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David Shapiro
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By David Shapiro

Saturday, December 9, 2000

Mai tai in midst
of a storm

WHEN reports of serious snow start coming in from the mainland this time of year, I get frostbite flashbacks of Washington, D.C., where I first saw real snow at age 30.

It was New Year's Eve. My family was in Hawaii so I went solo to a co-worker's party halfway around the Beltway in Maryland. I took a fifth of Wild Turkey for the host.

As I was leaving, the host saw the unopened Wild Turkey and insisted I stay for a last drink. Next I knew it was 3 a.m. and there was only an inch of whiskey left in the bottle.

I staggered to my car, stunned to see it had snowed hard all night. There was a foot of it on the ground and my car barely made it up the icy Beltway on-ramp.

I looked for a spot to pull over and sleep it off until I noticed that nobody else was so stupid to be driving at that hour in that weather. I was alone. Convinced I could cause no harm, I pointed my car in the right direction and skidded into the new year on a magnificent ice rink all my own.

The next big snow brought tragedy. Air Florida Flight 90 failed to de-ice in a fierce snowstorm and crashed into the Potomac River on takeoff from National Airport, killing 79 people. I worked rewrite, taking calls from reporters in the field and combining their notes into a cohesive story.

As deadlines pressed, news came from home that my Bubbie had died in Los Angeles. I shed a few quiet tears, sucked it up and finished my work.

Before dawn the next morning, I was back on the Beltway in deep snow trying to get to Dulles Airport to fly to Bubbie's funeral.

The flight was delayed two hours. We watched crews spray de-icing fluid on one side of the plane, only to find the other side iced up again when they finished.

When we finally rumbled down the runway, I couldn't have been more tense if it was a space shuttle launch. Then I felt my Bubbie's hand gently lift the airplane off the ground and I found peace. Within moments, we were safely above the clouds in an incredibly blue sky.

I saw Tundra Belt snow on a reporting trip to Gillette, Wyo., for a story on strip coal mines. The night before my flight home, an unexpected blizzard dropped two feet of snow.

The Gillette airport closed, but they told me I might make it to Casper -- a couple of hours to the south in normal driving.

I soon realized this was no normal driving. It was lunacy.

SWIRLING snow blinded me and the isolated road was so buried that I couldn't tell where the pavement ended and the roadside ditches began. I had seen no signs of life for an hour.

The radio told me that my highway had been closed by the state as unpassable. No hope of rescue. I studied my falling fuel gauge. Should I make a run for Casper or save the fuel to keep the heater burning before I froze?

I inched on and the fuel ran out just as I turned into the Casper airport, which was closed.

I called the shuttle to the Holiday Inn and found a wonderful oasis built around an indoor pool and bar. I claimed a poolside lounger and ordered a mai tai. Ah, Hawaii.

David Shapiro is managing editor of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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