Earlier this winter, our forecast in Clinton County was light rain and temps in the upper 30s, conditions that were expected to last a couple of days. Forty-eight hours later, 23 inches of the heaviest, wettest snow imaginable covered everything in sight. Tree collapsed, power outages were frequent, and roads were a slushy mess. Removal of the stuff from driveways was best done by machine, but for some of us, manual effort was the only way to go. As I toiled, my mind wandered to similar jobs I’ve endured in decades past.
This amounts to a confession of sorts, but by now you know it: I’m a shoveler. I’ll wait a moment for the jokes to clear from your head—“as a writer, you’ve been shoveling it for a long time,” and stuff like that. You’ll get no argument from me. But still, maybe I need help.
As for my near-obsessive shoveling, a shrink might trace the problem to my mom, and she actually was involved back in the beginning. In the 1960s, when Dad had to be at work by 7 am, he had a terrible time whenever it snowed heavily, which was quite often. Remember that the term “snow removal” in those days applied only to cities. In rural areas, plows plowed until the roads narrowed, and then front-loaders were called to scoop everything up and dump it into huge piles. And yes, if you’ve heard the stories, it’s true: many of us could have (and actually have) stepped over the telephone lines at one time or another.
A big storm sometimes caused schools to close, but it had to be big. It was glorious when that happened: a snow-day typically meant rolling over in bed and going back to sleep. But snow-days didn’t happen at workplaces no matter what the conditions were outside. Dads had to shovel their cars out, brush them off, and go to work. I wasn’t much for sleeping in, and when I was up with my mom and dad one such morning, I saw him struggle to remove just enough snow from the car and driveway so he could leave. Mom, meanwhile, lamented the fact that sleeping upstairs were some healthy young folks, including my two older brothers.
Her comments were my inspiration. When the next storm hit, snow-day or not, I was up early as usual. While Dad shaved hurriedly so he’d have time to attack the snow, I secretly suited up the best I could and headed outside, digging in with a fervor. The average snow shovel in those days was just a plain flat pan at the end of a breakable handle. To complete most snow-shoveling jobs, the tool itself was secondary to elbow grease and enthusiasm, and I was nothing if not an enthusiastic shoveler.
When Dad came out that morning, he assessed my efforts, thanked me profusely, and headed off to work. I’ll never forget the feeling of great satisfaction as he drove away, the still-square tires thumping rhythmically against the snowy road until they gradually rounded into shape.
And that became my routine, even though I was still shy of ten years old. Whenever I was available, he didn’t have to worry about deep snow anymore. With reluctance, my siblings sometimes shoveled, but I relished the opportunity. If our walkway was already cleaned, I shoveled at the neighbors, or at the post office across the road, clearing the entry steps, the roadside (for parking), and the loading dock.
Nothing was more fun than digging out buried or stuck cars and pushing them on their way. I became expert at it, learning skills that have served me during a lifetime of freeing my own cars and the vehicles of others. Wood ashes and a grain shovel were added to my repertoire in later years, making the job much easier.
Since that time, I’ve always been a persistent and prodigious shoveler. I sure hope there are others out there with some understanding of my “problem.” No matter how wide or long my driveway has been (and it has sometimes been very long), I didn’t hire anyone to clear it. I always just dug in and shoveled until it was clean … so clean that my mom often asked, “Who plows your driveway?” I kept telling her I shoveled it, but because the banks were so neat, she never seemed to believe me.
And I didn’t shovel because I was too cheap to pay a plow guy. Yes, it saved money, but for me it was just part of house maintenance, most of which I tackled myself unless it became impossible. I also shoveled my parents’ driveway in recent years, but since they lived 25 miles away, Jill and I hired a local operator to plow them out whenever it snowed. At the same time, I continued shoveling my own drive.
I suppose it’s time to come clean about some extreme shoveling I’ve engaged in. Here’s one of my top-five shoveling endeavors, but because it wasn’t a one-time thing (I engaged in it for years), maybe it rates #1 … at least in the snow category.
I always wanted to live in a cabin in the woods, and a home I purchased around 1980 (we had three children by then) sort of fit the bill. It was very secluded—three tenths of a mile off a secondary road, and nestled behind a hill and sugarbush. The first 500 feet of the driveway bordered the eastern edge of a farmer’s field—the textbook setup for catching snow-drifts. The narrow lane, covered by a canopy of trees, then skirted the sugarbush for the next 1000 feet.
The wooded section offered protection from the wind, but friends warned me about the 500-foot stretch, where brutal winds sometimes built cement-like drifts upwards of six feet high.
I sort of believed them, but nature soon confirmed that the extreme drifting claims were no exaggeration. It sometimes took only minutes for that open area to fill in during shoveling, and because the stretch was so long, I sometimes simply couldn’t keep up.
There were no options: the car had to be left near the roadside so I would be able to make it to work every day. That and snowshoes solved my part of the problem of getting back and forth between house and road.
But what about three children, all under the age of ten? How would they catch the bus to school? And groceries? How would I get them to a house more than 1500 feet from the road?
I’ve never ducked hard work, but the ambitious routine I adopted did raise a few eyebrows, even in that tough neighborhood. While it may have seemed unorthodox, it was efficient.
Arriving home between 1 and 2 am, I snowshoed back to the house (snow on the ground provides plenty of residual light at night). Early each morning, I grabbed the shovel and made sure a path was cleared all the way to the car, three-tenths of a mile away. After starting the car, I returned to the house, loaded all three children onto a toboggan (draped by a blanket on windy days), and hauled them to the road. By that time the car was comfy warm, and there we sat until the bus arrived.
Finally, when a big storm hit, the giant drifts were packed solid and at quite a steep angle. At that point, as much as it grieved me, I hired a local farmer who had a big snow-blower attachment for his tractor. His asking price was $15 (back in the 1980s), but I gladly paid him $25 per job. He took care of us for nearly a decade … but only when the road was plugged. Other than that, I shoveled it.
In the back of my mind, paying extra was probably self-punishment for not completing the job on my own. I tell you, it’s a sickness, and it may be hereditary. My mom was a native of Churubusco in northwestern Clinton County, an area once known widely for brutal winter conditions. Even in the mid-1900s, rollers were used to flatten snow so that farmers could get the job done. Men shoveled the train tracks where rail plows couldn’t penetrate hard-packed banks. And for Churubusco roads after major storms, crews of shovelers sometimes cleared a path for snowplows.
I’d been a natural!
Photos: I come by my ailment honestly. Pictured are scenes from long ago in my mom’s hometown of Churubusco in Clinton County, famous for its wild weather (which is now harnessed by many giant windmills). At the top, on the high snow-banks, is a snow-shoveling crew tasked with clearing a path ahead of the plow. The other two images are Churubusco village scenes. Again, snow removal in rural areas is a relatively recent development.