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Thursday, February 13, 2014

I Pressed On - The Medic of La Mancha's account of the Blizzard Of 2010

by Steven P. Velasquez
Feb 13, 2014

Originally outlined (but not finished) in January 2011, I never actually put the finishing touches on this little gem. Today I'm sitting, quietly composing its' final draft, in the Yellow Rose Diner in Keyport, NJ, as we get clobbered with yet another of the endless snowstorms of 2014. I reached back into my archives and thought you might appreciate another of the Medic of La Mancha's not-so heroic tales.

A decade has passed since I last heard so many friends and co-workers speak with such granular detail about somewhere they were, something they saw -- or something they endured.  Two 110-story office towers had collapsed in lower Manhattan after being struck by fuel laden jet-liners in a terrorist attack.  Another plane flew directly into the Pentagon and a fourth dove into a field in Shanksville, PA after a valiant struggle between unarmed passengers and the blood-thirsty animals aboard. America, and freedom-loving people everywhere, were dealt a crippling blow that brought society to a standstill and galvanized a people united – albeit temporarily. 

"Never Forget September 11, 2001"
An "Interfaith Memorial" was held in Sayreville, NJ's

Waterfront Park just days after the terrorist attacks

Though far less dramatic by comparison, the end of December 2010 brought 18 to 32 inches of frozen precipitation followed by 60+ mph wind gusts to the Northeast U.S.  Initial reports said we might see a little, but probably more out toward eastern Long Island.  We brushed it off as a remote possibility as the forecasters seemed ambivalent about it, so why cause a public stir?  Within hours, the forecasts had become dire.   We were suddenly advised that a nor’easter was headed our way and packing a punch.  

Sunday afternoon, I spent the day preparing my plow truck, blower and hand-tools to go recoup at least some of two-thousand plus dollars I had just sunk into the rear end repairs to my truck.  Not to mention the five-hundred dollar TV repair, the Christmas expenses and my past-due school tuition.  This storm, I thought, should put me in much better financial circumstances than I was about to end 2010 with – I thought.

Facebook again served as a powerful advertising tool as I broadcast to friends and followers that I was available for hire to rid them of their snow-induced woes.  I went out Sunday afternoon and began making my first passes during the first 2"- 4” of snowfall.  My truck and machinery were performing well and as the snow continued to pile up, so did my appetite for the possible windfall profit I was in position to earn.  

I swung by the house to clear out some parking spots for my family and neighbors which surely would earn me my “most favorite neighbor” status that I enjoyed with each snowfall.  One of my supervisors from work called and asked if I would travel down to his mother’s house near Long Branch to help her. “Of course” I replied  “No problem.”  I figured I’d take care of her property then a few of her neighbors would see me and ask (or beg) me to do theirs.  It was about to be a great night!  

About 9 p.m. I entered Rte. 18 south in the Marlboro area.  My trusty GMC roared through the snow drifts asserting its four-wheel superiority over the white stuff.  I passed car after car stranded along the road, down the embankments, buried up to their windows.  I thought to help them, but you can either be a humanitarian or you can make money (trust me, my full-time career is as humanitarian as it gets and there is NO money!).  My family's economic needs were such that I had to press on.  Events like this are rare and I need to make some loot. Around 9:30 or so, I was no further than about the Colts Neck area.  The road was completely empty in either direction.  I saw headlights off in the distance behind me, but they were not closing in.  I figured they had met their snowy match too and thanked God I was still mobile. I pressed on.

RMS Titanic was a British passenger liner that sank in
the North Atlantic Ocean on 15 April 1912 after colliding
with an iceberg during her maiden voyage from
Southampton, UK to New York City, US.
You could not see beyond the hood of the truck, couldn’t make out where the road ended and the grass began, and couldn’t see a guard rail or even the tree line off to the right.  The flakes passed my view sideways, driven by the whipping gusts. I lost sight of the last set of tracks before me indicating which direction was the right one. Bumpity, bumpity, bump! I suddenly felt my mighty GMC seemingly falling apart. "Houston! Houston we have a problem! Mayday, mayday, mayday!" I thought of every distress signal I could think of as I tried to desperately navigate the behemoth back to the highway. No dice. I slid right down an embankment into the center median of Route 18. I was in so deep I couldn't even open my door. Forward, reverse, forward, reverse! Whizzzzzzz! Absolutely no effect. My tires helplessly spun in place and only buried my little Titanic deeper into the white stuff.

