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Ice Station Atlanta

If you would, please, bear with an old man, for I have a digressive tale to tell, full of reminiscences (I can’t help myself – the world was so small back then). I’m going to take you back, back like a rocking chair (as we used to say); back several decades to 2014 (yes, I am that old).  There was one day in particular that I suspected I’d never forget, and that suspicion has certainly held up, even until now.  I’m referring to Tuesday, January 28th, the day a big ice storm hit Atlanta (when my wife and I still lived there).  It made national news for days on end.

Back in 1864 Atlanta had a trial by fire; in 2014 it had its trial by ice, the population not yet suspecting that 21 years later it would suffer its trial by both mutant self-aware Kudzu and cicadas.  That’s real plague stuff we’re talking about here.

The day started off innocently enough, I got ready for work.  It was dark out, I only remember that it hadn’t started snowing yet because of what happened by the old Dunkin’ Donuts (you old timers will remember them, right?).  I was driving along on Bells Ferry Road in my ancient Ford Focus (one of the first ones too, I think it was from ’01 – nowadays you only see them in people’s yards serving as big planters with the hoods cut off).  This guy in a little Chevy pulled out of the Dunkin’ D’s parking lot and right into my lane.

He didn’t see me at all; I braked hard but still hit him.  It wasn’t too bad, I mean, I realize that to you it’s weird that I even hit him but you have to remember this is a time before cars had autopilot EM systems that would take over, let alone external air bags.  We pulled over and exchanged insurance info with our still-novel smart phones, taking pictures of those old insurance cards and licenses.

I remember us being surprised that the damage was so small to both our cars – we really used to bumble around like bumper-car idiots “back in the day” (that’s another thing we used to say).  We both had small dents to our fenders and decided to go along on our respective ways; relieved it hadn’t been worse (we had both had skidded a bit).

Already I knew I’d remember this day because I’d never had a car accident before – a crazy fact, what with all the unprotected driving then.

I got to work at my job Whole Foods (this was back when it was only in 3 countries, before its acquisition of both Kroger and later Kraft Foods and the old Burger King chain – back when health foods were called “health foods” And not just “food”).  Somebody suggested I go out to look at my car when it was light out; I did and discovered I had a flat tire.  Flat tires were a real nuisance to deal with before NuRubber and I called my insurance company to have my car towed to a repair place, so they could look for further damage.

If I remember correctly, right around then it started to snow.  It was nice to look at but not sticking anywhere except in parking medians next to our 2 (2!) electric car charging stations.  I got fixed up with a rental car from some company whose name escapes my memory at the moment….

Meanwhile everybody stayed at work, unconcerned.  Sometime around lunchtime the snow started to stick on the concrete parking lot surface and the general “vibe” changed really fast after that!  Our store got busy, like it was Thanksgiving or something.  By the time the snow was sticking everywhere we all decided to leave early, as did apparently everyone else in “Metro Atlanta,” which at the time had over a million people. Our area was just a suburb back then and there were no subways yet, so the streets became quickly clogged with cars.  Imagine this happening today, with four times the people!

All this happened because in those days “dumb” cars were really hard to control on ice and southerners in particular were also a little hard to control on the ice.  Nobody wanted to get into an accident and have to deal with their Byzantine insurance concerns.  I stood outside and waited for (oh yeah, it was Enterprise!) the Enterprise Car Rental guy to pick me up. He took a long time because the streets were already icing over and everybody was driving literally (I kid you not) at 3.2 KPH (though we all called it 2 MPH, President Clinton wouldn’t put us on Metric until ‘21).

He collected me and we began our slow journey.  The little strip mall where the car rental place was located was all deserted.  I’ve always remembered it as looking like that old flat (no holograms yet either) Atlanta based TV show “The Walking Dead” (zombies were HUGE back then).  The only people were the two car guys, wearing suits and weirdly grinning.  And me.  And a new 2014 Chevy Town and Country. That car was “the bomb” (that means good) back then, full of extras that my car didn’t have (my old Ford actually had a tape player!  No, not an 8-Track, smart aleck).

It was 2:30 pm.  I filled out my paperwork and they wished me luck.  On my way out I remember joking that when I got home (22 kilos away) at midnight that night I’d relax enough to appreciate their help.  After all, I was named after an uncle who had two car accidents in the same day back in the 1950’s, and the second one killed him.

This day I had already had my first and was keen on history NOT repeating itself.  And though I’d driven on ice before I couldn’t rely on the clowns surrounding me to be as good as I was.

It was really a different time, just imagine my handicaps starting out; this is why it was so hard to get things done back then!  No salting drones, and the only heat understripping on major streets that existed then were located in faraway Norway, and those were just experiments.  The major streets froze and we all just had to – deal with it.

I had to pay attention every second, in bumper to bumper traffic, making decisions all the time, staying “frosty” – no pun intended.  I was a real traffic warrior, my car may have been new and replete with nice tech but it still didn’t have the ability to make decisions for me or countermand my orders.  If I got into an accident it would be my fault (and that’s probably why car companies today always seem to long for the “good old days”).

An old 2D photo from that day.

An old 2D photo from that day.

I remember it was still light out when I started, we moved very slowly or not at all.  It wasn’t ever snowing hard enough to “white out” but by 3pm everything was blanketed in whiteness.  Many times I just sat; manually idling my car while I watched traffic lights cycle back red yellow to green over and over.  It got darker outside, somewhere along the way I pulled into a gas station (you wouldn’t believe how smelly gas really was) and visited the bathroom.  When I left the station I actually got my place back on the street in front of and behind the same cars that surrounded me earlier.

