Don Edrington  PC Columnist for the San Diego Union Tribune  Home Page  Profile

California Boy Trying to Drive on Ice & Snow

    In the 1950s I was Display Manager for Cornet Stores, a "dime store" chain in several western states.

    It had been unusually cold in Southern California with lots of snow in the local mountains.

    When I arrived at work one January morning I was told I wouldn't be doing any display work that day because I was needed to fill in for the manager of Cornet's Big Bear Lake store, who would be gone for two days.

    My boss, Joe Cornet Jr., gave me a company car and told me to get to Big Bear as soon as possible because the regular manager had already left town.

     It never occurred to me that Big Bear Lake might be snowbound and that I knew nothing about driving in the snow. But as I got about half way up the mountain I began to see traces of snow on the ground and noticed that several vehicles had chains on their rear tires.

     Then I began to see signs saying that chains may be needed for those continuing up the mountain. However, the pavement was clear and there were no roadblocks of any kind.

     So I kept driving.

    But as I pulled into Big Bear Lake Village, I was in for an unpleasant surprise. The streets were covered with black ice.

     A raised divider separated the two lanes of the main street. Cars were parked at a angle in front of the shops on both sides of the divider.

     All the spaces on the Cornet side of the street were taken, so I had to go down to the end of the divider, make a U-turn around it, and head back in the opposite direction, where a single parking space was available.

     Well, heading toward the end of the divider was easy -– but as I tried to make the 90-degree turn around the divider, I learned what can happen when you drive on ice with no chains.

     The car hydroplaned around the bend and went sideways into the rear of a parked car. I hit the other car's rear bumper at a 45-degree angle that put a big dent in my right rear door, but did no perceptible damage to the other car.

     At this point several people ran over and offered to help guide my car manually into the one available parking space, which inclined downhill toward the sidewalk at an angle that was sure to keep the car anchored against the curb.

    As I got out and thanked the good Samaritans, several pointed out that I had better not try to back out of the parking space without tire chains. When I said I had none, they pointed to an auto parts store, and said that I'd better buy a set before they sold out.

     Well, I had a Cornet credit card, so I went and bought a set of tire chains. When I asked if I could pay somebody to install them they said no one was available –- but that it wasn't all that hard to do. Ha!

     I decided to put the chains in the car's trunk and go across the street to Cornet and introduce myself. I was greeted by a friendly crew who assured me that all was going well, and that I had better find myself a place to stay. They said the good skiing weather had pretty well filled all the local hostelries.

     So I left and hiked from one hotel/motel to another, trying to find a vacancy. The only thing I was offered was a broom closet in one of the small hotels. I'm not kidding! It was actually a broom closet with a folding cot.

     By now it was late afternoon, and I still hadn't put in any time at the store that I was supposed to be substitute-managing. When I finally did get back to the store, the crew told me I should spend the rest of the day getting some dinner and making myself as comfortable as possible in my "room." I was also admonished to drain my car's radiator so that it wouldn't freeze and crack during the night.
         This was in the days when "anti-freeze" was comparatively new, and when many folks used plain water in their radiators. Since I hadn't a clue as to what was in my radiator, one of the clerks offered to show me how to drain it.
     Well, it snowed that night and it was not easy for me to walk from my "hotel room" to the store the next morning – but I finally stumbled in, shivering all the way. It had never occurred to me to bring any "winter clothing" on this trip.

     After all, this was Southern California!

     Again the crew told me that, instead of spending time in the store, I should get the chains on my car and have everything ready for driving back to Pasadena that night, since the regular manager would return the following morning.

     So I went and jacked up the left rear of my car and tried valiantly to get a set of chains onto one tire. A few people noticed I was having problems, and one young fellow stopped to offer some help.

     Well, he got the tire chained in just a few minutes. When I asked if he could do the other tire, he said he had to be going, but that I should be able to manage with one tire chain for a couple of blocks, where I could get the job finished at a local gas station.

     However, no matter how hard I tried, I could not back out of that inclined parking space. I kept gunning the engine, and could see black smoke emanating from my tail pipe. Finally, a few people stopped and offered to push the car away from the curb, as I continued trying to get the chained tire to grab the pavement.

     They finally succeeded and I was just barely able to guide the car into the gas station a couple of blocks away. I needed gas anyway, so I stopped alongside a pump. As an attendant approached the car, I got out and asked if he could install the other chain. Yes, he could for $10. Welll, this was a bargain I could not turn down.

     When he raised the hood to check the radiator, a cloud of steam made him quickly back away.

     "I think your radiator may be empty," he said.

     "Yes, it is," I proudly replied. "I drained it last night."

     "You're driving with an empty radiator?" he asked, incredulously.

     Sensing that this might not have been the right thing to do, I said, "Well, for just a couple of blocks."

     "Well, if you had gone any farther," he said, "you would have cracked the block and needed a new engine."

     "Really?" I asked. Then, to further prove my ignorance of anything automotive, I said, "I thought the cold weather would be enough to keep the engine cooled."

     The man just shook his head in disbelief, as he filled my radiator and gas tank and got the other chain installed.

     "If you're headed back down the hill," he said, "be extra careful. Those chains are no guarantee that you'll have full control of your driving."

     "Yes, sir!" I replied. "I will be extra careful and take no chances of any kind!" The attendant just grunted, as he turned and walked toward his tiny office, shaking his head all the way.

     Well, I made it back to Pasadena without any further damage to the car, but I narrowly missed a head-on collision on the way.

     The road back down the mountain was wet, but I encountered no snow or ice. And the chains made it possible for me to negotiate it with a minimum amount of trouble.

     As for that near miss, here's what happened: I had crested a high point on the road and could see that I would be descending at a steep angle before starting up an equally steep slope on the other side of the valley. At the bottom of the valley I could see a car parked in the oncoming lane with nobody in it.

    It was obvious that someone got stuck there and had abandoned the car. "No problem," I thought, "my side of the road is clear."

     That's when I saw another car coming over the opposite hill and headed straight toward the stalled vehicle.

    Well, it was easy to see that at his speed and at my speed, we were going to arrive at the bottom of the valley at the exact same moment — right where the abandoned car sat waiting for us.

     Trying to brake was nearly useless because of the wet pavement. The chains did allow me to slow down a little -– but not enough to avoid arriving alongside the stuck vehicle at the same moment the other car, which had no chains, would be hitting it from the rear. And there was no shoulder available to either us, as piled-up snow kept us in our respective lanes.

     All I could do was watch as the other car slid down his hill and smashed into the back of the stalled car, as I went on past and started up the opposite hill. And there was no way I could stop and return to offer help.

     However, since this was the main road to Big Bear, I felt sure somebody would be along soon who could somehow stop and help.

     What we would have given for cell phones in those days!

     So the bottom of line of this little adventure was: two days spent dealing with the weather, denting a company car, nearly ruining its engine, buying some chains that would probably never be used again, and spending no time at all in the store I was supposed to be managing.

     Joe Cornet Jr. was not pleased -– but could offer no suggestions as to what I could have done differently.

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