The format was something unknown—Wordperfect, Appleworks, a freeware text editor? I was looking at journal entries from 1993, and the computer complained it had no application with which to open the file. Textedit does the trick in these cases, but even it picked up some loose bytes and translated them as funky characters. Still, today, the day after Snowstorm Jonas, I found the entry from March 14, 1993 that I was looking for.
The university was closed today, and I spent about … seven hours of this sunny day shoveling the two to three feet of snow that has fallen since yesterday morning.
I had called a guy to plow the driveway with his pickup truck, but he only got thirty feet in before getting stuck. For several minutes he set the air on fire with obscenities, but he finally calmed down enough for me to approach him.
Glowering at the thick layer of blizzard snow he said, `There’s ice under this shit! You haven’t kept the drive plowed, have you! How the hell am I going to get this truck out?!’
He was right, and I felt a little guilty. I helped him dig around the truck, and in the reverse phases of his rocking it forward and backward, I pushed against the plow blade to inject a little momentum. Finally it came free and he backed out to the road. He told me he wouldn’t do any more. I paid him for the bit of plowing he had done and offered ten dollars more for the plastic snow shovel in the bed. He accepted.
For the rest of the daylight hours I used it to heave snow off of two hundred feet of driveway, un-bury the car, and clear paths out the front and back doors….
That was twenty-three years ago, the day after what was variously called the Blizzard of ’93, the Storm of the Century, or the ’93 Superstorm. Elizabeth was three months old, Rebecca was a little over a year, and Kathryn and the girls and I were living in Ithaca, New York. Kathryn, snowbound with two little ones and a laborer-husband who echoed the plowman’s outbursts, sustained her sanity and cooked and ministered to all. She brought Rebecca outdoors a few times to play in the snow where I had cleared; away from my excavation it was over her head. At the end of the day, Kathryn took a picture of me holding Elizabeth, who was dressed warmly in a little yellow mummy suit, standing in front of one of my snow mountains.
For millions it was a “historic” blizzard. Starting its snow dump on Alabama, it traveled inexorably northeastward burying everything in its path. Television newscasters announced after the storm was under way in Ithaca that people attempting to operate vehicles on public roads would be arrested. Everything closed. In Birmingham, my sister was visiting my brother, and they were deprived of electricity, mobility, and the opportunity to see a traveling episode of a Prairie Home Companion at the Alabama Theater.
I still have that shovel. Living in Memphis and Birmingham for most of the intervening years, I had few occasions to move snow with it, but it turned out to be the perfect tool for scooping up wet leaves off a driveway and as a large dustpan in the spring when pollen, blossoms, and seed husks would coat outdoor surfaces like yellow-green snow. During the move to Rhode Island, I was careful to put it on the truck bound for Providence, and I’ve kept it in the trunk of the car for the past several weeks. The color is faded, but the plastic has not cracked nor the handle broken.
Today in Providence, another sunny winter day after a (mild brush with another) historic storm, it was the most natural of motions to grasp that shovel, dig out another car, and heap up another pile of fluffy stuff. And when I came inside to help Kathryn bring a bag to the car, she asked, “Are you all right?” in the same tone of concern she had those years ago. It seems there is lore about middle-aged (or maybe younger) men going out and getting heart attacks while shoveling snow. I smiled and said I was fine.
In my journal entry of 1993, tired and sweaty—albeit temperatures were still cold—I had mulled my slavery to the automobile. If I had not owned a car, then an eight-foot wide path in the snow would not have been necessary. That navel-gazing notwithstanding, neither was there then nor is there now, any viable alternative to reliance on a car. To wish otherwise would be like wishing I had wings instead of arms so I could get around more efficiently by flying. I laughed at my younger self’s naïveté.
Also in the journal, I had noted that sustained toil—such as shoveling snow or pulling up privet sprouts—provides time for recollections and multiple approaches to particular thoughts. For part of the blizzard dig-out, I wondered at the movie character McCabe in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, wandering out into the snow and freezing to death. I thought of The Shining, Jack Nicholson’s madness, and his axe-swinging chase after his son in a snowstorm through a topiary maze. And for a big chunk of that day in ’93 the chapter “Snow,” a Wagner-esque slow-movement chapter in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, rolled around in my head as I inched my way forward through the drifts. Young Hans Castorp wandered from his cozy sanatorium into a snowstorm, a physical and mental white-out—metaphor for pre-Great-War European oblivion in the face of impending industrial-grade warfare.
Today there was not time for long-form rumination, but I did go beyond the journal’s evocation of snow stories to more recent recollections of winter lit. Ka, journalist and poet, dispatched to the northeastern Turkish city of Kars, is impounded by a three-day snowstorm. Old love re-ignites, inexplicable suicides recur, poetry readings go wrong, old men argue over tea about east versus west, and the snow falls unrelenting. Besides the evident wintry connection, why would Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow come to mind? The daughter who in that ’93 storm had only recently learned to walk now reads and speaks Turkish and points me to books and authors I would not find on my own. Those readings give glimpses of a world so grand and complex it makes my head spin—like flakes of snow in the wind.
In late afternoon I went on an urban hike along Arlington, Ives, Governor, and East Streets, down to India Point, where the setting sun lighted a scene that took me to my own past. On saucers and snow tubes, children–and older folks as well–sledded on a well-beaten slope toward the water. In moments of seemingly uncontrollable acceleration and being airborne after hitting a jump made of packed snow, they squealed and laughed. I watched and smiled and laughed. Nothing else was possible, and I was lost in the swirl of my winters.
Wayne, Gooderham, Winter Reads: The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, The Guardian, Dec. 14, 2011. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/dec/14/winter-reads-thomas-mann-magic-mountain
James Buchan, “Frozen Assets, “ The Guardian, May 29, 2004. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/may/29/shopping.fiction