The Two-Man Tow

Posted on June 18, 2010


I’ve been involved in more towing situations than you can shake a tire-iron at, but last night I learned something that has changed my mind forever about how we work together to get something done. Here’s the story.

It doesn’t matter what led up to the need, but I found myself under a little car on the freeway shoulder last night, working a tow strap around the undercarriage, then securing the other end to my Suburban. I explained to two people who’ve never done towing before how it works (front car is gas, back car is brakes) … very simple, nothing to worry about. I could read the anxiety in their faces, but since I knew how it worked, what the risks were, and how to compensate, I wasn’t worried.

Off we took down the road, I in my powerful cocoon, they securely fastened behind me. I knew it would be just fine. Then I felt the pull of their brakes and shook my head “no” … there was no need for them to brake and I would warn them long before there was. After all, they couldn’t see a thing around me, and I knew it, having much more often been the one in the following car. After a minute of consistent pulls, the phone rang. “TOO FAST!” We slowed down and I talked them through what was happening, what little jerks and pulls meant, that nothing we were doing was dangerous.

And just as I knew it would, it turned out fine. We pulled up 15 miles later to the home, unhooked, and saluted as we drove away. Then I began to get the picture of what the experience had been in the following car as my companion decompressed from a near coronary.

If you’ve never been in the following car, it’s nerve-wracking. You are closer than you would ever in your wildest road rage follow another car, and going highway speed. You have no control, (power steering and brakes are non-existent when the car’s not running – you’re driving a brick) and you can’t see a thing except the back end of someone else. Your responsibility is to keep the strap or chain tight, so you can’t, heaven forbid that you’d want, creep any closer. With no brakes. And trying to turn a steering wheel set in cement. It is, I realized with a deep pang of guilt, the harder job.

At the same time, I felt a deep sense of confidence in my own past. When I’ve been the following car, it’s often been because someone with more experience (read “father” or “spouse” or “mechanical male”) just assumed he’d be magnanimously towing, sometimes even when I stopped to help him. And off he would take, and I had to make everything work from where I was, blind, with a car that didn’t in any way work, and somehow I had to get us both stopped. And I did it. Time after time.

From the front car I could see, and I knew that, worst case scenario, I could stop us both by letting the little car rest on my back bumper. I wasn’t going to lose the car, and there was nothing life-threatening that could happen. I thought, “All you need to do is keep yourself from drifting far, and just sit back. Don’t worry. I’ve got you.” It was much easier from my forward position, and I felt a clear sense of confidence in my expertise to get us there. But as I listened to the story pour out of my companion, I remembered the stress of trusting that, when all control was out of my hands.

We all have to work with each other, and more often than not, one of the pair is going to have more control in a given situation. When that happens, the other has to be “the following car” – operating blind in some place foreign and hard to maneuver. And it’s nerve-wracking in a way that the other of the pair may not realize. It requires a depth of experience with each other to know that the confident one can handle the lead for the following one to relax.

It’s now obvious to me that following, in these “one car dead” situations, is the harder job. Any of us can press forward when we’re the ones with the vision, the means, and the confidence, and wonder why someone else is hanging back. It takes tremendous courage to trust in someone else’s vision, confidence, and means and to follow them in. It takes a bigger person. I’m going to remember that better when I ask someone to be “the following car” and be patient and communicate better, appreciating the particular skill that it takes to be a follower.

We demonize followers. We should not.

If I find myself in the following car, I’m going to make the decision before I ever sit down in that seat to trust the forward driver and relax, to know what is out of my control and to accept that.

It’s called a two-man tow, and for a minute I laughed to imagine two men doing it. Few men I know are comfortable as followers: powerless and blind. (Well, I don’t know anyone who’s comfortable as a follower in that situation; who wants to drive a dead car?) Then I had to shake myself, and grudgingly admit that men have much less tendency to worry over it, but instead will unemotionally look at the big picture. “Non-working car is getting where it needs to be. Period.”

So it’s not about gender. It’s about teamwork, and not hi-jacking the project worrying about who is in control. It sure made me laugh to think about the metaphor in a woman driving off with the tow-truck.

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