Real Heroes Nearly Die Changing Tires

My old baby and her booboo. Now I drive a minivan.

Right off the bat, let me say for the record: I’m no hero.

I generally don’t like to publicize or even talk about any good deeds I’ve done, but since my wife Evgeniya already spilled the beans about my most recent one, I’m going to tell the world who the real heroes are.

Evi went to a play with our friend Jenn last night, and we’d agreed I’d pick her up afterward. Arriving early, I was there to greet them as they walked out of the building. After some chitchat, Jenn, who drove herself, went home, leaving Evi and I to walk to the van while discussing if we wanted to stop and eat somewhere.

“I think I want a milkshake,” Evi said.

“That’s fine,” I replied. “We can–”

Just then, I heard it.

Fop! Fop! Fop! Fop! Fop! Fop! Fop!

I turned and saw a Toyota Camry riding awkwardly, like one of its tires was flat.

Fop! Fop! Fop! Fop! Fop! Fop! Fop!

The car came to a stop in a spot across the parking lot. The front left tire was definitely flat. Dammit.

Inside my head: “Please let it be a strong, tall man who can totally change his own tire inside that car.”

I looked through the back window. Even in the dark, I could see the driver’s head barely cleared the steering wheel, and was topped with a very feminine hairstyle.

Inside my head: “Please let it be strong, short man who can totally change his own tire despite his weird haircut inside that car.”

The door opened, and a very petite older lady got out of the car. I sighed.

“Hold on to that thought, Sweetheart,” I said to Evi. “We’re not going anywhere for a while.”


Sometime around 2006, my Honda S2000 was speeding north on I-75 on the way to Tampa. Near the Peace River Bridge, I ran over what looked like a 2×4. It seemed harmless enough. I was rushing to meet my friend Greg for a Tampa Bay Buccaneers football game, so I didn’t give it much thought.

About 15 minutes later, I was forced to give it a lot more thought. The two-seat sports car started riding and handling very poorly. “DAMMIT!” I thought. “That stupid piece of wood had a nail in it.” I pulled off to the side of the interstate and got out. What was left of my right rear tire was barely on the wheel. I needed to change it.

However, I was on a major interstate. Traffic was blowing by at speeds of 80 miles per hour plus. Besides, it was my right tire, which was on grass. There was no way to jack my car up on a level, sturdy surface. The whole situation felt unsafe. I decided to drive at a snail’s pace along the side of the road until I reached the next exit. The ride was horrendous; it was very difficult to keep the car in that skinny not-a-lane. But I made it.

The exit was one where if you turned left, you headed, well, somewhere. I didn’t see any gas stations or businesses of any kind. But at least there was a road. If you turned right, in about 500 feet, it simply dead ended. “Fine“, I thought. “I’ll go right. I’ll have space to work.”

Now, an S2000 is a unique car with unique specifications. The owner’s manual was very clear, with all capital letters, on one point: YOU CANNOT DRIVE AN S2000 WITH THE DONUT SPARE ON THE REAR WHEELIf you get a rear flat, you have to remove a front tire, replace it with the donut, then use the front tire as the replacement for the rear. It was going to be a gigantic pain in the ass.

After taking out all the tools from the trunk, I put the included socket wrench on a lug nut of the front right tire and pushed.

It didn’t move.

I tried again, as hard I could.

It still didn’t move.

I tried pulling it. I tried pushing it. I tried different lug nuts. None of them budged at all.

I knew from my days of playing football that sometimes you really think you’re giving it your all, but there’s still another level you have that only a great coach can get out of you. So I reached deep down in my psyche, and told myself: YOU CAN DO THIS. I put the socket wrench on the original lug nut, took a deep breath, and with all my might pulled it back towards me. My muscles screamed.

The Goddamn thing didn’t budge.

I dropped the socket wrench. I bent over and started breathing heavily. I had no idea what I was going to do.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the weirdest thing: an old man with a bright yellow sweatband on his forehead was jogging towards me. I guess you’d call it “jogging”. His speed was barely faster than a walk, but he certainly moved his arms like he was jogging.

I looked around. There were no buildings for miles in any direction. Where the hell did this comical-looking old man come from?

“You need some help?” He asked when finally arrived. His physique was not impressive. He looked 80, was barely 5’7″, and whatever meat he had left on his arms flapped as he moved them.

“I’d appreciate any help I can get,” I replied. “But the only problem I’m having is these lug nuts. They’re on so damn tight, I can’t get them to budge.”

“I think the main problem is you’re changing the wrong tire.”

I laughed out loud. I could only imagine how stupid I looked at that moment, struggling to remove a perfectly good tire while another was obviously shredded. I explained to him the game of musical chairs I had to play with the wheels.

“Let me give it a try,” he said.

“Be careful,” I said, trying to hide my pessimism. “Don’t hurt yourself.”

He put the socket wrench back on the lug nut, and pulled. It came right off. My jaw dropped.

