Today was the first snowstorm to hit NYC this winter season. It wasn’t much of a snowstorm, dumping a mere three-ish inches on the landscape, though up to six had been predicted. NYC doesn’t get regular vicious snowstorms but every so often we do get a nasty one, or a freakishly quick dump of snow. I grew up in an area with harsh winters; -40F temperatures and snowbanks taller than my father were typical. The snow started in October there, and could run through May. So in this climate I got used to driving on or near ice and snow, and never gave it much thought until one fateful day when I was a passenger in a car on a twisty two lane back road.
There’d been a bad snowstorm the night before, and I believe school had been cancelled locally, but this was the first year my parents took pity on us and sent us to private school. It was a boarding school (we were day students) so school was never cancelled due to weather. The year after this I would be a boarder at a different boarding school, but as day students we made the approximately 20 minute commute morning and afternoon to and from campus.
The road had been cleared and sanded, but at one point– I estimate we were going 60 mph (people drive fast on those back roads)– we traced one of the many curves when the car hit black ice and spun out of control. The car spun around like a vicious top when WHAM– we hit a tree or utility pole. I was astonished by the force of the impact. Propelled by this impact the car spun anew and hit something else (I later learned, an oncoming vehicle). Another WHAM with astonishing force. I remember wondering if this was what it was like to be in the vicinity of a detonated bomb. By this point my arms were instinctively wrapped over my head and by the third WHAM my life flashed before my eyes. I saw my birth, and seemingly every day up to that moment, like a deck of cards leafed through by a divine hand. We spun around some more and there were a few more lesser impacts. Then all was still.
I moved my toes, my fingers, felt my body for glass or blood. There was nothing. I looked at my sister next to me and asked if she was okay; she was. The I turned around to look at the backseat– which was empty– and saw that the entire back half of the car had been crushed in from all sides, the various windows crushed so forcefully that the broken glass resembled powder. A blinding fear went through my bones at that point, because under normal circumstances I would have been in that backseat, and it was pretty clear what state I’d be in had this day been a normal circumstance.
Typically we commuted with a neighbor who also attended the school; she liked to sit in the front and chat with my sister, since they were closer in age. This left me relegated to the backseat where I’d hurriedly finish up homework. But on that particular day our neighbor was sick with what would turn out to be a debilitating case of mononucleosis. I was alive at that moment, because of the chance event of her being sick. The randomness of this terrified me.
And thus began my fear of driving in snow. If there is even one flake of snow flitting down from the sky I feel the old terror of that day. So it was with great anxiety that I awaited today’s predicted snowfall, clearing and re-clearing the driveway, counting the minutes until the snow plow arrived, and driving out the three miles to pick up the kids with the gravity of entering a war zone.
There were always sad stories in our town come winter. One year, one of my mother’s students was killed by a snowplow that didn’t see him sledding. I still get a haunted, empty feeling whenever I see a snowplow barreling along. He’d be a few years younger than me today, most likely a meth head living in a trailer, because that was the kind of town where my mom first taught when we moved to New England. It was a one room schoolhouse filled with the generationally inbred offspring of rednecks. Not that there’s anything wrong with rednecks.