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Chapter 2: Snowing

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© 1987, 1996, 2000 G. Edwin Lint
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Liverpool Pennsylvania
Thursday, January 2, 4:00 A.M.

A heavy curl of fresh snow flowed from the angled surface of the big blade as the yellow PennDOT plow rumblescraped slowly down the southbound lane of U.S. 11-15. Dan Marlow jammed his hands in the pockets of his parka and stared glumly at the plow's tail lights as they disappeared into the milky gloom of the predawn night. With the temperature at no more than 10 above zero and a 20 m.p.h. westerly wind blowing steadily off the Susquehanna River, both the parka and the pockets were more than luxuries.

The wind gusted sharply and sandblasted Dan's ears with granulated snow. He flipped up the parka hood and pulled on a pair of driving gloves. Behind him a 1968 Volkswagen Bug slumbered peacefully under an eight-inch blanket of ermine. Dan considered letting her sleep on and taking the Buick but turned and delivered an affectionate, booted wakeup kick to the right rear tire. Then he shuffled into the garage to get a broom. No sense taking the Park Avenue Ultra out in all that salt-and-cinders slop.

He quickly brushed the snow away to reveal a Bug with good rubber all around. He checked the wipers to be sure they were not frozen to the windshield before unlocking the door. An odometer reading of over 250,000 didn't keep the engine from catching on the second crank and Dan smiled as the faithful mill settled into its familiar chortle with no more than a couple of forgivable snorts.

Twenty-eight snowy miles stretched between Dan and his down-river destination of Camp Hill. Therefore, a few precautions were in order. Quickly he closed the front floor-level heat vents and pushed the rear heat control to its lowest level. With the front heat control open all the way, any available warm air would be diverted to the defroster vents at the lower outside corners of the windshield. Dan was thoroughly familiar with the idiosyncratic behavior of his Bug and a distinct frugality in the production of heat was one of its more annoying characteristics. The VW did use a fan to force warm air through the heat ducts but the relatively lower highway speed of snow driving meant a parallel reduction in heat. Much as he loved to have his feet warm, Dan knew that current weather conditions mandated a higher priority for the windshield.
After disengaging the fast idle with a light tap on the accelerator, Dan stamped through the garage and crossed the breezeway to the warmth of the house. Upstairs all was quiet with the only illumination provided by an amber, flame-shaped bulb in the hall sconce.

Dan stopped in the twins' room first for a silent good-bye. The cozy light from the hall slanted across their double bed and the tall father noted with a chuckle that they were in their favorite sleeping position--nose-to-nose on the same pillow. When Mark was six, he had slept all over the bed and occasionally part of the floor. Not Kevin and Kellie. They nestled under the warmth of their Lion King quilt and, after an initial whisper-and-giggle session, dropped into an all-night sleep.

As he bent over the bed, Dan caught the innocent fragrance of clean, warm bodies and it seemed like yesterday that Karen had looked up from a hospital pillow and said, "Isn't it wonderful, Dan? We have twins. Twins! Can you imagine that at our age?" The new mother's soft green eyes had glowed with joy and pain. "It's a miracle, a miracle of youth. They'll keep us young, Dan. We can't possibly grow old now."

And they had. The twins kept them young and busy, too, with all the excitement and frustration that raising two normal live-wires can bring. Mark had already graduated from college and was starting a career in New Jersey. Suddenly the eight high-ceilinged rooms rang with a symphony of squeals, yells, and giggles. The twins definitely generated a current of fresh life which permeated every aspect of the Marlow home and marriage. Double the pleasure had been double the work but Karen never murmured as she laid aside her career as an elementary principal for five years of full-time mothering.

As Dan looked down on their snub-nosed, freckle-splashed faces with their tousled red halos almost touching, he felt a sharp constriction of love and fear bind his heart. What an awesome responsibility parents faced in preparing two mites of humanity for twenty-first century living. As he bent to lightly kiss the bridge of each nose, Dan was reminded of the great challenge that accompanied a miracle, especially when that miracle came in human form.

"Bye, you two," he whispered. "Be good today and don't give your mother too many more gray hairs. Daddy loves you." Their response consisted of a small grunt and a slight scrooch. Then Dan moved down the hall to say good-bye to Karen. As he entered the master bedroom he could hear the Bug down in the driveway, still singing her song.

The flowing curves under the electric blanket made Dan want to go back downstairs and put the old car to sleep again. But, he was too much into the work ethic to give that idea more than a passing thought. And besides, today was the the first workday since the big move and he couldn't sleep it away. Karen stirred, stretched, and yawned.

