A Life On The Road


Published: 08/01/2011

by Chuck Murphy


Towman Chuck Murphy

    Chuck Murphy sent his story to us out of the blue! We found this personal account of a tower’s life very compelling, including his service during Hurricane Katrina. We present it here in virtually its original form and uncut.

    In 1973, I started to work at an Exxon station. I was only15, but I lied about my age. At the time, it was a full-service station, which meant that I cleaned all the windows, checked oil, and sold customers an air filter if needed. Back then, the tips were good.
    After working there for a while, I noticed this really bright red tow truck made by Ortiz. I started out just driving it around the pumps. Then I built up the nerve to hook up a car and tow it around the lot. After my in-lot training, I thought I was ready for the real tows.
    Now, mind you, I had no license — most of the cops thought I was older — and I decided to start chasing wrecks. Chasing was a lot of fun. The thrill of being at a scene first, using my gift of gab, and bingo! — I had the job! All of a sudden, I was filling the lot with wrecks and the money started coming in.

Teamwork Works
    The money had me interested, but I recall running a wreck on Route 208, almost in the village of Walden, NY. The wreck was bad — the car had burned and the driver died in the car fire. The heat was so intense! Being the first one there, I tried to get the door open, but I couldn’t get close enough. I tried throwing the J-hook to catch the door, but that did not work either.     Another tower showed up: Mike Biggs Jr. I got the tow, but without his knowledge I wouldn’t have been able to bring it back to the station. I had the car on dolly wheels, but with all the damage from the heat, it kept bending in the middle. Mike showed me how to cradle it with the chains.     Mike Biggs was the one who really sparked my interest in towing. I had tried all kinds of work but towing now was in my blood, and it has always been fun for me.
    I have towed in a few small towns and on the New York State thruway. While on the thruway, I towed out of the Albany area and the New York area. They were both busy areas and often required long-distance calls and lots of roadside service and recoveries. We had a ton of AAA calls plus many that were long distance.    
    When you towed on the NYS thruway and finished your call, you always gave the customer a comment card. Everyone tried to get good comments, but you cannot always please them all. There were two of us who would get the most good comments when I was working there: me and a guy we called Tex. It was always a challenge to see who would receive the most each month.

A Long Way
    Over my 30 years in towing, the industry has come a long way. When I started, the T-bar and a tire were being used to tow vehicles. Then, you needed a wood 4x4 to be placed on top of the chains.
    It wasn't long in between changes. As the cars progressed, so did the equipment the industry used. Next in progression was the sling; then the wheel lift came along. We really needed the wheel lift as cars were no longer as sturdy and the front ends would be damaged while towing.
    When it came to dolly wheels, we had pan dollies when I first started. Then No-Mar came out with a jack-up dolly. Now we have pop-up dollies.     No-Mar also had a 528 wrecker that had the ability to do side pulls. It had one stiff leg that you could move to either side, as needed.

Safety First 
    Safety has always been a big thing, then and now. It’s dangerous when you are on a call on the side of the road and traffic is moving fast, but if you are lucky, you have a wide shoulder to work on. But sometimes you get a call where the vehicle has pulled into the center; it is hard to get back into traffic when this happens.
    My first safety rule is to always wear your vest when you are in your tow truck. As for safety lighting, in the 1970s and 1980s, we didn't use tow lights, but times have changed and the use of tow lights is required at all times to reduce the chance of secondary accidents.
    Schools for safety and education have also evolved. When I first started, there were programs by Ross Kinman. Over the years, other towing education programs have come along. Now we can choose from many more sources. We used to do everything by trial and error, but take a look at what towers can learn today! It makes me wish I had taken physics in high school!

Cleaning Up
    During wreck recoveries, law enforcement is always kind of picky. While each jurisdiction had their particular policies, most often, the police always said that they had a clean road before the wreck, so whatever parts had come off the wreck you took with you.
    But this was easy compared to when I towed for the Hurricane Katrina clean-up. While towing in the areas hit by the hurricane, you needed to have a GPS navigation system. Although many drivers knew of them but weren’t using them yet, it was actually a necessity there. There were no street signs, no lights, and no way to determine an address.
    While using that GPS was something new, the experience of towing automobiles after such a devastating event also had a learning curve that was completely unexpected. You learned how to use that handy GPS, but when you did get to the address, your recovery may have floated away, or was in the basement of a house that was a block over and in the middle of the road, or was in a tree that caught all the debris traveling in that direction.
    There were many automobiles that had been looted. I asked one owner what happened to the tires of a car. When they told me that they didn’t know, I asked them if the tide had switched directions enough times to turn the lug nuts loose!

