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Riders of the storm plow into action

Sand truck driver Frank Klarmann, left, talks with

Sand truck driver Frank Klarmann, left, talks with Richie Betz, right, before heading out to precoat some of the roads in Oyster Bay with a mixture of sand and salt before the start of the weekend's snow storm. (December 19, 2009) Credit: John Dunn

In more than 13 years of work, Frank Klarmann has never had a snow day.

Klarmann, of Massapequa, is a town electrician most of the time. But on days like Saturday, he puts on the cloak of plowman - heralded by Town of Oyster Bay residents searching for a way out of the snow, booed by those who find snow in just-shoveled-out driveways, reviled (on weekdays) by kids looking for a day out of school.

"The reaction is about 50-50," he said. "We get some cheers, and we get some people who like to dig out early. They're a little unhappy when we plow into their driveways."

Klarmann, 41, and other drivers in a squad of about 200 trucks from the town's three depots - one in Syosset and one each on the North and South shores - took off about 12:30 p.m. Saturday to apply a base coat of sand and salt.

Workers first targeted hillier streets, using time-tested techniques for successful plowing.

On Capital Heights Road in East Norwich, an especially slick and steep expanse, Klarmann started his six-wheel International snowplow at the base of the hill and drove backward, so the truck would drive on the just-dispersed sand.

For a plow driver, getting stuck in a snowdrift is especially egregious, punished by excessive mocking from fellow plow drivers.

"You want to keep that to a minimum," he said, grinning broadly. "Thank God for cell phones. You want to keep that quiet on the old [intercom]." Klarmann said he's never gotten stuck.

"You need to be slow and steady," he said. "You're deciding where the snow is going. If you go where you haven't plowed, you're going to get stuck."

It's necessary advice. Plow drivers work until the snow is cleared, often in eight-hour shifts, with breaks in between during long storms.

"It's going to be a long night," he said. "We'll work til the roads are clear - slow and steady."

The first powder began to fall at midday Saturday, but Klarmann, a veteran of these sorts of things, said that despite the slow start, the oncoming storm appeared to be a doozy.

He peeked over the steering wheel of the plow, up toward the darkening sky. All around, Syosset residents had begun the pre-storm scramble back to their homes.

Klarmann doesn't have that luxury. Not that he wants it.

"We're excited when it snows," he said while navigating the town's winding roads. "I love it, because we're going in when everyone else is taking cover."

The fleet of yellow Oyster Bay plows roared into action, first heading out without plow blades to apply a sand-salt mixture. The salt lowers the freezing temperature of the slush while the sand provides traction. An average truck, like the one Klarmann used, can carry about six cubic yards of the stuff, which can be applied in about an hour.

After snow accumulates to 2 or 3 inches, workers attach the one-ton blades to their trucks, Highway Commissioner Richard Betz said. About 250 trucks do the plowing. Like Klarmann, the drivers are collected from the town's various departments.

Klarmann said he feels badly when he's forced to trap a car in a mini-avalanche of plowed snow. And yes, it's happened to him.

"The only difference," Klarmann said, "is that I know the guy who did it."

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