Like the survivor of any crashed vessel, I immediately took inventory of everything around me. I had bottles of water, granola bars, changes of warm clothing, cash etc... The vehicle was undamaged and the engine still ran, though I worried about carbon monoxide poisoning if my tailpipe was occluded and the fumes filled the cabin. My ambitious eyes now replaced dollar signs with a narrowing look of consternation. The endless list of obscenities emitting from my exhaust pipe were enough to make a trucker blush.

With much work, I finally fell out the driver's side window; no easy task if you know my actual size. I fell into several inches of the white stuff, got up and began trying to get my bearings. The night was dark as could be and there was no traffic to my left or right. I couldn't tell where to aim the truck if I could. (When I look at the area in question without snowfall, it's absolutely laughable at how short of a distance it was, but under a precipitous blanket, hidden by darkness and punctuated by frosty wind-gusts, it seemed eternal. Now back to your scheduled story!) I followed my tracks to their origin and finally figured out where the highway was.

Dear God, please, no more snow!
Karma had visited me as I now shared the desperate feelings of all those I had passed and left in my profit-motivated wake. Occasionally I'd see some 4WD trucks blazing south on 18 and tried to wave them down, but they, like me, were in search of loot, not humanitarian awards. I couldn't blame them, but prayed for just one to have mercy on me. Funny how being incarcerated or incapacitated in any form makes such reverent creatures out of us.

Anyway, I decided to take the words of Deputy Chief Mike Nasta (Newark, NJ FD), in an article he wrote about self-rescue years before, to heart; "Do something!" I returned to my truck and tried to figure out an exit strategy. Initially I began shoveling, then thought of how much of an imbecile I was. "Use the f'ing snowblower!" I laughed at myself. I opened the tailgate and when I lowered it, it was resting evenly on the accumulated snow. "This is bad" I thought. I grabbed the burly blower by its handlebars and wrestled it off the tailgate. This was the first time I didn't have to setup the ramps for it to make a safe descent. Poof! It just plopped into the snow. It fired right up and I began clearing out a circle around my truck. I thought of how hysterical it must have been for the road warriors that were transiently passing me by on the highway as they looked to their left and saw a disabled truck, it's rotating yellow roof lights spinning and what certainly must be a lunatic snowblowing the center median of Rte. 18. "Ha ha, yuck it up assholes!" I thought. "You could just stop and help a brother out you know!"

Finally, a pick-up truck with a bed full of chopped lumber and a sympathetic driver stopped. "You okay?" he asked. "Yes" I replied. "I just need some help if you have chains or a tow-strap." He backed his war wagon cautiously into a position where he could help me and not lose grip of the roadway. He handed me two chains with some huge hooks on the end. I ambitiously dove face first under my front bumper to attach them. Maybe because of the cold, the loneliness or a combination of both, my imagination began to run away with me while under there.

Han Solo saves Luke Skywalker
by gutting a tauntaun and stuffing him
in it in "Star Wars Episode V The Empire
Strikes Back

My flashlight shone upon the undercarriage and revealed my exhaled breath to me. Surrounded by a wall of snow, I huffed and puffed and imagined myself gutting a tauntaun and crawling inside his smelly carcass till daybreak. I actually remember saying aloud "Ben... Ben..." I suppose I was a little giddy as I began to once again see profit in my immediate future.

After a duel of traction, tension and precipitation the two big beasts were back on terra firma again. Nick was a guy from Boonton (like 60+ miles north of where we were) on his way to the Toms River area to seek his own fortune.  I emptied my wallet and gave him $75.00 and wished I could give more, but I was certain my wallet would fatten up by daybreak. I loaded my blower back into my 8 foot bed along with the 500lbs of salt I used for ballast, my hand tools and the mounting mound of snow that was falling at a record pace.

