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Life Storms

Life Storms

She chewed on her thumbnail as the bus edged closer to the Ft. Pitt tunnel heading into Pittsburgh. The sun had gone to bed behind Mt. Washington, light snow fell, and traffic opposite them streamed out from the city in rush hour’s headlight parade. The bus noisily ground its gears to slow its pace on the slushy, snowy roadway.

A shudder of panic ran her spine as they were swept into the dark void of the tunnel’s bowels. She closed her eyes tightly and held her breath to the exhaust fumes that habitate long tunnels. This was not her first trip through the Pitt; she scrunched her eyes tightly closed. and she knew just how many Mississippis to count. When she was a little girl, the magic was at the end of the tunnel. If you timed it right, you opened your eyes just before the end of the tunnel, and the masonry arch looked like a picture frame that exploded with the twinkling gleam of Pittsburgh’s point. It was like looking into a giant’s kaleidoscope at a fairy tale city.

It was still a mesmerizing sight, but as she rose from her seat, she gasped. Not because of the dazzling display of high rises, bridges, and stop and go lights, not because of the snowflakes illuminated in the bus’s headlights, but from a realization that took her breath away. She knew a certainty. The only thing left was to face her father and respect him, not for what he believed, but for the strength of his beliefs. The one thing they held in common. Conviction to their beliefs, taking stock, and the earnestness that supported and made life viable for each of them. She smiled. She felt a warm liquid, an even keel, a moisturizing calm beneath her skin as the bus clanked its way across the double deck, bowstring bridge into Pittsburgh.

The savage Appalachian snowstorm of Thanksgiving weekend 1950 convulsed Mid-West life. Snow fell to a depth of thirty inches in Pittsburgh and into drifts over twenty-five feet high elsewhere. Over three hundred and fifty people died before it was over. The wind whipped snow into efficient, white roadblocks. Life balanced its eggy head on the edge of a wall as temperatures plummeted and snow thickened.

The twenty-five-year-old man stood on the sloped, uphill ramp to the bridge outside the borrowed car. He wiped snow from the windshield with his coat sleeve and smiled what he hoped looked like encouragement. He shivered from the cold and something else. He slogged ten steps, with the trafficked mush of snow and coal cinders seeping into his shoes. He looked over the deserted bridge’s abutment to the crossroad below and saw only long shadows. The landscape was eerily still and silent. He felt the darkening void in his gut.

He slipped and slid back down the ramp to brake himself on the car’s hood. He bit his bottom lip. He looked back the way they had come as the snow melted on his glasses and made halos of the few lights in the distance. Without a hat, his hair turned white with snow, and the cold shoveled itself down the back of his neck. He raised his coat collar and resolutely pushed his hands into the car coat’s pockets. He shivered and stomped his feet. He looked south again and convulsively shook his head, releasing a tiny snow avalanche.

As he paced, the coal ash laid down earlier by a city truck turned dark and foul. The cold and wet seeped further into socks and soles. He looked at the buildings on the side of the bridge; the car salvage lot was closed. A welding business and gas station were shuttered against the storm. People were home with family and friends.

Heavy gray clouds crowded down on the city, and darkness was not going to be his friend. He looked at his watch, turned, and walked shrug-shouldered back up the bridge’s incline to the car.

The temperature dropped another degree or two, and snow pelted his back and froze icicles in his hair. He reached out and steadied himself on the car’s trunk as he slid sideways on the berm of the bridge. He looked down at the car’s tires. He hoped to see a change, a way out of the predicament.

After the car had slid into the snowbank, he had tried. He alternated the clutch and the gas, the forward and the reverse. He had buried the car deeper in the plowed snow at the edge of the bridge.

“Damn.” The tires did not rise up and extricate themselves. The snow around them was wetter and denser, and it froze harder with every minute that passed. The man opened the car door a few inches. The car’s tilt toward the berm’s edge made the Plymouth’s heavy door clumsier. He braced himself with his knee against the sedan’s side. He felt the warmth from the car’s interior rush past him into the night. He whispered to his wife, then closed the door before more heat escaped.
He rechecked his watch. As he looked north toward Bellevue and the hospital, headlights appeared in the distance. He ran, slipping and sliding, to flag down the approaching vehicle.

