Sunday, January 19, 2014

Why I gave up Midwest winters (Part 3 of 3)

Seeing that winter is alive and kicking in the cooler climes across the plains and Great Lakes region, and another arctic blast is about to descend on Tennessee, I thought I’d end my trilogy of Winter Woe.  Here are two quick tales that finally quickened my spirit to move southward.

1) February of 1980, I’m living in Skokie, one of the first suburbs north of Chicago: We got socked with another massive blizzard and subsequent deep freeze.  It’s bad enough that the cramped city streets are further impeded by six to eight-foot-high gray walls (the Winter Wonderland effect turns a dingy yuck “color” for months) that line both sides of every thoroughfare…but it’s that fact that everything becomes so brittle from the sub-artic conditions that makes it nearly unbearable at times.

Take this particular morning when I went out for the twenty-minute ritual of warming-up and scraping the car.  This isn’t occasional; it’s every freaking day for months on end.  I had to load some equipment into the back of my stylish metallic brown AMC Hornet Hatchback. You don’t see these anymore.  They were sort of sawed-off versions of station wagons. Of course, you don’t see many family wagons anymore either (oh, for the days of Clark Griswold and his Family Truckster!). 

As I crunched out to the Brown Bomber, as it was affectionately dubbed, it seemed the air was even more biting than was the norm.  The thermometer outside my kitchen window had no red in it at all—the mercury had simply disappeared beneath the twenty degree below bottom marker. I put my key in the back hatch door, hearing the tiniest of tinklings as loose ice shards broke free from around the tumbler. When I pulled the handle and lifted the door, there was a sudden *snap* and the right hinge split.  Within a millisecond, not being able to bear all the weight on its own, the left hinge cracked and broke away.  Before I could say “Cranberry Cornucopia!” the entire one-hundred pound door was plummeting towards my feet.  Lurching both boots backwards, I started to slide on the icy pavement, and fell awkwardly forward onto the displaced fragment, bouncing first off the bumper, then dropping further onto the street.  It all happened at hummingbird speed.  One of those experiences that flashes so suddenly and unexpectedly that you find yourself in the aftermath before even knowing what occurred. Would’ve made a viral-worthy Youtube clip if anyone had been fortunate enough to be filming me at that precise moment.

Because it was so cold, I couldn’t tell if I was hurt or not.  Fortunately, no lacerations or bone damage—just a few bruises that manifested themselves in the coming days. The real pain came when I called the American Motors dealership to find out about when I could get a replacement door and hinges.  On the other end of the line the mechanic at the shop was laughing, saying, “Buddy, you are shit outta luck.  You are the seventeenth person today that has phoned-in with the same stupid problem.”

So, while muttering execrations against AMC and Detroit automakers in general, and lumping in the forces of nature for good measure, I spent an hour trying to rig some sort of temporary translucent covering out of cleaner bags and cardboard.  I’ll let you in a little secret, too: neither electrical nor duct tape holds particularly well to frozen metal.  So, several times each day for the next five weeks, I had to re-attach all variations of make-shift protection to the back of my rambler.  Often it would simply rip off and flap furiously while driving on the Edens Expressway, or detach altogether, and I would need to construct a new one from scratch.  Sometimes I was so pissed that I would drive the whole day with the back wide open.

It wasn’t about to get any warmer during that time either, and I can assure you that thin plastic does not serve as a stout form of insulation.  That auto was constantly frozen inside and out until I was finally able to get a long-backordered rear door installed.

2) The final straw was late January of 1982 while living in another northern suburb of Chicago: Glenview, right next to the Naval Air Station.  One more shrieking storm descended on Chicago. This was, I believe, the coldest I have ever experienced.  Wind chills reached -83 degrees.  We were warned repeatedly by the media to stay indoors.  If you had to go out, then one needed to make quite certain that you did not allow any exposed skin for longer than thirty seconds for fear of severe frostbite.

Those are the type weeks where you pull your battery out of your car each night and bring it in to keep it warm—it would turn into a block of ice otherwise.  Of course, most fuel and oil lines were frozen anyway, so it was often an exercise in futility unless you were fortunate enough to have a heated garage.

