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Jim Kenyon: NH DOT plow truck driver fondly remembered

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 1/18/2020 8:50:24 PM
Modified: 1/18/2020 8:49:26 PM

With last Thursday’s winter storm winding down, the orange New Hampshire DOT six-wheeler rumbled northward along Old Route 10, its lights flashing, plow to the pavement and road salt spewing from the truck’s back-end spreader.

Except something was missing. Craig Belyea wasn’t driving the Department of Transportation plow truck.

For more than 30 years, the 5-mile stretch of two-lane state road between North Grantham and Grantham was Belyea’s domain.

“It was his little highway,” said Chris Jewell, his younger stepbrother.

Belyea, who lived in Plainfield, began working out of DOT Shed No. 224, just off Exit 16 on Interstate 89, as a teenager. Co-workers joked that after Craiggie, as they called him, graduated from high school in 1987, the school bus dropped him off at Exit 16 in Enfield, and he never left.

On Dec. 2, a Monday, an early-season snowstorm raised havoc in the Upper Valley. The Shed 224 crew had worked most of the day and expected to continue for a good part of the night.

That evening, Belyea grabbed a slice of pizza from the shed’s break room before heading back out for more plowing and salting on Old Route 10.

At about 9 p.m., Adam Barton, who heads up the crew, was plowing a portion of I-89 that runs parallel to Old Route 10. Glancing across the highway, he noticed Belyea’s 17-ton truck. It wasn’t moving.

Barton reached for his truck’s two-way radio. What’s up? he asked 224-7, Belyea’s call number. Belyea didn’t respond.

Barton turned off I-89 and headed toward Belyea’s truck. Not long afterward, D.J. Hicks, another DOT plow truck driver, who was clearing snow nearby on I-89 got an urgent call from Barton on his radio.

“I need you here now,” Hicks recalled his boss telling him.

Hicks arrived as Barton was pulling Belyea from the truck’s cab. Emergency personnel were on their way. Repeated efforts to revive Belyea were unsuccessful.

The cause of death was a heart attack. Belyea was 51.

“Craig took a lot of pride in the work he did for the state,” said Plainfield Town Administrator Steve Halleran, a friend of Belyea’s family. “He got a lot of satisfaction out of plowing roads with a $150,000 piece of state equipment.”

On Thursday afternoon, I stopped by Shed 224. The crew of 10 or so DOT plow drivers trickled in as they finished cleaning up from the morning’s storm.

“This shed is different now that we don’t have Craiggie,” Hicks told me. “He wasn’t a big talker, but he was someone who got along with everyone and everyone respected.”

Plowing isn’t glamorous work. It involves a lot of nights, weekends and holidays. On Thursday, the Shed 224 crew was called out at 3:30 a.m. Twelve hours later, their snow-covered vehicles were still parked out back.

Belyea was “so excited anytime it started to snow,” Jewell said. “He couldn’t wait to get out there.”

Soon after the roads were cleared, Belyea could usually be found at the outdoor vehicle washing station next to the garage that stored his six-wheeler.

“He loved his truck,” said co-worker Bill McDonough. “That thing was never dirty.”

Matt Jordan, an assistant supervisor who worked with Belyea for more than 20 years at Shed 224, smiled at the thought of his friend at the washing station.

“It didn’t matter if it was 30 below, he’d be out there with a hose, washing his truck off,” Jordan said.

While some plow drivers prefer working the “mainline,” DOT lingo for the interstate, with the big 10-wheel trucks, Belyea “didn’t care for it,” Jordan said.

Belyea spent a couple of years on the mainline, but he welcomed the opportunity to return to Old Route 10.

“He was comfortable with it,” Jordan said.

His co-workers were glad to turn it back over.

“It’s an old concrete road,” Jordan said.

“With a lot of frost heaves,” McDonough chimed in.

With his route finished, Belyea would get on the mainline to “help out” with plowing the breakdown lane, Jordan said. “He’d give anyone a hand who needed it.

“He always kept busy. He was the model employee.”

In warm weather months, there’s a slower rhythm to Shed 224’s workday. Much of the crew’s time is spent mowing roadsides. Back at the Shed, Belyea would hop on a small riding mower to cut the grass around the collection of DOT buildings.

“No one told him to do it,” Hicks said. “He just did it.”

He mowed “even when the lawn didn’t need it,” Jordan said.

A bachelor, Belyea lived with his mother, Judy, a former member of the Plainfield Selectboard, in the East Plainfield home that he grew up in.

In the summer, he left his GMC pickup at home, driving his 20-year-old BMW convertible, a two-seater, to work.

“He let me drive it, once,” Hicks said, with emphasis on once.

“He was not a fan of other people driving his vehicles,” Jewell joked.

Approaching 32 years with the DOT, Belyea was starting to think about retirement, said Gil Wilson, a neighbor in East Plainfield who worked for the DOT in the 1960s. The two cut firewood and groomed snowmobile trails. On winter evenings — when it wasn’t snowing — Belyea stopped to chat around the woodstove.

Plowing snow for the state is “long hours and hard work,” Wilson said. He’d tell his friend, “If I were you, I’d take the (pension) money, and run.”

But fate intervened.

Four days after Belyea’s death, the Shed 224 crew arrived for calling hours at Ricker Funeral Home in Lebanon. They parked Belyea’s orange DOT six-wheeler in front.

Freshly washed, of course.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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