2003, February: Blizzards

The lesson is from the sixth chapter of the book of Genesis, the fourth verse. There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children unto them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.

No one who experienced it would ever forget it. Here is a report written that winter: "The … storm, a true Nor'easter, rolled down the Atlantic seaboard burying cities and towns from Maine to Washington, D.C. and as far inland as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania beneath a deep blanket of snow. A blanket 40 to 50 inches deep in central Connecticut…. Thirty to forty mile an hour winds--one report claims 70 mph--created snowdrifts 20 to 40 feet high. That's tall enough to completely cover a three story house, chimney and all…. All roads were closed…. Walking, well walking any distance was simply out of the question. If you could get out of your house that is…. "

Yes, the Blizzard of '88 was like nothing that had been seen in modern times, and for a brief time the urbanized Northeast was returned to the quiet of its rural past. "Fire-fighters and their equipment were practically stranded inside their stations," the account went on to say. "If you got sick or injured there was no way doctors could get to you, or for you to get to them. Until the roads were cleared anyway. Nothing moved during that storm."

Though 400 people died in the Blizzard of '88, it was a credit to New Englanders' hardiness and hard work that the roads and railroad tracks got cleared and the phone lines got reconnected as quickly as they did, with only horse drawn equipment available to do the job. For yes, this was the great Blizzard of 1888, and those were the words of Mark Twain describing it, kindly pointed out to me by Terry Marotta. But they match pretty well my memories of the Blizzard of 1978, which I spent in my house in Arlington Heights. Nothing moved; for a couple of days, efforts to stay ahead of the storm were given up, all the internal combustion engines were silenced, and there was a collective surrender to the forces of nature. Nothing but snow and more snow. Just as in Twain's description of the blizzard ninety years earlier, there was no way to get to a doctor or for a doctor to get to you. Had my wife, then nine and a half months pregnant by our calculation, decided to go into labor, the plan was for me to fight my way down the street to a policeman neighbor, the phone lines having gone out early in the storm.

But nothing happened, and the days following the storm were of indescribable quiet and profound beauty. There was plenty of snow to shovel, but there was plenty of time to shovel it, because once you reached the street, you couldn't go anywhere in your car anyway. We walked a mile or two to buy groceries, once emergency lanes had been plowed and the trucks were able to reach the food stores. The silence and the unblemished blanket of snow over trees, houses, cars, everything made the landscape seem that of a lost civilization, a white Atlantis perhaps at the bottom of the sea, covered by a thousand years of snowy accumulation.

My wife and I were never really unsafe, and my daughter, 25 years old last week, was born in a hospital on the first day vehicular traffic started to move at all. It was fun to imagine ourselves isolated, just as it was fun for the Crimson to ask me last night if classes might be cancelled today ("I assume not," the reporter even acknowledged in his email inquiry). But bad winter weather should remind us of greater feats of human endurance. The Blizzard of 1978 many of us experienced, and the blizzard of 1888 of which Twain wrote, and the snows and especially the brutal cold of this winter, bad though they may be, are ordinary conditions in Minnesota and the Dakotas and Nebraska and eastern Montana. Under such conditions the farmers and woodsmen of America have lived for generations. Winter isolation was the normal condition in the Great Plains before electrification, and it still happens today during severe storms. Rolvag's great novel of the Dakota Territory draws its title from the Bible verse that is today's lesson. It gives a moving picture of the effects of the total and extended isolation, and of cold every winter beyond anything ever experienced in New England, conditions that made the settling of America as much an exercise in endurance and survival as in adventure.

As we complain today about the cold on our five-minute walk from the car to the office or from the House to the classroom, let us acknowledge the bravery of ordinary rural Americans, past and present, who are so responsible for our agricultural prosperity and our national unity. And let us also remember that this winter, like those other terrible winters, will end. As we chatter and shiver, we can be comforted that as the night is darkest just before dawn, so the winter is worst when pitchers and catchers have already reported for Spring training.