Have You Ever Wanted to Drive a Snowplow?
We’re having ourselves a snowy winter in Fulton. The season is barely half over and we’ve already measured more than 110 inches of the white stuff. That’s a lot of shoveling and snow blowing, and our sore backs are proof of it. It’s also a lot of snow to clear from the over fifty miles of streets in our city.
Plowing Fulton’s streets is the job of the men and women who work for Fulton’s Department of Public Works. I’ve always been curious what it’s like to sit atop one of those mammoth plows, which seem to effortlessly push aside several feet of snow during our area’s infamous lake-effect storms. Thanks to the Fulton Library’s Memoir Project, I got to learn what snowplowing is really like.
No, I didn’t actually climb into a city snowplow, but one of our Memoir Project contributors did: Jo Ann Butler. Jo Ann, an accomplished writer and author of several books, not only has a way with words, but she’s also willing to go the extra mile to get her story, and in 2015, she proved just how willing she was.
That year’s Memoir Project’s theme focused on the community services that help protect and care for our city. We were looking for firefighters, police officers, elected officials and other community servants to tell their stories of supporting Fulton. While we were brainstorming ideas for the theme, I was in the middle of writing a book about The Blizzard of ’66 and snow was on my mind. During the process of researching the blizzard, I’d talked with several Oswego County snowplow drivers who shared stories of what it was like to be at the wheel during that record-breaking storm. I thought it would be great to get a Fulton snowplow driver to tell us their story of what it’s like to plow for a city that averages 175 inches of snow a year. (That’s over fourteen feet!) I mentioned my idea to Jo Ann, who, without hesitation, agreed to pursue it.
Shortly after that, Jo Ann and Betty Mauté, who was then the Library’s director, approached the city of Fulton with our request. Jo Ann was put in contact with C. J. Smith, of the city’s DPW, to ask if she could learn about snowplowing. Soon she found herself in the wingman’s seat of a plow, riding along with city employee Chris Manford. Here’s how Jo Ann described that experience:
“The plow handlers I met are tough, hardy guys, who test their bodies, steel blades, and massive force against snow and ice on a daily basis. The driver uses his leviathan [the dictionary defines leviathan as “a thing that is very large or powerful”] like a Bumper Car From Hell to clear intersections or widen streets. It’s a rough ride under the best of conditions. If the blade catches a curb, manhole, or break in the pavement, 46,000 pounds of plow stops cold. Absorbing each shock takes a terrific toll on both trucks and crewmen, including sheared blade mounts, concussions and broken bones.”
Jo Ann got her snowplowing lesson just like any new DPW worker, by serving as a wingman. Lesson number one was figuring how to get up into the plow’s cab. “The wing blade tucks up against the passenger door, so the driver drops the wing to let you climb aboard,” Jo Ann explained. “It comes down in front of you like King Kong’s straight razor. You can duck under the blade or step on top, and up into the cab. Either way, the seat is more than head-high to me.”
As wingman, Jo Ann got a good taste of what plow drivers experienced: “Dials, toggles, and buttons sprawl the width of the dashboard, and Chris Manford shows me the tricks of operating the biggest vehicle I’ve ever been in. In front, the one-way blade scrapes a swath of snow 15’ wide from the pavement. The wing blade is deployed to shove as much snow as possible over the curb line, leaving room for more blizzards to come. Because the driver can’t see the passenger side, the wingman’s vital job is to maneuver his blade around parked cars and other obstacles.”
Though most of us have never sat on the top of a snowplow, we’ve all watched one go down our street or road, and Jo Ann also wrote about the frustration we sometimes feel as it sweeps by our house: “Believe it or not, plow drivers really aren’t out to crush mail boxes, but many suffer that fate anyway, thrust askew as the snow compacts. Both driver and wingman keep their eyes on pedestrians and people clearing their driveways. A few cranks throw their shovels at plows. Some refuse to move their blowers, hoping the driver will circumvent them. The plow driver is careful as can be, but a few snowblowers have been completely buried. Regretful, but the show must go on because the snow will go on. The streets must be cleared, and nobody does it better than Fulton’s DPW.”
And nobody steps up to the challenge of writing a memoir better than Jo Ann Butler. Over the five years the library has been collecting stories for the Memoir Project, Jo Ann has contributed four times, and in each of her stories you will find expressive writing and passion for her topic. Her dedication to getting the memories just right is as impressive as the cleared Fulton streets after a big storm – only made possible by our city’s plow drivers.