"What time is it?"

"Four-twenty and I better get moving. I'm taking the Bug and you can have the Buick."

"Still snowing?"

"Supposed to taper off to flurries about dawn." Dan crossed to a front window and parted the heavy thermal draperies. "In fact, I think it's slowing down already. Doesn't seem to be snowing nearly as hard as it was twenty minutes ago. Think school will be canceled?"

"Doubt it. We lost so many days in December we may have school on the Fourth of July as it is. Have to get those 180 days in and give you redneck taxpayers your money's worth." She punctuated her last remark with a Bronx cheer.

"Yes, Madam Principal. Anything you say, Madam Principal." Suddenly the covers were well below the hem of Karen's figure-molding flannel nightgown. She started to yelp and grab for the covers but, with swift feminine insight, left things just the way they were.

"What time did you say it was, Dannyboy?" she purred, a smile of invitation curving her lips.

"You rat, you dirty rat," Dan said softly but his smile failed to reinforce his words. He replaced the blanket and tucked it around Karen carefully. "That's a rotten thing to do to a morning man and you know it." He tousled her glossy, black hair and kissed her firmly on the mouth. "The mice in the woodwork will think we're a couple of honeymooners instead of two broken-down old fogeys."

"Speak for yourself, John," Karen quipped, "but spare this old gray head."

"You may be the hotshot educator in the family but this old radio man knows you messed that one up." Suddenly both convulsed with irrational laughter, oblivious to the twins and Mark sleeping in nearby rooms. Dan often wondered what kind of marriage people had when laughing and kidding around weren't a major ingredient.

"Well, Doll," Dan said, I better get going. Lacey will be crawling the wall if I'm not there by six."

"Hey, Big Guy, you're the boss now. Who's she to be telling you what to do?"

"Karen, you know as well as I do that bossing can be harder work than working. Well, gotta run. Tell the kids I kissed them good-bye. And be careful on that road back to Seven Stars. I'm sure it will be plowed but it'll still be pretty slippery."

"I'll be careful, and you too. Call me when you get to Camp Hill, okay?"

"Will if I get a break. So long again."

Outside the snowing had tapered off to a few lazy flakes drifting in the harsh glare of the sodium-vapor streetlight. The Bug still did her thing and the windshield was warm enough to melt the snow as it fell. Dan folded his six-two frame into the bucket seat, switched on the lights, and eyed the unshoveled expanse of snow between the Bug and the curb.

"We've done it before so you ought to know the right moves, Old Lady." Dan hated shoveling with a passion, not because he was lazy but because bright sun and forty degrees usually did the job in a day or so anyway. Neighbors were used to seeing a Marlow car shoot headfirst out of the garage and go flying down the snowy drive without benefit of shovel. Usually another member of the family would be stationed across the street to give the sign that Front Street was clear of traffic. No need for that at this early hour.

"Four-thirty and we better get a move on, Old Lady. Hang on to your bonnet." Dan shifted to first and then glanced between the head rests to check the contents of the storage area created by the folded-down rear seat. Short-handled shovel, nylon tow rope, bundle of shingles for emergency traction--everything seemed to be aboard.

Then, with headlights on and wipers on fast speed, Dan sent the Bug roaring down the drive. The low ratio of the Bug's first gear provided just the right amount of momentum to enable the car to reach the street without losing forward motion.

Snow flew, tires, spun, the tail slewed first left and then right, the engine raced--but momentum was maintained. At the piled up snow along the curb, a wave of white powder crested over the Bug's sloped snout and covered the windshield. But even that two-foot obstacle was no match for Dan's snow savvy and the Bug's determination. Dan felt the ridge of snow kick the Old Lady weakly in the belly and then he was on Front, headed toward Race. He second-geared a right at the Race Street stop sign and repeated the maneuver in 10 yards at the 11-15 stop sign.

Dan relaxed visibly when the shift lever finally dropped into fourth gear and the engine settled into its 40-m.p.h. chuckle. Dan was born and raised in the northcentral counties of Pennsylvania and snow driving was no pain. In fact, he always got a little morbid satisfaction out of reading the wire stories of Richmond or Nashville drivers who parked their cars and walked home in three inches of snow. Now he noted with satisfaction that PennDOT had been on the ball. The full width of the three-lane highway was plowed from berm to berm. The roadway was a pristine white with the snow giving the Bug an exceptionally smooth and muted ride. In less than a mile he was on automatic pilot.

