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….

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