We haven’t gotten much snow this year, but that hasn’t stopped the fine folks on the Weather Channel from predicting another ice age. Ellen, because she is a teacher, eats these reports up. On the night before an impending storm, she and my son huddle in front of the TV with their fingers crossed and pajamas turned inside out, hoping and praying for several feet of snow.
The fact that I would be the one shoveling all this snow is irrelevant.
Years ago, my mom was also a teacher. She was also a slavish Weather Channel devotee, but her reasons for watching were more complicated. Mom taught in Paterson, NJ, a place where they never closed the schools. So she watched the weather report to gage how aggravating her commute would be; that way she could plan ahead and lather up an appropriate amount of rage.
(It should also be noted that Mom is German and Germans don’t like things they can’t control. No one — not even a German — can control the weather, so Mom loathed it.)
So when The Big Snowstorm approached Mom was on edge.
“Jim! Jim! The snow is coming! You have to get the tree out! NOW!”
I don’t remember the exact year of The Big Snowstorm, but I do remember that it took place shortly after the New Year, because our evergreen Christmas tree was now a naked everbrown. For some reason my parents waited for at least a week after New Year’s Day to get rid of the tree, which ensured that its journey to the front door would leave behind a mountain of needles.
Weather didn’t have the same peculiar effect on my Dad, but he had his own quirks. For one thing, he was not a big believer in seeing a job through to its conclusion. He would always get the job done, mind you, but if a one-day job could be completed in two, he was all over that idea.
So once he managed to get the disintegrating Christmas tree through the front door, he simply heaved it off the stoop and let it flop in the middle of our front yard.
“There!” Dad proclaimed, swelling with the satisfaction of a job half-done.
“Take it to the curb!” Mom demanded.
“I’ll take it to the curb on Saturday.”
It was Sunday.
Needless to say, Dad’s declaration prompted an argument. When Mom’s weather anxiety and Dad’s half-assed efforts came together, it was a deadly combination. It was the cue for me to go to my room.
A few hours later, in the mid-afternoon, the snow began to fall. And, right from the start, Mother Nature began to show off. The temperature was low, so the flakes were small and powdery, but the air was thick with them. We could barely see beyond our mailbox.
“They called a state of emergency,” Mom said grimly as she and I watched the snow accumulate. I was delighted – I wouldn’t have to go to school – but I tried to contain my glee. In Mom’s eyes it would’ve been traitorous for me to support the actions of The Enemy.
A state of emergency meant that Mom wouldn’t have to go to school either, which should have calmed her down, but it didn’t. Her ingrained sense of justice would not allow it; this storm had New Jersey at its mercy and that was wrong. Even with a day off, Mom did not like the situation. Not at all. Not. One. Bit.
No answer. Dad was in his basement hidey hole reading a book on World War II and listening to Yanni.
Still no answer.
“We need to call The Plow Guy!”
It was useless to call The Plow Guy, and all three of us knew it. The Plow Guy would be out. Plowing. Because that’s what he did in snowstorms.
Besides, The Plow Guy only plowed for his list of subscribers. When you signed up for The Plow Guy’s services, he’d plow your driveway whenever it snowed. It was a pretty straightforward business arrangement, but Dad didn’t like it. It was expensive — and vaguely emasculating.
“So when it snows two inches he’ll plow the driveway and make me pay?” Dad would sputter, aghast. “I can shovel two inches of snow. I can shovel two feet of snow. I only need The Plow Guy when it snows a lot.”
So we didn’t subscribe to The Plow Guy. And on those rare days when we wished we had, it was too late to do anything about it.
But not really. Dad had a Plan B. All of our neighbors subscribed to The Plow Guy’s services, so Dad’s strategy was to keep an eye out for The Plow Guy when he plowed our neighbors’ driveways. When he caught sight of him, Dad would pull on his work boots, throw on a coat, grab a handful of money, run through the snow to where The Plow Guy was plowing, and bribe him to clear our driveway.
So as the snow continued to fall and fall, the three of us kept watch. Sometimes we watched as a group, sometimes we watched in shifts, but never was our front window missing a lookout.
We watched, and we watched some more. But all we saw was accumulating snow.
One foot of snow.
Eighteen inches of snow.
Two feet of snow.
“We better not lose our electricity,” Mom said. Her words sounded like a threat, like she was trying to intimidate the overhead wires.
