December 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 8
Connections with childhood, with a way of looking at life, and with a generation that remade our world
Every year about this time we go through the same exercise. An approaching cold front bringing snow sets off a certain calamitous tone on radio and television and in the newspapers, especially in the great urban areas. There are so many of us, and we are so dependent on public transportation, food delivery, and the services of others, that it’s only natural that the idea of a snowstorm, however slight the inconvenience, is something to be dreaded, never mind the serenity it brings to the city.
As for me, a decent snowstorm, preferably one with about a thirty-knot wind, is a reaffirming act of nature. Although I’ve been gone from my prairie birthplace for more than half my adult life, snow was such a fixture of my formative years that it is now almost a genetic need.
I’m not talking boutique snow here, the kind I welcome in the mountains on ski trips, pillow-soft flakes falling straight down into the best runs. No, I mean a hard storm that roars in from the west and immobilizes nearly everything in its path, clogging the arteries of urban and rural life alike.
My earliest memories involve snow. My mother and father would dress me in an all-wool snowsuit and turn me out into the yard. I would promptly topple over and spend the better part of an afternoon rising and falling. It was a rite of passage for children of the Great Plains, learning mobility in a foot of snow while wearing twenty-five pounds of wet wool. Later we went to other extremes; as teenagers we refused to wear caps, gloves, or overshoes even in the most severe blizzards. Overshoes, especially four-buckle overshoes, were dorkier than plastic pen-protectors for shirts.
Long before four-wheel-drive vehicles became a fixture on American roads I learned how to get through the winter in an old-fashioned two-wheel-drive car, resorting to chains only in the most extreme conditions. Another rite of passage: how to be at the wheel when the car went into a sideways slide and not be tempted to hit the brakes or oversteer.
Snow was central to my father’s whole working life. He operated heavy machinery, including snowplows. He helped build airports, highways, dams, and parks, but nothing gave him as much pleasure as being called out after a great blizzard to clear the roads. He actually delayed his retirement by a year just so he could have one more season seeing the sun catch the snow as it peeled off the big blade on the front of his giant plow. One winter, conditions were so fierce in a rural area he as plowing that his eyelashes kept freezing shut, a condition he laughed off when he returned home thirty hours after he set out.
My father’s work mentor was a Swedish immigrant homesteader in northern South Dakota. Oscar was af tall, gaunt man who later in life spent part of a winter with us. By then stone deaf, he sat day after day in our tiny living room, paging through back issues of Life magazine, dressed in the one new flannel shirt he bought every winter and a pair of blue overalls.
Then a big storm struck. Oscar put on his mackinaw, wool cap with earflaps, and wool mittens and began to shovel the walk with the most efficient, rhythmic strokes I had ever seen. It was cold and the snow was heavy, but the only break he took was to get some circulation back in hands that had been frostbitten sol many times over the years.
He leaned the shovel handle against his broad chest and smiled at me through his long, yellowing teeth, a happy man in the still, frigid South Dakota air. He began clapping as rhythmically as he had been shoveling the snow, trying to get some blood coursing through those hands that had known a lifetime of hard work.
I think of him often when it snows, especially on those few occasions when I take a shovel to our own J walk in New England. I, too, like the work. It’s exhilarating and honest. The result is there for all to see, and if done properly, it is aesthetically appealing. Moreover, it is unambiguous in its usefulness.
Looking back, maybe Oscar wasn’t simply trying to warm his hands. Perhaps he was applauding the glories of a good snowfall, the honest work it brought him, the moisture it would mean in the spring, and the beauty it brought to that bleak landscape.
Perhaps, but it is unlikely.
Oscar and men like my father were not given to philosophical reflections on the meaning of work in their lives, even as they were immersed in it. Nonetheless, there was a snow connection that if not metaphysical was indisputably symbolic.
When my father died, a big storm swept through South Dakota a few days before his funeral. We buried him on a day of bitter cold, on a hillside looking out over the tundra of the Great Plains. Following the interment I got into his car and drove aimlessly west, out into the country along the Missouri River. It was a brilliantly clear day, and when the gravel road came to a dead end I looked out into a field deep in clean, white snow. A farmer was on horseback, trying to round up a lone steer that had gotten loose. He chased him back and forth in the snow until the critter finally, reluctantly got the message and headed through the gate. The farmer rode by me and laughed, shaking his head in mock frustration.
My father would have loved everything about that moment: the cowboy farmer, the ornery steer, the real work being done in deep snow on a cold day. As I turned his car around, I was melancholy until I realized we had enjoyed it together. He was at my side as we drove back across the familiar, frozen landscape.