It seemed like one of those times when it was just something to do. When Dale asked me to ride with him to pick up his boat, I agreed without much thought. I had just retired from the Revenue Department and didn’t have much to do that day. I didn’t know it would lead to a nightmare experience then and a cherished memory now.
Dale had just bought a boat from a dealer from Columbia, N.C. Columbia is a small town almost four hours away not far from Manteo on the way to the Outer Banks. Of course, the reason Dale bought a boat from a dealer so far away is because he thought he got a good deal on it. So that early summer morning we headed out in his old red and white Chevrolet Surburban to get the boat.
While it was a long ride, it was an easy one. After taking I-95 to Rocky Mount, we got on US 64 and headed east. US 64 is not that heavily traveled and goes through the middle of nowhere, but is an interstate type road all the way to the coast. (I suppose it was done inorder to give Senator Basnight and other politicians an easy ride from Raleigh to the Outer Banks.) When we finally got to Columbia, we found the dealer, tried out the boat and Dale did all the paperwork for the purchase. When we hooked up the boat and trailer to Dale’s Surburban, the rear lights on the boat trailer wouldn’t work. But that was not a big deal since it was early in the afternoon. So far, it had been a pretty uneventful day. But as we started to head back west on US 64, there were storm clouds in the distance. It was an omen for things to come.
Soon after we hit the road, we were in the middle of a windy thunderstorm. I noticed that the seat cushions had blown out of the back of the boat due to the wind. The storm quickly passed by, but we had to backtrack and collect all the boat cushions that were spread up and down the highway. Not long after heading back on the road toward home, the Surburban started sputtering. We were out of gas, in the middle of that previously mentioned nowhere. (Hey, it was not my job to check and see if we had enough gas in the tank. I was just along for the ride.) We coasted off US 64 at an exit hoping there was a gas station nearby. Of course, there wasn’t. Dale phoned 911 and a Highway Patrolman arrived to help. Dale went with the patrolman to get a can of gas, and I was left with the car and boat, thinking maybe this trip wasn’t such a good idea after all. After filling the Surburban with gas, we were finally on way back to Clinton, hoping to get home before dark. (Remember the tail lights were not working on the boat trailer.)
As we were getting ready to turn off US 64 onto I 95 near Rocky Mount, there was suddenly a loud noise and the motor raced. I turned around to look back and saw oil- looking fluid all over the rear windshield. The Surburban’s transmission had apparently blown up. It would still go, but just barely. It was now almost dark, and here we were, creeping down I 95 at around 40 miles an hour, while everyone else was going 70. Did I forget to mention that we had no tail lights on the back of the boat trailer? And that we had to go through another heavy thunderstorm while on I 95? We made it to the Kenly exit, where we stopped and put some transmission fluid in the engine, hoping we might be able to hobble back to Clinton. We didn’t make it.
We did make it to the US 701-Newton Grove exit off of I 95 before the transmission finally locked up for good. I think the transmission actually melted on the inside. (By the way, this is the exit where I now always tell anyone who is riding with me, “Did I ever tell you about the time me and ol’ Dale went to pick up the boat?”) We coasted around the ramp and came to a stop off to the side. It was around 10 PM when Dale dialed 911 for the Highway Patrol for the second time that day. He would later joke, “I never thought I’d be glad to see a patrolman twice in one day.”
Around an hour later, we were waiting for the tow truck. I had stepped to the other side of the boat trailer, when a car drove up and three guys got out and walked toward Dale. I don’t think they were there to help. I stepped out from behind the boat, and about the same time the tow truck drove up. The guys decided to drive off, much to Dale’s (and my) relief. The tow truck driver loaded the Suburban on the back of the flatbed and hooked up the boat to the back of the truck. Dale and I crowded in the front with the driver for the ride back to Clinton. It was after 1 AM when we finally got back to Clinton.
Dale Denning unexpectedly passed away in August of 2012. I now smile when I remember the trip to get the boat that early summer day back 2006. I think about something Dale said that night as the tow truck loaded up the Suburban. My ol’ friend told me, “I’m sorry you had to go through all of this. But I’m glad you were here.” And looking back now, I’m glad I was, too.