Fear and darkness in a thruway blizzard

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It’s been a couple of weeks since a double-whammy blizzard
buried Buffalo and a good part of western New York. Successive
“lake effect” storms carried moisture from Lake Erie into the
high frozen mists and dumped from five to seven feet of snow
on the region and closed more than 130 miles of Interstate 90
known as the New York State Thruway.
As the reports rolled in, I felt a special shudder. It had been
45 years since I had ventured alone in a car into a similar snowstorm,
on the same Thruway, for an evening and night I can’t
forget.
My professional newspaper experience began in 1969-70 in
Rochester, a metroplex of city and suburbs in western New
York, roughly equidistant between Buffalo to the west and
Syracuse to the east. To a Kansas boy it was a big place, thrilling
in a way, about the size of Kansas City but within spitting distance
of rolling woods and lakes, an endless stretch of shoreline
(Lake Ontario), and the quaint towns and villages along the Erie
Canal, which was still in vigorous working order.
Among the experiences there that remain vivid are my many
brushes with the weather. I thought it odd at first that the area’s
swimming pools were closed by mid-August – until the overnight
temperatures had approached freezing by Labor Day.
In those days before climate change, winter came to western
and upstate New York not long after Labor Day, and stayed
through April. Summers were cool. Temperatures above 85 were
considered near-blistering. Many homes and a lot of cars were
without air-conditioning.
*
SNOW WAS another matter. By mid-November, four to six-inch
snowfalls were a weekly experience, if not every two or three
days. Each event earned but a few paragraphs about another
routine snowfall.
As Thanksgiving passed and the city’s holiday season came
ablaze in lights and color, the snow had begin to pile up. The
area’s excellent road crews stayed with it, moving the snow into
ever-higher mounds along the roads. The effect, in city neighborhoods,
along the suburban roads and over the countryside,
was like a scene from Currier and Ives. All that was missing
were Clydesdales and an big sleigh. The winterscape there was
as if Thomas Kincaid himself had painted it with all the schmaltz
in his factory.
*
ON THE afternoon before Christmas eve, Irv Wilcove, one of
the paper’s six assistant city editors, called me at home.
“This one looks serious,” he said. It had been snowing all
morning. I felt uneasy. When Irv Wilcove got serious, things
were serious indeed. “We’ve had eight inches already and at
least another foot is coming.”
We discussed story options. The Thruway, its stranded drivers,
would be a good story, I said.
“No go,” Wilcove said. “They’re closing the Thruway at four.
It’s already 2:30.”
Then came one of the dumbest blurts ever to pass my lips: “I’ll
go. I can sign a waiver.”
I “borrowed” my wife’s Kharmann Ghia, a Volkswagon-type
roadster with its engine over a rear-wheel drive. In those days it
had the best traction of any non four-wheel drive vehicle on the
road. Small but warm and feisty, and it could go nearly anywhere
in snow.
But this kind of snow? We were about to find out.
I drove to a Thruway entrance in east Rochester, where a New
York State Police trooper examined my press credentials and
asked me to fill out the forms waiving any liability for the state.
By the time I drove onto the roadway, the Thruway had been
closed for fifteen minutes. The road had been plowed a couple of
hours before, but the snow was, again, half a foot deep. A Times-
Union photographer was there to take a picture as I entered the
closed Thruway.
*
I HAD about an hour of light. Dusk was coming, and as I
moved along in the heavy snowfall, a kind of padded silence fell
over the warm car. I could hear the VW engine puttering proudly
and the soft crush of tires over deep snow as we moved, almost
gliding, over the great white road. As the horizon disappeared in
the storm, it was like driving over and into a great thick quilt.
Not long into the drive I saw something – a speck – in the
distance to my right. As I came near, it was a man waving in
knee-deep snow. I stopped in the road (Who would be following?).
I opened the door against snow that was above the car’s
low rocker panels.
The man smiled, looked at my car, and asked if I were there
to help. His station wagon, a big Ford, was nose-down in the
