I’ve slid off icy roads twice in my life. In each case it was around Christmas time and my mother was involved.
The first time was shortly after Christmas 1977. She and I were driving to Roanoke in a blue, 1972 Chevy Impala sedan, heavy as an elephant, but rear wheel drive. Most likely we were aiming to exchange some presents or burn up some gift cash at a post-Christmas sale.
I had my learner’s permit, and we had just covered “steering into the skid” in my driver’s ed lecture. I was eager to convert all that theory to some practical experience on the fresh veneer of slick, blue ice which covered the roads around our house and glistened invitingly in the mid-morning winter sun.
But my mother would have none of that. “You might wreck,” she said, “and then your Dad would be upset.” She didn’t mention loss of life or limb. Apparently “upsetting Dad” was the worst of all possible outcomes.
I was riding shotgun when that big Chevy started fishtailing as Mom attempted to go down the long, steep incline on Truman Hill Road about 5 miles from our house. I looked over at her, just the way my driver’s ed instructor did when we neophytes were “behind the wheel.”
She was gripping the wheel tightly with both hands in the 10 and 2 positions. Check. Her eyes were wide open and her pupils dilated–white sclera bulging and reflecting the sun like the snow which lined the shoulder of the road–but most importantly, aimed straight ahead. Double check.
I kept waiting for Mom to regain control, as she always did in a life-threatening crisis. But the fishtailing grew worse, the Chevy now a big, Blue Marlin on the end of a long, strong piece of line, fighting and twisting to stay alive and not be taken. I looked down at her feet and saw the problem. She was mashing the brake pedal in extremis, nearly punching a hole through the floorboard of the car.
“Stop mashing the brakes, Mom!” I shouted. “You’re supposed to ‘tap gently.'”
But it was too late. The rear of the car finally went into a slow, clockwise turn that seemed to take forever. I watched towering evergreens rotate in front of us, their limbs white and bent with ice, arms wide open and reaching for us, the spectral ghosts of our ancestors waiting to welcome us home.
I fully expected to go nose-first down the steep embankment at the bottom of the hill and meet my doom against the sturdy trunk of a stout Douglas Fir. But instead we went tail-in, landing in a small nook of woods devoid of trees, with not so much as a single bush. We were pitched sharply upward, and when I looked straight ahead, I saw cloudless, blue sky.
We sat there for a few silent seconds. We were both okay, but Mom was too shook up to do much except sit and stare. The nearest house was less than a mile away. “Stay here with the car,” I said. “I’ll run for help.”
And I did, up the steep hill, careful to stay in the snow which lined the shoulder for better traction. I was fast back then, and it didn’t take me long to cover the distance. A friend answered the door, and I asked to use her phone. There was a garage a short piece from where we were stranded, so I called the proprietor and told him of our predicament. By the time I arrived back, he was already there, hooking up the winch of his wrecker to the front bumper.
He had us out of there faster than you say “Jack Frost!” We thanked our rescuing angel and paid him in cash. The car appeared undamaged and drove just fine, so off we went to Roanoke to fulfill our materialistic mission.
It was awfully quiet for quite a while, but eventually Mom broke the stony silence. “Let’s just keep this between ourselves,” she whispered conspiratorially. “No use in upsetting your Dad.”
The second icy incident took place just before Christmas 1986 on a sharp, switchback curve just up the road from that same hill. This time I was with Eyegal, and we were in a gunmetal blue, ’86 Chevy Nova, new wheels, traveling home from Birmingham to spend the holiday with my mother.
I was an experienced, foul-weather driver by that time, and I had skillfully used the car’s front wheel drive and 5-speed stick to successfully negotiate the icy peaks of Windy Gap Mountain and had gunned the engine to climb that same steep incline on Truman Hill Road that had defeated us years before.
I knew the upcoming curve was treacherous, so I downshifted again and prepared to creep. The ice was black and invisible and lay concealed beneath a full moon and forest shadows, watching and waiting, threatening to end our trip prematurely a mere two miles from our destination.
This time the rear of the car started to rotate counterclockwise, fitting, since, just like the movies, time slowed down to a slow-motion crawl. I attempted to “steer into the skid,” but classroom theory gave way to the brutish laws of physics and a mischievous, random dance of molecules and electrons which I couldn’t tame.
My world was spinning out of control in a series of tight, 360 degree turns. I remember this like it just happened: With one hand on the wheel, I took my other one and placed it on Eyegal’s knee and tightly squeezed. “Everything is going to be okay,” I said.
We landed tail-first, once again in a nook with no trees, only this time on level ground, our front wheels still on the road when the dark woods finally stopped spinning. The car had stalled, but I turned the key, put it in first, and started up the road toward Mom’s house.
Just before we turned into her driveway, I turned to Eyegal and said, “Let’s just keep this between ourselves. No use in upsetting Mom.”
Now I know at this point many of you are waiting for “the application,” the moral of the story which will bring it all home. You want more than anything for me to milk that metaphor of “Christmas Ice” for all it’s worth and to tell you What It All Means. You want reassurance, a promise that even when your world starts spinning out of control in tight, 360 degree turns, that “everything will be okay.”
But I cannot. There are no nugget-sized PowerPoints here that can be distilled, canned, bulleted and flashed on the JumboTron, like on Sunday mornings. It’s my story, true, but I have yet to figure it all out myself. And I may never will.
I do not presume to know your circumstances. You’re going to have to travel your own road, live your own story and write your own ending. It may not be as easy as opening a WordPress window and typing in characters, but you may have more control than you think. Or, if you lack humility, perhaps less.
You still want bullets? Okay, try these:
- Be careful on the Christmas Ice
- When possible, “steer into the skid”
- When the world seems to be spinning out of control, hold on and hope for The Best.
I do know this because I am living proof: Sometimes The Best actually happens.
Merry Christmas and Godspeed. All others keep it under 75.