On Super Bowl Sunday, I vividly recall that my three roommates and I were bundled up in the living room watching the 49ers win their first over the Bengals.  Now, we weren’t just wearing sweatshirts and donning little shawls.  We were in full blizzard regalia: long underwear, layers of clothing, full coats, hats, and gloves while we were sitting inside the apartment. We had the furnace cranked-up to the limit at 88 degrees, but it was so frigid, that there was literally half an inch of ice on the inner part of every window, and I could see Brian, Andy, and Bob’s breath as we spoke with each other.

Through chattering teeth I determined that I had indeed had enough.  That summer, when the opportunity came along to move to Nashville, my deep hatred of those insane and unpredictable winters definitely entered into the quotient.  I loved so much about Chicago in the other three seasons, and certainly had (and still have) many dear friends there, but I can safely say I have had my fill of Thor’s Revenge.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Why I gave up Midwest winters (Part 2)

Around the south side so cold that we cried
Were we ever colder on that day a million miles away
It seemed from all of eternity
Move forward was my friend’s only cry
In deeper to somewhere we could lie
And rest for the day with cold in the way
The moments seemed lost in all the noise
A snow storm a stimulating voice

(“South Side of the Sky” by Yes from Fragile, 1971)

The inner sanctum of my car was quickly becoming a Frigidaire exposition.  I was yelling options at myself to help keep warm. Since no one was going to stop and assist, I had no CB radio, and cell phones were years away from being invented, I could either start hiking, or expend some energy trying to restart the car.  Option B made the most sense.

With my bare hands, the tire iron, and incredible angst I started cleaning caked snow out from every nook and cranny around my engine compartment.  I had to stop several times and climb back in the fuselage to get a respite from the screaming freeze and to breathe on my frozen digits.  The Converse tennis shoes I had on my feet were hardly protective—my toes were unfeeling, even when I kicked them against the side of the car to keep nerve endings stimulated. I feared frostbite could set in at any time. 

My final task was to try to carefully clear out the carburetor. How it got so icy inside, I will never know. I had to lay across the engine trying to warm it with my body, and exhaled heavily onto it trying to melt away moister that had crystallized around it. Queen’s song, “I’m In Love With My Car,” was an FM hit during those days, and anyone driving past must’ve thought I took its sentiments just a tad too far as I was nearly French kissing and dry humping the motor! To my amazement, the engine fired-up pretty quickly (I guess it just needed a little lovin’). Knowing that if I didn’t try to re-secure the hood that the problem would probably only get worse, I had to then figure how to slam it down and keep it firm.  I managed to jerry-rig a makeshift lock by wedging the tire iron into the left front side.

This worked reasonably well for another five miles, when the car ground to a halt again with the same groaning sounds.  The swirling snow had seized it up again.  I repeated this cleaning process two more times over the next dozen miles or so.  I have never been that cold in my life, nor do I ever wish to be again.  I would rather burn in the sands of the Sahara than be too cold. 

Visibility was down to ten feet.  I was creeping along at perhaps fifteen miles an hour, hoping that I wouldn’t ram into an abandoned vehicle.  Near Crystal Lake, Illinois, I came upon a police roadblock.  The officer who came up to my car wondered how long I had been trying to make it through.  It had taken me nearly four hours to cover about forty five miles. Seeing my attire, or lack thereof for these conditions, he said with a bit of bemused admiration in his voice, “Your valiant effort is now complete for the day, son.  We’re not letting anyone go north of here. Every road is closed for a hundred miles.”

“Officer, I’ve only got three bucks on me, and am nearly out of gas.  What can I do?”

He shook his head. “You wouldn’t be able to get into a motel anyway—they’ve all been booked solid for hours. Take a left here and go about four blocks. You’ll see the Crystal Lake Fire Station. They might be able to put you up.”

