MIDWESTERNERS think it's funny that Washington falls into a state of shock when the season's first snowflakes hit the pavement. They convulse with belly laughs when they see terrorized Washingtonians on snow-covered roadways, eyes popping out of their heads, hands locked in a death grip on the steering wheel.
True, Washington, on the average, gets only 16 inches of snow each season. True, the averages in other cities are more than twice that: 38.7 in Bismark, N.D., 52.2 inches in Cleveland, and a whopping 92.9 in Buffalo. True, most Washingtonians think a "snow tire" is something edible with syrup over it you buy at the 7-Eleven.
Nevertheless, such scorn and derision from Midwesterners is not appreciated here. It hurts.
Shoveling snow hurts, too. Consider, for instance, that a cubic foot of freshly fallen snow weighs, very roughly, about six pounds. If six inches falls on your driveway, which is maybe 10 feet wide and 30 feet long, that's 150 cubic feet -- 800 pounds you will try to get out of the way in the 20 minutes you have before you must leave for work in the morning.
Consider, also, that a freshly cleaned sidewalk is not just a matter of civic pride. It is also a civic duty. In most places in the Washington area, citizens' are required by law to clean the walk in front of their home (or even vacant lot), regardless of whether they own the place or are just renting.
In the District, you can be fined up to$25 if you do not clear the walk within the first eight hours after the stuff has stopped falling. In Alexandria, failing to get rid of it, including ice (or at least spreading sand or ash over ice if removing it will hurt the walk) is a criminal misdemeanor. The maximum penalty is a $500 fine and up to six months in jail. And if you don't do it, the city or county will -- and bill you for it, too.
Plus, you can be sued if the neighbor who comes over to borrow your snow shovel slips on the ice in your driveway and cracks his head. And who hasn't heard reports of heart attacks after the first snowfall?
Snow is no langhing matter. After three months of shoveling it in a mountain ski colony, I found that snow removal is an art requiring a clear head, proper technique and the correct tools.
Shoveling snow off the roof, for instance, is fine with any kind of shovel. You only have to push it with the shovel as far as the edge of the roof and there it goes. But sidewalks and stairs are a different story altogether. First of all, you have to catch it early. If you do not, the snow will surely begin clinging to the sidewalk and what you have is a big mess.
If you catch it early enough -- before anyone has walked on it -- you can use one of those lightweight aluminum shovels. But if someone has been out tramping around already, the aluminum shovel will bounce off the snow packed on the sidewalk. And when the snow is hard already, you can try as you might, scraping it off with one of these shovels. You just watch how the corners will curl up and the edge of the blade start to dent. I can't tell you how many frustrating hours I've spent with a curled-up shovel.
When the snow gets hard or icy, you just have to go with the snow eater, which is a smaller, curved steel shovel with a good edge. More than once, this shovel has saved me from the heartbreak of curling.
Sometimes a shovel isn't the best bet.
Not often, we'd have freak snow showers that left maybe an inch or so. Who needs to swing a shovel around to clean up one inch of snow? But you can't leave it there, because the traffic will soon pack it down and turn it to ice. The answer is a broom. A broom is not only easier to use, it is also much faster. I try to use a broom whenever possible.
The possibilities are staggering.
At Hechinger alone, you will find perhaps a dozen different kinds of shovels to choose from -- from plastic to aluminum to steel. They start as low as $5 for a plastic shovel, to $6 for a steel one. Aluminum shovels range in price from $7- $13. There is an array of what are called "snow pushers" (the mountain snow eater), a curved, high-backed shovel that is more edge than shovel. They, too, come in plastic, aluminum and steel, from $8- $10.
For quick highway shoveling, or when you're just in a tight spot, Hechinger also carries a folding snow shovel for the trunk of your car, $9.
Sooner or later you will have to tend to the ice on your walk. Persons who live near bus stops say this is a constant worry. Sidewalk scrapers at Hechinger are $5- $13.
Sears has the famed "snow slinger," which looks like a kid's sled. Push it along the walk and it picks up the snow in its path. Then tip it back to haul away for dumping -- $25. Other shovels are priced in the Hechinger range.
Sixteen inches of snow may not merit expenditures on fancy equipment. But some driveways around Washington seem to go on forever. Enter the snowblower.
Ken Page, a spokesman for Sears, Roebuck in Chicago, says there is a national shortage of snowblowers due, mainly, to an unexpected increase in snowfall.
On Dec. 17 last month, the manufacturers of Torro snowblowers ran a full-page ad in the Chicago Tribune apologizing to readers that some blowers were not available. They promised to ship orders for 1979 models at 1978 prices.
Sears carries more than a half dozen different Craftsman models, the smallest with 18 inches of blade, the largest with 32. They begin at $184 and go all the way up to nearly $900.
Hechinger carries a three-horsepower, 20-inch Jacobsen "Snow Burst" model for $290.
Some sidewalks develop ice, year after year. No matter how hard you try to keep it away, there it is one morning, for no good reason. The American solution has always been salt. Then we wonder why our car falls apart from rust, or why the ice seems to come back even after bags and bags of salt have been applied. Try sand.
A 60-pound bag of sand runs about $2 at Hechinger. Nonie England, Hechinger's director of sales promotion, also suggests fertilizer which, among all its other attractions, has "non-skid attractions" as well. Another product, "No Slip," is silicone dioxide granules England says are "environmentally safe." Supposedly, the granules will not damage plants, grass and things. It costs $2.50 for a 10-pound bag.
Another melter of this type is called "Flash Ice and Snow Melter," made of calcium chloride, instead of sodium chloride, which is salt. A 25-pound bag goes for $5.
But, as England says, "everybody rushes in the day it snows," and some products will be temporarily out of stock. You may be stuck with salt, at $2.25 for 25 pounds.
Another reason for big snowblower demand, Page suggests, are the reports each winter of shovelers keeling over with heart attacks. A spokesman at the National Heart and Lung Institute of the National Institutes of Health says shoveling may have little to do directly with heart failures. And there are no statistics on shoveling incidents to back up the stories.But the hazards are there.
The cold, for one, makes the heart work harder, just keeping the blood moving in the outlying regions of the circulatory system. If you do not normally lift a lot of weights, the shoveling will be a strain your heart is not used to.
"People who wouldn't dream of bailing out the swimming pool with a bucket think nothing of shoveling a 200-foot driveway, which is essentially the same thing" said the spokesman, who asked not to be quoted by name.
Persons with diagnosed heart problems "should get someone else to do it." Older persons should take their time. Shovel a little, then go back into the house and warm up, and so on.
When it does snow, you may hear your doorbell ring. Little people are coming around to shovel your walk. Do not accept any stories about having to charge 10 bucks just for the front walk because they have to send their mothers through dental college. That is an old line. The going rate for short stretches is said to be $2- $3. After that, use your own judgment.
Whatever you do, don't have your friends from the Midwest over when it's time to shovel. They will only make you depressed. If you are expecting them anyway, keep an extra shovel on hand.