Saturday, February 4, 2012

Close Encounters of the Slippery Kind

Last week, I was talking to a co-worker who moved to Tehachapi several years ago. She told me she had recently taken a tumble on some black ice. Now, there's something you don't hear much in Southern California. I remember telling a friend about black ice shortly after we moved here, and he had no idea what I was talking about. (He happened to be African-American, and he thought I was saying "black guys"—as in "I'm afraid of black guys.")

The trouble with black ice is you can't see it. Pavement covered with black ice looks just like pavement not covered with black ice, which is why they call it "black ice." One of my most memorable experiences with it happened about thirty years ago. I was leaving a rehearsal at the Civic Theatre in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It had rained earlier in the evening, then the temperature dropped, turning paved surfaces into something akin to glass coated with Vaseline. I made it across the parking lot, but when I pulled on the handle to the car door, Newton's Third Law (you know, the one about equal and opposite reactions?) took over. The next thing I knew, I was lying on my back, under the car, looking up at the stars. At least I think there were stars. Maybe I was just seeing stars.

My last encounter with black ice was eighteen years ago, when Loretta and I were living in North Tonawanda, New York. I had been off work for several days with bronchitis. (It seems like I got bronchitis every winter when I lived back east.) I was still sick, but I was determined not to miss another day of work. I knew that my customary route along the Niagara River between North Tonawanda and Niagara Falls was often icy in winter, due to mist from the river. I had seen ice on River Road several times in the past, and had managed to navigate it without incident. Unfortunately, on this particular morning, I couldn't see the ice.

My first indication that there was going to be trouble was the sight of brake lights about a half mile ahead, weaving dizzily from one side of the road to the other. Now, I am not completely stupid. I learned to drive in the Midwest. I know that you never stomp on the brakes in winter. I did not panic. I remained calm. I ever-so-gently tapped the pedal with my toe, as if testing the water in a bathtub that might be filled with piranhas. The car immediately went into a skid.

I did not panic. I remained calm. I turned the wheel in the direction of the skid, which is what they always say is the right thing to do. It didn't work, so I tried turning the wheel in the direction opposite the skid, which is what they always say is the wrong thing to do (even though it feels like the right thing to do). It didn't matter. The car had made up its mind where it was going to go—all I could do was hang on and enjoy the ride.

After the car and I came to rest in the ditch, I climbed out into two feet of snow to inspect the damage. Even if I could have gotten out of the ditch without a tow truck, the right front tire was flat. I did not have a cell phone. (The only person I knew back then who had a cell phone was my brother-in-law, Rob. It was the approximate size and weight of a cinder block.)

All I could do was start walking and hope that I found a phone before I a) froze to death or b) died of pneumonia. Fortunately, there was a convenience store with a pay phone about a half mile up the road. I called AAA, and I called Loretta and asked her to come get me and take me home. I also called my office and told them I would not be returning to work that day.

Later that year, when Loretta was offered a job in California, it was a difficult decision for her to leave friends and family in Buffalo. It was not a difficult decision for me. There are a lot of things I miss about Buffalo—the people, the food, the culture. I do not miss the winters. In fact, I will do anything I can to avoid spending another winter in New York, Indiana, or anywhere else that has black ice. I would urge you to do the same, if you can.

Also, if you're sick, do yourself a favor and just stay home.


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  2. In 1974 we moved from Thailand to the high desert of Iran with a daughter who had never encountered anything like freezing weather. She knew what snow was from watching Disney movies but ice was beyond her comprehension. Christmas eve we were walking home from a play at her school and she saw ice for the first time. Running after her older brother and sister she quickly wound up on her butt.
    Unable to figure out what had happened she took off again, same result. After the third try pain compliance took over and she tiptoed home.