If there was one thing Mom hated more than weather it was a house without electricity. “If we lived in the pioneer era,” she often asserted, “this family would be dead within an hour.”
By 10 p.m., 30 inches of snow had fallen and it was still coming down. It was a snowy siege.
But then: The cavalry.
“JIM! THE PLOW!”
Dad was not a fast fellow. In 1971 he had shattered both of his legs in a particularly nasty fall, but Mom’s battle cry got him about as close to running as I’ve ever seen him. He thumped up the basement stairs with an uncharacteristic sense of purpose. He was in his pajamas, but he didn’t care. He slipped his feet into his work boots without bothering to tie the laces, swept his brown corduroy coat over his shoulders as if he was the fourth musketeer, and set out through the front door into the whipping winter winds to wave down the distant plow.
Dad raced down the porch stairs and plunged into snow up to his waist. Snow soaked through his pajamas and poured into his boots, but he didn’t cry out or show any sign of weakness. He just let out a low, determined growl of sorts as he half walked half hopped though the powdery drifts.
It was all pretty badass. I was impressed.
That is, until Dad fell over the Christmas tree.
It was a remarkable sight. One moment Dad was there in the deep snow churning his legs toward The Plow Guy and the next he was gone. Vanished. He fell flat on his face and mountains of dry snow fell in on top of him. The earth swallowed him whole without a trace. Buried alive.
Mom and I were too stunned to speak.
There was a long, unsteady pause.
Then, in a sudden and heroic burst of energy, there he was! Fighting the good fight! Flailing! And stumbling! And lurching! He flopped about like a rag doll in his open coat and flimsy pajamas, trying and repeatedly failing to get his footing. By the time he eventually staggered to his feet, he was caked with snow from head to foot looking quite a bit like a drunken Frosty the Snowman.
Mom was horrified, worried, panicked.
I, on the other hand, was laughing so hard I was hacking up mucus.
“It’s not funny!” Mom shouted, swatting me.
But it was! It was the funniest thing I had ever seen. Ever.
“Go out and help him!”
“Are you crazy?” I managed to sputter between wheezy gasps. “I’m not going out in that!”
“Oh, you are going out in that. Get your coat! Where are your boots?” She flung open the front closet door and pawed through it in search of my parka. Mom had lost her mind.
“What am I supposed to do once I’m out there?”
“Help your father up!”
“But he’s already up! Look!” I swung open the front door, ignored the stinging wind, and lunged my index finger through the opening.
Indeed, Frosty the Snow Dad was on his feet. We found him standing motionless at the far corner of our front yard silhouetted by the yellow glow of a street lamp. The dramatic lighting, Dad’s posture and the general air of melancholy that overwhelmed the scene reminded me of something I one saw in a Humphrey Bogart film.
Dad had tried but failed to get The Plow Guy’s attention. The Plow Guy had cleared all of the neighbors’ driveways. The Plow Guy was gone.
Dad’s valiant effort, his discomfort, his humiliation, was all for nothing. And the pain wasn’t even over yet. Now he had to come back to the house and listen to Mom yell at him.
His pace was slower now. Dad was defeated and numb and cold to his core. He was a sorry sight.
Until he fell over the Christmas tree again!
Again he fell face first into the snow! Again the snow swallowed him whole!
And it was even funnier the second time around!
Laughter exploded from deep within me. I made joyous noises I have never heard before or since – including something that sounded like “BWAAAAAAA!”
My insides ached. My lungs couldn’t get enough air. I was sure I was going to die – and I was totally OK with that, for I would die deliriously happy.
I knew right then and there that this was – and would always be – the Quintessential Dad Story – a delicious slapstick fiasco that never ever would have happened if Dad, for just one moment, did something slightly out of character. Like take the tree to the curb or subscribe to The Plow Guy or recognize that it was silly to leap out into nearly three feet of snow wearing pajamas.
But nope. Dad stuck to his life script and it was beautiful.
And, fear not. Dad was fine. In fact he was better than fine. Once he came back inside, Mom didn’t even think about yelling at him. Her anger wasn’t directed at Dad, or even that evil, awful weather.
Nope, her anger was directed squarely at insensitive me.
Mom fussed over Dad, helped him out of his coat and boots and got him new pajamas fresh from the dryer. She even made him cocoa.
As for me, I was in the doghouse. The next day Mom made me shovel the driveway by myself. It took all afternoon, but I didn’t mind. In fact, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
The driveway was the only safe place for me to get out all of my stray giggles.