By Tom Holmes
Imagine driving a dump truck loaded with salt at 25 mph down a busy street. The truck has a 250 pound blade mounted on the front and a salt spreader hoisted on the back. It's the middle of a snow storm, and flakes are pounding your windshield; your wipers are working furiously to allow you to see even the front plow that is working in tandem.
Six of the 15 guys who plow the snow for the Forest Park Department of Public Works — Steve Knysch, John Doss, Sal Stella, Paul Richards, Patrick Braniff and Michael Marosco — recently met with the Review, where they proceeded to take pretty much all of the romance out of snow plowing.
"When I first started plowing," Sal Stella recalled, "there was an adrenaline rush. But after many years and long hours, it gets to be tiring. It's more like the boss calls in the middle of the night and you have to get out of a warm bed and plow for eight hours."
Snow plows occasionally plow in tandem, with the lead plow pushing snow to the right of the driving lane and another plow pushes it further to the curb. Other times, they work alone. Often snow removal and ice remediation is done during the day, so the village doesn't have to pay overtime. Workers agreed that plowing is easiest at night, however, since there are fewer cars on the road.
Whenever and however, 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."
Sometimes when there are collisions like that between "an immovable object and an unstoppable force" the blade on the plow actually breaks and the driver has to return to replace it at Public Works, 7343 15th Street. Drivers explained that you have to find a happy medium between driving fast enough to maintain your momentum and driving at speeds that are not safe.
Steve Knysch told stories about driving one of the three Bobcats the department uses to clear sidewalks. Public Works uses Bobcats to plow sidewalks; they are slightly larger than a riding lawn mower and can be fitted with either a plow in front, or a bucket that fills with snow.
"When there has been a light snow," he 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."
Drivers dump the snow collected in the bucket out of the public's way.
Knysch said that, like when trucks hit a sewer lid, Bobcats can hit a raised part of the sidewalk so hard that the impact actually shuts the machine down. He said that 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 area Bobcat drivers have to plow is the bridge over the Eisenhower. At one point drivers have to cross lanes of traffic, and are forced to see if drivers will give them the right of way or not. Bobcat drivers are also tested along Harlem Avenue, where the sidewalk is not wide enough for the machine to fit, so drivers must go out on the street for a short time. Bobcats ride along Harlem at about six miles an hour, navigating semitrucks often barreling down the street at well over the speed limit.
The guys who drive the trucks have a challenge that the Bobcat drivers don't have, however, which is visibility. When the snow is wet and sticky, sometimes drivers have to periodically wipe the slush off the windshield because the wipers can't handle it. Seeing what's in front of you can also be challenging when you are 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 — particularly west of Desplaines Avenue — can be bad at night because the street lights are spaced far apart.
The elements pose problems for the village's snow plowers. But all agreed that "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."
Last year a car didn't want to slow down for the plow in front of Braniff, so he pulled over to pass, hit a patch of ice, went into a spin and took out a light pole. Another time, right before Thanksgiving, the guys were removing the snow from the side of Madison Street and had sections of the street coned off. A few drivers actually drove between the cones to park, making it difficult for the crew to do their job and putting the workers at risk.
"We try to be as careful as we can," Marasko said. "Safety is number one."