To Survive Snow Duty

John Tormey

Socks are important. Socks keep feet warm. Cold, wet feet are bad news. Avoid that at all costs. Same goes for the hands, the face, but especially the feet. Layers are also important, but don’t go nuts. Only rookies bury themselves in regular clothes.

This is the proper sequence: underwear (any kind), longjohns (get the expensive stuff, always), then thick canvas pants or fleece-lined jeans. Find a pair that fit a little bit loose. You want a thin cushion of warmed air to circulate between layers as you move. Buy a pair of snowpants a couple sizes larger than a regular pair, because that’s the only way to keep the pants, and your legs, dry. For up top, it goes like this: thermal, T-shirt, hoodie, jacket. A mask to shield your mouth and nose from temperatures measured in negative figures, a hat to trap the entropic heat determined to escape.

Your shit will always get wet. Doubt this at your peril. Make the investment, spend the money, stay dry. Buy the expensive socks. $14, $20 a pair, don’t let the numbers scare you. The boots I wear in the snow and cold cost $270. Boots keep feet dry. You live on your feet at work. Take care of everything, you’ll need it all.

That’s what this’ll be about: how to assemble a shield.

Keep as close to home as possible. Slick roads are as deadly as a loaded gun. My first tour of snow duty, I lucked out. It was a twenty-minute drive from my city apartment to the headquarters in a sleepy beach town on the south shore; when it got slow I’d drive the truck down to the little harbor ringed with seafood restaurants and bars and expensive shops. I’d sip a coffee and watch the fishermen paint their boats, tinker with the engines, repair broken traps. Really chill spot, isolated and quiet. When I moved, the ride stretched out to an hour each way, so I haven’t gone back. Too much money spent on gas, too much time in the car, too much of my brain blanking out to sports radio and lefty podcasts. Too much alone.

Whoever thinks they have that kind of time to waste will look back from his deathbed and see nothing but a steering wheel and some godforsaken highway, watery with fog and mist, the cars all manned by ghosts, cursed specters caught in an evening commute that never ends.

Storms can hit whenever. The short sunny hours after lunch, the black heart of night, an overcast dawn of heavy clouds painted pink, the warning from the old rhyme. One long storm might mean an extra sixteen, twenty, or thirty-six hours of OT. That makes for heavy paychecks, a boon after fallow autumns, a streak of several forty-hour weeks piled one of top of the other, upcoming Christmas purchases and heating bills burning hot at the base of the skull.

It’s important to remember that despite the money, snow duty will extract a price all its own. The hours spent in the cold, the wear inflicted by muscling thousands of pounds of snow, the subtraction of quality years from the end of life by the lack of sleep. It’s a palpable cost, felt deepest in the ankles, elbows, knees, the memory. Any point of connection.

The word “duty” is derived from the word “due.” “Due” traces its origins back to the old French deu. Both source and derivation share the same meaning: that which is owed. A duty isn’t a responsibility to be fulfilled, it is a debt that must be repaid. If a boss tries feeding you a less etymologically accurate version of this bullshit, tell them to go pound sand. The only debt accrued on the job is the debt your boss owes you.

Management wants the station platforms clear before the first train leaves the layover in the morning. No slips, no falls, no lawsuits by passengers.

We use two trucks to move the men and the equipment: the shovels, the pallets of snow-melt salt, the Kubota with a plow on the front strapped to a trailer that is attached by a hitch to the truck.

Hope the guy who operates the machine has handles. If he’s good, he’ll be able to move away most of the accumulation. If not… it’ll be a long, punishing shift. Whoever isn’t in the machine is on the ground, armed with shovels. Once the storm is winding down, we fill spreaders with two or three fifty-pound bags of melt and cast the crystals anywhere feet may tread.

You’ll feel the first couple storms in your calves, hamstrings, lats, delts and the palms of your hands. Keep ibuprofen in your lunchbag and don’t freak out—being sore means they need you. We conjure our value with the flex of our legs, back, shoulders and arms, by the strain of meat, tendon, blood and bone. What stretches and contracts beneath skin and hair.

In the early years, I tried to nap between each pass. The old-timers watched TV in the shanty or smoked cigarettes in the truck as snow piled on the windshield. It took me a while to admit the naps would never come.

These days, I usually sit in my car, read novels by long-dead Russians, and sneak beers out of a travel cooler I keep on the floor in front of the passenger seat. If the storm is particularly relentless, a blizzard or Nor’easter, I’ll shut myself in the foreman’s office, kill the lights and stretch out on the old couch, arm slung over my eyes, barely awake but not dreaming, aware of the murmur of the TV in the other room and the rattling of the small windows in their sills with every gust of wind, all without really listening.

It’s important to find your limits and adapt, is what I mean. Since I can’t find sleep a few hours at a time, I pretend I’ll make it up at some faraway date that will never come. We all find our own path through gales and drifts, cold snaps and heavy rain, heat waves and sunstroke, the exhaustion, the despair and the violent impulses those inspire. It takes time. You forge your way through or throw up your hands and find something else to do. No one likes a quitter, but everyone forgets and moves on, eventually. There are only so many choices.

After one storm, I woke up to my wife rubbing my arms and legs. She said I kept groaning in my sleep, and only stopped when she started grinding her knuckles into the flesh of my shoulders and thighs. She pushed me upright and told me to go to the bathroom and take some pills. My knees almost buckled as I shuffled down the dark hallway. My grandfather survived a world war, years at the shipyard, more years of hockey and drinking. His knees didn’t break down until he was in his sixties. I was thirty-nine years old.

If you did school, especially if you graduated, most coworkers, friends and family will think this job is an unfortunate tumble through a crack in the economic order. They aren’t exactly wrong. What we all understand but rarely say aloud is those cracks are the order now, and most of us have fallen through. This is a union gig, so we fall a little slower than average. But don’t worry. It won’t be long before we catch up and hit bottom with everyone else. 

Until then, find some comfort in that, while those office-dwellers might be safe, shielded from the attacks waged by the surging, confused climate, we trade that security for contact with the living world on the other side of ceilings and walls.

I have seen steam rising from the waters of a harbor at daybreak during a vicious cold snap. I’ve heard the boom and crack of tree trunks exploding as the frozen sap inside quickly expands. I’ve felt thunder rumble deep in my ribcage as I sheltered under the canopy on a station platform, my skin slick with sweat after changing a broken rail in the lurid heat of a summer night, and witnessed, through a torrent of warm rain, as an arc of lightning reached down from the black, roiling heavens and touched an antenna atop of one of the state college buildings on the other side of the tracks, reducing it to a blue flash and orange sparks.

But most days are boring as fuck. The longer you’re here, the less you can tell one from the next. Time melts to a crawl. Lock away the odd moments, turn them into hidden treasure, rare stones polished to shine. Take them out, hold them tight and close in your mind whenever melancholy and tedium threaten to crash down, drag you out, carry you far away from shore.

Keep in mind this is a war no one wins. Nobody gets a medal on the last day for heroics performed in the line of duty. The battle is to stay in one piece until you can’t. We break and break and break until we shatter, and then we’re gone. ♦



John Tormey lives in Massachusetts with his wife and three kids. For his day job he works as a union track laborer. His writing has previously appeared in The Baffler, Riverteeth, and Hobart. These days he’s trying to find time to write a book. 

Cover image: Workers clear snow on a train platform in New York. Edited. Original photo by Mark Hermann licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

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