Updated: May 30, 2013 2:10PM
Kevin Farthing parked his black tow truck at the end of a road that went nowhere, behind the Family Express, just off Indiana 249 in Portage.
There, not one but two semi-trucks were stuck in sand, helpless to navigate their way out of the muck without his assistance.
An hour earlier, truck driver Angela Washington of Hammond turned her rig onto the dead-end road to turn it around and park. She planned on grabbing a bite at the McDonald’s across the street.
“It seemed like a good idea, but it sure wasn’t,” said a dejected Washington, who works for Denton Trucking of McCook, Ill.
Minutes later, another truck driver, David Hayes, happened to pass by and noticed her plight. Damsel in distress and all. He figured he could pull her out with his cables. He figured wrong. He got stuck too.
“I thought it was dirt, not sand,” said Hayes, 29, from Calumet City, Ill. “It’s like quicksand. This sucks man.”
A Portage tow truck company was called, but it wasn’t equipped for such a big job. A call was then made to Farthing’s company, Waffco Towing, and for its biggest rig, a 2009 Kenworth T800 twin steer with a JerrDan 85-ton rotator recovery unit. (Get all that?)
Waffco, which stands for Wrecker and Freight Forwarding Co., has been in business for 41 years, these days with 25 total wreckers, “crash trucks” and support vehicles. Its marketing slogan says it all: “The big boys call us for help.”
Farthing, who’s 55, has been on board since day one when his father, Roy, (who died in 1995) first got the firm rolling.
“This was his vision, his dream,” Farthing said.
Farthing’s son-in-law and nephew now work for Waffco, keeping the family business rolling into the future, he hopes.
“I grew up with the business. It’s all I’ve ever done. I take it seriously,” he told me while looking out over his five-acre property of wrecked or abandoned vehicles. “Every car is a heartache story, that’s for sure.”
I’ve wanted to write about Waffco for more than a year, ever since I toured the Lake Station firm, learned of its interesting family history, and realized that tow truck firms are the forgotten “first responders” at most crashes, accidents and roadway incidents.
“We don’t bring life-saving skills, but we’ve had to hold up blankets to cover dead bodies, and help yank open mangled car doors to help victims out. Sometimes we’re the first ones to arrive at a scene. It’s a strange business,” said Farthing, whose wife, Patty, does the company’s paperwork.
You name it, Waffco’s 24/7 staff has dealt with it. Deadly wrecks on the Borman Expressway. Jackknifed trucks on icy backroads. Hog-hauling semi trucks turned over on exit ramps. Steel coils falling off trucks. Bulldozers buried in mud. Child fatalities. Vehicles smuggling drugs along the Indiana Toll Road that need to be towed. The list of intriguing scenarios goes on.
“It can be hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror,” said Farthing, who usually takes digital photos of each scene and posts them on Facebook. “The buzz phrase these days is incident management.”
Farthing would like to see more formalized training for tow truck staffers for such situations, with state funding and official certifications.
“Set some standards and give us training like fire departments get,” Farthing said.
Some of the firm’s daily calls involve typical tow truck jobs, such as broken down vehicles and late-night calls from police departments for drunken drivers whose cars need to be hooked.
“Yeah, it can be kind of sad here on Saturday mornings when a drunken driver’s wife comes to get her husband’s impounded car from the night before,” Farthing explained. “And then he complains to us, not the cops, the bartender or himself.”
People in need of a tow truck sometimes throw a fit when having to pay for the needed service, whether it’s $25 in the 1980s or $85 today, the firm’s average cost for a “cold call.”
Waffco also has an exclusive contract with the Indiana Toll Road Commission for tow-truck jobs, from the Illinois state line to Michigan City. Regardless, when a call comes in, Farthing wants to see his vehicles’ taillights pulling out of the lot in less than five minutes.
“This business is a crapshoot, but we’ve been around a while,” said Farthing, a father of two who worked longer hours in his younger days than he would like to admit. “Yeah, I couldn’t always be a dad as much as I wanted to be. All I did was work.”
Stand in line on that familiar fatherly refrain, I told him.
Farthing’s body has paid a price for his physical job through the decades. Two hernias, countless aches and pains, and a knee replacement with complications. He and his wife find routine refuge in their beloved boat, dubbed for double meaning “Recovery Time.”
Last week, at that dead-end road in Portage, Farthing arrived along with his heavy-duty driver, Brandon Cotton, who’s been at Waffco for a dozen years.
Cotton backed up his massive Kenworth T800, unreeled a thick cable and hooked it up to both trucks stuck in the sand, one at a time. Minutes later, each truck was pulled to steady pavement and each driver was happy to be back on the road.
“This is the best tow truck service I’ve ever had,” Washington said before getting back in her cab and heading west.
When I turned to relay the positive feedback to Farthing, he had already hopped back in his crash truck and headed east toward another call.
Connect with Jerry via email, at email@example.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.