grapevineLike Snow Business I Knowgrapevine


Contrary to the glitter-sprinkled holiday cards in your mailbox each year, your average southern New Englander rarely sees snow for Christmas. When truly unlucky, rain is the Yuletide precipitation. Or it may be akin to that one aggravating year when there was snow on the ground Christmas Eve--and a fog rolled in late that evening and "ate" every flake by midnight.

Bah humbug.

If luck holds, there's already some on the ground. For a feeling of real enchantment, the snow starts falling as you leave the house for Midnight Mass.

In a typical year, however, December is mostly brown and bare rather than winter white, but by January the snow is in earnest and continues through February and may surprise you in March.

The world goes peculiar before it snows. Perhaps in the noisy city it can't be heard, but in suburbia and countryside an unearthly quiet spreads over the landscape before the snowfall. Car sounds and words are muffled. It's as if the low clouds buffer all sound--and those clouds themselves look different: not heavy and dark as with rain, but holding a whitish-silver cast with smoke-grey edges, a "snow sky." The air smells differently as well, a cold, dampish, sharp scent.

At the first sign of snow, or the initial panicked bleat of the local meterologist, hordes of frantic shoppers descend on hapless supermarkets and, like determined locusts, strip them of every loaf of bread and jug of milk. (Those who consider this a strictly New England phenomenon need only visit the South.) Why simply bread and milk is an eternal mystery. By the time the first flakes flutter frostily to and fro, there's not a sandwich loaf or a drop of Hood's to be seen. If you're in the supermarket for your usual weekly trip, or have just stopped to "pick up a few things," the excursion becomes an ordeal.

A frosting of snow is harmless, but once the snow starts accumulating, its pleasure decreases to an adult. The driveway must be shoveled or snowblown. Where the former is harder on the physique, the latter can be more draining psychologically. Chances are "Mr. Snowblower" hasn't been used since the previous winter. He must be gassed, primed, and then cursed (many a child has picked up a salty vocabulary based on a extremely snowy winter) as the lawnmower-type starter cord is yanked and jerked until the operator is sweaty and swearing. Once it finally bellows to life the plowing is yet to be done.

And of course, invariably, five minutes after you've returned the snowblower to the garden shed or garage, the city snowplow rumbles by--they must operate on some type of sensor--and completely blocks the end of your driveway with every clod of snow, dirt, and ice they can scrape from the street, and you're back out there with a shovel chopping at the morass while adding to the children's vocabulary.

Once you've actually excavated the driveway, it's time to hit the streets. Most New Englanders might scoff, but driving through a foot of snow is generally more secure that riding on a one-inch accumulation to the south. Before it snows in Dixie it invariably rains and then ices first before depositing that minimal inch coating, creating a delightful surface (delightful, that is, if you're Michelle Kwan, Scott Hamilton, or Torvill and Dean). A set of good snow tires takes the sting out of a foot of snow fallen on bare pavement--if one can escape the twin snowstorm nuisances of the road.

The first is Mr. Oh-It's-Just-Snow. He feels his traction is just as fine as on a dry, sunny day and drives accordingly--that is, until he hits a short-cycle red light and does his unfortunate imitation of Jan and Dean hitting Deadman's Curve.

The second is Ms. Oh-My-God-It's-Snow. One would think this breed would be the safest driver on the road. Yet she inches along at five miles per hour as a chorus of horns builds to the rear, someone late tries to pass and...

Add to that the joy of an early winter storm and the fellow who's forgotten to put on his snow tires. Once the snow flies he multiplies rapidly and soon slides merrily in your way.

With all those delightful prospects it's no wonder adults greet the snow with groans. One had to experience snow as a child to get the full glorious impact of it.

