George Duncan, the 56-year-old leader of this snow crew, steps up 3 or 4 feet into the cab of a monstrous plow. He buckles in, snatches the radio handset affixed just above the windshield and alerts his team.
By ERIC ADLER
The Kansas City Star
Clancy Tull, 40, a newbie with only four months on the job — “He’s doing great. He’s a rock star,” Duncan says — will drive the second plow in the middle position.
Cal Kenslow, also 40, a hefty driver with a meaty handshake, will anchor the line.
“OK, you guys ready to rock and roll?” Duncan asks, but waits for no answer.
The trucks rumble to life and roll up and out of Stadium North, the Missouri Department of Transportation’s maintenance facility near the Truman Sports Complex. In the nine-county region, MoDOT has 413 operators who drive 227 trucks to clear 3,400 miles of roadway.
“Listen, I’ll tell you. If someone had told me 10 years ago that I would be doing this today,” Duncan said, meaning not just plowing, but working highway maintenance for MoDOT at all, “ I would have told them they were crazy.”
As recently as eight years ago, Duncan was a different kind of guy.
He had been a salesman and manufacturer’s representative for nearly all his adult life, mostly with shoes, having started at his father’s stores near Trenton, Mo. Later, on his own, he would sell Rockport shoes, then Frye boots, then uniforms and finally water filtration systems until that job disappeared and he found himself unemployed as the economy soured. He took what he thought would be a summer job with Jackson County Parks and Recreation and, discovering he liked it, landed the job at MoDOT five years ago.
“I know it sounds corny,” Duncan said. He conceded that he still sometimes feels forced to justify what he does to white-collar friends who intimate that his second-life career is somehow beneath him. “But I’m proud of it. I’m proud of what I do.”
At 7 a.m. Tuesday, he began what he figured would be the first of probably six days in a row of 12-hours shifts, plying and plowing the highways of Three Trails Crossing over and over and over again.
Last year, when 9 inches of heavy snow dumped on Kansas City on Feb. 21, he worked 26 days in a row, eight- and 12-hour shifts, to near exhaustion.
Scheduled to get remarried that next day, Feb. 22, “I had to postpone my wedding!” he said.
He’s worked Christmases and New Years. Two year ago, a mound of snow fell on Christmas Eve night. It began another stretch of more than 20 days in a row without a day off. Even with overtime, and at a base pay of $15- to about $18-an-hour, he makes far less than in his salesman days.
Maybe if he were younger, the money and job wouldn’t seem enough, he says. But now older, Duncan feels that as long as he has enough to pay his bills, he looks to other rewards.
“I have a daughter and a granddaughter who drive on these roads,” he said, ages 25 and 2. “I have a wife who drives these roads. I have friends and family. I feel like I’m contributing to a greater thing here, other than my paycheck.”
On Interstate 435, he picks up the radio handset.
“OK, guys. Let’s get it fanned out.” Their blades hit with a thunk, chucking up snow in a wake. “Let’s keep it tight,” he says.
It’s a signal for the three trucks to stay close enough, one behind the other, as not to allow other drivers enough room to slip in between them. Drivers do it it all the time, Duncan said. And it can be terribly dangerous.
With the trucks in formation, the snow flows from one truck’s blade to the next and the next, until it is deposited to the shoulder of the highway. Impatient divers who slip in between often have no concept of the great volume of snow that sluices off the blades. It it hardly uncommon, Duncan said, for drivers to hit the snow and spin out of control.
People die in snowstorms. One doesn’t drive day after day, up to 12 hours at a time on the same stretch of road, without seeing fatalities or just flips and spin-outs and wrecks.
“There’s one there,” Duncan says, just then passing a car that had run off the highway.
Of course, he understands how frustrated drivers can be with their perceptions of how the roads are or aren’t plowed or treated. Until he knew better, he used to be the same way, wondering why the plows weren’t always plowing, wondering why they weren’t putting down salt or sand or whatever it takes to make the roads drivable.
“No two storms are alike,” Duncan said he now knows.
The time of day when the snow falls, the kind of snow (heavy and wet or light and dry), the air temperature, the moisture in the air, whether more snow is predicted in coming hours or days — all those factors determine when and how, or even if, they spread salt, or liquid salt brine, or calcium chloride or a combination of those mixed with an extract of something called “beet juice” from sugar beets.
They all help melt ice, but not all are effective at the same temperatures. To the uninitiated, a few actions may even seem counterintuitive.
“Sometimes, in certain situations, the best bet can be to do nothing,” Duncan said. For example, if the temperature is incredibly cold, snow will fall on the highway, but not stick or melt. The best action then, if the snow is light and powdery, can sometimes be to just let it blow off the highways.
The worst option would be to spread something that melts the snow into a liquid that will freeze to dangerous ice.
“It’s all about safety,” Duncan says as he reaches again for the radio handset. Several miles of highway were plowed. The snow kept coming down.
“OK, guys,” he says, with hours more to work, “back the other way.”
To reach Eric Adler, call 816-234-4431 or send email to email@example.com.