To their credit, the firemen at this Lake County station house were more than accommodating.  They set up a cot with some surplus blankets, and offered me some hot chocolate and stew.  Many phone lines were down in the area, but they had a good one in operation, and allowed me to call my radio station.  I spoke with Charlene, the receptionist.  Somehow a few of them had made it in to keep the public service portion of our duty going strong for the community.  People are so dependant on radio broadcasters in a situation like this. I told her it looked like I might not make it back until the next day. I also mentioned to her I’d been having trouble reaching my parents, and would she please try to call them for me, let them know I was safe, and inform them of my whereabouts? She said she would. I then tried to call my folks again --who lived forty miles east of there in Skokie--to let them know my predicament and that I was OK.  Unfortunately, all circuits were jammed.  I kept attempting this for hours with the same lack of luck.  Then, by late afternoon, all lines were down. No TV, no radio, not electricity of any sort until they were able to crank up an emergency generator for the most basic of needs.

So there I was, alone with these public servants in a candle-lit firehouse in a strange town.  I slept hard that evening.  The howling gales kept flailing the sturdy brick structure. Early on Thursday morning the blizzard finally passed.  But as all Midwesterners know, a hellacious deep freeze then set in.  The skies were clear blue, but the winds were still strong, and it was easily forty below with the wind chill factor. 

I would overhear conversations and some reports coming in on their CB radio that it was as bad as anyone could remember.  Most power lines had been severed.  Pipes were frozen everywhere.  Some roads and overpasses were completely drifted over.  On transistor radios we heard of entire rows of semi trucks on the I-90 toll way that had been buried in twenty-foot drifts. No one had any idea when roads would be opened.  Every snowplow that hadn’t gotten stuck was working ‘round the clock to try and open arteries.

A day and a half passed with no way of reaching anyone. The fireman tried raising the Skokie Police to see if they could contact my parents, but were greeted with laughter,  and, “We are so swamped taking care of emergencies…we don’t have time to make house calls about lost sons in other towns.”

In the late afternoon on Thursday, we heard that a route my have been opened heading up Route 14 towards Harvard, Illinois.  If I could get my car started, perhaps I’d be able to get through.  As it was, I was only about thirty miles from my apartment in Williams Bay. I furiously worked on getting my car restarted. Once again, with some prodding, that old warhorse cranked up pretty well.  The fireman allowed me to fill up on fresh gas, gave me an extra sweatshirt, a couple more pair of socks, and a scarf to help me with further protection against the elements. With some firm handshakes and well wishes from Bill, Rusty, Shep, and the rest of the gang, I was on my way.

I wove in between abandoned and wrecked vehicles of all sorts.  Many were mangled badly by huge snowplows that had crushed their unseen buried hulls as they careened down roads.  I saw one brand new Porsche whose side had been peeled back like a tuna can from a powerful blade. As I drove I listened to more and more horror stories of frozen bodies being found in cars, even professional truckers who had died from being stuck with no options. It made me grateful for my good fortune.

I had nearly made it to the Wisconsin border when I came upon another line of cars.  There was a daunting three-foot high drift that had not been cleared.  The height wasn’t so much a problem as the width (completely covering the road) and the length (it must’ve been two hundred yards long). Without a plow to clear the way, it would take several dozen people a full day to dig it out.  It was 4:30 PM by now, and the sun was sagging low in the southwest sky. No plows were in sight.  Several of us were putting our heads together to work up a plan.  One irrational Cheesehead was even willing to build up speed to try and bludgeon their way through.  But we all reasoned him out of that.  We were all anxious to move northward.  All of us had been in this situation for days now, each comparing various horror stories, but simultaneously glad that we hadn’t succumbed to the elements like other unlucky folks we’d been hearing about.

Just then a State Patrol officer drove up informing us that this road wasn’t going to get attention for at least another day, and that there weren’t any other passages into the Dairy State that he knew of.  With nightfall nearly upon us, and temperatures guaranteed to drop another twenty degrees without the sun, we had best follow him to the gymnasium over at the Harvard elementary school where the locals were taking refugees in. We dropped our heads, knowing this was again to be our lot…and all retuned to our cars and formed a procession.

The Red Cross was operating this shelter, and we were all pleased to be greeted with warm smiles, blankets, bedding, and even warmer food and piping hot drinks.  Sub-zero cold can really drain your system, and most of us were asleep by 7 PM.  And there had still been no luck for any of us in getting through on any phone lines.

