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Blizzard of '83: one reporter's long ride home

When it comes to snow, Washington - capital of the free world, seat of national political power, city where influence is all - is a third-world village.

Send us 100,000 demonstrators, an imperious ally demanding more foreign aid, the Dallas Cowboys . . . we can handle it. But a storm that would call for no particular comment in Minneapolis or Buffalo finds us backing into our burrows and pulling the covers over our heads.

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I write this 72 hours after our latest blizzard, stuck at home, looking out at 24 inches of snow, and listening to broadcasters still telling everyone not to go out.

As one who was born in Michigan and raised in upstate New York, I find this hard to understand. I know this region is essentially Southern, that its major meteorological bother is summer humidity. But why can't there be more plows and salt trucks? Why can't we trade in a few of those $2.6 million M-1 tanks the Pentagon keeps accumulating for snow equipment?

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the nation's clever elite who gather here - elected officials, bureaucrats and consultants, journalists and think-tank experts - have a hard time dealing with anything they can't at least give the appearance of controlling.

I thought about these things as I sat in my old blue Volkswagen last Friday, stuck in a line of motionless cars on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, watching my gas gauge bounce off ''empty.'' I had been in the car for three hours, and if it hadn't been for a few trees and buildings, I probably could have looked back across the Potomac River and seen my office, just up the street from the White House.

Perhaps I had made one crack too many about the tumbleweeds blowing down Pennsylvania Avenue when all the ''nonessential government workers'' are told to go home early. I had boasted to an editor friend that I would have no trouble driving home as long as I could avoid all those other guys without my snow-driving experience.

With a helpful shove from two friendly fellows in turbans and beards (we may not always be practical, but we're cosmopolitan), I bulldozed a U-turn through the drifted median and began looking for a gas station and a back road route to my suburban Virginia home. Up north, the service station managers would have bolted plowblades onto their tow trucks and been working overtime to help motorists. Here, they all seemed to close up. At last I found fuel and pressed on through Arlington, stopping only to pick up a hitchhiker who'd given up waiting for his bus.

The driving wasn't bad and there were few cars as I continued what I thought was the last and easiest leg of my trip. I even whistled a few bars of ''White Christmas'' as I thought of the cheery evening around the old wood stove - wife, son, and faithful dog gathered close.

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As I approached a shallow but long incline, however, I came upon another line of stalled traffic. People began abandoning their cars and walking as the afternoon turned dark. I tried again to circumnavigate the blocked main road through residential streets, but soon found myself hopelessly bogged down in snow and forced to bail out.

''Goodbye, old friend,'' I said to the VW. ''One hundred thirty thousand miles together and it has to end like this.''

I trudged the last three miles through drifts, stumbling against our door like some refugee from the steppes of Russia, beard encrusted with ice, suburbanite's briefcase frozen to my fist. It had taken me exactly six hours to travel 17 miles. I had seen one snowplow along the way.

The next day, I got a glimpse of how bureaucracies and political influence really work around here.

My friend, who works on Capitol Hill with powerful senators and Cabinet secretaries, had absolutely no pull when it came to getting his street plowed. He called everyone he could think of - from county supervisor to state officials. Finally, when cabin fever set in after two days, he walked six miles to get milk and the Sunday paper. The only reason I've seen a plow at all is because my neighbor works for the town public works department.

Several days after we parted, I found my car in the snow. I tried digging it out, but without success. I was told the police were ticketing and towing such ''illegal'' parkers, that the fine was $55. As I calculated how many such fines would buy one snowplow, two jolly young entrepreneurs in a four-wheel-drive jeep came by and said ''for a mere $5'' they would haul me out. ''Bless you,'' I said , reaching for my wallet.

Washington is a terrific place. The cherry blossoms are spectacular. The monuments are thrilling. The museums are free. There seems to be more bluegrasc music per square mile than anywhere on earth. But, as I say, when it comes to handling snow, it's strictly a lesser-developed country.

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