Hope Karen makes out all right getting to school on time. She'll probably have a two-hour delay and that'll give the plows a little more time to get the back roads cleared. The Buick ought to do okay with that front-wheel drive and traction control... Bet the twins will have a ball in this snow when they get home from school. Maybe if it warms up a little, the snow will pack well enough to make a snowman ... Mark shouldn't have too much trouble by the time he has to leave for New Jersey. Can't say I envy him driving in that black salt-and-cinder soup, though. Wish he could find a job a little closer to home but I guess he really enjoys working there with the retarded people and he does have a good job. Lot of college boys have been out longer than him and still don't have jobs they couldn't have had before they went to the trouble of getting a four-year education.
Kind of feels good to be going to work as the general manager. Want to do a good job and really think I can. Sure do have the experience. Sign-on man for 30 years and program director for the last ten of that 30. Major John Cogam had to make me GM after all those years. And all at good old MOR, too. Nice to have him living down in Florida now, though. Sure was a pain when he called me up a couple times a shift to complain about something he didn't like. Still wonder if I should have tried to buy him out when he retired. Don't know, though. Would have been a lot of big monthly payments for a man my age. May be able to do better on a GM's salary than I would on an owner's profit.

Dan's rambling reverie was crisply shattered by an orange triangle advancing on the Bug's windshield at the rate of 35 m.p.h. Instinctively he snapped a hard left and the tail-heavy Bug did a quick one-eighty.

As the VW careened backward down the middle of the three-lane highway, Dan saw a classic Currier and Ives print through his side window. The scene would have warmed the heart of anyone who never drives the highways and secondary roads of central Pennsylvania. A coal black carriage horse stepped smartly to the music of sleigh bells as plumes of vapor swept past his blindered head. He was hitched to an equally-black sleigh with a single seat. The occupants were dressed in the simple garb of the Plain People, complete with broad-brimmed black hat and black bonnet. The sleigh was as unadorned as the Amish couple in it, except for the mandatory orange triangle signifying a slow-moving vehicle.

Dan had the presence of mind to stay off the brakes as he checked his mirror for headlights. Mercifully nothing was in sight as the Bug continued its backward skid down the middle of U.S. Routes 11-15. Always a steady and accurate backer, Dan now made minor course corrections and was able to keep the car in fairly stable rearward motion. Apparently his speed had been closer to 50 than 40 when the tailboard of the sleigh with its distinctive triangle first popped into view. The combination of packed snow and relatively high speed provided the rather novel ride Dan was now experiencing.

He checked the dash to make sure the engine was still running and then downshifted to third. Slowly he released the clutch pedal and gently fed a little gas. As the snow tires started biting the road surface in opposition to the backward slide, the rear end fishtailed badly. Dan knew from long experience that skids were corrected by turning the steering wheel in the same direction as the tail end was skidding. Not knowing if that rule applied to his current predicament, he kept the wheel fairly stable and continued to feed gas. The fishtailing continued but the speed dropped off.

Then the highway curved to the left and the Bug slid tailfirst into the packed snow piled along the right shoulder by the plows.

The episode had seemed like an eternity but actual elapsed time was less than 10 seconds.

The rhythmic chunking of the oncoming horse's hooves caused Dan to step out in the glare of the stalled car's headlights. The Currier and Ives illusion was still intact but Dan wasn't close to being in the mood for it. That sleigh had been clip-clopping right down the middle of the southbound lane with no flashing lights, nothing but the orange triangle on the tailboard. Only a significant amount of driving skill seasoned with a hefty measure of luck had prevented a serious accident.

Dan waved to the stolid couple as the sleigh came abreast of the Bug and called above the bell-and-hoof duet.

"Hey, can you stop a minute? Hey, you! Can you give me a hand? I think I'm stuck!"

Dan would have had better luck speaking to the horse. Neither the black hat nor the black bonnet swung to right or left and the reins were as steady as guy wires. When the seat of the sleigh was even with Dan, the driver turned his head, opened his beard, and fired a jet of brown gravy into the snow between Dan's boots.

With an eruption of bile and adrenaline spurring him on, Dan took off after the sleigh. Afterward, he was glad he had nothing to throw or shoot. As it was, a 48-year-old pencil pusher in parka and laced boots was no match for a gaited carriage horse. So Dan had to content himself with a verbal barrage aimed at the departing backs of the Amish couple.
"You block-headed dumb dutchman! Who do you think you are? First you cause an accident. Then you won't even help a guy out of a snow bank! Why don't you keep your stupid horses and buggies and junk off the highway? You don't pay gasoline taxes, you don't pay for a license, you don't pay for inspections, you don't even have to worry about insurance. If you want to live in the eighteen hundreds, keep your contraptions on the dirt roads where they belong. Leave the main highways for sensible people to drive on."

