While Hoosiers are known for their hospitality, it was a small tourist town in western Oklahoma that lavished exceptional warmth and compassion upon a rural Bartholomew County family when they needed it most.
Jason and Natalja Harrison and their six home-schooled children were heading west in their Honda Odyssey minivan on a late summer cross-country vacation. Already two days into their road-trip, none of the family members even noticed the town of Clinton, Oklahoma, as they zipped past it on Interstate 40, they said.
Their sights were set on the Grand Canyon, followed later by a relaxing stay in a cabin in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.
But within a few minutes of passing Clinton, their minivan was struck by a small piece of metal.
A metal chute, used to stabilize parked trailers, had flown back from a semi directly in front of them, bounced under their vehicle and ruptured the Odyssey’s recently filled gas tank, Jason Harrison said.
More than 20 gallons of gasoline poured out onto the interstate, forcing the family to quickly evacuate their van in case it caught fire.
“After we hit it, I felt like our vacation was over,” said Jason Harrison, a sales manager for Kenny Glass in Columbus. “We were trying to contact our insurance company, but we weren’t having any luck getting through. I just kept thinking: ‘What are we going to do?’”
Finding themselves stranded on an unfamiliar interstate 900 miles from home, the Harrisons first called 911 before they gathered together as a family to ask a higher power for assistance.
“We prayed,” Jason Harrison said. “I said, ‘God, we may have an agenda, but don’t let that get in the way of what you want us to do.’”
From then on, any resemblance between the Harrisons’ misfortunes and that of the fictional Griswold family in the 1993 film “National Lampoon’s Vacation” ended.
A helping hand
When Oklahoma Highway Patrolman Aaron Hunter arrived, the only things Jason Harrison requested was a wrecker and the transport of his family to safety, he said.But Hunter did more than that. He not only summoned troopers Chris Newcomb and Lt. Paul Christian to help move the family of eight to the nearest Oklahoma Highway Patrol post but also arranged to have their belongings moved to the Holiday Inn Express in Clinton.After Newcomb made a few calls on the family’s behalf, the Harrisons began to feel reassured everything would turn out all right, Jason Harrison said.
“They told us they had spoken to the motel owner, who had offered not only to give us a free stay there, but to provide us with complimentary tickets to a water park,” Jason Harrison said.
Both facilities are owned by Walt Schumacher, who agreed to even pick up the tab for the Harrisons’ dinner that Saturday night without meeting them, Natalja Harrison said.
After learning vehicle repairs would take three days, the Harrisons discovered there were no car-rental businesses in Clinton, which has 9,000 residents, her husband said.
But that would not be an obstacle in Newcomb’s mind. The trooper simply contacted his aunt, Oleta Camden, who had a spare vehicle with a weak battery she was happy to lend them, Natalja Harrison said.
“We were pretty shocked,” Natalja Harrison said. “A stranger is going to loan us her vehicle?”
Her husband said the family was even more surprised when the troopers stayed with them until 2 a.m. to first obtain and later install a new battery.
When the family awakened Sunday, they decided to join Camden in worshiping at the First Church of God in Clinton. That’s where the woman who had loaned her car to strangers also gave them a gas card to help them financially when they got back on the road, Natalja Harrison said.
Following the church services, Newcomb took the family to a cafe owned by his parents, where they were treated to another meal, before he brought them to a family gathering, Jason Harrison said.
“There were a lot of people there, but seriously, we all felt like we were part of their extended family,” Jason Harrison said. “It wasn’t easy for me to accept all this. But the Lord had placed me in a position where I needed it bad.”
That included the six children, who were invited to play and socialize with others their ages attending the gathering.
rwhelming’On Monday, the Harrisons spent their final day in Clinton at the new, multimillion-dollar Water-Zoo Indoor Water Park, which features such attractions as four-story water slides, a 600-gallon tipping bucket, a wave pool and both a lazy and crazy river.It was far better than the couple’s oldest child, 16-year-old Isabell, had imagined when she was daydreaming of splashing in a conventional motel pool during the family vacation.
“It is amazing that what I thought was something bad, God has turned into something good,” Isabell told the Clinton Daily News in a story published Sept. 1.
When the repaired minivan was ready to be picked up that Tuesday, Newcomb met the family at the repair shop and brought them to his home to allow them to say their goodbyes to his family.
“There was never ‘Enough is enough,’” Natalja Harrison said. “As we continued on our trip, (Newcomb) texted us several times to check on everybody.”
Although they never made it to Arizona, the family did manage to arrive just one day late to their rented cabin in the Colorado Rockies.
“We all agree we wouldn’t trade that experience for the Grand Canyon or anything,” Jason Harrison said.
“It was pretty overwhelming how people were just pouring out their kindness to us,” his wife said. “We really didn’t have time to get too disappointed.”
“If we ever do make it to the Grand Canyon, we’re going to make sure we spend a few days in Clinton again,” Isabell Harrison said.
Just back from vacation
Newcomb recalled what was going on in his mind when the Harrisons ran into trouble. He had just taken his own family vacationing to Kentucky and Florida about a month before the Columbus family found themselves stranded on his home turf.“I kept thinking: ‘What if I had broken down with my wife and kids on our trip and had nobody to help me?’” the 14-year veteran officer said, adding he was especially impressed with how well the six Harrison children handled the situation.Facebook postings of the incident drew responses from others who shared their own uplifting stories inspired by the same officers, Jason Harrison said.
“Stories like ours are happening every day and everywhere, but they just aren’t being reported,” Jason Harrison said.
“America is a team,” Newcomb said. “It’s up to the good people to work together to make positive things happen when things go wrong.”
Located along historic Route 66, Clinton is known as the “Hub City of Western Oklahoma.”
Population: About 9,000
Notoriety: Birthplace of country music performer Toby Keith, it is positioned in a large valley surrounded by scenic rolling hills and wide-open spaces. A popular tourist attraction, hiking and fishing is available at nearby Foss Lake. Many visitors are drawn to attractions such as the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum, the Cheyenne Cultural Center, the Lucky Star Casino and the new Water-Zoo Indoor Water Park.
Source: City of Clinton, Oklahoma, website
The family of Jason and Natalja Harrison reside in a brick, ranch-style home off Bellsville Pike, just west of Grandview Lake, in southwestern Bartholomew County.
The couple: Jason Harrison, 35, works as a sales manager for Kenny Glass in Columbus. Natalja Harrison, 33, is a homemaker with the additional responsibilities of home-schooling her five daughters and their young brother.
The Harrison children: Isabell, 16; Jacqueline, 14; Abigail, 12; Alexandra, 10; Everly, 6; and Abram, 3.
“We were pretty shocked, A stranger is going to loan us her vehicle?”
“We all felt like we were part of their extended family. It wasn’t easy for me to accept all this. But the Lord had placed me in a position where I needed it bad.”