February 11, 2002 11:00 pm
OLD FAITHFUL: Bob Kelly operates Union Countys 1950-vintage Army surplus snow blower on a stretch of Starr Lane Monday.  (The Observer/ PHIL BULLOCK).
OLD FAITHFUL: Bob Kelly operates Union Countys 1950-vintage Army surplus snow blower on a stretch of Starr Lane Monday. (The Observer/ PHIL BULLOCK).

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Its a tall climb into the cab of the snow blower. The seat cover is worn and torn; the throttle sticks out of the cab just above your left shoulder, and the gears and levers on the floor appear to need a certified mechanic or maybe a weightlifter just to move them.

As he manipulated the controls of the ancient machine, driver Bob Kelly of the Union County Public Works Department said it took him about three seasons to learn to drive the machine well. Hes the only driver allowed to take the snow blower out on the road, said Public Works Director Richard Comstock.

Nobody knows how old the blower is. Its constructed of bits and pieces from several generations of equipment. The main truck is a 1950-vintage Army surplus, and the diesel engine that powers the augers that move the snow is at least 30 years old maybe older.

Comstock half jokingly told the Union County commissioners last week that the snow blower was World War I surplus.

Bob Kelly carries about 20 gallons of oil when he goes out, Comstock said. The brakes quit yesterday, and one of the guys in the shop gave him a long rope with a rock tied to it.

The brakes were working Monday morning when Kelly was finishing up blowing snow from some of the shorter stretches of county roads narrowed by high snowbanks pushed there by plows.

Unlike the blowers of the 1990s, the countys vintage machine is noisy and smelly with diesel fuel, as well as somewhat uncomfortable. Kelly wrestled the blower as it tried to slide into the snow piled high above a ditch on the side of Starr Lane.

Those augers want to pull it into the snow, he said. No matter how hard I turn the wheel, itll pull.

For a time, Kelly thought he would have to call somebody to tow the blower from the snow bank. He persevered, though, backing up and moving forward, blowing out snow mixed with mud, and finally the old machine moved to solid ground.

Kelly said hes blown snow from banks almost as deep as the cab windows, and hes worked in the dark, operating the machine almost by feel.

Put a bag over your head and you know what its like, Comstock said.

The ancient piece of equipment is one of two blowers owned by the county.

When the truck section wears out, as Kelly thinks it will after this winter, county mechanics will find another surplus truck to take its place. Comstock said that at $300,000 per blower, he doesnt plan to buy a new one any time soon.

The old one can do almost as much as the new ones, Comstock said.

The county did buy a modern snow blower in 1990, the year of a big snowstorm. That year, the county also bought a fleet of blue trucks, still known as the new blue trucks. Each truck now has between 313,000 and 340,000 miles on its engine.

Despite the age of the equipment, the snow blowers, graders and sanders are on the road after each major snowstorm. This year, the 14 drivers worked about 15 days straight before getting last weekend off. They plow about 550 miles of the 650 miles of county roads during the winter, and they burn about 1,000 gallons of diesel a day.

Comstock said that after about 12 days, burnout sets in. The number of consecutive days worked in 2002 is far from the record, however. That was set in the winter of 1989-90, when road department employees worked 40 days without a break.