“These really are a bear,” he said, not sarcastically, as he removed all the lug nuts off their bolts. I couldn’t believe my eyes. “There is NO WAY this man is stronger than I am,” I thought to myself. How the hell did he do that?

I put the donut on the front, then rolled the good tire to the back. The old man offered to remove the lug nuts from the rear wheel.

“No no no,” I said. “Let me handle this.”

I put the socket wrench on a lug nut, looked at the old man, looked back on the wrench, and pulled.

It came off.

“It looks like you got it!” The old man said.

I did. I was able to remove all five of the lug nuts. I thanked him profusely, and he went on his way. As did I, eventually. I got to the Bucs game at halftime.

That day has stuck with me ever since. I’m no psychologist or athletic coach, but I deeply believe that as hard as I thought I was pulling on the lug nuts on the front tire, I wasn’t able to twist them because deep down inside, I didn’t believe it was possible. I thought up excuses like, “hey, it’s a high performance car and maybe only machines can remove its lug nuts”. Then this old man comes–an old man who’s probably been a REAL man his whole life, and never for a moment conceived that it’s impossible for a real man to not be able to change a tire–and in one try twists the lug nuts.

After watching this frail old man do it: I knew it was possible.

And trust me, the rear lug nuts were no easier than the fronts. I just found that extra level of strength.


“It looks like you have a flat,” I said to the lady as I walked up to her Camry.

“Oh my goodness, I think so,” she replied.

“Why don’t you go ahead and pop your trunk and let’s see if you have a spare and all the tools.” She agreed. Luckily, she had all the equipment.

After a few minutes, I had her hubcap off and her socket wrench on a lug nut. I stared at it for a moment. It was the first time I’d been in this position since the S2000 incident. I pulled.

It didn’t budge.

“Not this time”, I thought.

I reached down deep. I pulled again.

Again, it didn’t budge. I pushed, I pulled, nothing. It was the same nightmare all over. I asked myself, “Am I getting too old? Do I not have the strength? Can I not reach that next level?”

“You are such a sweetheart for trying,” said the lady, whose name I learned later is Marilyn. “Please stop. I have AAA. I don’t want you to hurt yourself.” She dialed her cell phone.

Internally I got angry. “Listen Joe, you don’t have AAA. You have a wife. YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE A DAUGHTER. What if this happens to your family? What kind of man can’t change a Goddamn tire?!?”

I kept trying. Pushing, pulling, different lug nuts. None of them would move. I was breathing heavily and sweating profusely.

“Hello,” I heard Marilyn say on her phone. “Yes, I have a flat tire.”

I kept trying.

“Please stop,” she said while putting her hand on the phone’s mic. “I’m really worried about him hurting himself,” she said to an onlooker.

“What if she didn’t have AAA?” I asked myself, while continuing to pull.

“Fort Myer Beach?!?” The lady exclaimed into her phone. “The closest truck you have is all the way in Fort Myers Beach?”

The lug nut wouldn’t budge. Sweat was pouring off of my body.

“This is a 2002 car,” Marilyn said. “They may be rusted on there.”

That was it. That was the excuse my subconscious was using. The lug nuts were rusty, and I was letting that convince me it was impossible to remove them.

I thought about that old man who knew he could twist a stupid lug nut. I thought about my mom, who died in 2015, and didn’t raise a son that would leave a older lady with a flat tire. I thought I about my future daughter, who needs to grow up seeing an example of a real man.

Finally, I set the socket wrench so it was in a horizontal position, I grabbed underneath the fender, put my foot on the wrench and with all my arm strength, leg strength, and weight, pushed down on it.

It gave.

I did the same thing for all five lug nuts. They all gave. On the last one, I was breathing so heavily, I had to take a break, and another man, who’d arrived late in the process, came and finished removing the lug nut. We changed the actual tire together.

Afterward, everyone was heaping praise on me. Marilyn insisted on having my contact information so she could thank me. The manager of the theater said my wife and I could come for a free show any time we wanted. It felt good. Who doesn’t like praise, thanks and free tickets? Deep down though, I really just wanted a shower.

On the ride home, my wife turned to me. “I’m so proud of you, baby,” she said.

“You know, I changed Marilyn’s tire, and everyone gave me praise, which feels good.” I said. “So it’s not an entirely unselfish act. I have these good feelings. You feel good because you saw your husband do a positive thing. Marilyn felt like a hero helped her. She’s going to tell that story to other people, who’ll feel good to hear it. Between you, me, Marilyn and all the onlookers telling the story, somebody is going to hear it and possibly be inspired to also do positive things for others. So that spreads the good feelings and the power of positivity. Eventually, perhaps, the power of that one good act dissipates, but if you keep doing good acts, you’re constantly spreading positivity throughout your universe.”

I thought about my mom, who constantly did good acts for others. If every action has an equal reaction, then aren’t all my good acts a reaction to her? Is this how I keep her alive?

And I thought about the old man, whose name I never knew. His one good act that I witnessed was still spreading positivity eleven years later.

Those are the real heroes.






  • August 13, 2017