I was on the road for hours, as it became night I saw a few cars abandoned on the side of the road, all empty.  It was dark all over except for cars’ blinking “hazard lights.”

I noticed if I drove between 3.5 and a little over 11 KPH I would never slip.  The only thing that saved accidents from occurring all over is that we were all going so slowly.  Sometimes I’d be behind a long line of stopped cars and then notice later that the only reason they stopped was because everyone was afraid to either go up or down a hill.  None of the streets had angle grading and were of course all draped in ice.

In one instance I was stopped for 45 minutes behind a lot of cars and it turned out later they were all afraid to go around a bus that was stuck halfway up a hill.  There were no cops around, but there were people exiting their cars and trying to direct traffic or spread news.  It was vaguely anarchic and left me feeling uneasy.

It was like we were a bunch of kids standing on a long diving board, nobody sure if they’d survive the jump into the water.  This would exacerbate the day’s problems.

This general reticence kept me and everyone else on the road for hours more than was necessary. At one point, with my phone charge almost out (I still had to use a connecting cable for the iPhone 5) I turned off into a church parking lot and decided to spend the night in the car (Yes, I had to stop and also shut off my car before taking a nap).  I semi-dozed for a few minutes after making a dramatic last call to my wife.  I told her I’d see her the next day (she STILL makes fun of me for that).

I was on Canton Rd. It was about 9pm and that was also where I first saw police or anybody “official” connected to Cobb County or the city.

I couldn’t sleep; I didn’t want to “go out like that” and decided to search in earnest for a USB Port to charge my phone.  This was in that little window of time, historically, when they were widely used and in 2014 were still kind of new then.  I opened the glove box and there it was, a glowing port.  I started the car and plugged in the phone, charging it and looking on my “maps app” for a way out.

My phone and I charged up and I left that church parking lot, having not found Jesus but instead a dependable power supply.  The lot I left behind was filling with dozing frustrated drivers like me.

I was about fifth in line on the proverbial diving board of Canton Rd.  A cop was walking slowly by our cars telling us all to be careful if we were making the attempt.  This was at most a 4% grade.  A “four by four” slipped and slid behind me.  I drove up at 8 KPH behind a tractor trailer (hey if he can make it why can’t I?) and made it to the top, several cars followed.

I found a street with few cars (finally!) and increased my speed to 11 KPH.  This is where it was really dark and I saw cars littering the road everywhere, 2 were actually sitting on their sides, shut off, wrapped in plastic tape that said “caution.”  Several others were canted in deep ditches.  Many others were just sitting on median strips in the road.

I think after that I only had one more major traffic stoppage; I remember it because to break out I led a few cars driving on the wrong side of Bells Ferry Road (right where I’d had my accident that morning – what felt like so long before) for about 5 kilos.  The other sides of these roads were all empty of cars, by the way, all traffic seemed to be going in one direction, and the civil authorities didn’t make any decision that night to open up these roads.

And of course my quaint and mute car couldn’t do these things for me, now could it?

I parked by a yoga studio and hiked up and down the 3 small hills of my subdivision.  At 11:30 pm I got home to a grateful and joyous wife, having nearly fulfilled my joking prediction to the car rental guys only 22 kilos to the east.

For a few hours I thought my story was pretty unusual, until I turned on the news and saw that we Atlantans were the lead story everywhere.  A couple of days later I got back to work (the mess had thawed out) and heard amazing stories from my coworkers.  One guy (whose name I can’t recall) rescued an ambulance driver and another guy who had a broken fibula.  He towed 5 cars up an icy hill that night.  Another coworker had a couple of cars slide right into his driveway, and he allowed them and their kids to come in and have dinner, spend the night.

My trip was nine hours, 22 kilometers, I heard a lot worse than that.  If that’s just the stuff I remember from people at my job, then imagine what was going on all around the city.

People had to help each other because there weren’t enough cops, firemen, or whatever to do so.  They said in the coming weeks it was because of the region’s decentralized government.  Certainly nobody ever took responsibility.  As time went on we had to be helped by higher technologies, by cars and streets that took responsibility for those who were unwilling to do so themselves.

I’m nostalgic about most things in life, generally, and though certainly these events couldn’t happen today; people knew even back then that with a little planning things could have been so much better.  People back then seemed to die for no reason at all, a road that was slippery, help that got there a little late or not at all.  A comm device not working.  Existence sometimes hinged on that weird tenuous stuff.  I guess one reason I remember all this so well is that my usually whimsical nostalgia for both old tech and cars-that-couldn’t-even-drive-themselves is tainted a bit with embarrassment at how things were handled by the people operating them.

It sucked living in an era where they still let these things happen.  They should have encouraged people to stay home that day, while big trucks drove back and forth salting nearly empty streets.  But, you know, there are so many other dreadful examples I could cull from that era…..

You may think we were all pretty primitive back in the ‘Teens but we weren’t cavemen after all.  We knew what was going on.  We should have done better and even without higher tech we really could have.

Article cortically rendered with DragonDelta – Sept. 22, 2046.

2 replies
  1. kathcom
    kathcom says:

    “It was like we were a bunch of kids standing on a long diving board, nobody sure if they’d survive the jump into the water.” I’m glad you made it back home, old friend, and that you got out of there before the kudzu took over the city. Those cicadas are delicious, though.


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