Storytime: Operation Shanghai Retrieval

I highly debated ever telling this story, even five years after it took place. The people that were involved had long gone their ways, and one of them ended us knowing each other on an extremely sour note.

However, if you take all of that away, it was one of my “adventurous” college moments. It also is one of the most dangerous driving conditions I’ve ever driven through. With all of the snow that’s happened in the last week or so, and having my own taste of winter weather this Sunday, I decided it’s time and okay to share this.

Okay, deep breath. Here goes.

January 2011. Not sure when I believe it was the first weekend on a Sunday or such. It was early afternoon, I had just moved back to my apartment near campus and was just lounging around playing games and whatnot. DIGM seemed easy!

About 2PM I get a call from this girl, named Min-Zhi. She was an Asian-Malaysian girl from one of my earlier DIGM classes the previous semester. Not quite friends, but more than strangers.

Apparently a few of her friends are flying in the same night, and there’s nobody to pick them up. She has “choices” that can probably work, but most of them are depending on other people who have cars. I’m her only choice that she knows that owns a car. Interesting.

I tell her yes, to let me know. It had started to snow outside, the airport was Tri-Cities, so I figured it’d be an easy sweat. After all, it was just because I had a car, not because nobody could get through snow.
An hour later I get a call back from her. We’re a go; however, the airport is Knoxville now. Bad weather has diverted the flight due to the snow.

I already know that its a bit of a terrible situation already with this already happening. I’ve never been in this area when snow had hit, and though the most we put up with in Parrottsville was icy roads was not sure what more city-like driving would be.

Letting Mom know about my whereabouts for the evening, I took off into the now-becoming white wasteland.

Orion was my service vehicle at the time. If you aren’t aware of its legacy here, it was a rugged dependable car that I took on most of my travels. I didn’t doubt its ability before, and didn’t think I’d have any issue at this point.

I approximately left my apartment complex about 4PM, swinging by the ETSU campus to grab Min-Zhi. We got onto I-26 and started off towards Knoxville.

First obstacle; I missed the intersection to I-81. We ended up in Virginia and had to turn around, heading back south. I had no GPS and I had only used I-26 once, a whole year ago. That was a 20 minute detour. The snow had worsened; though it hadn’t piled up on the Interstate as yet, it was a wet mess and it was falling like crazy.

About another 20 minutes once we had gotten back on track, we were approximately near Greeneville when she got a call from her friend. Apparently the flight was delayed, and they were still in Washington D.C. Obstacle two.

“Can we turn back?” She asked.

Too late to do that. However Greeneville was a stone’s throw from Parrottsville where I lived. We exited off and headed over to Wal-Mart, hanging around there for about an hour. I had it set in mind that we’d head back home to “farmland homestead” if the snow got really terrible or we had to wait another couple hours.

Min-Zhi though it was hilarious that we were “loitering” around Wal-Mart. We got a few snacks; two things in particular were baby carrots and oatmeal cookies. I wanted chicken but the deli was closed. Drat.

We were watching fish in the pet department when we got another update; they might be delayed again, but the were still announcing their flight as live. I didn’t want another false alarm.

“Tell them to only call us when they’re boarding the plane. Then we leave.”

Ten minutes later they called again to say “they were on the plane.” That was our cue.

We got back into Orion and headed out. Snow had started to pile up now, and it was almost dark. By the time we had passed Exit 407 (or Waypoint 407 to me), the snow was starting to stick on the road. About then Min-Zhi got the final news; her friends had touched down in Knoxville safe and sound. All we had to do was get to them.

By the time we hit Knoxville, traffic was a bit less but it was still typical hectic Knoxville traffic. Orange lights illuminated the snowfall and the road became more and more deserted the closer we got to the airport.

We reached McGhee-Tyson Airport around 9PM. Most of the staff had gone home and only the airlines that were expecting flights were still around. Snow was about three inches already and we were literally in a ghost airport.

We met up with Min-Zhi’s friends. For the life of me I can’t remember the other girl’s name, but the second girl was Sheng Yi. They greeted each other for a few minutes then turned to me after learning that I was the one that gave them the ride here.

“We thank you for coming to get us,” Sheng Yi told me. “You are like God to us.”

Well! Never had that kind of compliment thrown that way to me before. I told them I’d do my best to take them back home through all that nasty weather and whatnot.

Obstacle number three appeared. One of their suitcases was missing. It didn’t arrive on the plane that came in, so Min-Zhi filed a baggage claim for it. Time was of the essence, so we all piled into Orion and started the voyage back home.

It was an empty winter wasteland out near Morristown by the time we hit I-81. I had unsuccessfully tried to stop for Chicken Tenders from McDonalds (they sold these back then) and took on gas at exit 417.

When we had passed the Morristown exit, Orion did a half-skid upon hitting a patch of road. The snow was firmly packed on the Interstate and I could no longer proceed at 60-70 miles per hour any longer. This freaked the girls out a little. The unknown girl thought I had fallen asleep, so she took it onto herself to pat and rub my shoulder every few minutes until Min-Zhi explained that the road was really bad and I was fully awake.

I honestly think they had never seen weather like this. They were from mainland China (don’t even know the town), and this was their first year over here at ETSU. Still don’t know up to this day why they picked that school or the like. So the whole thing did seem like an adventure.

Sheng Yi, though…she had been seated shotgun the entire ride (I later figured out that Min-Zhi wanted to keep the other girl company to talk to her). She’d check on me, hand me water and food and such. It was actually funny; when we were near I-26, I went on a partial cookie binge. I was about to go to cookie number three when one mysteriously arrived near my mouth! Sheng Yi thought she’d be helpful so I could focus on driving.

Orion was running nominally despite the conditions. Our average speed now was approximately 40-50 miles per hour. The road was bad enough that even if I used extended distance to brake, the car would skid. I literally had to let the car roll to a stop with little or no brake usage. I sometimes would have to pass an 18-wheeler at about 55, and was holding my breath every time we made a curve. My hair stood on end when we came off the exit ramp, having to slow down a whole 1/4 mile ahead of turning off.

We finally made it to Johnson City about 1:40AM, and now was put up with stop-and-go driving on city streets. Near ETSU this proved near disastrous; the hills on the campus didn’t help as all three girls were in Lucille Hall. I dropped them off safely and was given a lot more thanks. It was about 2:15 when I finally arrived home.

Later on the girls gave me some gas money as a token of appreciation. The girl did get her luggage, but not by the claim; when they were separated from their main friends, her luggage was loaded onto their plane instead, and the friend recognized it and took it with her when they reached Tri-Cities.

I never really talked back to Min-Zhi’s friends after bringing them in during that cold winter night. Time went on, and a year later some senseless spat between me and her ended me not talking to her entirely. However, I do know that she graduated the same year as I did in 2013, and eventually moved to Japan sometime last year.

The whole thing was bittersweet. I never really helped anyone out like that since then, and even after all these years later Sheng-Yi’s comment still stuck with me, making me realize one thing. That if I do something useful to help someone, they might take notice and appreciate it.

If you’re still having to drive through winter weather, stay safe out there.

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