The Wreck of Big Red

‘An ignominious fate for such a noble road warrior’

“We knew it was to have been the last voyage of Big Red, our faithful but worn-out equipment truck, because we had already purchased its replacement. We never imagined that Big Red would go out like a true rock star, with a spectacular show that almost took two band members out with it.

“Marc, Dale and I purchased the 1972 GMC cube van while we were in the Larry Tucker Band, and we combined it with Ward’s Dodge van to create the Bad Sneakers fleet when we joined in January 1980. But Bad Sneakers was a heavier band than Larry Tucker, and by the second year on the road we were loaded down with enough equipment to exceed the recommended weight limit for this single-axle truck. Knowing this, we purchased a 1970 International Harvester dual-axle 14-foot step van in early December 1981.

“We decided to leave the new truck home the week of Dec. 8 because one of the rear turn signals was not working, due to a wiring problem, and because we had not yet walled off the cab for safety. Big Red would have one more journey to make before we retired it from active duty.

“One of my jobs in the band was fleet maintenance and, being responsible for the health of the trucks, I almost always drove the big one so that I could feel how it was doing.

“But for some reason that I don’t recall, Ward drove Big Red and I was riding shotgun on this particular trip to Fredericksburg, Md., for a week-long engagement. It was at least a two hour ride from Newark and, as was customary, we only stopped once along the way, generally at a 7-Eleven. We had many band rules, and the single-stop rule was one of them.

“Dale, Marc, Shane and our sound man Dante Pagano rode in the Dodge van. Another band rule was that the two trucks should never lose sight of each other, so when we approached the outskirts of Fredericksburg in the late afternoon of Dec. 8 the van was directly behind Big Red.

“Unaccustomed to not driving, I had dozed off. I was startled awake by a loud bang and, as I was regaining consciousness, I heard Ward scream ‘Fu-u-u-ck!!’ as he realized it was a tire blowout. A few seconds later, I heard the sound of screeching metal as the right rear of the truck dropped, lifting the left front and causing Ward to frantically turn the steering wheel in an attempt to regain control. We quickly swerved completely around and, for a brief moment frozen in time, I was staring directly into the faces of the other band members in the van behind us, while hurtling along Interstate 70 in the right direction from a traffic-flow perspective but, terrifyingly, in the wrong direction from a vehicle-alignment perspective.

“By the time we swerved back around again, I was completely awake and able to fully appreciate the massive g-forces at work on my body. Things got even more interesting when we turned completely upside down.

“I remember how suddenly silent everything was. Inside an accident is a really loud place to be.” Neal Tillotson, Bad Sneakers drummer

“I was wearing a seat belt, but Ward wasn’t. So, he could only hold onto the steering wheel as the truck tumbled completely over and finally came to rest on its side.

“I remember how suddenly silent everything was. Inside an accident is a really loud place to be and it was kind of a relief to hear the quiet when it was over. Ward said, ‘Are you all right?’ and I remember saying something like, ‘Yes, but could you please get off of me?’ We had landed on my side, the passenger side, and Ward was straddling me.

“I think we both quickly realized that we weren’t quite sure where we were in relation to the highway. We obviously needed to get out before we got hit by another vehicle and, fortunately, the windshield had popped completely out during the accident. I could see grass so I unbuckled my seatbelt and climbed over the hood, following Ward in the direction of the median strip.

“Several things were in our favor that day. There was only one other car that was directly next to us when we started swerving, and that driver had the presence of mind to speed up to get out of our way. He was a volunteer fireman and he pulled over to call the police for us. We also were headed slightly uphill during the accident, so that must have helped slow us down at least a little.

“The other guys in the Dodge van pulled over on the opposite side of the road. I’m sure they were frantically concerned about Ward and me, and that’s probably why when the two guys in the back flung the side door open and scrambled out they forgot about the 7-Eleven Big Gulp cups they had relieved themselves into and stored in the step-down area of the door. I think there was a little bit of sneaker cleaning going on later that night.

“As it turns out, Ward was relatively unscathed and I suffered only a bruised elbow and a few minor cuts. Even the equipment survived, for the most part. It was packed so tightly that most things didn’t move around that much.

“The truck, however, was totaled. We sent the other four off to town to rent another truck while Ward and I stayed to talk with the police. While we were in the police car, a tow truck arrived. One corner of Big Red was sitting just a foot or so on the highway, and the police instructed the tow truck operator to right the truck as quickly as possible to get it out of the way. We managed to get them to agree to let us unload it first to avoid one more major shock to the equipment.

“Now, it’s hard enough for five people to unload a truck full of heavy amplifier racks, speakers and a piano. But for two people who had just been through an accident to do this – while the truck is sitting on its side – is a little bit more of a challenge. We got it all out, however, and soon the police left and Big Red was on its way to a nameless junkyard in a strange town – an ignominious fate for such a noble road warrior.

“It was now twilight. The other four guys still hadn’t returned with the rental truck, so Ward and I were resting on the median strip of I-70, surrounded by all of our equipment. I imagine it must have been a strange sight to the cars passing by, seeing the two of us sitting on speaker cabinets with cases, light racks and mike stands strewn around.

“There were a few broken things, including, most sadly for me, the comic book trunk. This was a wooden box that my dad had built for me when I was kid and in which I stored all my comic books while growing up. Since the early 1970s it had served as the miscellaneous cord trunk for my bands and there were still remnants of superhero decals on the underside of the lid. That trunk had seen a lot on the road, but now it was in pieces.

“As I looked at the now-detached lid in the fading light I could see faces of Captain America and Superman staring up at me. I promised myself that I would rebuild that comic book trunk. Similarly, I knew that Bad Sneakers would also survive this tragedy to continue its never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American pop song.”