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thedrifter
01-10-08, 09:00 AM
Venable: A meeting that defies the odds

By Sam Venable
Thursday, January 10, 2008

One day in mid-December, Tommy Rhoades of Knoxville backed his 18-wheeler into the loading dock of an auto parts factory in Kankakee, Ill., and prepared to drop off his freight.

In the process, he exchanged a casual howdy with another trucker - and wound up receiving the best Christmas present of his life.

"That guy looked at me and said, 'I know you,' " said Rhoades, 50, who drives for Teton Transportation. "I told him, 'I don't think so.' "

The other trucker had to move his rig and check in but before leaving, he told Rhoades, "Stick around here for a little while. I want to talk to you."

Intrigued, Rhoades cooled his heels. Soon the other driver approached, stuck out his hand and asked, "Were you ever in the Marines?"

Naturally, Rhoades responded, "Semper fi."

The quizzing went on: "Were you ever stationed on the USS Guam? In Spain? Do you remember the helicopter crash?"

By that time, cold chills were running up and down both men's spines. Seconds later, they were hugging and back-patting.

"We did everything but cry," the second driver, Gregory Walls, told me from his home outside Chicago. "Tell you the truth: When I finally got back in my cab, I shed me some tears."

The Lord works in mysterious ways. That's the only answer these men have for the fact that they ran into each other after taking part in a harrowing rescue three decades ago.

It was February 1978, Walls recalled. He and Rhoades - who didn't even know each other at the time - were shipmates on the Guam. They were onshore, taking part in maneuvers, when the chopper crashed just downhill from them.

"Couldn't have been more than 150 yards away," said Rhoades, who was driving his rig cross-country when he and I made cell phone contact. "Something happened to the back prop. It went around in four or five circles, then fell.

"I ran down there to help. This other guy had just run up, too. He pulled back a big piece of metal and shoved me through a hole into the helicopter."

That "other guy" was Walls.

But this was no time to exchange pleasantries; the wreckage could explode at any second. Covered in blood, sweat, aviation fuel and hydraulic fluid, the two Marines pulled 15 bodies, living and dead, from the smoldering wreckage. Nine ultimately survived.

Until their chance encounter in Illinois, the men had never set eyes on each other again. They vow to remain close.

"We call each other two or three times a day," said Rhoades, who joined the Marines out of Doyle High School. "We're gonna get together with our families real soon. We both feel very blessed by the Lord."

"I don't know why I happened to recognize him," added Walls, 52, who drives for Guess Freightways out of Hobart, Ind. "We may have crossed paths several times and didn't know it."

Rhoades won the Navy-Marine Corps Heroism Medal for his actions that day. Similar paperwork was initiated for Walls but never completed.

"We're getting in touch with the VA about it," said Rhoades. "I want to make sure Gregory gets the recognition he deserves."

Sam Venable's column appears on Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. He may be reached at 865-342-6272 or venob@knews.com. His latest book, "Someday I May Find Honest Work: A Newspaper Humorist's Life," is available at bookstores, the University of Tennessee Press and online from the News Sentinel.

Ellie