Early Friday morning, after downing some oatmeal, a policeman came in and informed us that another route had been opened.  He would be glad to lead any of us that way.  We eagerly jumped at the chance.  When I got out to my Chevy, however, I had a new problem.  Even though the winds had died down, it had simply gotten too cold for too long, and I believe the gas AND oil lines were frozen up.  I remember sitting inside my old beater with tears freezing to my cheeks as I sobbed over my plight. 

Trying to compose myself, I sulked back into the school.  Most everyone had left, so I felt even more alone.  One of the volunteers tried to give me a jumpstart, but it was a no-go…dead as a doorknob. She then used her CB radio to hail a friend who owned an industrial grade wrecker.  His nickname was “Shoe” (short for Schumaker, I believe), and he came by around noon to see if he could help. I explained my lack of funds, but he cheerfully said, “Let’s give it a try.”  The kindness of strangers can be overwhelming sometimes. To his credit, he worked with me for over an hour trying every trick in the book he knew to get my engine to turn over. And, by gum, we finally did it!  He warned me that I might not want to stop it anytime soon. “Just keep that sonofabitch runnin’ no matter what.”  He even gave me a spare set of earmuffs to put on over my wool hat. I got his address so I could send him compensation later.

There was no escort by this time—I had to just keep experimenting with different roads headed north. My map was useless because so may reference points and intersections were buried. Many of the road signs had either been bulldozed by the plows, or blown-over by winds, or were buried under mountainous drifts. I finally cut across the border near Big Foot, and then zigged and zagged on various combos of county highways until I worked my way to my little hamlet along Lake Geneva’s western shoreline. Once again, it took at least three hours to traverse what should have been just twenty miles

Upon arriving home, I was greeted with the coup de grace.  The back of the house that I rented was covered from the roof all the way across the side lawn with a fifteen-foot high and thirty-foot wide wedge of snow.  I couldn’t help but laugh.  Of course, my snow shovel was on the porch, buried beneath it all.  Since Williams Bay is more of a resort town, there were few people to be found.  Once again, through clenched teeth I had to throw my body headlong into the wall and begin burrowing it out by hand.  At least when I was inside my tunnel I was protected from the arctic breeze.  In fact, I recall actually beginning to sweat from the exertion of digging so furiously. Strangely, I don’t think it took more than about ten minutes to carve out a passageway that got me into my apartment.  Being so close to finally reaching my little Shangri La, no amount of glacial tundra was going to stop me at that point.  I’m still amazed that I didn’t get permanent skin and nerve damage through the whole ordeal.

Once inside, the gas heat wasn’t working very well, and the water pipes were indeed frozen.  But I did have electricity, and I cranked up a little space heater I had, along with my electric blanket wrapped around key plumbing enough to allow for water pressure to return.  And, although the water was a tad cool, I enjoyed my first shower in four days, and the oft-taken-for-granted-joy of clean clothing.

And the phone actually worked!  Upon calling my folks I was greeted with hysterical elation from my mother.  It turns that Charlene had forgotten to call them amidst all the chaos at the radio station.  And then, when Mom and Dad got through to her the next day, she had somehow spaced that I had ever called in the first place, and told them that the station staff were worried sick about me. To my father’s credit, he pieced together an idea of where I might have been via calls to several different friends. One had mentioned that I was going to a concert in the western suburbs, and that I might be staying at Dan’s. He located Dan, who told Dad of my hasty departure the morning of the storm. 

Then, against all recommendations from law enforcement agencies, for the next two days Dad went on a search of all roads between Schaumberg and Lake Geneva, stopping at various police departments, highway patrol locations, and makeshift shelters along different routes trying to locate me.  He had just about given up hope.  With each day, dozens more frozen carcasses were being found in horrific roadside graves.  I don’t believe I ever heard my mother so happy as during that call.  Later that night, upon his return back to Skokie, I spoke with Pop for quite a while.  What a brave man. What a good father. 

So, you can see why I was beginning to grow less and less fond of severe winter weather. But that wasn’t the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.  No, being a stubborn Midwesterner, there would be several MORE ridiculous incidents over the next four years that would finally drive me to the South. I’ll share those in another installment next week.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Why I gave up Midwest winters (Part 1)

With all the horrid weather sweeping the country this week, I thought I would repost an entry from six years ago...

