For Robert (Bobby B) West and his partner Cornell (Hawk) Hawkins, the day began at 8 on Thursday night.
Starting then, even before the first few flurries began to fall, West and Hawkins had been called to the Maryland Transportation Department garage in Kensington to begin a long night and day operating a state snowplow through the hazardous streets of Silver Spring.
For the next 16 hours they waged a long, losing battle against the "Big Snow of '83." The snow finally won at about one o'clock yesterday afternoon when the plow on their rig hit a manhole, jarring lose a clutch pin.
"This is the kind of dumb stuff we have to put up with," said West, standing ankle-deep on a street that he had plowed just two hours earlier. "Look at this: We've been out here all night and it looks like we haven't done a thing."
Still, West was convinced that the snow had won this round only by default. "I had it licked," he sighed. "Just when I had my route licked, my truck gives out. Once you hit one of those manholes, especially one of the deep ones, your plow will get hung and you really get a jar."
So this pair of snowplow operators spent most of the afternoon stuck in mounting snow at the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Seminary Road, waiting for a mechanic who was stuck somewhere on the Beltway.
When the snowplow is running, the driver and his partner are the kings of the roads, venturing boldly where few drivers would dare to tread. The snowplow's cab is a seat of power, high above the traffic jams and stuck cars, a handy, warm compartment that is good for gazing at young ladies and for making rude gestures to those who think that blizzards are fun.
But when the snowplow breaks down, the power is gone and the driver feels a definite cramp both in style and macho. "If I get this truck fixed," West shouted at a particularly attractive young woman, "you won't be walking for long. Just wait till I get this truck fixed.
The snowplow driver seems to love the work, and he loves complaining about it even more. He complains about the cold, he complains about the snow that keeps falling, but most of all he complains about the drivers who insist on trying to navigate snow-clogged streets and end up getting stuck.
"Saturday will be much better pushing," said West, using the snowplow driver's term that means moving snow. "Only a few people work on Saturday. If you're out here on Saturday, you're crazy. To be out here today, you've got to be nuts. If it wasn't my job, I wouldn't be out here. In fact, if I had one day's vacation left, or even a sick day, I wouldn't be out here."
The state gives each of its snowplow operators $6.50 for breakfast and another $9 for dinner, and time off to sleep--if negotiated with the supervisor. West went to sleep at about 5:30 yesterday morning, after plowing all night, and he let Hwawkins take the wheel. Two hours later, the pair pulled their snowplow up to the Tastee Diner in Bethesda for breakfast, and laid low until after the morning rush hour.
"They told us to hold off until the traffic was cleared," West said. With the snow continuing to fall as fast as it was plowed, he explained, the best that a driver can do is shovel the snow off to one side without bothering to drop salt afterwards.
"I've seen everything out here today, he said. "I've seen six people on skis, two people on dirt bikes, one tractor, and now one reporter who rode a Metro train just to ride on a snowplow. I'm ready to go home now."