Saturday, 11 December 2010

Helping Hands

The snow and ice are finally thawing. All around us, there is the sound of dripping water and birdsong. For the past several weeks, our town has been covered in ice and snow, but now you can see grass and green leaves emerging from their mantle of frozen white.

We were lucky here: up in Glasgow, temperatures went as low as -17 C (1.4 F) and the snow and ice were so bad that schools closed down, businesses and shops sent all their employees home, and thousands of commuters were stranded on the motorways for as long as fifteen hours, waiting in endless lines. The snow and ice were so bad in some areas that they broke the blades of the snow ploughs. And the streets were treacherous to walk on too as the wet snow became impacted, then froze over. I've heard stories about people slipping and falling just stepping outside their houses. My husband, the most sure-footed person I've ever known, came home bruised and sore after slipping and falling on ice.

I am not sure-footed. In fact, I am spectacularly uncoordinated when it comes to walking on slippery surfaces. I don't think I could count the times I've slipped and fallen on virtually nothing, so what I can get up to on ice and snow has to be seen to be believed. My kids have inherited their father's So what? attitude to slipping and falling. They happily walk, skip, and even run on icy surfaces. I can't bear to watch them; I can't even watch people ski or ice skate without wincing.

So for the past two weeks, I've stayed inside whenever possible, venturing outside only to throw out the trash -- quite a feat as the lid freezes shut every night -- collect my daughter from school, or make the odd totally necessary trip into town to buy something. When I go out, I'm kitted out like Tenzing Norgay or Edmund Hilary preparing to tackle Everest, wearing many pairs of socks, legwarmers, and mittens, and on my feet, hiking boots with the deepest, sharpest tread I could find. The extra clothes aren't just for warmth, they're for padding. With all the compacted ice and snow, just making my way down the street took me ages and it got harder and harder to work up the courage to go out. Until the other day, when I saw that some wonderful person had decided to grit the road.

Striding confidently along, my feet crunching on fine grit, I wondered who had been out there so early to do this. As I turned a corner, I heard the sound of a shovel biting into sand, and I saw Harold, who lives around the corner from us and is 80 years old if he's a day. Someone once told me that Harold was in WWII. I've never asked him, but I can easily believe it. And there he was, loaded shovel in hand, bending over a wheelbarrow full of grit. "Thank you so much for doing that," I said, thoroughly humbled as I fought the urge to wrest the shovel out of his hands and start shoveling myself. "Well, somebody's got to," he said, shrugging. "Council are supposed to grit the roads, but they just take too long!"

This isn't the first time somebody of Harold's generation has helped me out with slippery surfaces. The first person who did this for me was my mother-in-law. I was pregnant with our first daughter and we were out for a post-Christmas hike in the hills. It had snowed the night before and the ground was icy and treacherous. When we got to a bad patch, I froze, not trusting myself to go on. My mother-in-law has 40 years on me and is half a foot shorter, but she slipped her arm through mine and we navigated the bad patch together. A couple walking towards us shot me an approving look that said Good for you for helping that old lady! I had to look down; my cheeks were burning with shame.

The next time it happened, I was in Tokyo, only 50 meters from my office in Ochanomizu. I had dressed hastily that morning and was wearing cowboy boots with no tread in them. All of a sudden, I realized that a good two meters of black ice lay between me and my office building. People flowed around me as I stood there, utterly frozen in panic. A tiny elderly man dressed in a great coat and a grey fedora was coming from the opposite direction. When he saw me standing there, stricken with fear, a big smile creased his face. He held out his elbow. "Allow me," he said. I struggled briefly with my conscience -- how could I let somebody so old and frail help me? -- but my terror won. I took his arm and did my best not to crush his elbow in my desperation. He walked me baby step by baby step over the black ice, then laughed off my thanks. Over my shoulder, I watched as he walked back over the icy road towards the station. A high school boy only a few feet behind him slipped and fell on the icy patch, then laughed and brushed the snow off his knees as he got up.

The last time it happened was in Cyprus, where there is -- thank God! very little ice during the winter. But unfortunately, whoever designed our university chose a smooth, shiny stone for the entrance. A fine film of dust settled on this overnight and when it rained, the surface became as slippery as oiled glass. On rainy days, most of my colleagues and even a few of my students had to offer me their arms to get me safely across. But early one morning, one of the cleaning ladies, a woman old enough to be my mother, was outside sweeping when I arrived. It had rained and I was stupidly wearing shoes without tread. At first, the woman ignored me, continuing to sweep. At some point, though, she looked up and saw me standing there. She said something that I can only hope was the Turkish for "Go on, you can do it!" I froze until she finally realized that the only way to get rid of me was to give me a hand. As I slipped through the lobby past the great bronze statue of Atatürk, I felt as though he was glaring down at me, disgusted by my klutzy wimpiness.

On the street, I watched Harold fill his shovel with grit from the wheelbarrow and sprinkle it over the icy sidewalk. "We owe a lot to you for taking the initiative to do that," I said lamely. Harold sank his shovel into the grit again, scooped up a good bunch of it, and scattered it over a stretch of compacted snow. "Like I said, somebody's gotta do it. But thank you for noticing!"