A Dream Team
    During my second trip down to the area for the Hurricane Katrina clean-up, I became very ill. I was running a high fever and felt horrible. When I started to have more major symptoms, I knew something was terribly wrong. I wanted to get one more run in for the night, but that run ended up being to Biloxi Hospital.
    A young doctor working the ER that night told me that I wasn’t going die on his watch. He admitted me and put me in the care of some of the most amazing professionals I’ve ever met. I called them “my Dream Team.” It didn’t deter them that their hospital had been hit by a major hurricane or that the roof was gone and there was flooding in the halls.
    They did quite a few tests that were all conducted in trailers and came to the conclusion that my kidneys had failed. I never thought this would happen to me. Years of drinking sugared soft drinks had caught up with me.     Drivers, if this sounds like you, please switch to something better for you! It may not be as convenient or fit in your cup holder, but it could make a world of difference. My wife was told that I was in a life or death situation, but I pulled through.

Close Calls
    While I was recovering there, I received cards from some of the Tow411 family and even a phone call from Mark “Da Moose” Sternberg, of Eagle Towing in Engadine, MI. He is the kind of guy who can make you want to walk all the way home when you can’t make it a block!     I’ve always been impressed with the industry’s support of each other and I want to tell you all to keep it up, my brothers!
    With help from that medical Dream Team, many prayers from family and friends, some stubbornness, and probably a bit of luck, I made it back to Billings, Montana.
    I sold my tow truck shortly after coming home from the Katrina clean-up. Nowadays, you can find me answering phones for Rent-A-Wreck in Billings or taking my two teenagers to school and their activities. I continue to go after the rental cars, if needed, because I love that driver’s seat, although now I use a trailer.
    My wife has a problem getting me to turn the scanner off to this day. It’s in my blood and it has supported my family for so long that I just can’t get myself to turn the knob. It’s been on 24 hours a day since I met her and will probably continue to be for some time to come.
    Contact Chuck Murphy at MTcouple9101@yahoo.com, 406-591-0368, or 211 S. 25th St., Billings, MT 59101.
My Early Life
    I was born on a wintry night during 1958 in a small city in upstate New York. Growing up, I had club feet. It was hard with a cast on all the time, but I can tell you that it never stopped me.
    In 1963, my mother married a man who had spent 20 years in the U.S. Navy as a medic. He retired and became a New York State Park Police Officer. While most people go to West Point to become an officer, at the age of seven or eight, I became a patient there thanks to my new dad.
    At West Point, they did surgery to correct my club feet. My dad learned how to work plaster and I kept that great man busy rebuilding my cast because I would ride my bicycle and wear the little rubber heels off.
    I attended elementary school in a small town. By the third grade, I was a heavy young man. I remember going on a field trip with a very nice teacher. Classmates were making fun of me because I could not throw the ball in the air and hit it. Well, I connected with that ball and it hit Mrs. Ross in the right eye and broke her glasses. I ran all the way home because I was scared. My mother and father returned with me and I told her I was sorry.     We were lucky enough to have a drive-in theater in that small town. My first job was turning off speakers from the night before. I earned 50 cents a night and free pop and if it was a weekend, we could watch a movie. Then the drive-in opened a flea market on weekends. A few of us guys were paid to park cars and pick up garbage. I thought that I was wealthy!
    And that’s how a life in towing began….
Wrecks Recalled
    There are some wrecks you go to and just shake your head. I have seen many really bad wrecks and what bothers me the most is seeing a kid get hurt. Either speed or alcohol was a factor most of the time. Here are a few wrecks that stand out in my memories:
    1. Early one afternoon I went to a one-car accident to find a Chevy Camaro that hit a tree. It had gone about 10 feet up the tree and when I arrived the eight-track was playing Bachman-Turner Overdrive.
    2. Halloween night, early in the evening, there were a couple of young teens driving a VW that hit a stone wall. All they were wearing was body paint.
    3. I received a police call for a vehicle impound at a car wash. When I got to the scene, there was a car inside with the door closed and there were two bodies in it. They must have closed the door and fallen asleep. Carbon monoxide fumes overcame both of them.
    4. One fatal accident still sticks in my head: A young man was ejected from the wreck and I went in the woods with a rookie trooper. When he reached down for a pulse, I accidentally stepped on a branch that moved the man’s arm. That arm slapped the trooper in the face and he ran all the way back to his patrol car.