Wondering blindly
How can they find me?
Maybe they don't even know
My body is shaking
The call of the black footed crow...

(“Pictures of Home” by Deep Purple, from Machine Head, 1971)

Flying over the white patchwork farmlands of the Great Lakes states recently, I recalled my Midwestern roots, and my pride in that.  I spent nineteen years of my life growing up in Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin.  There’s lots to like: four full seasons, rich earth, good-hearted people with the best work ethic in our nation, and that primary accent--or lack of a discernable one--that is the model for all broadcasters.

But I reached a stage in the late 70s/early 80s where I’d finally had enough of the intense winters.  The Great Blizzard of ’78 was the initial reason.

It was early February, and a fairly mild one at that. I was Program Director/Music Director at rock station in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and was seeing an average of three concerts a week between all my on-air duties.  On a whim one Tuesday afternoon, I decided to shoot down to the western ‘burbs of Chicago to see the up and coming Pat Travers Band play at B’Ginnings Night Club.  A quick look at the teletype ticker (no or Weather Channel in those days) told me that it was going to remain forty-five degrees, with perhaps some heavy rain later than night.  Being just a seventy mile jaunt, I didn’t pack anything…you know, the basic wild-at-heart young buck. All I had was a leather jacket and a half a tank of gas in my trusty ’68 Impala.  I didn’t believe in credit cards, so the ten simoleons in my thin wallet was my nest egg.

I got in for free due to my connections with my Polydor rep, but did spend $6.50 on drinks and a “Boom Boom, Out Go the Lights” button. Since it was rainy and foggy after the show, I called my buddy Dan to see if I could crash at his apartment in Addison. That way I could get up the next morning under brighter skies for the ninety minute drive into work to prepare for my afternoon air shift. We chatted for an hour, catching up with each other before I finally fell asleep on his couch around one AM. 

While I dozed, the elements for a perfect storm all converged over the upper Midwest.  It caught even the savviest meteorologists off guard.  The National Weather Service hadn’t seen this coming either.  Wet, warm air coming up through the Mississippi basin throughout the previous week had caused the unseasonable balminess.  But a gargantuan arctic air mass from northern Canada dropped south unexpectedly.  The result was gale force winds blowing thick snow.  Temperatures dropped thirty degrees in less than an hour, forcing wet grounds to freeze solid, then wind chills made everything feel like ten below zero on the skin.

I was jostled awake by Dan at 6:15 on Wednesday morning, saying, “Mark, you gotta check this out!” 

Stumbling over to the window I exclaimed, “Crap!”

It looked like the North Pole had descended and it was blowing in freaking sideways. Quickly turning on the tube, we flipped from channel to channel and every broadcast outlet was being over-ridden with severe blizzard warnings.  “All roads closed within the next hour if not already” was the primary theme.

Not even bothering to eat, I pulled on my pants and jacket, bolting out the door.  I was needed back at the station in Wisconsin during emergency situations like this. Dan came out to help.

There was already a half inch of ice encasing the windows.  Fortunately, the trunk was facing away from the predominant wind, and it wasn’t sealed over yet.  So, with some frantic thumping and pounding we were able to pry it open to get to my ice scraper.  Within moments I was shivering miserably—the first of many occasions when I would chatter blue-lipped curses at the Gods of Thor for “piling on” us with such force and malice.  Dan’s afro was whitened and pasted over to the right side from the screaming northerlies. It must’ve taken ten minutes to carve out the key opening for the front door, as well as splaying the edges so that it could even have a chance of cracking open.

Once accomplished, I slid into the haven away from the blitzkrieg wind.  The leather seats were hardened like Formica in Finland, and I don’t think sitting on a block of dry ice could’ve chilled my haunches any more.

I pumped the accelerator thrice, took a deep breath, and turned the ignition.  Yes! My old bomber started up, though coughing roughly and angrily.  It took another fifteen minutes to gouge some sight holes around two feet in diameter in each of the windows. I began to realize that even with the defroster set on “nuclear meltdown,” I’d be lucky to keep the interior of the car at thirty-two degrees. Dan ran inside and grabbed a pair of gloves, a sweatshirt, and a toboggan hat for me to borrow.