At that point, the horse added proverbial insult to injury. As if responding to some unknown cue, she lifted her tail and dropped a bushel of steaming road apples all over the snow. Dan whipped off his Cat hat, stamped on it a couple times, and then kicked it after the departing sleigh. There was nothing left to do but watch the Amish rig jingleclop out of sight around a bend in the road.

Feeling a little foolish and a whole lot worried Dan trudged back to the Bug. "Old Lady, you sure do look stupid, sitting there with your backside stuck in a snow bank." They he realized the engine wasn't running and that could mean one of two things. Either it stalled when the car hit the bank while still in gear or snow had plugged the exhaust pipes on impact. He was sure he hadn't turned off the ignition but he had shifted to neutral. A quick look at the key verified that the ignition was indeed on and that the shift was in neutral. That meant the Old Lady was probably suffering from a bad case of tail pipe congestion.

Time for a shovel workout. Dan's digital warned 5:15 so he couldn't waste any time. He got the shovel out of the back and was staring dismally at the rear third of the Bug's length buried in the snow when a Jeep Grand Cherokee with New York plates slid to a stop ten yards down the road. The driver of the Jeep backed up to where Dan was standing and rolled down the passenger window.

"Having trouble?"

"Just a little. Some crazy Amishman was jogging his sleigh right down the middle of the road and when I pulled out to miss him, I took a skid and landed in this snow bank."

The stranger's eyes crinkled in a friendly smile. "Lucky you had something that soft to land in. Have a rope?"

"Sure do. Like to be prepared in weather like this."

"Well, we ought to have you out of there in no time. Since your nose is headed more north than south, I think I'll pull you out diagonally across the road. Let me get this thing turned around."

Dan had switched his four-ways on after the backward slide and now he turned off the car's lights. Headlights at crazy angles could be a distraction to oncoming drivers, he knew. He watched as his Good Samaritan swung the Jeep wagon around and backed it in toward the Bug's nose. Both sets of four-ways now flashed an adequate warning to southbound drivers.

"Sure glad I happened to come by at this particular time," the stranger said as he took off his glove and extended his hand. "I'm Jason Masterson."

Dan returned Masterson's firm grip. "Glad to meet you, Mr. Masterson. My name's Dan Marlow. Here's the tow rope. I have my end on the Bug and I think we're ready to go here."

As Masterson turned to snub the rope on the Jeep's ball hitch, Dan took quick inventory of his benefactor. Sharp dresser, medium height, rather good looking, quick with his hands. Must be some kind of business executive. The Jeep was loaded. Worth over close to forty thousand new.

"Ready to go here, too, Dan. I'll take up the slack and then you flash your lights when you're ready to start moving."

As soon as Dan had folded back into the Bug he felt a slight nudge and realized the slack had been taken up and Masterson was ready to pull. He checked the shift to be sure it was in neutral and the handbrake to be sure it was off. Then he flashed the go sign. The Jeep moved ahead and the tail of the Bug slid out of the snow bank easily. When Masterson saw the Bug was clear, he cut left and stopped with both cars parallel to the snow bank and headed north. The tow rope was soon unhooked and the men shook hands in the yellow-and-red glare of two sets of four-way flashers.

"Mr. Masterson, I sure can't thank you enough for your help here this morning. Without your pull, I might have been shoveling for quite a while."

"Glad to help, Dan. After all, that's what neighbors are for."

Dan wasn't real clear how a man from New York could be his neighbor. Maybe he said that because New York was the next state up.

"Well, I do appreciate it and if I can ever return the favor, you know I owe you one. Guess I better get moving. And remember, If you see any horse droppings on the road, watch out for a horse-drawn conveyance of some kind or another around the next bend."

Masterson touched his right hand to the snap brim of his checkered hat and stepped up into the Jeep.

Dan pressed the light button on his digital and saw a dim 5:30. He realized he had some moving to do if he was going to make Camp Hill by six. He hurried back to the Bug and tossed the tow rope over the seat. The tail pipes weren't clogged after all and the Old Lady started on half a crank. He did a quick U-ie to continue south on 11-15. The tail lights of the Jeep were almost out of sight down the three-lane expanse of snowy highway as Dan rowed through the gears and dropped into fourth. This time he resolved to keep his speed down and his highway awareness up for the rest of the trip.

He checked his cell phone and saw he was in range of the station.

"Hey, Lacey. Dan here. Running a little late because of the snow. Just sit tight and I'll be there in a bit."

"Don't sweat it, Big Guy. Your station is in good hands!"

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