Not a winter wonderland for the guys who plow the snow.
Try to imagine what it’s like to drive a dump truck loaded with salt at 25 mph, with a 250-pound blade mounted on the front and a salt spreader on the back, in the middle of a snowstorm, with the white stuff ahead of you flying all around and your windshield wipers working furiously just so you can see even the front plow in the tandem.
Six of the 14 guys who plow the snow for the Forest Park Public Works Department— Steve Knysch, John Ryan Doss, Sal Stella, Paul Richards, Patrick Braniff and Michael Marosco — got together with the Review three years ago and pretty much took all the romance out of snowplowing. Stella was kind enough to update this article for us on Monday
“When I first started plowing,” Stella recalled, “there was an adrenalin rush. But after many years and long hours, it gets to be tiring.” He used to be the one who got called in the middle of the night to come in to work. Now that he’s the Director of Public Works, he’s the one who does the calling and gets the guys out of a warm bed to plow for eight hours.
Plowing the streets takes a lot of concentration. “You have to be careful to watch for bump outs along Madison Street and Roosevelt Road,” explained Mike Marasko. “Especially sewer lids that are a little above the street level. When your plow hits one you feel it. You definitely feel it. The whole truck comes to a jarring stop. Once you hit them, you never forget where they are.
“We try to be as careful as we can,” he added. “Safety is number one.”
With collisions like that between “an immovable object and an unstoppable force” the blade on the plow can actually break and the driver has to return to Public Works on 15th Street to replace it. The drivers say you have to find a happy medium between driving fast enough to maintain your momentum and driving at speeds that are not safe.
Or driving one of the three Bobcats the department uses to clear sidewalks.
“When there has been a light snow,” Steve Knysch said, “we put a V plow on the front and can go right down the sidewalk pushing the snow to the side. But when there has been a heavy snow, we have to put a bucket on the front and go back and forth, one bucket full at a time. After a heavy snow it can take 20 minutes to do just one block.”
Knysch added that just like when the trucks hit a sewer lid, the Bobcats can hit a raised part of the sidewalk so hard that the impact actually shuts the machine down. When the sidewalk is slanted, like for a driveway, or the Bobcat hits a patch of ice, the machine can slide off the sidewalk, get stuck in a snowbank or almost tip over.
The scariest part is the sidewalk along Harlem. There are places along that route where the sidewalk is not wide enough for the machine so the driver has to go out on the street for a short time — a Bobcat goes 6 miles an hour and semis barrel down Harlem at well over the speed limit.
Even scarier, they say, is the bridge over the Eisenhower. At one point you have to cross lanes of traffic where people may give you the right of way … or may not.
The guys who drive the trucks have a challenge the Bobcat drivers don’t have, which is visibility. When the snow is wet and sticky, sometimes the drivers have to periodically wipe the slush off the windshield by hand because the wipers can’t handle it. Seeing what’s in front of you can also be challenging when you’re the second plow in a tandem. Drivers sometimes have to roll down the window on the door and lean out in order to see. The visibility along Roosevelt Road west of Desplaines can be bad at night because the street lights are spaced far apart.
The elements pose problems for the village’s snowplowers, but they all agreed “the hardest part of our job is the people we’re trying to clear the streets for.”
“We’re trying to open the streets for them,” said Patrick Braniff, “and they don’t want to wait for us. Like we do tandems and a car will go in between the two trucks. Well, you know what will happen. The car will get salted from the truck in front and be in danger of being hit by the one in back.”
One year a car didn’t want to slow down for the plow in front of him so he pulled out to pass, hit a patch of ice, went into a spin and took out a light pole.
Once when the guys were removing the snow from the side of Madison Street after a big storm right before Thanksgiving, they had sections of the street coned off, but a few drivers actually drove between the cones to park, making it difficult for the crew to do their job and putting the workers in danger.
Some residents contend snow removal should all be done during the night, but the crew explained it’s a two edged sword — it’s easier at night time but then the village has to pay overtime. In addition, Madison Street is home to many bars, some of which are open till late at night, which means cars are parked on the street till the drinking establishments close.
The guys told stories about how the snow from the plows can fly all the way from the street onto pedestrians on the sidewalk. Two men wearing business suits got splattered with slush while the plows were clearing a particularly wet snow. The crew quickly added that they never do it intentionally … but admitted it was kind of funny.