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.

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