Snowbound! Christmas, 1978
I spent Christmas, 1978, shoveling. All Christmas Day. I was a junior in high school and it set a precedent. The following year I worked 8 hours Christmas Day washing dishes. In the years that followed I worked Christmas Days and nights and sometimes overnights at a hotel desk, sorting mail or on-air as a broadcaster. Before I turned 16 in 1978 Christmas was always a day to spend with family and to be truthful I did spend it with family. Working on clearing snow. Christmas Eve was spent at my Uncle Louie’s house in Bolivar. The winter had been mild and on the 24th through the hours of sunlight you could look out windows and see green grass. Winters in Western New York State had been especially brutal in the 1970s. In late January of 1977 a blizzard and bone-chilling-cold had closed schools for two weeks. At the time we were living at the top-of-a-hill and at the bottom was an old canal. For two weeks I ignored algebra and spent the time playing hockey. One of my last childhood winters.
December 1978 had been mild and there were few complaints about the weather in a place where you often trick-or-treat in boots and snow pants. Sometimes it snows on Mother’s Day. In June of 1972 my hometown celebrated a 150th anniversary and I remember during the parade my dad wore his topcoat.
I loved my Uncle’s place. It was in his warm living room on a holiday just a few years earlier we had watched Clint Longley come off the bench and destroy the Washington Redskins. It was a house filled with smells of warm pies, laughter and extended family. As we were leaving the afternoon of December 24th now 37 years ago it began to snow. Large flakes. Heavy and wet and we cruised over Jordan Hill but as we left West Clarksville for the last seven miles home the car couldn’t climb to the top.
My dad mainly drove Chrysler products and his brother drove Buicks. That winter my dad had bought an old Ford LTD for the season and while it was a heavy car it needed some momentum for some jobs. The old man was driving much faster the second time when we cleared the hill. Thankfully, coming down the other side we didn’t have anyone blocking us. Stopping would’ve required steering off the road and into an embankment. At home late that night we watched Tom Jolls doing the weather outside on WKBW-TV. He was being pelted with snow and predicted 18 inches before it ended. Maybe 18 inches in Buffalo near the lakeshore. Fifty some miles away the elevation rises quickly before the hills roll across the state line into Pennsylvania. In explaining the terrain I often ask people if they watched the film the Deer Hunter. It gives you a feel for the sharp inclines.
We slept late Christmas morning. I woke at 8:00 o’clock when I heard the telephone ringing. As I listened to my dad’s muffled voice talking on the line I looked outside. There was very little LTD visible. The snow was above the hood. The picnic table had vanished. The sky had cleared and for a brief moment I marveled at the picture. “Dad, the car’s buried!” I shouted.
We were living at the time in a house that was about 60 feet from front-porch-to-back-porch. From the front porch there was probably close to 30 feet to the street. Behind the house it was another 30 feet to the garage and there was a wide parking area between the porch and the garage. Snow was waist high. My brother and I worked with dad and started clearing a path. Eventually our instructor went inside and handled some other chores. There would still be a Christmas dinner for the few who might actually venture to drive. As a team the Colley brothers could clear a lot of snow. It’s how we made our quarters during the winter. We used to shovel the sidewalk at the Law mansion on the corner of West Main and Mill Streets. Mr. Law liked it that we didn’t just shovel a path but cleared the sidewalk from edge-to-edge and down to the pavement. The driveway was another matter. It was loose gravel. It took an entire day to move the upper layers of snow and then gently remove as much as you could without shoveling away stones. To complicate matters the driveway had barriers. House on one side and a row of overgrown lilac bushes that ran from the garage and up about two thirds of the way to the street before stopping beside a large pine tree. We would lift a shovel of snow and then carry it back down the driveway, across the parking area and then dump it on the back lawn. Lift and repeat. Lift and repeat. When we finally finished we were drenched in sweat and melted snow and it was late in the day. Inside we went and warmed with hot chocolate and exchanged gifts.
My brother and I weren’t close in the sense most brothers are. Not by the time we were teenagers, however. We did recognize what the other liked. His present for me was a Steve Martin album. My present for Matt was a Steve Martin album. My dad claimed not to like Steve Martin but sat there with us laughing as we warmed up and listened to the comedian. It’s probably why I can still remember those jokes even today. “It’s as if those French have a different word for everything!”
I went for a walk that night around town. Christmas night, 37 years ago. The streets were safe for walking. The plows had been busy all day but a great many people were still snowbound at home. When you walk the silent streets of a small town insulated in a thick blanket there are sounds you would never otherwise hear. Walking by the old Quaker State gas station I heard a strange swinging noise. It was the sign, rocking in the breeze. Hundreds and hundreds of times I’d walked by the same sign and it was the first sound I ever recalled it made. You could look up and down Main Street, lights glowing, snow piled several feet high in every direction and for a brief moment in time, stars twinkling and almost complete silence, appreciate Christmas and a force greater than all our daily challenges.