A few hours ago, (when I began writing this), I had just returned from picking up my wife at the airport. One of the ‘drive-home topics’ naturally was the traditional “how was your flight” conversation. She spoke of flying over the big first major storm of the season and later, as I watched the video footage of the blizzard in Minnesota, I was reminded of the time we got snowbound in Puerto Rico.
What? You don’t believe me? Would I lie to you? (Great song by the Eurythmics, by the way).
You see, one of my P&G jobs was a role called Site Business Planner. One of the duties of a plant’s business planner was to participate in a quarterly volume planning meeting, attended by the business planner from every site in the network. Our network at that time was called Dry Laundry. (Back in those days, most laundry detergent was powder). Each time we met, one of the sites would play host. The site I was at made all the volume for the Puerto Rican business and someone had suggested traveling there since we had never, ever visited their offices.
Ok, ok….so it also made a great place for a boondoggle. We set the meeting for Thursday and early Friday morning so that we could then use the weekend for personal time, a vacation.
We basically had only a day, so we stayed inside San Juan, the capital city. El Morro and Old San Juan were beautiful but soon it was time to catch our plane home. Maybe I should back up at this point.
You see, we had two young boys at the time and Kim was 5.5 months pregnant with our third. Wanting the vacation and a desire to leave the boys with relatives, (there’s that risk mitigation aspect kicking in again), we had driven north to Cincinnati from Louisiana. We spent a couple of days visiting in Hamilton and then flew out of Cincinnati to San Juan. The plan was simple; we’d drive to Cincy, fly to Puerto Rico, fly back to Cincy and then drive back to Louisiana.
When we got back into Hamilton from PR, the weather forecast was for a winter storm to blow through the Midwest, right smack dab into our driving path. The forecast called for as much as 6-8 inches of snow through Kentucky and Ohio.
It was early in the year so I had plenty of vacation. I wanted to stay back in Ohio for another day so we could let the storm play out. My pregnant wife however, wanted to drive through the storm. Just so everyone reading this is clear, let me repeat this for the official record. Direct quote:
Kim – We’ve driven through six inches of snow lots of time and I have a doctor’s appointment I don’t want to miss.
Me – I really don’t want to drive through that, what if it’s worse?
I ask you, what man ever wins an argument with a hormonal, five month pregnant wife? So we got up very early the next morning and drove.
The route south was to hit I-71 out of Cincinnati, headed down towards KY I-65 south. Travel was slow and as the morning moved forward, the snow kept falling and we kept moving slower and slower. The further south we moved, the more I kept worrying about a huge hill we’d have to go over, near Elizabethtown, KY. I think when I saw the people on horses walking faster than we were driving on I-265, that was the point I knew we weren’t going to make it.
We had driven maybe 8 hours already and wasn’t even off of I-265 when I began looking for an exit I could get off on. By that time we had received not 6-8 inches of snow, but over a foot already. No way in hell would we make it up that E-town hill! The land was a bit hilly and because traffic was crawling, a vehicle would get stuck. When that happened, the rest of us highway travelers would get out to help push the car up the hill. You see, there was only one lane open – open only because of cars that were traveling. The Kentucky government, in its brilliance, had gotten rid of most of its road clearance equipment the previous summer due to “low usage”. Well, we sure could use it now.
At Shepherdsville, we finally found an exit clear enough to get off on so we pulled into the Waffle House parking lot to see if we could sit out the weather while waiting on the snow removal equipment. Waffles and syrup would provide substance should we get snowbound. We had not yet been alerted to the fact that there would be no snow removal that day, though we hadn’t seen one single piece of snow removal equipment yet. We hadn’t been in the Waffle House 30 minutes when a local police officer ‘got everyone’s attention’ to let us know that a state of emergency was being declared by the governor and that the highways were being closed. Everyone was then ordered to drive a short distance over to the local high school, (Bullitt Central High), as it was to become a Red Cross unit.
It was January so, (luckily), we had packed blankets in the car. Our family and maybe another 200 other travelers found a section of the hallway or gymnasium and set up camp. After the first wonderful night of sleeping on that hard, cold tile floor, the National Guard brought in a couple handfuls of cots. No, we didn’t get to leave after one night, surprise! Luckily for Kim, old people and pregnant ladies were first in line for the restful, luxurious Army cots. The rest of us grunts were relegated to the floor.
