Backstory: The indomitable snowmen

A nor'easter had us in its talons - finally. It took until Sunday for a proper winter storm to arrive this year. Kids in town felt cheated with only one snow day out of school so far and the playground devoid of snow for forts and sliding. It just hasn't been an authentic Maine winter.

"We don't have storms like we used to," says Denny Colson, public works foreman and a 33-year veteran of the snowplow. He was one of the three men charged with keeping 18 miles of roads passable Sunday as the storm hammered its way up the East Coast leaving a record 26.9 inches of snow in New York's Central Park and threatening to bury us, too.

"I've seen snow up over the store windows downtown," he adds.

A good storm brings out the plowman's blizzard nostalgia.

"We had to cut through trees with a chain saw to get down Madockawando and La Tour streets," says Mr. Colson, recalling the ice storm of '98. "The crew worked 60 hours straight."

Castine, a tidy little 400-year-old town at the end of a Penobscot Bay peninsula, is the kind of "Burt and I" downeast village where no one locks doors or takes the keys out of the car ignition.

Downtown hasn't changed much since 100 years ago, when the budget for "snow removal" was $200 to pay laborers who came behind the blizzard and shoveled.

One of those on the payroll in 1906 was Pearl Colson, Colson's great-grandfather. He earned $2.27 that season, when the whole town budget amounted to only $14,000. Today's budgets are numbers with two commas. This year, the line for winter sand and salt alone is $40,000, plus $20,000 for equipment maintenance, and $120,000 in crew salaries.

No one likes to drive the industrial Chevy dump truck - loaded with sand and outfitted with front and side plow blades - down Green Street, the trickiest street in town. The steep incline ends too abruptly on Water Street. If you don't make this right-hand turn, there's nowhere to go but over the embankment and into Eaton's boatyard. The cable barrier could restrain a car - but the plow truck would take the barrier with it over the embankment and into Kenny Eaton's second-floor office.

Colson knows.

He put the plow truck over the guardrail once. It scared Jute Mixer, his wingman at the time, enough that he bailed out, jumping from the truck right over the wing plow blade. The truck ended up teetering over the embankment. Colson thought it safer to stay with the vehicle.

Plow calamity stories abound. No driver is spared. Like the time Colson couldn't see the road and turned into Guild's field. "Geezum, Jute," Colson said, "this road's getting awful rough." He kept going, plowing up the field, and eventually found his way back to the main road.

Or the "time we hit a car over by the post office," says Colson. "Larry, or one of us, dropped the wing on it."

On Sunday morning the snow was blowing sideways, drifting along village lanes, with at least 16 hours of plowing ahead for the three men who shared the duty.

Henry Erhard drew the first eight-hour shift and took me along for a ride.

***

Mr. Erhard is a Coast Guard veteran whose family has lived in Castine for seven generations. As we bounce along, he eyes the plow's marker wands, using six control levers to adjust blade pitch and yaw. With the sanding control, he adjusts volume and pattern of the sand spraying off the hopper at the back, amid constant gearshifting. The effect is muffled thunder as we push snow to the side of deserted streets.

"You always want to be making right turns," Erhard says, as he heads down Battle Avenue toward the lighthouse. Clearly, he's working hard to anticipate the potholes, frost heaves, curbs, and manhole covers. There are telephone poles and trees for that wing blade to catch on, as well as parked cars, pedestrians, and street signs. He points out myriad deep plow gouges on poles.

We drive concentric circles, beginning at the west end of town going toward the lighthouse and back toward Big Ernie's Variety. Then Erhard reverses his route to clear the other side of the streets.

"The woods are lovely, dark and deep," but the truck's getting lighter and we have miles to go before refilling the sand hopper out at the dump.

"Truck weight? I don't know," says Erhard. "I can tell how much sand is left by how it drives." Weight is crucial: Traction is only as good as the amount of sand on board. In seven years of plowing, he has gone off the road only once - when his truck was too light going up Windmill Hill. A rookie mistake. But his mentor, Colson, managed to back him out of the ditch. Erhard has not, however, plowed Guild's field.

Here comes Green Street. "It doesn't look too bad today," says Erhard, downshifting urgently. "If it gets too slick, I can always lower the wing blade and hook it on that fire hydrant and pivot around the corner." That's the last chance gambit to keep the truck out of Eaton's office. As Colson notes, "it's not in the manual, but it works." I'm ready to bail. The truck lurches, groans, and inches right around the corner and safely onto Water Street. Phew. Time for Lap 2 of the town. Two hours down, six more to go.

As he drops me off, Henry takes a lug wrench to his front left wheel and cranks down hard on the bolts. He'd detected a wobble. The 10-year-old truck is due for replacement - a $65,000 item that isn't in this year's budget.

Snug at home, Larry Redman must be watching updates on TV, and Colson has probably gone to bed early to be ready for the last shift, the one that will prepare the roads for Monday morning. Meanwhile, many a Castine kid is hoping the plow will not keep ahead of the snowfall, and they'll have a day off from school.

Colson may not need to plow - the snow stops at midnight. We don't have storms like we used to. "If we had the snow we had back then ... " says Colson. Blizzard nostalgia.

As it turns out, school starts as usual on Monday in Castine. And even in New York, schools open the day after their old-time, Castine-size snowstorm. They got our snow.

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