Point man in battle to keep streets clear

Plow: Armed with bottled water and fudge bars, Dave Heinle tries to maintain a sense of humor while he works.

The Snowstorm Of 2003

February 17, 2003|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Dave Heinle keeps bottled water and SlimFast fudge bars in a knapsack in his truck, and tunes the radio to classical music as he performs the most important job in the world to a snowed-in region: plowing the streets.

The 44-year-old from Edgewood has been clearing roads for the Baltimore County Department of Public Works for 15 years, and he has a routine that works.

He doesn't eat anything heavy; otherwise he'll get sleepy. And the music relaxes him.

"You gotta keep your sense of humor when it gets like this," Heinle said yesterday while making his rounds in Rodgers Forge. "I used to let it get to me: `When's it gonna stop?' Well, I can't make it stop. And I'm surely not going home."

When the snow is falling at a rate of 2 inches an hour, Heinle's job is to do what essentially can't be done: keep the roads clear. He makes several passes on streets that are deemed top-priority, or ranked "1s," in snow-plow speak. But by the time he gets finished, the road he cleared first is already thick with snow again.

"When it comes like this, you really can't do anything about it," he said. "You feel like you're beatin' your head against the wall for nothing."

Though he had been at work since Friday night, in preparation for the weekend's first, less significant snowfall, Heinle hit the streets yesterday at about 4:30 a.m. He took a brief stop for lunch - an apple, orange and banana at headquarters in Towson - but wasn't sure when his next break would come.

Some snowplow drivers bring cots so they can catch a couple of hours sleep overnight, but he just lies down in his truck. He turns the heat to low and uses his knapsack and county-issued coveralls as a pillow.

"I'm kind of used to it," he said. "If I snore, nobody'll hear me, and I don't have to hear anybody else."

The longest shift he has ever done is 20 hours - a combination of plowing and salting - and he's not sure that was so bright. If he does get tired on the job, he chews on a toothbrush he keeps above the passenger-side visor.

Heinle wants people to know there's nothing personal if he blocks in their car while plowing; he can't help it. And he tries to stack the snow on both sides of the street. He calls it "sharing the love."

Sometimes, he'll lift his plow and cut shovelers a break, as long as they aren't heaping snow into the street while they're digging out their car. For that, he has no respect.

Heinle, who in warmer months works with the county's concrete crew, steers his truck with one hand and maneuvers the plow with the other, using a control box that he positions on the seat next to his leg. There are four settings: up, down, left and right. On narrow streets with cars parked on both sides, he barely has room to pass.

Heinle sees it all while he's on the job: crazy joggers, drivers in hulking SUVs who think they're invincible, people who ask him to clear out a parking space, as if he has nothing else to do.

Depending on how long - and how much - it has been snowing, Heinle gets sporadic smiles, stares and waves. A few years ago, some grateful folks brought him cake and cookies. Yesterday afternoon on Dumbarton Road, he helped shovel out a woman who drove up from Bethesda - it took her 2 1/2 hours - and got stuck as she tried to barrel over a snowbank into a parking space.

He can't figure out why people go out in storms in the first place. "I don't know where these people had to go today."

Heinle, who was born and raised in Essex, likes country music, movies - his favorite is Silence of the Lambs - and Bud Lite. He is a staunch Orioles fan, which is betrayed by the baseball cap on his head and the names of his dogs: Ripken and Murray.

He thinks there might be some link between heavy snowfall and successful Orioles seasons. There were blizzards in 1966 and 1983, he noted, when the team won the World Series.

And, in 1979 and 1996, when there were also heavy snows, the Birds went to the playoffs.

"There's my positive note on this," he said, pointing out the windshield at all the snow. "Maybe it's going to give me my year."

He pauses to reconsider. "Not much to hold on to, is it?"

There's just one more thing to know about Heinle: He can't stand snow.

"God, I hate snow," he said. "If I hit Lotto, my address would be somewhere in Ocean City, and if it snowed I wouldn't care, because I wouldn't be plowing."

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