Wide awake at 3 o’clock in the morning, waiting for the impending snow storm of the century, all I can think about are snow tires; more specifically those old snow tires that had chains. It seems that the further the years take me away from my primitive past, the more it re-appears to haunt me at the oddest, most inconvenient hours of the night.
Most normal people, when they think back to their snowy youth, remember sleigh riding, hot cocoa, warm fires. I, however, think of unplowed streets, lack of traction, and my old man’s furrowed brow as seen from the rearview mirror as he ordered my little foot to “GIVE IT GAS!” while shouldering the Falcon out of an uneven snow drift as the tire spit a violent deluge of snow into his unprotected face. The roar of the revving engine drowning out the gusts of profanity emitted in puffy clouds of steam from his mouth like the winds of Poseidon.
Winter was not my old man’s season of choice. In fact, before he married he followed the sun south every winter to pre-Castro Cuba where he caddied for all the swells who treated him swell. His Havana stories always included lots of money in his pockets, midnight poker games in smoky dim-lit backrooms of bars, a colorful array of zoot suits, hand-rolled cigars, and iced rum served free to the high-rollers by hard-drinking bartenders. His stories entertained my imagination, and whenever Carmen Miranda or Ricky Ricardo came on T.V. he’d hum nostalgically along to their music while his eyes mourned the loss of those long, lazy Cuban dias of winters past.
But to the northeast he permanently returned, never quite reconciling himself to the cold. I remember once, towards the end of his life when he was very sick but would let no one outside of his family know, there was a raging blizzard and he was late coming home from work. Worried that he might be stuck somewhere because the chained snow tires weren’t yet on his car, my mother sent me out on foot to find him. I walked north on Lemoine Avenue, the heart of the Coytesville section of Fort Lee, my head bent low to shield my face from the slash of whipping sleet. I passed Holy Trinity Church; passed the white-steepled First Reformed Church; passed the “Lunch Box”; passed “Bobanell’s Liquors.” I paused before the rectangular front window of “Randall’s Bar,” the last of the neighborhood saloons. I peered as best as my snow-blurred eyes could into the window, envying the shadows of the few bodies I saw standing around the bar.
As I surged on, something familiar struck me. “Did I see the silhouette of a pinky being raised with a shot glass?” I turned around and followed the grooved footprints of my snowboots back to the bar. I looked past my neon reflection and examined the patrons. A hand waved. It was my father’s hand.
As I crossed the entrance, the rush of intense heat magnetically pulled me towards the belly of the bar. There, regaling the neighborhood boys from Fort Lee Firehouse #2 with his incredible stories, stood my dear old man waving a shot glass of whiskey in the air as if it was a beacon light piloting lost travelers to safe harbors. He handed me the glass of amber liquor and said, “Here’s to your health!” As the whiskey travelled down my throat, tears swelled in my eyes. Not because the whiskey burned, not because I was wet and cold, not because I had expected to find him dead in the raging storm. No; tears choked me because I knew that this was the last perfect moment I would ever spend warm and safe by my father’s side. He died the following Fall, leaving this earth long before the winds of winter set in.
My father taught me that chains on your tires keep you gravitated to the earth when you feel like you’ve lost your footing. And it’s my memories of him that gravitate me to this earth when I feel like I’ve lost my footing and life is spinning out of control; a safe, warm harbor in the midst of raging storms.