It invariably began in the darkness of early morning in listening to Dad don his snow boots, stamping into them on the porch. Even through closed storm windows, the snick-snick-snick of the shovel's edge cutting through the newfallen snow on the way to the shed could be faintly heard. Then all was silent. A quiet radio announcer's voice droned in the background, that immortal phrase burned on every Rhode Island child's brain: "No school Foster-Glocester." (Some kids asked their parents if they couldn't move to the magic land of Fostaglosta, too. They always had the day off.) Now was the time to lie tense in the dark. You've heard the saying "There are no atheists in foxholes"? Indeed every child in broadcast range was praying at this moment.

Outside finally the throaty roar of the snowblower. The driveway is short, but Dad is persnickety and will also be cleaning off the car, so it may be as much as a half hour before he's back on the porch, stamping the snow from his boots and shaking it off the old grey coat he uses for snow removal, and then the door opens. He smells of cold and gasoline, and Mom has added the scent of hot coffee to the mix. It is a safe, comforting combination of odors.

They talk in low tones. How many inches already? Six? They gotta call school off, they gotta...

And there it is, Salty Brine or whoever was on WJAR at that time: "No school Providence. No school Cranston..."

The kids who would be barely conscious on any other morning begin to cheer. One can almost see Mom rolling her eyes.

On school mornings all we want is to sleep. But who can sleep on this morning when there's glorious snow? Dad has barely left--factories never close for snow--and it's not even seven o'clock when you dance out of the bedroom, pulling on clothes. Mom's cooler head prevails. She makes your breakfast and insists you eat it. Maybe you cool your heels for a while listening to the litany on the radio: church groups cancelled, late hours for hospital workers, late openings on downtown stores.

Mom makes eggnog. We don't worry about salmonella back then and she can make a glorious libation out of an egg, milk, a bit of sugar, and just a tablespoon of brandy (pediatrician approved!). It warms every tip of your body--if we're not already warm enough struggling into snowpants and snowsuit and hat and gloves or mittens. (Think Randy in A Christmas Story: "I can't put my arms down!")

Outside it's cold, really really cold. You blow out your breath to see it, like Santa's pipe smoke, "encircle your head like a wreath." We creatures with eyeglasses keep wiping off the resulting fog until the lenses grow acclimated to the chill. Tiny flakes fall on your sleeves. You examine them to see if, like teacher says, they are all different. Then you blow on them and turn them into drops of water. "Science" is so cool!

Dad's already shoveled the area near the door, so you find the nearest untouched snow and jump into it, despite Mom's admonition not to get wet. The snow, depending on the cold and the moisture, either crunches underfoot as you sink into its enveloping coldness, or squeaks and creaks, the sign of intense cold. You then go tramping into the yard next door, delighting in the pristine footprints. My own particular pleasure was to sketch paths and roads in our small backyard: from the clothesline pole to the shed, to the peach tree and toward the side yard, to make an imitation town. Out came the faithful stick horse and you could be Johnny Tremain delivering dispatches to the colonists.

Now you tramp down the driveway to the front yard. Snow has covered the small dry spot where Dad's car sat earlier. Driving past on Gansett Avenue are cars that still wear chains instead of snow tires. They make a faint, odd metallic jingling sound as well as crunching the frozen road surface underneath. There aren't many cars. Every once in a while the sand and salt truck rumbles up and down, defacing the snow with brown.

By ten o'clock every kid within walking distance is gathered on the hill in the field across the street, dragging Flexible Flyers, plastic "flying saucers," and even pieces of cardboard. Energy they would have worked off in school is worked off on the hill, to their mothers' relief.

Later some of the neighborhood adults who are home or who have stayed home emerged, walking to the neighborhood stores, which are certain to be open. Wearing pants is something for vacation back then, so the ladies are in skirts, with rubber snow boots pulled over their shoes. Some women have shoe boots with fur around the top. Fur-trimmed collars and hats are still common, but mostly you see the sensible grey or brown cloth coat with a woolen skirt peeping out underneath. No one hurries. The snow is slippery and they take their time, chatting to whomever they meet on the way. It becomes a social occasion, a holiday from ordinary housework.