I had easily lost two hours of my time, but was very thankful for benevolent Nick - and his chains.
Again, I began to trek southward, slowly, carefully, scanning the roadway for some sort of markings that could guide me into a lane of travel. With each passing exit, I debated turning around and going home, but was now motivated by greed and anger too! "I'm out the money I began with and haven't earned anything yet! Keep going!" I pressed on.

I only smoke on occasion and plowing, for me, was always an occasion. I sparked up a Marlboro Light and had long discussions with myself as I pressed further south. I approached an overpass when off to the right I saw a little, itty-bitty, Isuzu P'up stuck, steaming and this young kid trying to get out of a snow bank. I slowly rolled right past and when I saw his face, I thought of benevolent Nick and was immediately reminded of how desperate I was just a short while ago. "Damn it!" I yelled as I threw my beast in reverse. "What the f' was this kid thinking? He has no business out here in that little toy. This weather's not fit for man nor beast!" I actually didn't say that last part, but do remember it from a movie long ago (insert creative license).


I mimicked benevolent Nick and tried hooking the young lad with my tow-strap. I was really cautious and upset as I had just finished paying for a new rear end for the beast. The last thing I wanted was to see my rear axle and tires sitting on the roadway while the rest of my truck spun in circles like a dog with an incurable itch.

It didn't work. He was really in there and even if we got him out, his truck was no match for the unplowed terrain before us, plus he was overheating and appeared to have blown his head gasket. Who knows how bad this can get? I asked where he was going and he told me; "Long Branch." "Meah," I thought. I'm heading to Ocean Port, I can drop him off on the way in. I offered him a ride and he accepted. We both lit cigarettes, cracked the windows and pressed on.

We began to pass disabled vehicles in the left, middle and center lanes. Slowly we maneuvered around them. They asked or begged as we passed to please help and we had to balance out what they were asking vs. what we had the resources for. Sadly, their plight lost and we chose to keep going. Bumpity, bumpity, bumpity!!!! "FUCK!!! Again???? Are you kidding me!!!???" Right down the center median again! Karma clearly had me in a headlock and pushed my nose right into a pile of steamy, white precipitation. The saving grace was I now had a partner to help me with the ordeal. And now, thanks to benevolent Nick, I had a template of what needed to happen to successfully free my behemoth. We both disembarked, lowered the blower and grabbed the shovels. We dug and blew and dug and blew all the way back out to the highway. Occasionally, we tried to use the four wheel drive of my mighty beast. Sadly instead of one tire spinning, I saw four. So again, we dug and blew.
Up on the roadway there were three scattered, disabled tractor trailers and an assortment of other idiots that did not belong on the roadway (Yeah, that's me calling THEM diots). Some of them came down and helped push my truck back onto the roadway. In exchange for the favor, I was now like a mobile Home Depot as they all helped themselves to my shovels, ice breakers and hand tools. Again, we lost another hour or so to the white precip. And again, I saw my windfall profit turn into one of the longest, most difficult nights of my life.

Not for use shoveling snow!!
Finally it was time to go. We mounted and headed south again. Right in the center lane before us was a disabled car filled with four teenagers by our estimation. They were using those plastic New Years Eve derby's one gets to ring in the new year as shovels. "This is pathetic! What's wrong with these people? Why are they out here!?" But we couldn't leave them disabled in the middle of the roadway. They'd surely run out of fuel or get rear ended by the next imbecile coming through. We shoveled, pushed, tried the tow straps and nothing worked. We finally had to make a decision to stay and protect them or press on. We got them to the side of the road, gave them some advice about keeping warm and conserving heat and turning off their cell phones, leaving only one on at a time, until daylight and then had to leave. We pressed on.

