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Black Ice



Dear reader, if you haven’t figured out by now, I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed. Some of you may say stop it, don’t talk like that. While others, I’m sure, are just thinking, ” Please continue.” The please-continuers may have already formed an opinion. Why would someone say that about themselves? In most cases it would be to elicit some kind of response from the listener that would satisfy the self accuser that they in fact are not a dull tool in a shed. In this particular case, I’m afraid I must look the evidence straight in the evidence face and lie down in the bed that I’ve made (in a tool shed). The evidence does not lie. The evidence is irrefutable and concrete. The evidence is black ice.

1990 or 1991, it’s sort of a blur right now, I decided that it was time to leave one city and move to another city. I had spent fourish good college years at the UW-Madison, then three or four more years enjoying the Madison life, working a series of jobs. But in the summer of one of the above years I felt that it was time for a change. I loved Madison, but I thought I could also love another city.

Anyway, here’s where the not the sharpest tool in the shed originates.  The year was 1990 (or 91) and I had no job, no relationship, nothing tying me down. I could have gone anywhere. Even though I don’t actually recall the exact year, I know it wasn’t Little House on the Prairie times. I didn’t have to hitch up a wagon and make a treacherous trek cross-country. By the way, just to sidetrack for a minute here, after reading the Little House on the Prairie books recently with my daughter I’ve decided that “Pa” was not mentally stable. I mean, something’s up whenever a neighbor moves too close and you’ve got to pull up all stakes and cross a half-frozen river. There’s a fine line between freedom and plain dumb.

I say, dear and patient reader, I could have gone anywhere. Instead, I awoke one July day and unceremoniously packed my few belongings into my 1984 Chevy Citation and wrapped up my long hair in a pony tail and headed for Minneapolis. On the way I was stopped by an officer of the Eau Claire, Wisconsin police force for speeding on highway 94. There was no way for the long hair to get out of this one. When he started to write the ticket – the old-fashioned way at the window of my car – you know, like on CHIPS – I asked him if I really deserved a citation. I explained that I was already driving one. He asked, “What?”

Oh, oh, bad joke was taking too much time. I restated, “I said I’m already driving one.”

“No,” he said, “One what? What are you talking about?”

I was now in too deep and somehow it seemed ok with me. “I’m already driving a citation – you know, Chevy. I’d prefer not to have another one if that’s at all ok.”

It was not at all ok. He continued writing the ticket without another word. When I received my ticket I was given the option of paying it on the spot with a check. I know, isn’t that great. That’s how the city of Eau Claire, WI rolled twenty-three (or twenty-two) years ago. I was not planning on coming back to Eau Claire to go to court (even if they had a very successful marketing ploy in the form of a small sign on 94 that said, “Say Oh Yes to Eau Claire”) so I wrote out a check.

The check I wrote contained the proper amount and was signed with my legal name and I passed it along to my good friend the officer. The officer looked over the check, then he paused and with great seriousness ( I say great, because everything up to that point was just ok seriousness) and held the check so that I could see it. That wasn’t totally necessary. I had just written everything on it only a couple of seconds ago and had this uncanny ability to memorize tiny snippets of information for up to a minute. He pointed to the memo portion of the check and asked, “What does this mean?”

Here is where I want the good and discerning reader to know that I really appreciate all the good work that police officers do when they are not charging people money for going faster than the allotted speed. That particular year in that particular state the allotted speed was 55 mph.  Sammy Hagar and I can’t do that. I was going 63 mph. A couple short years later that would be an approved speed in that state.

In the memo section I had written, “Eau Claire Welcome Wagon”. I read this out loud for him, hoping to pass the test. “It’s just a memo for me.” See, even though I had not taken any of the classes to practice the law, I was mostly sure that he could not write me another ticket because of my memo to me on my check. And it was too sunny for him to pull me out of the car and beat me. Yes, it was awkward, but we both got through it and I pressed on $68 lighter.

I say, I could have gone anywhere and I moved north. It was the summer and I had forgotten what was going to be coming in a few short months. The officer should have thrown me in jail for that alone. Maybe if he had questioned me properly he could have ascertained that I was committing a crime against myself. Madison, Wisconsin was not the tropics by any stretch, but I grew up north of Madison and after 18 years of northern Wisconsin, Madison felt like the tropics. Now, because I was obviously dumb, I was hurtling myself back into a colder climate. A climate where there was a high likelihood to experience black ice. Yes, there, I said it. The feared black ice.

One would like to believe that it was the good rapper that could offset the evil Vanilla Ice, circa some time ago. But, unfortunately, it was not that good force. In fact, I think if such a force existed it would have been called “Chocolate Ice”.  Anyway, once again, I digress at the expense of your valuable time.

In my dulled state of mental capacity I had forgotten what happens when winter comes. The years of my mother saying, “Watch out for black ice,” anytime I drove somewhere in the winter had been forgotten in the bin of “clean your room,” and “weed the garden.” The rub is that you can’t watch out for black ice, because it’s called black ice because it’s actually clear and the color of the road.

I was just in the Los Angeles a couple of months ago for a spot of the work and it’s so cute to watch light rain be part of the news. I love to be in New York, where they’re livin’ a hundred miles an hour and they use umbrellas to fend off the dangerous snow flakes parachuting ever so gently to the mean streets. But this black ice is another kind of menace. When it’s -25 and the exhaust from the car in front of you is freezing in front of your car or the mist of an imperceptible water fall goes icy clear on a bridge, how bright can you be to live there -let alone go near any surface that is black. But, wait. This just in. Black ice can be on other color pavements because it’s just ice you can’t see, or as scientists like to call it, “clear”.

Pa Ingalls was crazy, but he never went fast enough in his wagon to kill himself on black ice. So who am I to judge, as I motor around like a dull tool in a shed with my children in my 63 mph black ice family wagon?

At least I’m not living in Eau Claire.

You know I’m kidding Eau Clairians. You guys have that Bon Iver – and a fantastic police force. And probably a little black ice here and there.

Sadly,

Jason Spafford

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