The snowplow's lullaby

Three snowstorms in one week, and everyone was complaining. "When we lived in Minnesota...." growled Lewis, owner of the local bookstore. Rufus, the druggist, who was born and brought up here, said he'd never seen shoddier street plowing. The town was a mess, no doubt about it, but La Nia was responsible for that. And anyway, as far as I was concerned, the snowplow men could do no wrong. The roads in Maine are kept up a lot better than in most places, and there are more of them per capita than anywhere else in the country, so I've been told.

Herb Bunker works from 9 p.m. until 5 in the morning. He drives the big plow, the one with the double blades and the sand spreader. The rotary light on his truck turns at a comfortingly slow speed - about one revolution per second - and in every way it connotes the opposite of the police car's whirling blitzkrieg or the firetruck's frantic wail. It is a night light to those of us whose houses are separated by tenths of miles rather than yards: a reassuring reminder that all is well.

"It's not a bad job," Herb says. "Better than driving the Airline." The Airline is a 100-mile section of desolate road that runs from north of Bangor to the Canadian border. There's not a house on it. At night, not even a car. Just trucks. Mostly 18-wheelers. Or the larger double trailers that can jackknife on the ice.

Herb keeps in touch with the other drivers by radio, much as commercial fishermen do. And for the same reason: It's a band of brothers out there, everybody watching out for everyone else. The occasional house lights, even the dim shapes of the houses, give the work a human dimension. It's peaceful work. "About all there is to look out for are the mailboxes," Herb says. And watching them keeps Herb awake.

In Manhattan, the garbage trucks sound as if they're going through your bedroom when they jerk you awake at 3 in the morning. They sigh and groan and cry out in what sounds like despair as they clank their way up the street. When they're finally gone, the sirens of the police cars and ambulances seem louder and more intense than ever.

Herb started plowing driveways in his teens, using his father's truck. In his early 20s he got his own truck and a job with the town, plowing some of the less-used roads. A few years later, they let him drive the sander, then the small plow. Finally, this. Sometimes he drives with a partner, but mostly he's alone. He prefers driving at night. "It's quieter," he says. Snowy nights, particularly when there's a blizzard, he's got the roads pretty much to himself. He's on his own.

Maine is prepared for snow. Every town has its gravel mountain, heavily laced with salt. And its fleet of trucks. At the first powdering of "overcast," the plows are out. Next to the schools, road maintenance is the largest item in town budgets. And half of that is for the plows and the sanders and the men who drive them.

In Long Island, N.Y., where we lived for 18 years, snow was always greeted with surprise. We had a long driveway. One year when it snowed almost two feet, we were housebound for five days before we could get a truck to plow us out. Whenever it snows in Seattle or Washington, D.C., which is about twice a year, everything shuts down.

Seven years ago, we had snow from Thanksgiving to Easter. It gave one a sense of what it must have been like in the old days when the roads were rolled and sleighs slid across the smooth surfaces. That winter the snow reached above the first-floor windowsills. At the end of April, there were still patches of ice in the woods. What was it like? Cozy. Particularly at night. Particularly when it snowed.

Snug in bed, under the comforter, you hear the muffled rumbling of the plow. You wake, briefly; the light blinks across the walls of your room. The plow passes, and it is quiet again. The world is shut out, closed. Sleep comes quickly. And it is deep.

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