The Parable of the Snow Shovel

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Which would you choose? For me it was always between the deep or the wet.

It happened at least three times a week, for months on end. No matter how I schemed it seemed that I got the short end of the stick. Or maybe all three ends were short ends. And my two brothers? Well, their choices were short sticks, too.

In upstate New York, you see, it snows. A lot. And for a very long time. Especially near the Lake. Okay, so it wasn’t Lake Erie, the legendary Lake Erie. Here near Lake Ontario we actually did get to the bottom of the snow most days. Over there, the teenage boys never had a chance. Yeah, the teenage boys. No, it wasn’t girls or booze or drugs or cars that broke them. It was the snow.

You see, we had a driveway. It wasn’t a long driveway – maybe a hundred fifty feet or so. And it ran from the street (of course), along the side of the house and into the back yard where it dead-ended at the garage. Did you catch that? The garage was at the back end, furthest point from the street. And since Dad had to get out five days a week or more, that driveway had to be cleared of snow all the way from the street to the garage. And we were the three lucky souls who got it done.

“Fifty feet apiece,” you say? “How tough can that be?”

Well, it isn’t tough the first time it snows. Or the second time. Or even the third time, as long as that third time isn’t before school starts like the first two times are. I mean, there’s got to be some break so you can get a decent breakfast before trudging off to classes. But it is tough the eighth, ninth and tenth times, and every time after that. It gets tougher for a variety of reasons. First, you get more pissed off at Nature every time. Second, you get more pissed off at your brothers, because their sections seem easier than yours. Third, you get more pissed off at Dad for being too cheap to buy a snow blower like Old Man McGovern next door. And fourth, you get further and further behind in the strength department, as meanwhile the snow gets piled higher and higher.

Higher and higher because (a) it keeps snowing, and (b) because there’s nowhere to put the snow further than one shovel’s throw away.

It starts with the choosing.  You see, we had a driveway – you knew that. And this driveway, well, we had to divide it up into three sections, since there were three of us.  Each of those sections had reasons going for it, and reasons going against it. The first section was from the street to the front corner of the house. Nice wide front lawn and the neighbor’s front lawn – plenty of room for throwing snow. If you were smart, you’d be flinging the year’s first snows as far to the east and to the west as you could, just to make room for the next batch.  Hopefully the wind wasn’t too bad most times, what with the trees along the street and the hedgerow across the front lawn.  But then there was that damned snow plow! No matter when you started, no matter how well you carved your way through the bank it had pushed up through the night’s snow fall, it wasn’t enough.  You’d just about get to the corner of the house, when here would come that damned – DAMNED! – snow plow again, and cascade one hundred feet of the street’s snow back inside our driveway!  I mean, all that snow from the corner of Old Man McGovern’s driveway, across his lot, would find its narrow portal at our drive.  And you know what snow is like with a good measure of road salt and sand mixed in?  Not fun to lift and fling, I can tell you that!

The second section was pretty tame. No wind, no snow plow, not even as long as the first and the third section.  Somehow the youngest brother got this piece more often than he should’ve. How hard could it be to clear forty feet or so only one lane wide?  The answer isn’t as plain as you think it is.  Remember that there’s a house on one side – no room for snow there.  And there’s those ‘beloved’ lilac bushes all along the other side – no room for snow there either.  When I got that stretch, I would gladly have taken more room to throw in exchange for more snow to blow. Cut, stoop, slice, lift, carry, trudge, dump, and tromp back for the next chunk. You couldn’t even get a decent rhythm going. And who can throw snow over the top of lilacs?

The third section, well, the third section was the one for solitude and something close to isolation. No snow plows. No canyon of pain between house and hedge. Just wind, and a driveway wide enough for three cars. Sure you had room in the back yard and in McGovern’s back yard, but you had three times as much snow to donate. At least it was three times as much as the man in the middle, and maybe only two times as much as the man in the front, what with the plow and all. The problem was the wind. Cutting across at least three neighbors’ lots, it was a reliable source of extra flakes. Lots of flakes. I’d pray that the snow would be wet, even if it made it heavier, just so I wouldn’t be lifting snow from everyone else’s yard, too.

So that was the choice. If it had snowed at twenty degrees every time, it would have been manageable. But it didn’t, and then you had to factor in the snow itself in making the choice. Was it crusty on top? That meant breaking through and carrying off the crust before chomping through the powder underneath. On the really nice days it rained a gentle mist while you shoveled and there would be more than one crust to deal with.

Was it warm and wet all the way through? Then you had to cut little baby servings, hardly enough to fill the shovel. And you couldn’t just fling them out sideways – launching those massive missiles across the lawn!  No, because they wouldn’t come loose from the shovel. Argghhhh!  Lift, lug, lower, lean, labor.  You had to kick that snow off to make it go away. 

Or was it light and fluffy all way down? Not likely. For sure there was a crust on the bottom, like a pie left too long in the oven. Or it could have been from that impatient father who just had to drive out earlier than we awoke, and cranked those wheels right down through to make a trail of frozen white tar. Either way if you were the shoveler you had to cut and carve that thing until it finally relented and let loose of the asphalt, scrap by scrap.

Usually that guy was the last one outside, whaling away at that impenetrable mass, wishing for a harpoon instead of a worn aluminum shovel (By the way, did you know that it’s impossible to sharpen a snow shovel? We tried.)  Why bother with that last inch of compressed ice, you ask? You need to know that if you don’t remove that last inch, then the next time it snows and someone drives over it, it will have another “last inch” on top of it!  Like cooking again in a dirty sauce pan, it would be more fun than ever to clean.

One last thing: did I mention the cold? Oh, and the darkness in the morning and in the evening? I suppose that’s “two last things”, but you really need to imagine them to complete the picture. Cold isn’t like cold in Virginia, and certainly not like what they call ‘cold’ in California. Cold in upstate New York near the Lake is when you have to cover your nose before you forget you have one. And you have to wear more than two pairs of socks for a shot at ten toes. When it wasn’t cold, on a sunny day, maybe it got over thirty-two. That wasn’t usually a good thing, though, because that spun sugar would turn into yesterday’s mashed potatoes. And ‘sunny’?  Sunny is only good if you’re a person who doesn’t need to see anything indoors.

The darkness, I suppose, was kept at bay somehow by the ending of Daylight Savings Time. It ended about the start of snow season, and then changed back at the end of the season, too. I don’t remember there being any daylight gained, though. It was as black as a coal bin in the morning, and almost as bad before dinner. I guess those boys down south got the benefit of our extra hours of daylight.

With so much fun involved, and such a great lesson for life, why do I remember it so vividly? I moved away from that stuff as soon as I was old enough. When my two brothers followed me, Dad finally bought a pickup truck and a snow plow. He had to be careful when in Section #2 not to slice off the siding or the lilac bark, but he got rid of that snow pretty neatly by pushing it into the street. The city plow grabbed hold of it and sent it on into the neighbor’s driveway.

What did we learn from all of that white stuff, my brothers and I? First, we learned that sometimes there isn’t a good choice from three straws.

You can use that advice even in an election. You just have to pick one and get on with it. Second, we learned that usually you just have to do what you’re told. It didn’t matter if we didn’t like it, or thought it was a crappy job, or even if we said as much out loud. You can use that when your boss crowds your cubicle doorway. Third, we learned that it didn’t matter if the weather sucked. Dad still had to go to work, we had to go to school, and the driveway needed shoveling. You can use that one when you wake up and it’s raining, or when you wake up and someone you love is gone. The driveway still needs shoveling.

This story was originally written in 2005