If I had a dime or a quarter I might go up to Tom's Superette for a chocolate bar. The store is sweaty warm from steam heat and warm breath and wool coats, and everyone's cheeks are scarlet from the cold. The apple-cheeked child celebrated in literature must have just come in from the cold. Invariably your nose runs from the shock of going from cold to warm and you sniffle into a Kleenex (or in the case of the small children, into a sleeve). Either Tom or Molly has put a mat at the door and traffic there chokes up as people kick snow off their boots. Kids who have take a break from their sleds are crowded around the candy counter.

Sometimes I'll get an ice cream. Someone will laugh: "Eating ice cream in a snow storm!" It's an honorable tradition: one of my favorite tales is Mom's story about the snowstorm that shut down Providence, yet she and her best friend Dora, teenagers at the time, tramped downtown under an umbrella and then walked home eating ice cream, laughing at the people pointing at them.

Many years later, trapped in New York City with friends during a blizzard, I suggested an ice cream excursion. One of us caught cold, as she predicted she would, but tradition was satisfied.

Mom might crack a can of soup for lunch, but more often I would eat the sandwich she'd made me for school while my boots dripped on the porch and my damp pants and outerwear dried next to the radiator. I might stay in to watch soap operas with her--I still recall the lineup: Days of Our Lives, The Doctors, Another World--but more than likely I'd be unable to resist the call of the snow and would tug on my clothes again and perhaps walk to my godmother's house.

My baptism godparents lived next door, but my Confirmation godmother lived one street over and down the road. For a long time her daughter and I had been best friends and for Confirmation we "swapped mothers." It would be a fun walk there, the resultant company was excellent, and as a bonus she could always be counted on for something baked: cookies, cake, whatever.

I wouldn't be walking alone, either. Leash laws were lax in those days and every dog in the neighborhood would be out romping in the snow. I knew all the dogs, if not their names, and they knew me. Unlike other ladylike youngsters who didn't want to muss their clothing, I would play tag with them and roll in the snow. One never had to worry about bites: the neighborhood pack was ever affable, mostly mutts. One dog, a Golden Retriever mix, once patiently followed me all the way to Margaret's house and then waited outside for his playmate until I regretfully informed him I was planning on staying. He looked mournful, but left.

As the long blue afternoon shadows fell I returned home. Mom would be starting dinner--Dad got out at 3:30 and we ate promptly at five. The kitchen was redolent with the scent of whatever she was cooking: "gravy" for the macaroni, roast chicken, baked pork chops. If I'd stayed out and played instead of going to Margaret's she might warm me up with Nestle's Quik in hot milk. The radiators would steam, the windows would fog up, the sun would grow low.

It was the time of day when the much-used freeway would ice up and on snowy days I knew she was worried until Dad made it home.

The one time he kept her waiting all too long was much later--and I was involved in it as well.

In the opening days of February of 1978, three snowstorms converged on New England. No one there at the time is likely to forget what was later named "the Blizzard of '78."

Dad had not yet retired from Trifari, where he worked as a jewelry polisher, and I had been working there just five months. Since we went in at different times, we had both cars the day the snow began to fall harder than almost anyone expected.

For we denizens in the shipping room, the usual habit was to either get a coffee and sit in the cafeteria during break and lunches or go out and stand on the loading dock for some fresh air while listening to a male co-worker tell blue stories while the smokers puffed anxiously at their cigarettes. This day it was so cold on the loading dock at noon that I was the only one there, watching the efforts of a big brown UPS truck backing up to the concrete platform. There was a slight slope up to the platform, but not more than fifteen degrees.

The glaze of snow on the asphalt was already so slippery that the truck couldn't make it.

My first though was for my mother, who walked to work less than a mile from our house to a small factory at the foot of a steep hill. Accordingly I dashed for the pay phone and told her to get home and watch out for that hill.

At intervals for the next 90 minutes I checked the snow. It seemed to be getting deeper. We weren't allowed radios in the shipping room and couldn't check the actual condition of the storm.