The tires were frozen to the ground, but with loud, creaking cracks they broke free as I began a journey I’ll never forget. Dan slapped the roof of my Chevy twice as I pulled past him as if to say, “God’s Speed, chum!”

The first twenty miles thru Bloomingdale, Hanover Park, and Elgin went basically without incident, despite relentless winds, and momentary snow blindness at various turns. Chugging along at forty mph, I felt I might make it back to southern Wisconsin within a few hours. With occasional eight inch swaths of snow jutting across the lanes, it was intense, but passable.  Some cars and trucks were already sliding off the pavement, but my ego and bold bad-weather-driving-skills filled me with enough swagger to feel I was immune to their flaws.  Besides, I had made this trip so many times, I knew every turn and nuance like the back of my hand.

Entering West Dundee, along the Fox River Valley, things got suddenly dicier. I was monitoring broadcasts on my AM dash radio.  Every station continued dire warnings to get off the roads, and hunker down somewhere warm to ride this out. They were predicting the worst storm in at least five decades. I barreled onward.  I had no choice.  With about a quarter of a tank of gas, and $3.50 in my pocket, what were my options?  The highway was nearly abandoned on this stretch.  I bashed curbs on several occasions, and went into an extended slide for perhaps a hundred or more feet on another (thank God it was a straightaway).  I was gripping that steering wheel with the intensity of Paris Hilton clinging to her celebrity.

Suddenly there was a thump and several odd groans from under the hood before the car rolled to a dead stop.  Why had it died? I tried starting several times, only to hear more garbled arguing from under the hood. I turned off the radio.  The howling wind was relentless. Gusts must’ve been fifty miles per hour.  The Icelandic blast that greeted me upon opening the door was as intense as anything I can ever remember. I got out and realized I had apparently hit a median and gotten something wedged up into the undercarriage. I fought the unseen force, and lay down to get a look underneath.  Squinting through bursts of biting, spitting snow, I could barely see beneath the car.  Nothing there.

I started pounding with bare fists on the hood of my car, primarily to loosen the sheet of ice around the edges, but also releasing pent-up anger.  After five minutes of “reasoning” with the situation, I was finally able to wedge the ice scraper in a crevasse that I had manipulated.  Leaning all my weight on it, the hard plastic snapped in half.

Then I fought again with the trunk latch to pull out my tire iron.  Once freed, I began inserting and maneuvering it around the edges of the hood.  Ruining the paint job and grinding creases into the metal were the least of concerns at that point.

The lid finally popped.  As I lifted it with my numb-tipped fingers a fierce gust grabbed it and raised it violently, ripping one of the hinges away from the moorings.  It was now at a ninety degree angle from its closed position, thwapping violently like a wet sail in a monsoon. Well, I pondered, at least it won’t get frozen shut again.

My eyes, nose, and mouth had frozen spittle and phlegm caking around their edges.  But my supreme frustration with my circumstance was keeping me warm with burning resolve.  I gazed at my now exposed engine—or what SHOULD have been there.  To my surprise, the entire cavity was packed solid with snow.  I was staring at a six foot by six foot blank white block. Driving headlong into these piercing winds and hitting small banks of snow along the way created some strange vortex that pulled and vacuum-packed every available space with snow and ice.

Taking some solace in the fact that a nearly fluorescent lime green $29.95 Earl Schibe paint job adorned my ol’ beater would help people see it amidst the blinding conditions; I hoped that someone might have mercy on me. But there were few vehicles on the road at this point, and those that were sweeping by were not about to stop when I attempted to flag ‘em down…survival of the fittest and all that.  I climbed back into the interior to gather my thoughts and protect my exposed skin.  The my meager clothes were hardly competition for these Manitoban Mariahs.  Who knows why men have nipples—but mine were stiffened like little ball bearings and their existence was readily realized as they tingled in taut anguish.

It dawned on me for the first time that morning that I had been a fool to attempt this return “on time” for my job.  Damn my stupid work ethic, I lamented.  But it was obvious there was no turning back.  Perhaps even more relevant at that instant was that if I didn’t do something, and quick, I might very well come to an unpleasant finale quite soon.

To be continued….