BY EDIE GROSS
The clock starts ticking as soon as Melissa Mullen's phone rings, and it rings pretty much all the time.In the heat of the summer. During rainstorms and snowstorms. On weekends.
When she's on vacation. In the wee hours of the night.
She's got 30 minutes to drop what she's doing--or drag herself out of bed--and get her tow truck to the scene, which could be anywhere within a 230-square-mile area of Spotsylvania County.
"I've been out there in my jammies," said Mullen, who tows for Lew's Auto Service and Salvage. "You don't have time to get dressed up."
No matter. She can hook up a vehicle and pull it out of a ditch just as skillfully in a pair of flannel pajamas as she can in a pair of blue jeans.
One of only a handful of female tow truck operators in the region, Mullen was designated TowGirl of the Month in September by TowGirl, a nonprofit organization that represents women in the towing industry.
Fifteen other women from around the country were nominated for the honor, but visitors to towgirl.org voted for Mullen, said the group's founder, Christy Perez.
"She won by over a 200-point spread," said Perez, a tow truck operator in northern California. "She's quite popular."
Mullen said she appreciates the honor, but the job is joy enough.
"It's adrenaline when you get a call. I can't even explain it," she said. "It's like when you're on a roller coaster and you're going up a hill and you're excited. I love my job. It's a lot of fun."
It's hard to know just how many Mullens are out there. The Women of the Towing and Recovery Association of America has 136 members, but that includes dispatchers, office workers, towing company owners and spouses of owners in addition to actual tow-truck operators.
TowGirl, a relatively new organization, has 364 members, said Perez. But not all are women or even drivers.
SHE'S NO 'MALIBU BARBIE'
Mullen, a Stafford County native who now lives in Spotsylvania, said it never occurred to her that she couldn't operate a wrecker.
"We've got women doctors and men doctors. We've got women teachers and men teachers, women mechanics and men mechanics. This doesn't seem any different," said Mullen, who has an 11-year-old son. "I can do the same things guys can do and not break a nail."
At 32--or "$29.95 plus tax," as she says--she's been in the towing industry for about 12 years. She started when a friend who owned a salvage yard and a tiny wrecker asked her for some help moving a few cars.
She was hooked from the start, and later graduated to clearing accidents for the Virginia State Police and Spotsylvania Sheriff's Office, a duty she shares with several other local towers.
Lew Elliott, her employer for the past two years, said folks used to be surprised when a woman pulled up in a wrecker.
"I'd tell people, 'I've got a girl coming out to tow your car,' and they'd say, 'A girl?'" said Elliott. "But she knows what she's doing."
Sometimes people need to be convinced of that, said Mullen, who's certified by the Towing and Recovery Association of America. At an accident scene on U.S. 1, a Spotsylvania deputy gave her a hard time.
"He said: 'You've got to be joking. You look like Malibu Barbie,'" Mullen recalled. "I said, 'You need to get back in your little car and write your tickets.'"
He later called and apologized, she said. The two are now dating.
'NEVER A DULL MOMENT'
For the most part, she said, the sheriff's deputies, state police officers and firefighters she works alongside are supportive.
They've even helped her sweep up broken glass.
The owners of the cars she's towing off the highway can be a little less receptive.
"DUIs yell about the cost. I say, 'This is going to be the cheapest part of your DUI experience,'" said Mullen, who also tows abandoned and wrecked cars and occasionally changes flats.
"I'll have guys, 200-plus pounds, stand on the interstate with their hands in their pockets and I'm changing their tire," she said.
Women, on the other hand, seem relieved to see her step from the cab of her "baby girl," a Chevy C5500 with a 21-foot-long bed. Sometimes they offer to help, Mullen said.
"You're picking someone up at one of their lowest moments. Their car is broken down and they don't have a choice," she said. "I get to be the savior--and at times I get to be the bitch that takes their car. Never a dull moment."
JOB IS A CHALLENGE
Mullen never quite knows what she's in for until she arrives at a scene.
If a car is still on its tires and she has a little room to work, it might take three minutes to load it up, she said.
If the car's rolled over, wedged between some trees or lying halfway down an embankment, clearing the scene can take a little longer. There's also the occasional snake or thicket of thorn bushes to contend with, not to mention the constant rush of traffic just inches from her work space.
Sometimes she'll call on her colleagues at other local towing companies for help righting a vehicle or wrenching it loose.
"It's like a big family," she said of all the companies that contract with law enforcement to work accidents on a rotation.
She remembers just about every accident she has worked for the last two years.
There was her first rollover, a wreck on Interstate 95 at the 120-mile marker, where a truck pulling a U-Haul trailer flipped down an embankment. Mullen skidded down that same embankment to hook up the truck, ruining a new pair of Timberlands in the process.
She was attending to another accident in the left lane of the interstate, up against the guardrail--her least favorite spot--when she heard a car's brakes lock up behind her. Instinctively she leapt over the guardrail, tearing the back of her pants.
The hardest scenes, she said, are the fatal accidents, like the one she worked on Block House Road this September on her birthday. A motorcyclist was killed after being struck by a car whose driver was later charged with aggravated involuntary manslaughter and DUI, second offense.
Mullen said the dangers associated with her job have given her own mother gray hairs. But Mullen enjoys it too much to give up.
People like to complain when their cars are towed against their will, said Mullen. But most tow truck operators are just trying to clean up other people's mistakes and stay safe while doing it, she said.
"We're real people. We have families and kids," said Mullen. "I want to come home at night."
Edie Gross: 540/374-5428