay in control.  This very steep downgrade is one of the longest and steepest hills in the city. I felt that the truck and trolley would move away before I got to the bottom of this quarter mile long hill.  But now, I had no alternatives. I was beyond the intersection and moving with a line of cars behind me, slipping and sliding in every direction, blowing horns for me to move out of the way or go.  So I went!

In an effort to gain control, I lost control.  My car slid onto the trolley tracks and I became locked like a toboggan sled on a mountain trail.   I could not turn right or left. I was committed to a point of no return. I slid, uncontrollably locked in the slippery trolley tracks, unable to steer. My car responded like a scenic railway car going down a slope. The breaks were useless. I was moving faster and faster, headed straight towards the stopped tractor and trailer. My uncontrollable car was approaching the protruding steel beams, overhanging right in the middle of the truck bed.  They were positioned to strike dead center in the middle of my windshield. My car picked up speed as I slid down hill.  “Move over truck!” I screamed out-loud.  “I can’t stop!”  Neither the truck nor the trolley unloading at the bottom of the hill, were about to go anywhere.  The icy street prevented traction for the truck to move, especially to go forward up the other side of the steep hill in this iced condition.  Moving for anyone was impossible.

The icy tracks were as slick as if they were greased.  My car now, totally out of control, plummeted closer and closer, faster and faster, down the hill.  Nothing had traction.  In the instant, I thought about jumping from the car, but I saw pedestrians around the trolley and realized we could all be killed.  The car was out of control like a guided missile.

Some pedestrians disembarking from the trolley car, tried to walk cross the iced street.  They were slipping and sliding.  I had to stay with the car, in the tracks, headed nowhere but to a crash. The front end of my car guided by the tracks like a roller coaster, was destined to jam under the back of the trailer and the steel beams would surely decapitate me.   It all happened in seconds, but seemed like an hour of terror. I froze holding the steering wheel with a death grip, waiting for the inevitable collision. I was transfixed, staring forward, directly at the red flag and the big I-beams.

Then it came.  CRASH! Everything turned black. Two giant steel beams, side by side tore through the hood, the windshield and the roof of my car, like two giant arrows piercing a black shield. The beams crashed through the windshield and wrapped the hood around the windshield then ripped off the roof.  Shattered glass was everywhere. It happened so fast that I could not even remember the image of the crash. Resting on my right and left shoulders, were the two 12 inch steel beams, slightly separated a few inches by the impact of the crash. It was, just enough to allow only a fraction of an inch on each side of my head, grazing past my ears lobes. In my lap lay the red flag, labeled SAFETY FIRST, BETHLEHEM STEEL.

The car was a total loss. I was unhurt except for minor cuts. There were no witnesses at the crash site, not even the truck driver saw the accident.  He just felt a bump from behind.  My car was jammed under the frame of the trailer.  The truck couldn’t move.

The truck driver waited until the tow truck came from another direction to pull us apart. My shiny black Buick was jammed under the rear chassis of the trailer with two big I-beams now cantilevering my front seat.  In separating the two vehicles, the tow truck literally pulled the car apart, dragging my Buick out from under the rear of the trailer.  Everything from the front of my Buick’s body pulled away onto the ground: fenders, hood, grille, radiator etc., etc., etc.

Just then, the sun broke out from the dispersing clouds. The ice and the snow disappeared within a few minutes melting everything, everywhere – from the trees, the bushes, the sidewalks, the streets, telephone and electric wires and the trolley tracks.  The trolley moved on effortlessly, up the other side of the hill and never knew what happened.  The people who had been on the street were now nowhere to be seen. They either walked home or boarded the trolley for what was an uneventful trolley ride to them.

The truck driver climbed up and into his big Mack truck tractor. He gave me his employer‘s card and said, “Don’t worry about the truck, buddy. Nobody got hurt and there is no damage to the trailer. You’re OK to go!”

OK to go, where? No job, no car, living with Mom, no money, my last penny spent for gas and the car is a wreck, and I am going to be a father in 6 months.   I sure was OK to go.

With one last nickel, I called the restaurant owner and changed my appointment to a later day because of the weather.  He said, “What weather? The sun is shining here. Why not take the bus?”  He didn’t know that what would have been my bus fare was spent for gasoline in the big tank of the beautiful, highly polished, 1940 Buick Limited sedan, with a full tank of gasoline.

Holding the red flag in my hand, I walked two miles to my Mom’s home where we were living.  When I arrived, my wife was just returning from her job at the dress shop. She gave me a big hug and said, “Wasn’t it a nice day?  I had several good sales at the store.  How was your day? Where is the car and what’s with that red flag?”  I replied, “Sit down, and I’ll tell you all about it.”