The foot of snow that fell overnight covered the two concrete strips that made up our “driveway.” American homebuilders were a more frugal lot back in the late 1920s when my childhood home in South Omaha was built.
Instead of pouring a complete concrete driveway to connect our one-car garage in the backyard to the street’s curb, two 14-inch wide concrete paths, just wide enough for an automobile’s tires, were laid parallel the width of a car’s axles.
I struggled with my grown-man-sized metal shovel and heavy wooden handle as I attempted to clear the strip to the north of the day-old snow first. The weight of each scoopful had my seven-year-old-self teetering forward and back before I tried unsuccessfully to pitch it over the strip to the south and atop the snow-covered lawn.
My brothers and sisters will chuckle at my liberal use of the term “lawn” to describe the assortment of grass, weeds and dirt patches that made up the side yard of the home that served as our childhood base for 40 years.
Having a pristine lawn in our neighborhood was not a priority. I cannot think of anyone on 15th Street (or 14th Street for that matter) who had a neatly manicured lawn the likes of which are abundant in so many neighborhoods today.
People were far more concerned back then with the Germans and Japs regrouping for a surprise attack on Offutt Air Force Base than they were about crabgrass.
School had let out for the day and mom had instructed me that the driveway needed clearing before there would be time to watch Superman on our black-and-white Zenith. After-school television was what I and my brothers and sister Teri lived for in the 1960s. George Reeves’ portrayal of The Man of Steel to this day stands as my favorite comic book hero come to life.
Classic movies from the 1930s and ‘40s like Bob Hope’s and Bing Crosby’s road movies also played across our afternoon TV screen while mom prepared the evening meal and we avoided her reach with the yardstick.
For some reason I was alone in this snow-shoveling venture – an almost unheard of state of being in a household with 14 siblings. My brothers Tim and/or Mort accompanied me for just about every task my mom assigned. Mort was likely too young to shovel snow so that would explain his absence.
Mom may have sent Tim to Amen’s Grocery Store on 13th Street or dispatched him to Tesar’s Meat Market on 14th & William. This was likely before Tim’s unfortunate happenstance where he lost Mom’s coin purse not once but TWICE on his way to and from the markets and shops east of St. Wenceslaus’ tempting playground.
Just as I lost my balance and spilled a shovel full of snow back onto the narrow strip of concrete I had just cleared, a large truck loudly parked out front of our two-story home. The airbrakes made a whooshing sound as the driver hopped out of his cab under the porous canopy of the large leafless silver maple. Milder Oil was neatly painted on the side of the cylinder-shaped wagon.
The driver headed to the rear of his truck and unhooked a long hose. He grasped the metal spout at the business end of the hose and walked toward me in the backyard. He unlocked the circular opening on the south side of our house and noisily inserted the nose of his oil gun. He pulled the trigger violently and locked it in place. The flaccid hose immediately came to life with oil coursing from the truck and into the parched oil tank in our basement.
Our home was built when coal was still the common source to heat homes. A pitch-dark yet inviting coal closet remained in place in our whitewashed basement from this bygone era.
We used the old coal closet then to house our potpourri of hand-me-down sporting goods. A thick-thumbed Luis Aparicio gloved that belonged to Denie, Bob and Joe was now part of Tim’s, Mort’s and my baseball arsenal. The same for a fat-handled Jackie Robinson wooden bat. Assorted baseballs, boxing gloves, Frisbees and footballs could also be found in this former coal cellar.
The previous owner had converted the heating system in our home from coal to oil before dad purchased it in 1954.
The large oil tank that served as a reservoir for our heating fuel sat on the south side of the basement and reminded me of a large gray elephant. The combination of its foreboding footprint and combustible contents made it an easy target for my siblings and me to avoid.
With time to kill while the oil tank filled, the Milder Oil man turned his attention to me as I leaned on my shovel and shivered. The mess I had made of the paltry four feet of concrete I had shoveled was evident. He pushed his stocking cap back toward the rear of his head and smiled.
“That’s a lot of snow to shovel for a little guy,” he grinned. “Let me show you how it’s done.”
The tall, long-limbed man grabbed my shovel from my hand.
“Hey, this stranger is going to shovel the driveway for me!” I thought to myself.
I wondered if I needed to stick around and politely watch him or if I could just head inside our warm house and catch the end of Superman where he sticks his chest in front of a bullet or two and twists the bad guy’s gun barrel like it’s made of licorice.
Instead of deftly plowing through the 50-foot two-lane driveway, the Milder Oil man took my shovel and made a quick one-handed downward motion to slice off a foot of the white crust. He then scooped up the square of ice and flipped it effortlessly to the left toward Mr. and Mrs. Geiger’s house.
I watched the cube of snow fly upward intact and then crash into a million snowflakes upon impact.
“It’s just like cutting cake,” explained the oilman as he handed me back my shovel.
“Don’t think of it as having to shovel the entire driveway at once. Think of shoveling it one slice of cake at a time.”
I looked up at him curiously.
“You try it,” he added.
My smile was not nearly as genuine as his.
I grudgingly duplicated his gesture with the shovel and cut off a narrower slice of snow. I then scraped the bottom of my shovel along the concrete to cradle the slice of silvery cake before tossing the manageable-sized snow wedge to the left with surprising relative ease.
I looked back at the bare concrete and marveled at how easy – and dare I say fun – that was to accomplish.
I sliced an even bigger piece of snow cake onto my shovel, scraped, lifted and tossed it toward the left. It exploded with an almost silent humpff!
The oilman uncoupled his hose from our house and reeled it back onto his truck. I continued slicing, tossing and clearing the path. I nodded good-bye to him in answer to his wave in an effort to not upset my rhythm.
I forgot all about Superman as I became engrossed in the progress each slice of snow cake revealed. I made quick work of our driveway and felt the satisfying glow of accomplishment.
I unbuttoned the top button on my parka and tossed my shovel over my shoulder – and headed over to the Geiger’s driveway to ply my newfound skill on their narrow tire-wide driveway.
Greg Hall @greghall24 / [email protected]