February 01, 2006

Remembering the blizzard

Forty years ago today, a single storm dumped over forty inches of snow on Snowstorm City. It’s one of our most famous blizzards. And even though that snowfall record has been topped since, that storm is still the one I remember the best. I was four years old. Well, four-going-on-five, which is practically a grown-up.

The wind piled the snow into big drifts that curled, like ocean waves that have chosen to stand still. The weather stayed cold, so none of the snow melted. The wind kept whipping all that beautiful whiteness around into new and beautiful shapes, gathering it especially along tree lines and snow fences. In the rural area outside Snowstorm City where we lived, the snow stayed clean and white, even on the roads, which did not get plowed for days.

We spent every spare moment outside in that wonderful snow, after grudgingly putting on all the heavy winter clothing our mother made us wear. We were a staircase of small children – my siblings, me, and the neighbor boy – three, four, five, six, and seven. Bossy Neighbor Boy, who at the grand age of seven considered himself an expert on many things, including snowfort building, was the type to always greedily claim the biggest snow drift for himself, but after this storm, there were more than enough spots in the snowdrift for everyone. My two older sisters worked together on one fort, and I shared a fort with my brother, who was only three, but a tireless worker when it came to scooping out snow.

Building a snow fort, when you've got a lot of snow to work with, is very much like building a sand castle, except the whole thing is much bigger.

The forts began as caves scooped out of snowdrifts, caves big enough to hold a crowd of small children when we gathered around the thermos of cocoa my mother would send out. (She used our camping stove to heat it up since our electricity was out, of course.) Soon we began digging tunnels between the caves, so that the drift became a maze that we could crawl through. Brother and I, being the smallest and lightest, were the first to discover that we could walk atop the drift in some spots, and soon our snow cave had an upstairs. Digging a tunnel down into the cave below was of course the next step. I worked from underneath, and my brother worked from the top, and soon I could see his boots kicking through. I jumped back, and he came slithering into the cave, covered in snow and laughing at our triumph.

Oh, it was a wonderful storm. When I talked to my parents on the phone today, wishing them a happy anniversary (they have been married 48 years), they too reminisced about the big storm of 1966. My father says he put his downhill skis on and went out to the highway because he thought it would be cool to say that he skied on the highway. Red-haired Sister is still angry at Bossy Neighbor Boy because he told her she should try taking her boots off, and she did, and of course, she ended up with frostbite. My mother remembers a nurse finding her way to our house, saying she had not been home in days. She walked down from another road where her car was stuck, and my mother fed her lunch.

We've had bigger storms since that one – we got 48 inches of snow in 24 hours on a March day in the early 90s, which was some kind of record – but since I am several feet taller, no new record will ever match the experience I had that winter. I remember waking up to a completely transformed world. Huge drifts of snow glittered in the side yard, the fields, and even on the roads. Familiar landmarks – the picnic table, the lilac bushes, the well, the wagon, the row of small pine trees – had disappeared completely, buried. And I had the freedom to spend hours exploring that incredible landscape, hills of shifting white ready to be made into anything my imagination could think of. I was a child. And figuring out where the next snow tunnel should go was the biggest responsibility I had.


Bitty said...

jo(e), I may have experienced that same blizzard, although I doubt I lived quite near you. I grew up in what was then rural northern Maryland (still northern, but now part of the Baltimore sprawl), and the way I've remembered it was that I was about 12 when it happened. That would indeed have been 40 years ago.

We had a small front porch, so the snow didn't pack right up against the door, but instead created a cave. I remember it as being as high as six feet...or maybe more (maybe due to drifting?). It was shocking to open our door the few inches we could and still barely be able to see over the snow. We weren't able to go to school for at least a week, during which I wrote my first (and alas, so far, only) book. I wish I still had it, but I destroyed it when I was an easily embarrassed teenager.

I presume the reason your family remembers the date is the coincidence with your parents' anniversary? I've never been entirely sure when "my" blizzard occurred, but it's the only one of that magnitude that I've experienced, and I lived in Maryland nearly all my childhood.

susan said...

I was thinking, as I watched Curious Girl trudge through the snow last week, about walking through such big, big drifts of snow when I was a child, and how the small size of a child makes the snow seem all the bigger. I would have been 3 for that same storm system (on Long Island), although I also remember plenty of other storms where the wind off the bay would just push snow around and up on the sidewalks.

I love watching children play in the snow.

Liz Miller said...

I am in love with your post and with the comments. Living in NYC, I only remember one blizzard ('77?), the whole city stopped. It was beautiful.

Rev Dr Mom said...

I wonder if this blizzard affected Virginia,too. I just counted up years,and that must've been the same year that we were out of school for (in my memory at least) more than a week. Or if not the same storm, maybe it was just a particularly stormy winter. It was a wonderful, wonderful time for a kid--I was in 7th grade at the time.

jo(e) said...