ditch. A woman and two children looked out at me. I told him
my name, why I was there (for an interview) and how silly it
must seem, but if he could tell me a few things I would go to the
nearest rest stop and report his location to the people there. The
rest areas then included service stations and restaurants.
The light was nearly gone as I nosed the Ghia into the rest
area, parking at the restaurant. I told the people there that
Richard Derrenbacher, his wife and two children were stranded
in the eastbound at mile marker such-and-such. At a half-dozen
tables were the stories I’d been looking for – interviews inside,
out of the snow, interviews in a warm, dry place, interviews
laced with vivid detail, the fear of being stranded alone in a blizzard,
with no one aware; here was talk in a warm, well-lighted
place as the dusk outside became a swirling, frigid blackness.
*
THE NEXT dumb thing. I failed to think how dark it would be
in a blizzard at night on an unlighted road.
Interviews finished, I headed outside, brushed another six
inches of snow off the car and puttered out onto the Thruway,
westbound, heading back to Rochester.
In only a moment the lighting at the rest stop became only a
glint in the rearview mirror. I found what it was to be in heavy
snowfall and a pitch black night, on a road under deep snow, a
road I could not see.
The snowfall was at times intense, then lessening, then intense
again – from whiteout to piercing, blinding flakes and fragments
(like warp speed), to whiteout again. All the while, no road,
only whiteness a foot-deep, maybe deeper in places. There were
no markers, no poles at roadside, no tracks to follow, no way to
know where the road might bend slightly, or where a drift may
conceal a bridge or a slope into a ditch, a plunge into darkness.
*
CERTAIN TERROR takes hold, a raw dread that conspires with
the deep black beyond the beam of headlights, a kind of vertigo,
an uncertainty about where you are and where you are headed:
up or down, right or left? It threatens nature, the conviction that,
otherwise, you know what you are doing and where you are
going. In this darkness, its ceaseless counter-assaults of warp
speed snow and pitch blindness, you are no longer sure, no
longer in control – of anything. You just hold on to the wheel
and hope that the next few yards, or feet, or inches, are on solid
ground.
This continued for some time, until the snowfall lightened to
a reasonable flurry, and poles began to appear again beside the
roadway. We moved in total darkness with no horizon until, at
last, a glow in the distance, the lights of a city. Another ten or 15
minutes and we were off the Thruway heading into downtown.
In the newspaper’s third-floor city room, its sea of reporters’
desks, now empty, I found my spot and wrote a story, and left
for home at 3:30 a.m. On the car’s radio, WHAM’s overnight
DJ, Harry J. Abraham, said it had snowed 24 inches that day and
night. Such were winters in western New York.
It was Christmas Eve, officially, and I was ever so glad to
welcome its warmth, its light. I was alive.
*
IN THE days and storms to follow, the city used bucket trucks
to hoist men above the high banks of plowed snow to clear
areas around street signs at intersections; this enabled people to
navigate in neighborhoods buried whole. Along the freeways, in
that pre-Environmental Protection era, the snowbanks revealed
a stacking of black, gray and white, the pollution and soot settling
before another snowfall, then bladed back, another settling
of pollution, another snow, another blading and so forth: a layer
cake for the environmentally conscious.
That venture in a New York blizzard was the most feardrenched
drive of any I’d experienced – until decades later, a
terrifying night in New Zealand north of Taupo, when heavy rain
turned to hell on a thin road high in the mountains. But that’s
another story.
– JOHN MARSHALL

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John Marshall is the retired editor-owner of the Lindsborg (Kan.) News-Record (2001-2012), and for 27 years (1970-1997) was a reporter, editor and publisher for publications of the Hutchinson-based Harris Newspaper Group. He has been writing about Kansas people, government and culture for more than 40 years, and currently writes a column for the News-Record and The Rural Messenger. He lives in Lindsborg with his wife, Rebecca, and their 21 year-old African-Grey parrot, Themis.

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