Log Cabin Chronicles


truck driver

© 1998 John Mahoney

Looking for heroes in a world gone weird

JOHN MAHONEY

We really do live in weird times and all our heroes are dead or gone pervert. Do you really want your kid to grow up to be a Bill, Clinton or Gates?

But, take heart. There are a few heroes. You just have to look for them in the right places. And one place is behind the wheel of snow plow in an ice storm.

It took over four hours recently to get back home to Fool's Hollow from southern Vermont, where I immerse myself twice a month in the depravities of e-commerce, marketing, and 'bots and agents. The road home, to put it plainly, was a bitch.

The rain froze upon impact with the surface and it was black ice for nearly 200 miles. I muttered tiny prayers and promised myself a small jug of whiskey, if I survived the journey. Every now and then I would come upon behind a snow plow, spewing out sand, and my heart was glad and I gave cheers and blessed their safe return home.

There was a hero behind every wheel. We never think of these guys. They're just blue-collar dudes, doing their job. They're getting paid, right?

My neighbor up the road is one of these guys. When he lumbered down our 200-foot-long driveway in his big yellow Payloader last weekend to dig us out after another heavy snowfall, I remember a night I spent with him in the cab of truck, plowing the back roads in this part of the world.

This is the way it was:

The bedroom radio blares at 2:25 a.m. I struggle to consciousness. Outside, it's snowing heavily; I scrape a foot of snow from the car, then wait for the telephone to ring.

The call comes at 3 a.m. "Philippe's going to the garage now." I grab my camera bag and drive off. I travel 75 feet before I'm stopped. I back up, have another go...60 feet this time.

Resigned to the inevitable, I begin the half-mile uphill trudge to meet Philippe Roy who will soon begin plowing snow, as he has for 30 years.

The snow is light but coming down hard. However, I'm ready for it: two pairs of heavy socks, felt-lined rubber boots, regular underwear, longjohns, flannel shirt, blue jeans, long, heavy winter coat, my old railroad cap, a saggy blue tuque.

It's hard slogging through deep snow. Soon I feel warm, then very warm. I wish I had left the longjohns in the closet. Far off in the distance, through the falling snow, I see the faint greenish glow of the Roy's security light.

It's beautiful this morning, here on this dark, lonely road. Then I hear heavy breathing and wheezing. I peer into the falling snow...realize it's me...O.K....rest at the next telephone pole...trudge, trudge...now make it to the tree...slog, slog...keep beating, heart...my face is damp now and I feel like the (sweaty) Abominable Snowman...trudge, trudge.

At the garage Philippe and son Daniel are readying their trucks. They brush the snow off me: "Jeez, John, why didn't you call? We'd have come and gotten you."

"No problem...it was a beautiful walk," I pant, remembering what happened to Pinocchio.

At 3:30 I climb up into Philippe's Big Mack. Daniel uses the payloader to fill his dump body with salted sand. We're next. Henri, Philippe's other adult son and crew member, arrives to get his truck.

Philippe has contracts for 110 kilometers of road and approximately $500,000 invested in four trucks and snow removal equipment and now, at 3:30 this morning, while all the sane people are still snug in their warm beds, he and his boys are going to work so that later on you can get to work, or play. I'm along for the ride.

Snow plowing seems second nature to a Roy. Old Joe, the retired family patriarch, began plowing with a small truck and a wooden plow half a century ago. Philippe started when he was 13, some 30 years ago. "I had a good professor," he says. His two boys, now in their early 20s, got behind the wheel when they were 12 so they, too, are experienced drivers. Philippe and his wife, Shirley, have seven other children.

Then there are the brothers who have their own contracts: Robert, Jean-Paul, François. "It helps to have a big gang when you have a big job or run into trouble," explains Philippe. "We help each other out."

He backs the truck next to the loading dock, then begins digging sand with the payloader. "Fifteen years ago I did this by hand," he says later. "And we spread it on the roads by hand. My sister helped."

Through the fogged glass the payloader looks like a bug-eyed monster; the truck rocks each time a bucket load is dumped into the box. We take on 12 tons.

The digital clock on the console shows 3:49. We move out. There's pop music on the radio and Philippe is on the FM handset, talking with the boys. We're doing 35 m.p.h. and the snow is streaming into the windshield and in the glare of the lights I feel as blind and vulnerable as if riding shotgun into a cloudbank.

We're thundering toward Fitch Bay from Ticehurst Corner. Daniel has already made a pass and Philippe says he's following the tire marks so it's easy going this morning. I can't see anything but the snow and the headlights' glare. He's smiling, shifting gears, checking dials and switches. I squint into the nothingness.

It's 4:07. We're on Rte. 247, near the covered bridge at the Narrows. I roll down my window -- there's a solid wall of snow 15 feet high arching 25 feet off the highway. There are sparks glinting on the road behind the plow as the blade strikes small rocks. "I have to replace the plow blade and shoes a couple of times each winter," Philippe says.

Up the hill past John Kimpton's farm we reverse our direction and plow downhill, spewing sand behind us...4:30...we're on the Magog Road, out of Fitch bay, making the first of three 10-foot-wide passes we'll make on each side of this highway.

The second and third passes, close to the shoulder, are the most dangerous: the truck is loaded with 12 tons of damp, salty sand and the center of gravity is high. If the right wheels get too close to the edge, it's into the ditch for sure. The ride is jouncy, the windshield foggy and I think, "That's my life force condensing there."

The snow is still pelting the windshield but I'm beginning to see mailboxes whipping by. Phillipe hits nary a one, and I marvel at his craftsmanship.

It's just after 5 a.m. Philippe keeps checking with the boys. Shirley calls from home; François can't get his truck started; he needs help. There's some daylight now and the road is looking good.

Now we're climbing Upper Bunker...it's 6:10 a.m. and here's brother Robert with his sleepy little son, Marc, riding shotgun in his rig. "I'm late today," he says. "I had to help Jean-Paul get started."

Daniel and Henri are done and we finish up Philippe's section of his 110 kilometers of road, then start on François' roads. At 7:37 we meet Jean-Paul and François in Cedarville. They're in Jean-Paul's truck. The conversation is in rapid-fire French. Philippe is laughing, Jean-Paul grinning, François explaining. He's not smiling.

It seems that someone took the engine heater extension cord to the chicken coop. That's why his truck wouldn't start. And when he put the charger on the two batteries, they exploded. Kiss two big ones goodbye. No wonder he's not smiling.

But as Philippe said: "It helps to have a big gang when you get into trouble...."

We finish at 10 a.m. Philippe's roads are smooth, wide-plowed, and well-sanded. Time for breakfast. Sounds easy, right? Piece of cake. No way. It's hard, sometimes dangerous work that calls for skill, experience, judgement, and a major capital investment. And it helps to have an iron bum.


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Copyright © 1998 John Mahoney/Log Cabin Chronicles/3.98