Anonymous said...

I think you're quite right to be leery of icy/slidy surfaces! They can be so dangerous. In the past two weeks, two relatives of mine have had to go to hospital for injuries gained after falling on the ice. (broken wrist for one, black eye and bad cuts/bruising for the other) I'm in Edinburgh and we've had it very bad too. The army were called in a few days ago to dig routes through to hospitals and carehomes ... but it is now, finally, thawing. phew.

Keep safe and steady! And hurrah for Harold. (Our council have not been particularly on the ball about getting the grit out, either!)

Kim Ayres said...

A couple of years ago Maggie had a really bad fall on the ice and did something to her knee that gave her discomfort for many months afterwards. She's now terrified of going out on the snow and ice. Fortunately I'm pretty sure-footed and it's a long time since I fell on ice.

I think spending a winter in Canada in my mid-20s made the difference. After several months of compacted ice and snow, I got used to it. Now, as soon as I step on the stuff my body memory just takes over, automatically making smaller steps and placing my feet flat with every step rather than heel-toe.

Vijaya said...

Mary, you and I are twins when it comes to ice. I am also terribly uncoordinated and often find myself standing, waiting for someone to lend me their helping hands. And bless them. And bless Harold.

A Paperback Writer said...

Snow's a fact of life here in Salt Lake City, but I recall how big a deal it was the few times it snowed while I lived in Edinburgh. I chuckled one evening as the snowplows were out scraping half an inch off the roads.

We, too, had lots of snow and cold temps (down in the single digits F) about 2 weeks ago. This week we've had rain and it's all melted, which is quite strange for December. Hopefully we'll get some more snow soon or it won't feel like Christmas.
As for ice, well, it can be pretty disconcerting. Both my parents are well into their 80s, and it drives me nuts when they try to clean off their own walks. I'm so afraid one of them's going to fall!
About 12 or 13 years ago, I did fall on black ice at school and put a stress fracture in my ankle. I walked on it for 10 days without a cast so I could do a dance performance for a Christmas show, but then got a walking cast put on it. However, I am extra careful and take small steps on the ice so I don't go down again.

Mary Witzl said...

Emily -- Wow! Because I live with sure-footed people, I've begun to feel like a real wimp, but after reading your comment, I'm truly relieved -- a black eye and broken wrist from slipping and falling do NOT sound like fun. My foster daughter is in Edinburgh too and she's been telling us about some of the icy adventures she's had there. She's also reported on the lack of grit or salt on the streets.

We could use more Harolds, couldn't we? And his attitude is a real inspiration. The next time it snows, I'm going to try to beat him to the grit.

Kim -- That's what I dread: falling and messing myself up for months. I don't blame Maggie a bit for being scared. And knock on wood, Kim!

I spent a year in New York and we had a pretty rough winter there with a lot of snow and ice. I used to walk 22 blocks to work and got a lot of practice walking on compacted snow, but I still slipped and fell a lot; my ankles aren't very flexible, which may account for my lousy coordination. Now, I figure I'll let caution be the better part of valor. But if you and I ever walk on snow together, I WILL hold onto your arm!

Vijaya -- You've got this problem too? Poor you and poor me! But one of the good things about this problem is that you meet a lot of kind people who are prepared to help. And I'm sure I've ended up recruiting a few people who weren't prepared to help, but who were eventually persuaded to perform a useful service.

The Harolds of this world deserve medals. I think their generation developed an incredible sense of civic duty during the War, especially in the U.K. And if anything could get ME out on ice, gritting the road, it's the sight of an 80-plus year old man taking the initiative to do it.

APW -- It sounds like the snow ploughs in Scotland aren't really up to heavy jobs. On the other hand, the people here are made out of stern stuff: there were a lot of pictures of commuters going out to dig their own cars out of snow drifts. And of course there are guys like Harold (who is actually English, but could just as easily be Scottish).

You walked AND danced on with a stress fracture for ten days, without a cast? If you were my kid, I'd be wringing my hands and tearing my hair!

Falak said...

WOW! All that snow! I wish I could see it. Well, we have wet surfaces during the monsoons here but luckily I've managed to glide through them.

Charles Gramlich said...

Glad it is starting to thaw a bit. Wow, that was cold.

MG Higgins said...

I, too, am terrified of ice. My husband broke his leg slipping on ice just outside our front door. When the paramedics came, they had to crouch on all fours to keep from falling themselves. I slipped and landed hard on my tail bone; I swear it hurt for two years. And driving? Forget about it. Thankfully, we now live where there's very little ice and I've promised myself I won't moved back to a cold clime--snow is beautiful to look at, but eventually you have to get out there and walk and drive on some dangerous stuff.

Mary Witzl said...

Falak -- I'd take a monsoon over a snowstorm any day! I love the idea of monsoons because I love rain. My dream is to experience a monsoon someday myself. (Have you ever read Alexander Frater's 'Chasing the Monsoon?' If you haven't, I recommend it -- it's one of my favorite travel books.)