It was a police car out on patrol and heading back downtown. The officer’s shift was over; he envisioned checking in and going home to a late dinner of Thanksgiving leftovers with his wife and children. All had looked well on Pittsburgh’s deserted, snow-crowded streets. Until now.

Despite the deteriorating road conditions, the policeman was determined to get this man and his wife to the nearest hospital. Soon after they arrived, a baby girl was born, a new life on a snowy, end-of-November cyclonic night dubbed by newspapers The Storm of the Century and The Great Appalachian Snowstorm.

She stands at the window and watches as the light but accumulating snow falls. It has been more than sixty years, yet the TV weatherman referenced The Storm of the Century as an intro to his weather report on the TV in the hospital’s waiting room. An involuntary shiver quakes the woman’s shoulders as she stares out the window. She stopped biting her thumbnail; now, she bites her lip and sucks on the soreness. She feels the dropping temperature and senses the flakes’ wetness as she watches them land and cling to each other on bare tree limbs.

She wonders how that young man reacted so long ago to the blowing cold as its iciness chilled him head to foot. She tries to conjure the pain in his wife’s eyes, and if her cries focused or confused him. She wants to know how he reacted to the policeman’s sour face and oath-filled utterances.

Did that new father prove himself two days after Thanksgiving on that snowy, wind-driven night? Did he prove himself then and still on for another sixty-two years so she would be with him this night as he lay taking his last of the world?

She often felt the gulf between them was too wide to bridge. Over their arguments and years, there was no solid land, so they floundered apart in contesting oceans. Their beliefs have been different since the sixties.

She moved in one direction against what she saw as his conventional, narrow-minded current. Like a salmon fighting upstream, her life sometimes took great leaps. Other times her days were caught in stagnant water, and she swam in confused circles or tripped backward with the currents. The longer they live, the more debatable their ethics.

His war was in the Pacific, hers in Viet Nam. His three-martini lunches versus her LSD. His devotion to a one-week family vacation every year and her attitude adjustment days off work.

He gathered the tenets she spewed and used them to bolster his stand. He was right, and she was wrong. His beliefs mattered; hers were abstract and non-committal. His thoughts were tempered by the farm life he left to be his own man. He was soured by the bigotry of national wariness in wartime and subdued by life’s office cubicle. He was troubled to see a daughter unencumbered by Christian beliefs.

She grabbed bits and pieces of life, hung on to them, and wondered why he was so stubborn. She made quick, rash decisions but stood two feet in concrete, an unmovable column in her integrity and prerogative. She had conquered the biases taught in her childhood but still struggled with the fears imprinted since birth.

His belief is in the church, the literal word of the Bible, and a Christ who died for him. Blind faith to her on all accounts. Her faith, born of resentment, rebelliousness, and anger but tempered to the steel of social equality and peace, also a blind faith in a world mad with greed, corruption, vandalism, larceny, murderous intent, slander, terrorist attacks, gluttony, poverty, climate change, and hunger. She has no more proof of what she believes than he has of his.

A strong belief is their common bond. She lays her flat palm on the frosted windowpane and feels the heat of her hand pulled away into the night. She listens and hears that the end is near; his breathing is shallow and erratic.

Her recollections are all she knows; she wishes she knew more about that long-ago November night. More of her mother and father’s relationship that kept them together when separating seemed the better choice. More about his teenage years in Pittsburgh, the hunting and fishing cabin in Emlenton, his skill at growing tomatoes, and his feelings as a father. Just more.
At the side of the bed, she gently takes his rigid, pale hand and waits for a sign. As his eyes flicker open and focus on her face, she feels the warmth of tears on her cheeks.
“We believe the same way, Dad. I’ll be fine. I want you to stay, but I understand if you need to go. I’ll be right here.” She tries to smile, but her face breaks, and the tears flow.

She sniffles and struggles with the words, “Believe, Dad. Believe.” Her words are true.

He closes his eyes.

She looks out the window; the world is white.

He nods once, exhales, and is born to a new life on a snowy night in late November.

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