Winter 1 - Plow 0
As we continued forward, we wove through some more disabled vehicles and just as we were about to exit onto Rte. 36 in Long Branch, we saw a sight we weren't ready for. We saw one of those behemoth DOT plow/salt trucks down the center median, disabled. It looked like a wounded hydraulic dinosaur. We stopped and looked and wondered aloud; "What the fuck are we doing out here? If they can't make it, what was I thinking?" This now began to resemble a "last man standing" contest. Our sense of self-preservation kicked into high gear and as we rode the exit ramp onto 36 East, we had passed at least a 1/2 dozen stranded motorists begging for help. "Please! Don't leave us here. Please." Their voices faded into our rear-view mirrors. They trudged through the snow, wrapped in all their winter gear with the sadness of a panhandler and the rigidity of a zombie. "Fuck this! We need to keep moving" we said. "We can either help them or help ourselves." Ourselves won. We pressed on.

As we reached 36, we thought; "This HAS to be plowed!" Boy were we wrong. Traffic ground to a halt and upon exiting the vehicle and walking a bit, one could see the bucket loaders desperately trying to open the intersection at Wyckoff Rd. and 36. We weren't going anywhere. So we got back into the warmth of the truck, and we smoked and drank water.

After about another 1/2 hour, traffic finally began to move. I was so thankful to be able to move forward, to somewhere - anywhere! I asked my young passenger where he lives and he told me Bath Ave. That was familiar, and I figured since it's an access road to a hospital, it HAS to be plowed! Wrong again. It was immoveable, but the local guys were working hard to open it up. We finally arrived at his apartment complex. He profusely thanked me then disappeared into the night. I was thankful for all his help and his cheerful company to allay my fears. I had completely given up on the idea of making a single dollar and just really wanted to go home, to a warm bed and a daughter's embrace. I could cry at this point. I pressed on.

As I hit the road again, I figured I'd head down Bath toward the hospital. I was suddenly met face to face with an armada of plow trucks that eclipsed mine. They looked like a military column making their way through a snowy desert. The foreman jumped out and ran up to me and said; "You've gotta back up brutha. I've got a disabled truck that lost its electric system and we've gotta move out!" I threw it in reverse and figured I'd just turn into one of the partially plowed side streets to get out of their way. Stuck again! Whizzzz, whizzzzzzzzz was all you could hear as I desperately tried to free myself - again. I was so done with this.

After more chopping, shoveling etc... I was finally freed again. It was now 3 or so in the morning. I continued down Bath Ave. toward Ocean Ave. figuring that Ocean Ave is a main artery through Long Branch, it HAS to be plowed!. Wrong again. I tried to assert the power of my truck, put down the blade and tried to press forward making my own good fortune! Stuck again! Right in the middle of Ocean Ave. about half way across. My truck was no match for this weather. Whizzzzz, whizzzzzzz! My tired wheels screeched in slippery protest. Forward and reverse, forward and reverse I went - or tried anyway. I could not press on.

A guy in a two wheel drive landscaper's truck finally helped me dig myself out but would not attempt to connect with a tow strap. I was thankful for his help, as I was of benevolent Nick earlier.
I did a 180 and got right back on Bath Ave. as I knew for sure it was now plowed. I figured I'd go right back out to 36 and head for the Parkway. The Parkway is a main artery that connects North and South Jersey and IT HAS TO BE PLOWED! I wouldn't find that out for hours. Traffic on 36 would stop for 30 minutes, then move up a car length. And so it went for the next I don't know how long. I got to the point of frustration and fatigue that I'd park the truck, go to sleep, wake up, move a few car lengths forward and repeat the process. This went on till well after daybreak. The part of 36 that either puts one back on 18 North or further to the Garden State Parkway was completely virgin snow, totally untouched by the hydraulic dinosaurs. The plows had not made it 1 inch beyond Wyckoff where we first began when we got off 18 earlier.

A little bit of navigation and I finally found my way onto the Garden State Parkway. It was a veritable obstacle course. Disabled transit buses, cars, DOT trucks, everything was paralyzed. I navigated through this debris field like Magellan through "The Estrecha de Todos los Santos" (today referred to as the Strait of Magellan). And finally, finally after about 14 hours, 75 bucks, a pack of smokes and a 1/2 tank of fuel, the Medic of La Mancha hobbled back to his castle, back to his bed and his daughter's embrace. He had - pressed on.

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