Washington, DC — Snow, snow, snow — eighteen inches of it in two installments covered the nation’s capital with a rare blanket of immobilizing drifts. For hours the normally clogged streets were free of most moving vehicles. Pedestrians used main avenues as walkways. The District of Columbia’s slowness in clearing the streets provided time for contemplating the great snowfall of 1987.
Somehow, an urban snowstorm brings out the best in many people. Normal wariness and suspicion and reclusiveness recede. In their place, a spontaneous helpfulness comes forth as neighbors, who never met each other, help dig out their cars or assist in pushing a tire-spinning auto onto greater traction. The heavy snow lessens the differences between young and old, black and white, strangers and friends. Shovels are borrowed and small snowplows freely go that extra 15 yards to clear a neighbor’s sidewalk or driveway. There is a common adversary out there and pulling together is the promise of the day.
Mary Thomas Pittman of Falls Church, Virginia, wrote the Washington Post about her extended commute one snowy day from her work in the District back home. She watched people helping each other all along the way. “I watched drivers and passengers from all stations of life”, she said, “get out of their vehicles to render assistance to those in distress… My faith in humanity had received a tremendous boost! I wouldn’t have missed that day for the world.”
All this togetherness and mutual aid may seem routine to farm and village people around the country. Which only tells us what city people are missing out on every day.
There is another lesson of comparative comfort that is driven home as the piles of snow and ice mount. Residents in their warm homes begin to feel just a twinge of what the homeless go through daily when the discomforts of a snowstorm afflicts the comfortable people. Out there stranded in the snow or trudging through it to get help, the elements are shared, however briefly and modestly, a little more broadly.
The near paralysis gripping this city for over 24 hours was a reminder of a grimmer realization. If a two-time snowfall of less than a foot each over four days can do this to a metropolis, what credence can be given to those persons who tell us that we can keep some essential services going after a nuclear attack? One of Mr. Reagan’s civil defense suggestions a few years ago had city people being moved to farms for temporary shelter. With fallen buildings covering roads, strewn with human casualties, firestorms, ruptured gas lines, no electricity and much radioactivity, evacuation is a very distant alternative to incineration as a realistic prospect.
Although Generals from Dwight Eisenhower to George Marshall warned their fellow Americans in the late Forties and Fifties that there are no winners in a nuclear war, only the recent dramatizations on television of nuclear missile strikes, prompted by the detailed scenarios of groups such as the Physicians for Social Responsibility, have driven home these jeremiads.
So, as the snow is tamed by the sun — the District’s chief removal ally — and by the tired and underequipped road crews, it is well to ruminate on the external travails and risks that can render people of much different status much less different.