Thankfully, we had packed a deck of cards and plenty of games to keep the two boys occupied. No smartphones or internet yet. No towels yet either so no running around the gym, getting sweaty. We walked around the hallways, chatting with people, meeting our neighbors, doing anything to help the day pass. Three square meals of high school cafeteria food with little half pints of milk and orange drink were the highlight of the day. That was Day One of Kentucky Snow Day Crisis.
After night two, a load of towels were brought in. I did play a little basketball that day and was able to get a shower. I played lots of card games of “war” with the boys that day. They didn’t seem to mind all the extra time they were getting with their parents. The forecast that night was to be 20 degrees below zero. I set the little ‘shake alarm’ I had with me to wake me up every 90 minutes so that I could go outside to start up the car’s engine and let it warm up a bit. When the roads opened up, IF the roads opened up, I didn’t want to get stuck at Bullitt Central High with a dead battery. We survived Day Two, but just barely. Thank God for high school meat loaf!
During the third day, surprise! We got clowns and magic! Well ok, the magic clown was for the kids. But hey, when your big thrill of the day is a half pint of orange colored liquid, even guys dressed in clown suits begin to look like appealing entertainment. It was during this day that I thought if I had to eat another soy burger or canned green beans or chicken finger, I’d go crazy – and it wasn’t because of the simple fact that chickens don’t have fingers.
I decided to venture outside to explore the area. And that’s when I saw it. It was a beacon from the heavens, a divine intervention to our struggle. Just slightly up the street, there it was – a genuine, real Italian restaurant, and it was open for business! Surely this was just a mirage, but no, after clearing my eyes, it was still there. Italian is my favorite, so definitely, this was divine!
It was still subzero outside, but heaven awaited and it was only one city block away from the school doors. I walked back and delivered the wonderful news to my family. They acted as if we had won the lottery! We all bundled up and made the walk across the street right around 4pm. When we arrived, we were the only family present although another couple of locals soon arrived. The kids ordered pizza and spaghetti. Kim and I ordered up two dishes, both that turned out to be wonderful, some of the best Italian food I’d ever eaten.
I asked my waitress to ask the chef to come out when he had a spare moment so I could give him my rave personal review. It was quiet so I figured he had a moment and I was looking for any opportunity at all to delay our return to prison. The guy who came out turned out to be the owner of the place, a nice fifty’ish kind of guy who reminded me a bit of Joe, my stepfather. We had a nice 20 minute discussion about his great cooking, his heritage and how he’d ended up in Kentucky and then I shared my own experiences with Joe’s mother’s cooking and my fondness of marinara sauce. What I remember most about this conversation was his response to my asking him if his business was good.
Quote – “are you kidding? These hillbillies think Pizza Hut is great Italian!”
That made me crack up…but it made me a little sad too. This was excellent Italian cuisine and should be enjoyed by many. We all shared a few more laughs and stories and just hung out, eating pasta and bread, spending as much time there as we could before we had to head back to our high school jail. This was a great meal, but more, we shared a great moment with an entrepreneur, someone working hard to provide for his family.
I set my alarm each night because the temperatures remained subzero.
More sleep on the hard floor, visions of magic clowns in our dreams, chasing us with two foot high snowballs, our seeking escape on day four. It was late in day four where we got the news that the National Guard had brought in the ‘black ice’, (I think it was called), and that the E-town hill had a single lane open now. Most everyone started packing up to hit the highway, but we thought it best to get a good night’s sleep and then attack the hill tomorrow, early in daylight when traffic should be lighter and another lane would perhaps be opened. Due to everyone trying to leave, the local motel told us we could get a room for the night.
Ah…..a bed and a private shower. It was the best night’s sleep ever in our lives.
Thankfully, the rest of the trip was uneventful. Kim had missed her doctor’s appointment anyway, the kids had missed a week of school and I, a week or work. Sometimes though, life’s little disasters provide us with some of our best times and most vivid memories. My memories of Old San Juan are nowhere as clear as all of my memories of our Shepherdsville Red Cross vacation. I can still recall the coldness and hardness of the tile floor that had become our bed, the walks around the hallways, the tables and chairs of our cafeteria and the taste and memories of our amazing Italian dinner. Mostly though, I remember the feeling of knowing that I could do nothing to change what was our current situation and then just trying to enjoy the family time that had been given to us.
At work, I had been dubbed the only person ever to have gotten snowed in on a Puerto Rican business trip. As much as we thought we had hated our situation in Shepherdsville, today I look back on that week with great fondness and a longing to relive those days in simpler times.
Fast forward to about 6:30 to see the snow and an inside glimpse of our high school vacation spot