A Cold Introduction
CAPT. ROBERT JONES
1189th Transportation Surface Brigade
U.S. Army Reserves
Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina
My first assignment after entering active duty was on Fort Drum, New York. As someone who’d spent his entire life in South Carolina and Georgia, it was an environmental shock to say the least.
I arrived in late December, shortly after the winter deep freeze hits New York’s North Country. I was surprised to learn the ice that completely covered the ground would likely hang around until mid-April. I was accustomed to wet roads, but the ice severely hampered my ability to drive. With time, I managed to improve — luckily without crashing like many other motorist in that part of the country due to black ice. That isn’t to say I was driving well. More than once I found myself sliding sideways through my apartment complex’s parking lot.
That winter also killed my first car, which, up to that point, had survived several years of teenage and college stupidity. A lack of proper maintenance and using non-winterized fluids resulted in several issues. The windshield wiper fluid froze solid and remained a block of ice for the entirety of winter. This forced me to use snow to clean road salt off of the windshield to travel. After the April thaw, every fitting and gasket that was held in place by the cold weather ruptured, making it necessary that I add a quart of oil every day to keep the vehicle running.
Eventually, I gave up attempting to salvage my car and sold it for scrap so I could purchase a new vehicle. The vehicle I chose, however, was not the best option for winter environments. A combination of high gas prices, a young lieutenant’s budget and general stupidity made me pick something sporty rather than practical. Still, it was a far better option than my previous vehicle. Instead of my old rear-wheel, manual transmission car with lockable four-wheel drive, which was configured more for marshland and beaches, I selected a front-wheel drive vehicle that was better designed for colder climates. Because the primary drivetrain was located under the weight of the engine, my new car had better traction and handling on icy roads. It could still get stuck in snow, which was occasionally a problem, but getting into that situation in the first place became less likely when combined with the safer driving habits I’d acquired since arriving at Drum.
After that very expensive first winter, I decided to find ways to keep the worst from reoccurring. The first part was fairly easy: regular vehicle maintenance. The state of New York required an annual inspection for all private motor vehicles (PMVs); this, combined with regular recommended services (specifically oil changes and fluid checks) kept my new car from having the same issues that befell its predecessor. I also changed the kind of wiper fluid I used, opting for a winterized version designed for freezing temperatures. Nearly 10 years and more than 100,000 miles later, I still drive that vehicle regularly.
I also received a great deal of information when my unit conducted driver training for newly arrived Soldiers. We discussed the details of operating tactical vehicles in off-road and adverse conditions. Much of the training also applied to winter PMV driving. Some topics, while not on the standard driver training rubric, were even more useful, including: 1. Keep enough fuel in your vehicle’s tank in case of a breakdown or you get stuck. Engines produce heat and power, both of which can save you while waiting for recovery. 2. If you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, do not use it unless you’re already stuck. Four-wheel drive is for self-recovery, not to “power through” tough spots on the road. 3. Keep a breakdown/survival kit in your vehicle. A “Bug-Out Bag” can contain useful items if you get stuck. A number of these kits come pre-packaged at big-box stores and online, but putting one together yourself is often a better option, as you can tailor it to your environment and its hazards. At a minimum, your kit should contain basic tools, cold- and wet-weather clothing and some means of visual signaling.
The lessons I learned at Fort Drum still earn me some strange looks from friends and family. For instance, I refuse to let my car go beneath one-quarter of a tank of fuel unless there is no other option. I also keep a more-than-minimum kit in my car just in case a situation ever arises where I need it. The saying, “It’s better to have and not need than to need and not have,” was thoroughly drilled into my head as a young Soldier. It’s lesson that I’ll always carry with me.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers a number of tips for preparing yourself and your vehicle for winter weather. Check them out at https://www.nhtsa.gov/winter-driving-tips#:~:text=Stock%20Your%20Vehicle&text=abrasive%20material%20(sand%20or%20kitty,food%2C%20and%20any%20necessary%20medicine.