Monday, August 22, 2011

Antarctica Visits Indiana

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The car screamed! So loudly, I had to shut it off, for fear of waking the entire neighborhood. Not something you want to do in Gary, Indiana. It was never too late at night nor too cold to shoot someone who desperately needed it.

I shivered my way back up to the house in the 40 below, midnight air. "The car screamed when I started it!" I told my dad. "I've never heard such a sound before!"

"It did that last night too. It eventually warms up. Get it started, we have to get going," he told me.

Oooookay...



Back out I go, shivering like I never had before. I started the car again, and there was that horrible sound, like I was torturing an entire barge-load of steel.

I turned the fan off; no sense blowing cold air on me, and no sense drawing off what little warm air would help the engine stop making all that racket as soon as possible.

I retreated back to the house. No sense freezing out here.

Dad had just stepped into the shower. He'd just gotten home from working a 3 to 11 shift at the steel mill, and needed to wash the day off himself. I sat on the couch and tried to catch a power nap. It's amazing what five minutes of sleep can do. As per usual, I hadn't been able to catch a nap during the day. I simply can't go to sleep that easily. I wasn't terribly sleepy now, but I may as well try; I was going to be awake for the next 12 hours at least.

I don't think I got any sleep, but I felt slightly refreshed when Dad came out of the bathroom, dressed and ready to go. The screaming outside had stopped. If anyone was gun happy, they hadn't had anyone to shoot at, and now there wasn't much reason to shoot.

I got into the car and Dad went around back to the garage and started his new car, which was still warm enough from his ride home from work an hour before that it didn't scream.

Tonight was probably the worst possible night to be doing this. It was the biggest snowstorm in quite some time, not that we had the Weather Channel to tell us. We simply trusted in our abilities and our familiarity with the route we were taking, and that was that.

The roads through town were icy and snow-covered. I led us along the streets carefully. I turned onto Grant Street, which was plowed only slightly better than the other streets, and had the advantage of more traffic. I was thankful I had gloves and a heavy coat and extra layers of clothing to keep me warm, because the car's heater still wasn't putting out any heat.

I looked behind me in the mirror, just in time to see my dad's headlights turn, and then watch as he spun out and ended up on the side of the road.

I turned around and came back, found him cursing up a storm at having smacked his rear fender into the only city bench - made of concrete, no less - on the entire street. "At least you didn't wrap it around a telephone pole," I told him. "At least there's no ditch to end up in here."

It would be no problem getting him out of there - he wasn't stuck. "Do you still wanna go on?" I asked, wondering if this was a portent. His new car had rear wheel drive, the one I was driving was front wheel driven and less likely to be succeptible to slips out of nowhere like that.

"Yeah, let's go," he said.

Turned out it was a portent of sorts. Since then, every time he's gotten a new car, he's damaged it within a week. Other than that, it stays in great condition, but it's something about having a new car, and perhaps all the worrying about damaging it, that something happens and it gets a dent or a scratch or something easily avoided.

We had expected the interstates to be fairly clear of snow and ice. For the most part, they were, and we made good time across the Bohrman to Illinois, then down I-57. A little past Kankakee, the snow started coming down in earnest. There were times I had to slow down to the embarrassingly low speed limit of 55 in those days, or even lower. Some patch of storm would come along, visibility would drop, and I'd have to do 45 or so to be sure I was staying on the road. There were even parts of the road where there was only one lane cleared.

But most of the way was clear enough to drive at highway speeds, and so we made it to Boomland in Charleston, Missouri, in about our usual six hours. Boomland had the cheapest gas on the whole leg between Gary and Jackson, Mississippi, and was about half way there, so we always stopped.

The weather wasn't much warmer in Missouri than it was in Gary. It was deeper in the night to make up for it. Sunrise was still a couple hours away.

"I wanted a cold can of pop," my dad said, "so I stuck one on the plastic rings and hung it outside the window for a minute. Didn't know if the wind would knock it off, but it held. When I brought it back inside and opened it up, it was frozen solid."

"That's nothing. The car only just got warm enough a few minutes ago that I could take my gloves off and touch the steering wheel," I topped him. It was true, too. The heater had only started putting out warm air six hours after starting the car.

With a warm car, and a warm belly courtesy of Wally's in Boomland - no time to drool over the huge fireworks selection today - the rest of the trip to Jackson was uneventful. The roads were clear enough for high speed, and I believe the temperature made it above zero by the time we got to Jackson.

We arrived at about noon and dropped the old car off with my brother, who needed one since his had broken down, and then we caught some much-needed sleep in preparation for our return journey back north so Dad could make it to work on time.

Because we'd never gone that way before and would have daylight for the trip, and it wasn't that big a difference in the distance, we decided to go up I-65.

Mistake.

Things were fine until we reached Kenucky. In Alabama and Tennessee, there was snow on the ground, but it was plowed. In Kentucky, they hadn't done much to get the snow off the road, and so traffic was backed up quite a bit. All three lanes were jammed.

Thanks to a curve, I saw ahead of us in the left lane that some idiot truck driver had decided to block up the lane just because he could. He had about a mile of open road in front of him, and no evidence at all of any lane closure ahead. Why was no one else filling that space?

I had no idea, but the truck was only a few cars ahead of us.

I waited as patiently as I knew how to back then, and when I spied an opening in the shoulder wide enough to pass, I went for it. Quickly I got around the truck before the opening closed, and was celebrating my victory by continuing to pass dozens of other cars who were inexplicably not filling this lane. Finally, after about a mile, we came to the end of the line, where we rejoined the jam.

It was exhilerating!

At some point near Lexington, we pulled over to get lunch, and give the plows a little more time to work. I studied the road map to see if there was a decent way around the jammed interstate. Dad decided to drive, because I'm the navigator in the family, and I thought I had found a good route.

The interstate was still jammed, so we took other streets, which were sufficiently cleared. The only problems there were the traffic lights and low speed limits. But we were still going faster than we had been on the interstate.

We kept going by the interstate, kept seeing it was still jammed, and so we kept winding our way north to the state line through the city streets.

We knew that Indiana wouldn't tolerate this kind of thing - they'd have plowed the roads and they'd be clear. We also knew the only decent way across the state line - marked by the mighty Ohio River - was the interstate bridge. We'd have to survive a little traffic jam until we got to the bridge, so I got us as close as I could to the river before getting back onto the highway.

To our pleasant surprise, the way was clear! Traffic was light and moving! And so the rest of our journey was uneventful.

Upon reaching home, it was as if the TV stations had no news to report - as if it had all been preempted - by the snowstorm. They said it was a record blizzard in several states, and had killed quite a few people. Many cars were stranded on the roads.

We had driven through the worst areas and hadn't noticed much of anything worth reporting. Just another minor blizzard to us.

Having been through some really serious blizzards in the past, I didn't think much of this one. Maybe being about 20 had something to do with my perception too. Many of you will remember that blizzard in the early 90's for any number of things, but I will remember it as the night the car screamed for 15 minutes, that it took six hours to warm up enough to be able to touch the steering wheel without gloves on, and an inexplicable mile-long gap in a single lane of traffic which I miraculously managed to get into and make full use of.

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