30 winters of plowing snow and glad of it

Manipulating the joystick, Dereck Hopkins coaxes the plow blade up, then throws the truck into reverse, leaving a banked mountain of snow on Peach Leaf Court in Odenton.

The Anne Arundel County Public Works employee takes four more runs at the snow there Tuesday afternoon. Widening the passable area of the street will make some drivers happy but, he acknowledges, probably won't win him admiration from the homeowner whose shoveled-out parking space he just filled in.

Hopkins is making his run earlier than scheduled to accommodate a Baltimore Sun reporter interested in seeing a snowplow driver in action.

This is his 30th winter doing this work, and he loves it. Tuesday was his fifth straight day of a noon-to-midnight shift with probably that many more similar days ahead.

"Coming up will be our fourth weekend working without a break," Hopkins said.

That's because the crews in the Odenton Department of Public Works yard, like those around the region, figure they'll be salting roads and plowing snow from the storm that started Tuesday afternoon.

Inside a bay at the yard, workers are putting a new blade on one truck and checking hoses on another. In a nearby barn, a driver is unloading salt left over from the last shift so the truck can be readied for yet another salt-and-plow run.

"Twelve on and 12 off. It's just enough time to go home, get something to eat, take a shower, go to bed and get up and do it all over again," Hopkins says.

"I was telling somebody it's like that movie 'Groundhog Day,' " he interrupts himself with a laugh. "It starts over every day."

Does it get old? Sure, workers say.

Tired? "I don't know whether I'm coming or going," said 22-year veteran Debbie Papenberg, supervisor of the Odenton crew, later adding, "It makes you irritable."

But there are benefits.

Thanks to the overtime - time and a half for weekdays and Saturdays, double-time for Sundays - workers will see paychecks fattened by up to several thousand dollars more than they expected to earn this winter, the tax bite notwithstanding.

"It's great. It gives you a chance to pay all those little bills and put something away for yourself," Hopkins said. "Normally, we don't get overtime. We've been looking forward to this because we haven't had any hard snow in two years."

It will help Hopkins buy a nice Valentine's Day gift for his wife, whom he probably will see for a few hours this Sunday.

Still, that might be longer than he has spent with her in days.

Anne Arundel officials say they've had up to 309 county and contractor plows working since Friday. By Tuesday morning, they'd gone through 5,278 tons of salt, leaving only 2,500 tons, with a delivery on the way. The county budgeted about $300,000 for snow removal this winter, and will dip into a contingency fund if more money is needed.

At the yard, there's the camaraderie of a group of people who signed up for long hours in the snow and are adjusting from a regular workweek that starts at 7 a.m.

"What else do you have to do?" asked Hopkins. "If you don't do this, you are just going to be sitting home and watching TV."

He caught a little of the Super Bowl on the radio.

Some days, Hopkins said, his neck and back are sore by a shift's end, from getting jostled in the bumpy ride over ruts, and leaning forward to this side and that to check mirrors and watch out for who's coming and going around him.

Watching the road with him - but with only one eye - is Mike Wasowski, the round green character from the animated film "Monsters Inc." Hopkins found the child's toy a few years ago on a roadside while patching asphalt, cleaned the plastic figure and stuck him on the truck's dashboard.

Paying attention is a big part of the job, making operating the truck loaded with 10 tons of road salt not quite like playing with a huge toy.

"I need mellow, calm music so I can concentrate on what I am doing," Hopkins said, his radio cooing smooth jazz.

"In Anne Arundel County, there's a lot of ditches on the side of the roads and when the snow comes, you don't know where they are. You have to figure that out, and you have to concentrate," he said.

On another narrow side street, Hopkins discerns a way to open a cul-de-sac that is barely wide enough for his truck to crawl in and back out. Chunks of salt have just jammed the salt mechanism, so salting the road more is not the answer.

He leans forward, lowers the plow blade down and straight ahead, and puts the truck into drive, then hits the gas, shoving the snow about 10 feet forward. He backs up, maneuvers the truck a little to the right, and repeats, all the while checking mirrors and bouncing around. Soon there's a wall of snow and the truck can turn around in the narrow street.

He mops his forehead. "That was a workout."