I think the big blizzard of '66 affected pretty much everyone up and down the east coast, so we are probably all remembering the same storm system.

I remember the blizzard of '77, too, Liz. We had so much snow here that roofs kept caving in. I was a sophomore in high school, and many of my friends made good money that year shoveling off roofs.I had one friend who worked at a horse barn that caved in one night, and I can remember his stories of having to try to get panicky horses out in a hurry. He came to school the next day having had no sleep at all.

And the other storm I mentioned, the one where we got 48 inches in a single day, was in March of '93. It came on the last day of spring break, and college students were stranded all up and down the east coast.

Bitty, we pride ourselves on remembering the dates of our snowstorms. Here in the Snowstorm City region, it's pretty much our only claim to fame.

Michael LeVan said...

Jo(e), sorry to be off topic. But, I know you hate February. I woke up this morning thinking good thoughts for you. Here's to a hopeful, and good, February.

Bitty said...

Because I haven't lived in a snowy region most of the last 34 years, I can be nostalgic about snow. Rereading jo(e)'s post and Susan's comment made me think about one of the things I loved the most about snow: walking "on" it. After the sun melts the top just a little, the top freezes overnight, leaving a rather firm, crunchy surface. We would walk along the top of it, our feet barely indenting the top layer, for as long as we could until our weight would break the frozen surface and we'd sink in. Since we were kids, we didn't weigh so much, so we could sometimes walk for quite a distance. The challenge would be to see just how far we could go.

Sledding was fun, too, especially when I got brave enough to do it stomach-down rather than sitting up. That was as extreme a sport (nose-to-nose with the icy ground) as I've ever tried.

jo(e) said...

Hey, thanks, Dr. MMMmmmm(mmmmm)mmmm. I feel touched that you remembered that. Yeah, February is usually a terrible month for me. I'm determined to make it different this year. That's why I started out the month yesterday by writing about a happy childhood memory. I might blog about some of my sad February memories too, though. Writing can be very therapeutic.

OTRgirl said...

I was in Cincinnati for the storm of '77. It wasn't as glorious as your 40 inches, but the Ohio River froze over. The storm corresponded with a three week long teacher strike so it was excellent for us kids. Our favorite trick was jumping off the 10 foot balcony of a nearby building into a 6 ' snow drift.

Thanks for the memories!

Mona Buonanotte said...

We also had a blizzard in '77, but the one I remember most was in '73 or '74. School was closed for a week. The drifts in front of our garage were nearly 5 feet high. My brother and I made spectacular tunnels and forts, for days, freezing our fingers like fat pink icicles.

I love your snow stories!

bridgett said...

Snowstorm of 77 -- my family lived in a farm town in the Snowbelt around Cleveland, with plenty of lake-effect snow. None of the adults could afford to miss a day of work so we all got up at 4 am to start shoveling the driveway so that they could follow the plow up the rural road whenever it came along. I was off school, instructed that the driveway had to be passable when the cars came back. I spent all day shoveling the same stretch of driveway over and over. That was the same year, I think, that the heating crisis grew so acute that all three schools in my town moved into one building -- one to a floor -- to keep the schools open.

Strange to think about this on a day so spring-like.

ccw said...

What a wonderful memory!

I don't think it is possible to enjoy the snow as much as I did when I was a kid. It seemed so deep and making caves and tunnels was my favorite thing to do.

I keep waiting for a big storm so that Kid L will have such memories, but so far the most she has seen has been 6-7".

Anonymous said...

i grew up in los angeles, and used to dream of snow forts, as a kid. the first time i saw snow falling, i think i was 15 -- we were at a friend's cabin in the mountains. there was enough snow to make snow-angels and have a snowball fight!

my family tends to remember things like the big earthquake of 1971. it was an odd kind of adventure. school was closed, power was out, had to boil water, and cook on the barbeque. not as fun as huge snow forts...

listie said...

I remember that storm, too. I recently found a picture of my best friend and myself taken, I think, after we had finally gotten plowed out from that storm. We're standing in front of a snow pile that towers over our heads.

Rev Dr Mom said...

I remember the Storm of March '93--it did affect the whole east coast, and I was living in north Florida in a somewhat rickety house that was surrounded by huge live oak trees. They were great trees, but I laid awake all night listening to the wind and rain, waiting for a tree branch to come crashing through the roof. (Luckily, none did).

As for '77--I remember the whole winter of 76-77 being very cold. I wanted very much to go to Jimmy Carter's inauguration, but there was a huge storm, and I had a 1 1/2 year old, so it was a no-go. That was the winter that parts of the Chesapeake Bay froze over (I was living in that area then--yes, I move a lot).

jo(e), your posts and the comments they get always evoke a lot of memories.

Friday Mom said...

Great story! Brought back a lot of memories of snow forts in my past. My favorite part of the forts we built was the nifty little shelf on which we could place countless snowballs for attacking any would-be invaders.