Charles -- It sure was. I don't even want to think about what February might be like!

MG -- What you've described there is pretty much my worst nightmare: slipping on ice, then having to wait for ages -- with a broken bone! -- for the paramedics to show up. Your poor husband!

I've fallen on my knees, my hands, my elbows, my side, with one leg stretched in front and the other behind me, and right on my tailbone. They all hurt, but smacking your tailbone is particularly awful because you can't climb stairs for ages afterwards.

Robert the Skeptic said...

I grew up in California and was never in really cold weather until I went to college in Oregon. There I was warned about "black ice"!! I had no clue what that was, thinking it was a joke of some kind being played on impressionable yokels from the Golden State.

I found out the hard way after borrowing my roommates huge Plymouth to take a girl out on a date. Coming back from the theater the car decided to ignore my steering and conduct it's own maneuvers. It did a complete 360 turn on the highway. When I came to a stop finally my date said: "Black Ice". I became a believer.

Pat said...

It's not wimpishness. I have the same problem and once went a--e over tip seven months preggers. All was well but especially now ice paralyses me and I'm not about to risk a fourth fracture.
Your MIL was doing what comes naturally and protecting her grandchild.
Your excellent neighbour is a bit young - my age - to have fought in WW2 but he would certainly have lived through it and it did toughen us.

Robin said...

Maybe you should get treads put on the bottom of all your shoes, like those chains some people put on their tires. You sound like a lady who needs traction. (Thinking about all the old people helping you over slick patches makes me giggle.)

I am a klutz but refuse to admit it. I fall constantly, but blithely skip out the door onto the ice as though I'm a coordinated person. I almost broke my shoulder falling down the two stairs that lead to our living room. That's spazzy, eh?

Mary Witzl said...

Robert -- Me too! I grew up in Southern California and found out what black ice was entirely by accident -- and boy, did it hurt. After that first painful incident, I scrutinized road surfaces very carefully wherever I went. You start squinting, really scanning for that tell-tale luster, don't you? Seeing is believing. And slipping and falling is like finding the burning bush.

Pat -- I'm so glad you and your baby were okay -- and that I'm not the only champion slipper. Even with my obviously pregnant belly, the looks I got from the people around us seemed to say "Good for you, dear!" I just hope my MIL didn't notice -- or care.

Someone told me that Harold was born in 1925. I find it hard to believe, but if that's true, he would be old enough to have served in WWII. He knew another man in our neighborhood, now sadly gone, who was one of the boys captured in Singapore in 1942. I was lucky enough to get to know him.

Robin -- I've seriously considered spiked shoes. My husband used to laugh at the idea, but after decades of marriage to me, he's beginning to see the wisdom. Maybe I could forge bits of chain into the worn tread of my boots -- there's a good idea!

I'm in awe of people who step blithely when there's snow and ice about. Every time I walk on ice, I remember my grandfather's tiny mincing steps when he became old and feeble. It always humbles me.

Chocolatesa said...

I'm fairly used to ice having lived in Canada all my life, but my mom is terrified of it like you, even though she's been living here 30 years and was in Sweden before then! She always asks to hang on to my arm when we go outside in the winter.

Marcia said...

Oh Mary -- we were totally separated at birth. I'm HORRIBLE on slippery surfaces. After the birth of my first child, I didn't understand why my tailbone hurt so badly. A chiropractor solved the mystery. Looking at the x-rays of my wrinkled tailbone, he said, "This must have been broken years ago, healed funny, and during childbirth it was pushed out of the way." Suddenly I was feeling those countless falls as a kid on icy sidewalks all over again.

Oh, and I practically killed myself at a roller rink in my early 30s. FLAT on my back. And don't even get me started on cross-country trails.

Mary Witzl said...

Chocolatesa -- It cheers me up no end to know that a long-term resident of Canada AND Sweden is also afraid of walking on ice! I managed an hour-long walk today and came home exhausted just from nerves, not the exercise. Please tell your mother I hang on to any arm I can get.

Marcia -- I'm so glad I'm not alone in this!

I went rollerskating one horrible time when I was 14 and spent 80% of the time on my bum. My last fall was so bad I couldn't climb stairs for two months. My knees are so scarred from my many falls I don't dare to wear short skirts. Which is probably a good thing all around.

At least you have an excuse -- you fall on ICY pavements. I can fall on perfectly level, non-slippery roads, wearing rubber-soled shoes. Hiking with me is an extreme exercise in patience.

World Events and News said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Atlanta Home Security said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

A person essentially help to make seriously posts I'd state. This is the first time I frequented your web page and to this point? I amazed with the research you made to make this particular put up incredible. Fantastic job!
my website: cremazioni roma

Anonymous said...

Hi there, I enjoy reading all of your post. I wanted to
write a little comment to support you.
Here is my page affiliate marketing

Anonymous said...

I enjoy what you guys tend to be up too. This sort of clever work and
reporting! Keep up the excellent works guys I've added you guys to blogroll.
my web page > sailboat charter marketing