Winter Wander Land
My husband and I both saw it at the same time.
“Good God! The River has a coating of ice!” I exclaimed.
“Wow. It’s been years since I’ve seen that. I remember my dad telling me that he used to drive across the River in the winters when it had frozen solid,” Cliff mused.
I shook my head in wonder,”My Great-Aunt Valeria told the story of how she followed her big brothers across one winter. When she got to the West Virginia side, the edges weren’t frozen as solid and she fell in and got in trouble for getting wet.”
I remember Great-Aunt Valeria quite well. She was as old as God, but more pugnacious, and she was stone deaf by the time I came along. I know this because she sat in front of us in church and one Sunday, I dropped my doll on the pew before me. Aunt Valeria sat on that doll which squealed like a stuck pig. She, of course, couldn’t hear the commotion and became quite belligerent toward all the people laughing in her direction. The more she squirmed, the more the doll squealed. Finally, Uncle Floyd, her white-haired gnome of a spouse, ungently pushed her over and rescued my traumatized doll. I was a tyke, but I knew enough to always fear Aunt Valeer (the hillbilly pronunciation of her name). I don’t think she ever really forgave me. I do remember her telling the story about walking across a frozen Ohio River. She was at least 40 years older than Cliff’s father, so it amazed us both that the wide river that fights its way to the Mississippi ever was shallow enough to freeze in the winter. Today, due to a series of locks and dams, the Ohio River is as wide as a motorway and quite deep.
As we drove past the town he’d lived in and both of us had attended school, Brilliant, Ohio, we gasped simultaneously, “Whoa! The Sand Pit has a covering of ice!” In our youth, when it seemed winters lasted longer with temperatures in the sub-zero degrees F, occasionally the Sand Pit would freeze several feet thick, and the town kids ice skated across that bottomless mini-lake. No one really ever seemed to know how deep the Sand Pit was, but local legend says that the town hired divers one summer to plumb the depths of this place. I had to think of the search for Nessie when my friends told me about it. After some days of diving, needing longer and longer air hoses, one diver shot to the surface so fast, he nearly got the bends (so he said). He also said something: something huge had swum past him, with an eye the size of a hub cap. No one really believed his story, but the librarian complained about the run on the “L” encyclopedia with pages dealing with the “Loch Ness Monster.” She whined, “All of them came back with dog-eared pages only about that silly Loch Ness Monster.”
As we sped west along State Route 7, I noticed the mounds of snow–it had snowed over 6 inches in the two days of our visit, but something seemed different about the snow. It didn’t look the way I remembered snow from childhood. Suddenly, I realized: the snow glistened, quite white and pure. I realize most folks would assume this is the nature of snow. But when we were children, Fifth Street, Brilliant, Ohio (the street where my husband’s family’s home sat) had the highest pollution rate in the entire world. Yep. Fifth Street made world-wide news. Why the pollution? Steel mills, coal mines, electric plants, and chemical plants lined both sides of the Ohio River. The economy boomed. Most families had a steady income from one of the industries; new cars appeared in drive ways and garages. The Ohio Valley provided jobs, raw ores, and steel for the world. These industries also meant that snow stayed white only a matter of hours before the coal dust and pollutants from the electric plants turned it a dull grey.
The fact that I saw white snow drove home the point: the industries had collapsed under the heavy fines levied by the EPA. New laws about pollution changed an entire region from prosperous to poor. Coal mines closed because the natural veins of the area produced soft, heavy pollutant dust and smoke. The mills had relied on this cheap, easily moved ore. When the mines closed, the steel mills didn’t last long. The new restrictions mandated that hard coal be used, which necessitated changes in the whole internal system of pounding the coal into coke into purer, cleaner by-products. Many electric power plants closed under the onus of Environmental Protection Agency’s stringent new laws.
The farther we drove away, the more I realized how very different things in the Valley had become. I saw closed schools and stores, and noticed the terrible shape of the roads. I also understood that the last two winters had restored the chilly winds and shifting snows, but these winters were not the same as when I was a child, learning to ice skate on the lakes deep in the woods. I didn’t see children hurtling down hills on their sleds, shrieking in laughter.
The most telling place for me, though, sat back from the road as we wound our way up from the River toward Woodsfield, Ohio, where my sister and her family live. Each trip we made when I was younger and going to visit my sister, I always looked for the abandoned house. Some family had left the lovely two-story home abruptly, I suspected. I made up hundreds of stories of how the house looked inside, of why the family had left. For many years, curtains still hung in the windows. Then, as happens to empty buildings, someone threw rocks to break the windows, ala It’s a Wonderful Life. Although my trips to Ohio became less frequent after I married, when we drove up State Route 78, I still looked for the Abandoned House. Each trip revealed a new glimpse. The kitchen walls glowed a light yellow; a bedroom door hung on hinges revealing rusty walls with faint squares where posters or pictures had hung. I cried a little the day I saw that the roof had caved in. I knew then that no one would ever live in that house again.
As we crept up the snowy, slick roads all these years later, I realized I could see the shape of the house! The drifting snow had transformed that sad place into a winter show piece. I wondered: how will it look come spring? I knew it would be an eyesore. I felt immeasureably sad.
Therefore, I decided to concentrate on the sheets of ice floating on the River. They cannot be mistaken for anything other than they are: thin, ephemeral glints atop a monster moving inexorably toward the Mississippi. I took out my sunglasses and watched the snow, happy my great-niece, aged 5 will be the exception to my dreary thoughts of how children in the Valley have been deprived. She’ll drag out her little sled tomorrow, grab “Bubba”–her uncle–and they two will go to the bit of a hillside in my sister’s garden, and Jadyn will shriek with laughter, make snow angels, and only see pure white snow.
Oh, she knows about yellow snow. That color snow hasn’t changed one bit since I was a kid. Bubba made sure his niece understood she wasn’t to touch yellow snow last winter. I grinned as I remembered a particularly nasty trick I’d played on my baby brother with yellow snow. The look on his face made the spanking I got worth it. The little tattle-tale.