Black Ice by
50
(76 Stories)

Prompted By Weather

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Weather has played a dramatic role in my life. I grew up in rural New England, where the weather determined whether you could go to school, bale hay, play soccer, swim, ski, or skate. Weather created an intensity and wildness to life when family routines and the predictability of school threatened asphyxiation.

The wheel felt woozy in my hands and the truck began to float.

Weather meant drama: the eerie drop in pressure and the darkening summer skies that signaled an approaching thunderstorm, the snap of the first fall mornings, the intimacy of Indian summer, standing on a ladder picking after-school apples with a canvas bag slung across your chest, hearing voices carry from the next orchard with intimate clarity on the autumn air. The cold, metallic tang, barely perceptible, that signaled an approaching snow, the crystaline stillness brought on by twenty-six below.

I built my own barometer in my father’s Boston University laboratory, using mercury, that mysterious silver liquid, and a glass tube set into an adjustable brass reservoir that I milled and threaded on my old man’s South Bend lathe. I was thrilled to watch the barometer’s fall with the approach of a storm, in an instrument of my own making.

We lived next to a meteorologist and his son and we studied with him as we waited for the approach of winter. We cut ski trails into the hillsides behind the houses. Maples, oaks, and birches became our slalom poles and we skied at night, kamikaze style, when the moon turned the snow and ice phosphorescent.

I read stories of young men at sea, toiling in the boiler rooms of limey tramp steamers that plunged through the slate gray bluffs of the North Atlantic or knifed through the torpid oily flats of a becalmed Indian Ocean. My old man had been a sailor and I dreamt of navigating with charts, sextons, and gimbaled compasses as the oceans of air met sea currents, creating weather of all imaginable hues and intensities from a clear, navy-gray winter day to a night blown black by the violence of a gale.

But life is real, and, although I did not want for adventure, I never shipped out as a navigator, mate, able-bodied seaman (ABS), or even a lowly apprentice oiler. I did, however, in the madness of antiwar resistance, take to the hills. So great was my enthusiasm for flight that I dragged my girlfriend and her two children, two dogs, and one turtle beyond the foothills to the mountains proper, where we lay our heads down at 9450 feet above sea level on the eastern slope of the Colorado Rockies.

There, the winter began with snow blown through a blue sky across the knife edge of the Continental Divide. The winter wind could lift the corner of a wooden frame house off its foundations and set it back down with a ‘clunk.’ Snow conditions changed with factors of season, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure. We lived in the weather and it impacted our daily lives. Did we have enough wood split for cooking and hot water? Coal enough for the cast iron monsters that warmed us and covered the house in black dust and a light, greasy film of soot.

Most of the time we kept ahead of it. The kids would soldier up the hill, leaning into the wind to catch the school bus that took them along the Peak to Peak highway to the district school. My partner leaned into the winter in her parka, long johns and jeans and neither rain nor snow nor sleet would keep her from serving as mistress of the town’s post office. I added to all the snow driving tricks I had learned in New England. I could head out of Boulder with four inches of snow on the roads, throw the biggest rock I could lift into the back of the pickup for traction and make it up Left Hand Canyon’s nasty grade without having to stop and put on chains. I could maneuver a forest service six-by down switch backed, red-dirt fire roads, fill the tank full of creek water and roar back to the fire line without a hitch. And there was black ice.

Mountain highways tend to gain and lose altitude as much as they curve left and right. In the fall and spring, the temperature rides a ragged edge. Rain turns to snow and back again, making a white-and-tarmac ribbon of even well-maintained highways. A truck-rattling wind might blow you sideways so that you turn into the wind, always in reaction to the arbitrary madness of the violent gusts. Conversely, a gentle breeze might blow up the canyons in early spring, wafting a gentle mist across your windshield, ethereal, like a morning dew.

That same mist can settle gently on the road in the relative warmth of an April night. The mist might descend over the landscape, bowing the branches of the conifers, crusting the remaining snow. The tarmac, if it had been sun-warmed during the day, might still hold enough heat to keep the mist wet as it settled on the road. There were so many variables.

One morning, the kids missed the bus at the top of the hill. The three of us, Jake, Jossy, and me, clambered into the pickup and ground up the hill to the Peak to Peak highway. I knew the road well and we rolled along, the heater warming the cab, the three of us goofing about school and the dogs and their stupid antics.

Recently a sheriff’s patrol car had gone mysteriously straight at a long, sweeping downhill bend. The brake marks had remained where the cop’s Bronco had shot between two of the sturdy posts that marked the curve’s outer edge. Almost deliberately, it seemed, they plunged over the edge onto the boulders below. The two troopers had survived but the Bronco had been obliterated on the rocks. We never found out what happened. They wouldn’t even confide in our town deputy about the accident.

Thus far, the road had been rain-wet, the air misty. The kids remarked that the fog reminded them of San Francisco and wondered if we were going to go back soon. While we climbed up the long, wet grade before Sheriff’s Bronco Hill, I pondered when we would return to California. It had been good to get distance from San Francisco and the drawn-out paranoia of war resistance. It was a welcome change to work with my hands and we had made friends. But it had been a long winter and hard on the kids. They liked the mountains, but they weren’t wild about the chores and the winter hardships. Hauling water and wood and coal, having to use an outhouse, even in a windstorm. “I don’t know, guys,” I said. “I think…”

I topped the hill and we began the long, straight descent to the curve. I felt a wave of nausea leap from stomach to throat. The wheel felt woozy in my hands and the truck began to float. Black ice. It looked just like the wet pavement we had hummed over until we topped the grade. The gentle wind had kept the road wet along the southern exposure but beyond the crest, we faced northern exposure. The highway’s surface temperature dropped.

