Brick and Mortar: Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Work

(Photo: Virginia Department of Transportation)(Photo: Virginia Department of Transportation)

In early February of 1978, the snow in Boston began to fall in the middle of the morning on a Monday, but nobody thought much of it. Meteorology then isn’t what it is now, and the weatherpeople on the local TV news shows had blown it on a couple of notable occasions earlier that winter, so when they reported a big storm on the horizon, their predictions were greeted with a collective shrug from the locals. The snow fell, and fell and fell, for the next 33 hours straight, delivering a white mountain straight from the sky. The city of Boston and every surrounding town were paralyzed, bricked, done. No one went to school, no one went to work, no one went to the store, nearly 100 people died and for a time in that February of 1978, a fair portion of New England ceased to exist.

And then the plow folks set their caps, boarded their trucks and went to work. Town employees, civil servants, they started their engines and dropped their plow blades in city after city, and town after town, and flat-out saved the day. A friend of mine was in charge of the snow removal process in her town. She did not sleep for days – nor did the people driving the machines – until the streets were cleared, sick people could get to their doctors, parents could get milk for their children and first responders could get to the injured. They did not stop until every city and town became functional again. Those people literally worked until they dropped … and then got up, brushed off the snow, and kept working. I know. I was there. I saw.

This past winter in New England was a dragon. It did not spit flame; it spit ice and snow just about every single damn day from October until May, and threw at least half a dozen major storms at us that each dropped multi-foot loads of snow on our heads. By March, the local weather reporter looked as if he’d been beaten with hard sticks, as if he wouldn’t particularly mind someone coming up behind him with a pistol to put a mercy round into the back of his head. I’m not kidding; the dude had bags under his eyes that were big enough to read “Samsonite.” It was a beast of a season, and the land needed so much time to recover that spring didn’t come until summer was (according to the calendar) already well begun.

… and every time, every single time, the plowers were there. No matter how belligerent the storm was, big or small, they were out with their blades down for hours, sometimes days, building towering snowbanks in the breakdown lanes and making the roads so clear you could eat off them. A guy I know rides herd over a municipal plowing team a few towns over, and there were times last winter when he just disappeared from the face of the earth. Teeth set, eyes clear, both hands on the wheel, he and his crew drove straight down the throat of storm after storm for exactly, precisely as long as it took to get the job done … and then people like me would emerge from the maelstrom to find cleared pavement, sanded and salted, and know we were safe.

I lean on the plowers because they are my heroes, ever since the “Blizzard of ’78.” A few centuries ago, that kind of storm would have wiped out whole townships, and when the melt finally came, all anyone would find was a bunch of frozen bodies and “ROANOKE” or whatever carved into a tree. Instead, an entire region was able to go back to work, go back to school, go to the hospital, everyone was simply able to go and do and be, because those civil servants dropped their blades and did not stop until they saw the blacktop.

There is a genuinely strange contingent in this part of the world that is tremendously politically active. Here in New Hampshire, local governing takes place and gets done in town hall meetings presided over by a clutch of elected selectmen, and when the warrant articles hit the table, decisions are made by the people who show up. This contingent has taken Reagan’s “government is the problem” maxim and injected it full of steroids. They want to do away with the fire department, the police department, the plowers who clear the snows, because they can take care of themselves, thank you very much, and if something bad happens to someone else, it’s God’s will.

These are the first people who will call 911, who will howl for help if their house catches fire, if they get robbed, if their garbage isn’t collected, or if they can’t get out of their driveway because three feet of snow fell the day and night before. It is an undistilled selfishness inspired by the national myth of the “rugged individual,” and the towering irony of it all is how this noise mostly comes from a pack of Jesus-shouters who allegedly read something in a Book about being their brother’s keeper.

When the cold white flies, the plowers drop those blades to get you home. Your parks are maintained, your water safety is checked, your power lines are maintained, and somewhere near where you lay your head, a band of brothers and sisters stand the watch and will come running hell bent for leather if you yell, “Fire!”

Civil servants, all. Government is not the problem. People who try to get political gigs by claiming government is the problem are the problem. These essential, devoted, entirely basic municipal workers break their backs to create and maintain this civil society. They often do it in the dark of night, while you sleep with the snow hissing against your window. They don’t sleep, so you can.

Remember that.