Really, he won’t send you a bill

Times Staff Writer

Christin Ernst was in a fix. An errant screwdriver punctured her tire on a San Diego freeway, leaving her stranded.

That’s when Thomas Weller -- a.k.a. the San Diego Highwayman -- arrived in his monstrous white search-and-rescue vehicle, complete with emergency lights flashing. A surprised Ernst watched as Weller slapped on her spare, inflated it and handed her a card.

It reads: “Assisting you has been my pleasure. I ask for no payment other than for you to pass on the favor by helping someone in distress that you may encounter.”


Ernst assured Weller, “I will pass it on.”

She was lucky. Because of wallet-busting fuel prices, Weller has cut back his good Samaritan runs to once every three days. Weighing more than 5,600 pounds, Weller’s aging rescue rig is a world-class gas-guzzler.

“I sit home on the front porch a lot,” he said. “It’s killing me.”

Weller isn’t alone. High gas prices are forcing potential do-gooders of all kinds to stay home.

Meals on Wheels and other services that depend on volunteer drivers have had to scale back. In a June survey of U.S. groups that serve the elderly, more than 70% said fuel costs had made it harder to recruit and retain volunteers.

For a while, Weller had a benefactor. An Auto Trader executive saw a television report about his good deeds and arranged to pay his fuel bills from April 2002 until budget cutbacks ended the deal.

“The best time of my career of doing this was the 17 months that I didn’t have to worry about the expense,” Weller said.

He started his volunteer highway rounds in 1966. Now 60, Weller figures he’s helped more than 6,000 motorists. He’s been interviewed plenty, including by CBS newsman Charles Kuralt, who dubbed him the “Highwayman.”

But Weller isn’t out for glory.

“It’s what I do for excitement,” said Weller, who was vague about what his avocation costs.

Weller’s usual companion is Shela, a black-and-white mix of Labrador retriever and smooth collie. Weller describes her as “a person in a fur suit” who once charmed her way into a party at the Viper Room, the Hollywood nightspot that usually attracts wolves rather than family pets.

Riding in the back of Weller’s vehicle is a no-go. Instead of seats, there’s a carefully organized assortment of things one might need to help a motorist in a jam.

Among the items: An electronic ignition, mechanic’s tool kit, hacksaw, crowbar, fire-resistant overalls and a yellow hard hat emblazoned with “San Diego Highwayman.” He’s also got a first-aid kit, a wheeled stretcher and a kit for delivering a baby (never used, he says, with obvious relief). On one side hangs a pair of rifles -- “a little bit of self-preservation,” he says, though he hasn’t had to fire them.

Much of the equipment is there “just in case,” Weller said. Mostly, he helps people whose vehicles are out of gas, have a flat tire or an overheated engine. In Weller-speak, that’s an OOG, FT and OH. For those, he carries gas, water, compressed air and jacks capable of lifting an ambulance or a low-rider.

His vehicle is reminiscent of the “Ectomobile,” a 1959 Cadillac that carried around Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and crew in the 1984 hit movie “Ghostbusters.” Weller has embraced the comparison, even though his white chariot is a heavily modified 1955 Ford station wagon.

Weller estimates the rig has gone 600,000 miles -- the odometer broke 10 years ago -- and its lineage has blurred along the way. “Depending on which part you point to,” he said, his ride also is a Mercury, Chrysler, Volkswagen, Dodge, Thunderbird and Buick, with components that date from 1955 to 1978.

The San Diego-area California Highway Patrol, which has 34 freeway service vehicles offering rush-hour assistance, doesn’t condone Weller’s highway hobby.

“It’s obviously very dangerous,” CHP spokesman Brad Baehr said. “But this is a guy who does this on his own, with his heart in the right place.”

Weller says he’s careful to stay out of the way of the professionals and to avoid making a hazardous situation more so.

It helps that he knows more than most about what’s required. Weller works as a mechanic and trained as an emergency medical technician. He stopped short of earning EMT certification, he says, so he would be covered by California’s “good Samaritan” law, which limits liability for non-professionals who provide emergency first aid.

Weller’s desire to help others was ignited in 1964. Then a teenager in Illinois, the car Weller was driving slid off a freeway during a blizzard and plowed into a deep snowbank. It was after midnight, and his car was barely visible.

A man stopped, got him out and told Weller to pass the favor on. Two years later, after moving to San Diego and graduating from high school, Weller started his rescue rounds.

To make a living, he’s been a roofer, car repair manager, tire repairman and security guard. These days, he fixes cars for a select group of regular customers. He says it provides enough money for his modest lifestyle and, until gas prices went up, also covered his daily drives.

Over the years, Weller has weathered a few close calls.

There was the time he pulled somebody out of a burning car. Another day, he convinced a family to leave their broken-down car and stand behind a freeway pillar -- and saved them from a crash that killed the other driver and caused their vehicle to explode.

On a recent Friday afternoon, he headed out from his folksy “Highwayman’s Roost” in eastern San Diego County wearing one of his Highwayman outfits -- a short-sleeved blue shirt and jeans with reflective yellow-and-white stripes, elbow pads and knee and shin protectors.

Weller added a hat, sunglasses and, being an avid fan of western writer Louis L’Amour, a red bandanna around his neck (“a kerchief has about 300 uses”). He fell into his “Highwayman” persona, peppering his conversation with “git” and “ain’t” and phrases like, “that un got me a-sweatin’.”

About an hour later, he came upon Ernst and her hobbled Honda Civic.

“It looks like she’s got a flat. Maybe she’ll let me help her,” Weller said as he fired up the rig’s lights and pulled over. Ernst was a AAA member but didn’t have her card, and her cellphone battery was waning. She was delighted to see Weller.

“This is the strangest thing I’ve ever experienced,” she said. “I would have been standing here for another two or three hours trying to figure out what I was going to do.”

Next, Weller pulled behind two cars parked just beyond a curve and barely off the freeway, where others were whizzing by at smash-you-to-bits speeds. One had a flat tire on the freeway side of the car. And the battery was dead.

The second driver was trying to help but couldn’t get in position to provide a jump and couldn’t jack up the car enough for a tire change. Weller’s hydraulic jack and heavy duty jumper cable did the trick.

“That gets the adrenaline pumping,” he panted as he pulled back onto the freeway. “That’s the excitement of jumping off the bridge with a bungee or going skydiving.”

The day’s mission was nearly done.

“The fuel gauge is showing me that it’s the right time to head home,” Weller said, peering at his extensive instrument panel. Two hours’ cruising had burned more than $40 in fuel.

On the way home, he spotted an old camper stopped on the freeway. The driver had fixed an electrical problem but was left with exposed wires and no electrical tape.

Naturally, the Highwayman had some handy.