A few weeks back I mentioned a New Jersey “anti-blizzard,” but I only told part of the story.
In a blizzard, snow is driven horizontally by high wind, but in a New Jersey anti-blizzard, there’s almost no wind. In the one I talked about a few weeks ago, the wind was zero and the thermometer hung at 32 degrees, just barely freezing.
Sounds kinda sorta harmless, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t ...
I watched the snow fall that night from my third story apartment in Trenton. It was beautiful. Large flakes floated down through the bright yellow circle beneath the streetlight across the road. It had already been snowing for three hours before I noticed it and Trenton was slowly disappearing under a soft, white blanket. I watched for quite a while. By the time I went back to the television set, the snow was a foot deep and beginning to build up on the power and telephone lines across the street.
A little after midnight, I switched off the set and went back for another look. The street below had been transformed into a scene from a Christmas card.
Gone was the line of parked cars, replaced by huddled white shapes. Sidewalks were knee-deep in the white stuff, and getting deeper. The road had not been plowed, and moving vehicles had followed each other through the deep stuff, creating two sets of deep, narrow ruts.
I opened the window to take a better look, watching as a car came down the street following the narrow ruts. The only sound I heard was the faint crunch of packed snow under its tires.
You should have seen the phone and power lines! Heavy snow had heaped itself up into thin, foot-high sheets that teetered on narrow wires in the dead calm.
Except when a car passed, it was totally silent on the street. A scene of serene beauty.
But as I watched, I saw the downside to all that beauty. A power line across the street snapped, dropping its heavy load of snow, which cascaded down like a white waterfall. With the snow came the high-tension wire itself, whipping through the air as it rebounded from the sudden loss of tension. It hit the wet deep snow with a loud crack of blue sparks, and in less than five minutes, as I watched, it melted a foot-wide trench in the snow near the vehicle tracks on the other side of the street. And there it sat, at the bottom of its trench, hissing and crackling as it ignited the asphalt, which melted and began to burn over a stretch of 25 feet, casting a sullen orange glow over the snow.
I left the window to call in the downed power line, only to find that my phone was out. It dawned on me that the downed power line across the street was probably only one of many wires that had come down during a storm where a dead calm and barely freezing temperatures had let snow accumulate on wires everywhere. And right then, as if to verify the thought, my lights went out.
I wondered if the lights going out had anything to do with the downed power line, so I went back and looked down, but there it was, cracking and hissing as the asphalt burned, a nasty looking line of smoky orange flames. Oddly, the street lights and the house lights across the way were still on.
Something else had happened down there while I was off trying to make a phone call. A police officer had shown up and was standing guard over the hot power line.
The minute I saw him, I realized he had problem. The line lay very near the vehicle tracks on the opposite side of the road, and he was standing close to it, using his big, five-cell flashlight to direct cars away from danger. But the blamed fools, instead of paying attention to the waving flashlight, were determined to run straight over both the police officer and the hot wire, rather than move over a foot or so.
I watched what was going on down there for nearly an hour, during which the poor guy came within an inch of losing his life at least a half a dozen times.
Then a bigger idiot than most of them totally ignored the waving flashlight and ran right over the hot power line, producing the biggest streak of blue sparks I have ever seen. Fortunately, he also managed to send the power line sailing over toward the curb.
As the policeman retreated off to one side, now relatively safe where he stood under the street light, I noticed something I had missed before. He was not dressed to be out in a heavy snowfall. Instead of one of the thick, warm overcoats the Trenton police normally wore, he had on nothing except a thin little nylon police jacket. And from where I sat in the window three stories above him, I could see that he was visibly shivering.
Guessing that he had come on duty earlier in the day when the temperature was in the high 50s, or had come out of a warm patrol car, I figured the poor guy was about to freeze to death. There being a pot of coffee on the gas range, I put a light under it, warmed it up, mixed up a mug of coffee, put on a jacket, and took it down to him.
“You look cold, “ I told him. “How about some hot coffee?”
He didn’t even smile. In fact he looked downright hostile.
Disappointed, and perhaps a bit angry, I started back across the road, but I stopped because it dawned on me that he probably wanted the coffee but didn’t trust me. Turning around, I said, “Listen, I’m from McGuire Air Force Base.” I reached in my pocket took out my wallet, and slipped out my military ID card.
“Here’s my ID card. Keep it. Get it back to me when you can.” I reached out with the cup of coffee. “In the meantime, have something hot.”
He took the ID card, looked at it for a minute, handed it back, looked me in the eye and smiled, said thanks, and took the mug. As he sipped hot coffee I tried to think of something to say.
“Is it that bad wearing a police uniform?” I asked him.
He gave me the most serious look I’ve ever seen.
“No,” he said, holding two bare hands around the warm mug as he shivered, “It’s worse.”
I often think about those words. They say a lot, don’t they?