What I wanted desperately to do was find my dad and suggest we go home.

I did not do so. I wore a green security badge; the factory people upstairs had yellow badges. Green badge people forbidden to enter yellow badge areas. Dad had 11:30 lunches, I had the 12:30 lunch. There was no chance we would run into each other.

Other times if I needed to speak to him, I would go to the big double doors to the factory, always open for air circulation, and speak to the supervisor of the department near the doors. His name was Johnny and he'd fetch my dad for me. But today when I'd gone up there at lunchtime I discovered Johnny's entire department "on stagger" (working week on, week off). A big empty concrete expanse lined with empty machines faced me.

Of course it was an emergency and the worst that could happen was my being scolded.

I was too painfully shy even to risk that.

Outside the weather was growing worse. Unbeknownst to me, Mom had gotten a ride home from work--and indeed the car she rode in slipped several times on that treacherous 45-degree slope hill. Now she was sitting at home waiting for us, fuming and fussing at the same time. (I would not have been surprised had she finally pulled out her rosary.) Mom would have had no problem marching into the factory. But this was me and not Mom.

At two p.m., with the blizzard reaching its peak, Governor Garrahy ordered everything shut down, private business as well as government offices. Out of factories and offices and facilities poured thousands of people. Some went for the bus, most went for their cars.

Dad met me in the parking lot, told me to stay close behind him even if I had to bump him, and we struggled in already-deep snow to the cars and joined the long queue waiting to exit the parking lot. I was so overwhelmed I forgot to tell him I wanted to lead. I was terrified that if I, in my little Chevette, got stuck or separated, he would miss me in the rear-view mirror, stop, and come back for me. He was ten months from retirement and his age worried me.

Dad, in his copper-colored Pontiac Ventura, "broke trail" and "Misty" and I trailed in his wake. I discovered early on that the car must keep moving, but the brake had to be used sparingly, with gentle taps like those of a parent trying to wake a small child. Any stronger pressure and the rear of the car would fishtail, a movement that made me queasy. I had the Annie cassette in the car and sang along loudly to it, interspersed with urging the car not to stop. Orphans and Miss Hannigan competed with the roar of a defroster barely keeping pace with the cold. The side and rear windows were solidly opaque white before we had gone two miles. I was encased in white snow and red upholstery with only Andrea McArdle and company to keep up my nerve, following the icy rear lights of "Copper's" rear end, which I did bump more than once.

We advanced and stopped, crawled ahead and braked, all the way up the parkway and down I-195 and how we ever managed to cut across four lanes of traffic from where 195 dumped us in the left lane of I-95 South is a mystery that will never be solved. Vehicles, small and large alike, were already stuck. Cars were perched precariously on snowbanks left from the overworked snowplows that had been running tirelessly since late morning or surrendered in what was left of the breakdown lane, people peering out from a half-open window or standing disconsolately near their vehicle. When the inching slowed until it looked as if we were barely moving, Dad somehow threaded his way through halted cars to the Elmwood Avenue exit and we creaked and crept home through more than a foot of new snow untouched by any car in the neighborhoods around Park and Reservoir Avenues.

The distance from the Trifari building on Riverside Drive to our house was 10.5 miles. It took us two hours and thirty minutes to make the trip and Mom was thoroughly frazzled when we got in. "You told me to come home!" she told me indignantly.

Of the people that left work when Frank Garrahy shut down the state at two p.m., we were some of the few that finally made it home. Traffic on the freeway finally halted for good as cars were literally buried. People stayed with them as long as they could, then walked or were helped to the first shelter they found: bus stations, Union Station, Rhode Island Hospital, factory and office buildings, department stores, even strangers' homes. Some of them camped for days, fed, warmed and bedded by businesses, individuals and the Red Cross; others closer to home simply walked there, taking hours to reach places usually fifteen minutes walk away.

