Stuck With Strangers

Help in a hard season--a ceremony of assertion and doubt

IN going about my winter business in the country around Brattleboro, Vermont, I have gotten stuck in the snow and ice about fifteen times. That is not a lot for twenty-five winters' worth of driving in Vermont, much of it up and down a rugged elevation of some local fame called Newfane Hill, on whose side I live and whose ancient Algonquian name, I am told, means "Oil Trucks Put On Chains."

No, in these parts hitting the ditch an average of 0.6 times a year isn't bad at all. But more surprising to me than my relatively untroubled career in winter driving is the fact that of those fifteen or so mishaps only one has required a tow truck. One dark night I slid off Route 5 just north of Putney to such good purpose that I had to call the wrecker. But every other time I have come to grief, I have been put right without benefit of clergy, so to speak. Why? Because I have been helped by my fellow man. Friends, neighbors, perfect strangers, have stopped, lent a hand, and gone on their way.

Like every other longtime winter driver in Vermont, I have had many helpers--though to be honest, I should say more helpers than help. Through the long winters up here the icy mountain roads bring out some of the best, most altruistic instincts that people can have, but they bring them out by an elliptical route. For there is something in the sight of a car pathetically stranded on a snowy shoulder that inspires otherwise sensible men and women with the spirit of debate, the spirit of controversy. Getting helped out of a winter ditch by passing Good Samaritans, one finds oneself not only the grateful recipient of generous aid but also the object of a certain hill-country ritual of assistance.

A case in point:

ON a bright January morning a couple of years ago I was coming home up the hill, driving carelessly along trying to remember what, exactly, happened in the Defenestration of Prague, when suddenly I felt the hindquarters of my wagon begin to describe a counterclockwise arc--speedily, irresistibly, in a classic rear-end skid.

In this situation the advice of the experts is unanimous. You remain calm. You don't brake. You steer deftly in the direction of the skid, so that the momentum of the car can straighten it out. That is good advice--but I seldom follow it. I find that what works for me in a skid is to hit the brakes as hard as I can, shut my eyes, and repeat certain words at increasing volume until I land wherever I'm going to land.

So it happened that morning in January: the rear went east, the front went west, and the whole show, with me in it, wound up half on the road, half in the ditch, pointing back down the hill, and stuck, stuck, stuck.

At this point in any such debacle my procedure is always the same. I turn off the motor and get out of the car. I then walk around the car, examining it closely but dispassionately, as though it were no car of mine but one I have discovered inexplicably abandoned by persons unknown. Doing this introduces an element of disassociation into the episode which prepares me to receive help when it arrives.

Help arrived that morning in the form of two fellows in a truck. They stopped, got out, and joined me in surveying the problem. We agreed that the road was slick, the car was mine, the car was stuck. (Here and in the next several paragraphs I reduce a fairly prolonged and complex exchange to its essentials.)

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