Time dissembled.

If I hit the brakes, they would lock up, and we would skate. The kids went silent. I tried to coax the front wheels into the long downhill turn. No luck. We kept gliding straight toward the outside of the curve. I shifted down and the rear wheels locked up. Stupid! I and pulled the kids to my side with my right arm. Seat belts wouldn’t become mandatory for another dozen years.

My left hand grasped the useless wheel. I caught a glimpse of the bouldered slope below. I heard the rattle of gravel roadside. The truck jerked sideways as it hit the gravel, and thunk! We tipped, hung there, and flopped back down on four wheels.

Silence.

My heart pounded. My throat hurt. My head ached.

“Everybody okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

I opened the driver’s side door. The roadside fell away to the boulders. I closed it.

“Open the door, Jake.”

We scooted out the passenger side and lined up on the gravel verge, shivering. I hoped another vehicle wouldn’t come over the ridge, bust through the mist, and slide into us. Together, all three of us walked around the back of the truck.

“Holy moly.” Jake pointed at the side of the truck. The pickup bed had curled around one of the squat, sturdy posts sunk into the roadside. No cables connected them. Another few feet and we would have nosed between two of the sentinels and crashed down the slope.

After an eternity, our hearts slowed. The sun broke through the mist and the black ice disappeared into a devilish steam rising off the tarmac. Gingerly, I climbed back into the truck, and backed it away from the savior post and onto the pavement. My hands felt greasy, sweaty.

The kids clambered in. We sat there, dumbly, staring out the window together.

After a while I turned to them. “What do ya think, guys. You wanna go to school or you wanna go home?”

“Home,” they said in unison.

I still love weather, the drama of its unpredictability, the power that puts life into perspective, the madness of its intensity, its peace, tranquility, and balance. But in that moment, the weather had got just a little too damned dramatic.

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Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

Visit Author's Website



Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Suzy says:

    Wow, what a story! You sure do know how to write! The first part about the weather in New England, and building your own barometer, was perfect for this prompt in its own right, but then — taking us into the Colorado mountains with their treacherous black ice! And your truck ride with the two kids where you almost went off the cliff! My heart was in my mouth as I read it, wondering how you could possibly survive. Thank you so much for this amazing adventure!

  2. John Shutkin says:

    I wish I could find a word better than Suzy’s, but I can’t. So just, again, “Wow!” The rendering of the weather and the environs is just breathtaking — you ever consider being a writer? — and I was awed by your collection of perfect, and perfectly placed, words.

    And, despite the first-person narrative making the likelihood of your own fatality pretty minimal, your description of the truck ride had me totally in your grasp; I was convinced that you were going to “go Bronco” at any moment.

    Thanks for bringing weather, and your relationship with it, so vividly to life. Again, wow.

  3. This is lyrical, Charles (besides being scary as hell). As I read I had a powerful recollection of Russell Baker, one of my all time favorites. A pleasure to read.

    • Thanks, Tom. You’ve evoked a heady combination with hellish yet lyrical fear and the recollection of Russell Baker! Jeez!Baker’s life and times figure strong in my past (my grandfather was a journalist) despite my earlier, doctrinaire suspicion of all things NYTimes at a time when Baker was most prominent. Thanks on all counts for your comments.

      • You’re welcome, Charles. Thinking about Baker prompted me to do a quick search to find the particular column that sparked the memory. Not too difficult: Summer Beyond Wish, which appeared July 4, 1978. If you Google Russell Baker Pulitzer Prize you’ll find it.

        • Summer Beyond Wish: Beautiful piece, Tom, Thanks. Striking how completely and deeply he covered a day in rural life within a columnist’s constraints. I think Baker likened his work to writing in a phone booth. We remember, don’t we Tom? Phone booths? Thanks again.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    This is a beautifully written story. I love your vivid descriptions of weather and empathized with the terror you must have felt as a parent navigating the black ice.

  5. Marian says:

    Incredible images, Charles. Your story brought us right there with you. Talk about heart pounding. Imagine trying to explain black ice to my then boyfriend, a California native, as we drove in the Rockies near Copper Mountain. I soon took the wheel after he asked, “What do you mean don’t stomp on the brakes?” Thanks much for this narrative!

    • Thank you, Marian. Can’t think of a better result than dragging my readers through doom, terror, and paralysis ;-)! California drivers can be annoyingly clueless can’t they? It’s the worst here in Southern California, where drivers hit the brakes at the first hint of rain!

  6. Betsy Pfau says:

    A stunning piece of writing, Charles. Great story, but more than that, human drama, well-told. You had all our hearts pounding.

    I had my own encounter with black ice, years ago, on the Mass Pike west bound, probably 18 or 20 years ago now, one January morning. Thank goodness there was not a lot of traffic, as I was at high speed and one wheel lost traction, I was thrown out of control, crossing multiple lanes, crashed first my left front bumper against the guard rail (driving a BMW 540i stick shift), then careened across three lanes of traffic, hit the right front of corner of the car against the opposing guard rail, spun 180 degrees and hit the left rear bumper, hit my forehead on the steering wheel, cutting it slightly (I was wearing my seat belt).

    Lots of drama with the State Trooper followed (he gave me a ticket for “crossing the lanes illegally”. When I questioned him, he said, “someone has to pay for the guard rails”, as I’m strapped on a stretcher being hauled away in an ambulance. If I’m found at fault, then my insurance pays, if not at fault, the state pays. I fought the ticket and won.

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