Daddy and I were barely home before he routed the snowblower into service. He wasn't outdoors ten minutes before I was summoned; the snow was already so deep that it was taller than the big maw of the machine. For him to be able to clear the stuff I had to knock the snow down so the blower could gulp it, chew it, and spurt it out in another direction. Compounding our problem was our effort not to knock the snow on my godmother's sidewalk, directly beside our driveway.

Exhausted, we staggered in after dark to eat supper, but Dad was forced outside again before bedtime and again early in the morning. The snow stopped late on the afternoon on the second day, February 7. Wonder of wonder, despite losses in other parts of the state and our preparation of the ice chest, "just in case," we never lost power.

The world outside once the wind died was silence broken only by voices. Only emergency vehicles were allowed out, and you couldn't go anywhere anyway: the plows had abandoned any pretense of clearing side streets. Gansett Avenue was open but empty save for the occasional official vehicle. The fallen snow was three feet high, but the piles made by the snowblower were nearly twice as high: the one in the back yard was nearly as tall as Dad.

Restless, I was allowed to go to the store on Thursday; we had word that the Cumberland Farms store on Cranston Street was open and my mainstay milk was running low. (I loathed Cumberland Farms milk, but, as the clichè goes, "any port in a storm.") From the edge of the driveway I had to climb up to the snow-choked street, which was so hard-packed I sank only to my knees as I made my way the few feet to Gansett Avenue, then had to climb yet again to get over the snowplowed edges and then slide down the cliffs of snow to the roughly plowed surface. By the end of that segment I looked like an awkward snowman.

I joined a straggling line of mostly teens, some men and women, several pulling small children on sleds. We swapped snow stories as we struggled over the uneven mixture of snow, salt, and sand pocked with the ice-edged tire tracks of the plows, and slipped and slid on icy ridges as we trudged the overpass spanning the train tracks. The air hummed with silence and cold bit the skin.

The store was indeed open and a line formed outside. The Cumberland Farms manager, fearing a stampede, had posted an employee at the door allowing only five people in the store at the time. There was a limit on all items. All I wanted was the milk and a roll of film. Alas, while Governor Garrahy threatened retribution to any merchant caught price-gouging on food supplies, the same did not go for non-essentials. Cumberland Farms wanted $10 for a roll of 110 Instamatic film!--I didn't want snow photos that badly.

(We managed to find a less mercenary store by Sunday and did get some pictures. By then a little of the snow had even melted; even then I was hip-deep in the stuff.)

The National Guard and the Army marched in by the end of the week. They arrived with snowplows, backhoes, disposal trucks, and other snow removal equipment and slowly and carefully dug out the hundreds of cars enrobed in snow on I-95 and I-195. Buses started to be able to get some folks home by Sunday, although the state and businesses weren't totally back to work until the following Tuesday, when the snowplows had finally reached all the side streets. (Our street was plowed Saturday only by a stroke of horribly ill luck: a neighbor had a heart attack, and while the paramedics dashed over the packed snow with a portable defibrillator and their medical bags, a man with a backhoe cleaned a path for the ambulance. Our neighbor, thank heaven, survived.)

We managed the week without much trouble, save for the scarcity of milk. Mom's sale-priced stock in the cellar saw us through while we watched television reports of families surviving on hot dogs and peanut butter. It remains an adventurous memory that, to Mom's exasperation, quelled my snow-affection not one whit.

It's warmer in the South and we usually suffer through only one "bad" (read two inches of snow) snowfall a year. While I've grown out of the necessity to get up in the wee hours to revel in the accumulation, eventually the siren song is too much and the irresistible call of the snow is heeded. The dog, a true "Dixie chick," blinks bewilderedly at me through the glass doors while I crunch in the minor accumulation, testing it for snowball appropriateness, catching flakes on my sleeve, examining those six crystal points and then turning them into drops of water with a puff of my breath. Whatever. If no one else appreciates winter's finest song, I still do.

 

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