It was an odd winter. Every day above freezing. Every night below. The sleet and freezing rain came, melted a little, and refroze. Soon the whole St. Louis area was covered with three or four inches of solid ice. The coating was so thick and so hard that you could skate in your front yard. Our front stoop was a useless slope of ice. We had to use the back door just to get in and out.
The Levee Road
At the time, we lived on a farm in Illinois. There were corn fields all around us, but we could still see the St. Louis Arch. Our house was a quarter mile from the Mighty Mississippi, and to get to our house, you had to drive on top of the levee road from the village of East Carondelet. There was a one-lane gravel road on top of the levee, narrow enough that you would have to pull over to let oncoming cars pass. There weren’t that many oncoming cars, but it was a harrowing drive in the best of weather.
The school bus had to navigate the levee road as well, going several miles out of its way to pick me up. But with the levee coated in ice, the school bus driver refused to come. My dad had to take me instead. The road was treacherous. It was a private road with no salt on it, and we were in an ’87 Toyota Corolla. I was white-knuckled even going five miles an hour, and I wasn’t even driving.
On the Edge
We got about two miles down the road and rounded a curve. As we did, I saw a car at the bottom of the levee. My dad saw it too, but it was already too late. The car spun out of control, stopping just before we went over the edge.
You see teetering cars in TV shows and movies all the time, but it’s even scarier in real life. Especially because it was my side of the car that was hanging over the edge. I had to get out of the car on my dad’s side. Slowly. Ever so slowly. I felt that the car would slide down the slope if I adjusted the radio dial, but this was probably a figment of my childhood imagination. Still, it was an experience I don’t care to repeat.
After getting out safely, I ended up walking the last mile or so to school, trying not to slip the whole way there. Meanwhile my dad stayed with the car until one of our neighbors came along to help. The neighbor tried to use his truck to pull my dad’s car off the edge, but instead, they both went over, skidding into the trees at the bottom. My dad was in the car at the time, but thankfully, he wasn’t injured. The car lost its back windshield and got a big old dent in the rear fender, but at least it wasn’t totaled.
My dad’s car was the second vehicle to slide off the levee at that spot. The neighbor’s truck was the third. From what I heard, there were at least five cars down there by late afternoon, when a proper tow truck came along to pull everyone up with a wench. Eventually the ice receded and we fell back into more normal winter weather, but I’ll never forget teetering on the levee.