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In the Suburbs / Blizzard? You ain't see nothin'

Published 8:52 am, Friday, February 15, 2013
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As I stood in my garage Sunday contemplating the chore of shoveling the waist-deep snow in my driveway, I just chuckled and mumbled, "This certainly isn't the worst winter storm I've ever experienced."

But unlike two other killer storms I experienced in the Midwest in the '60s and late '70s, this storm had a bit of a silver lining -- warmer weather which arrived right on the heals of the blizzard. The rising temperatures started a melting process that kept things from being even worse.

The two horrific blizzards I was thinking about were in 1967, when I was a newlywed in Chicago, and in 1978 (a Midwest blizzard on Jan. 25-26, not to be confused with the Northeast blizzard Feb. 6-7) when we were residents of Jackson, Mich., near Ann Arbor. Both storms hobbled businesses, schools and transportation not for days but for months because they were followed by bitter cold weather and mini-storms.

When the Chicago storm hit, I was a young teacher in a far-out suburb and had gone to school that day with few worries. As the storm intensified, the district dismissed early. Driving home in my little 1963 Dodge Dart, the snow was up to the side-view mirror. I barely made it home and found a parking spot right near our apartment building. The morning after, looking out the window on nearly 30 inches of snow with even higher drifts, I couldn't even see the car.

Even worse, the temperature had dropped into the teens, so we were housebound that first day. Warnings that cars on the street would be towed began the next day. I looked at my wife and we both tried to figure out where we could move the car -- if we could find it! Of course. Chicago officials didn't know exactly where to move people or vehicles.

What stood out most vividly about that storm was how compassionate people were -- for the short-term, at least. Once I found my car, my wife and I went out to do errands and took along as many people as we could who had someplace to go. The most memorable of these was an elderly woman who directed us to her beauty salon. She explained that nothing was more important than her weekly hair appointment.

Because of the bitter cold over the rest of that winter, the snow remained on the ground into March and had to be shipped out on rail cars to points down south or west. We thought it would never disappear, and the inconvenience of moving the car -- as an apartment dweller, I didn't know what a garage was -- was a daily nightmare. I felt like I never removed my snow gear.

When the Midwest Blizzard of 1978 hit the charming little town of Jackson, Mich., there was bus service right on our little street, Pleasant Street. To play it safe, I left early in the morning on the bus when there was just a coating on the ground.

By the time I arrived at the firm where I worked, people were cross-country skiing in and trudging through thigh-high snow in heavy ski and snow gear. It was like the skies opened and just dumped the snow.

Businesses in places like Jackson, which is no stranger to bad snowstorms, took a long time to call off work, so it was nearly 2 p.m. by the time I left. There were more than 30 inches on the ground by then. And the buses had stopped running, so I walked nearly five miles home. There were no cellphones then, so I couldn't alert my family about where I was. My wife and kids were frantic, but I finally made it after almost two hours. Some of the drifts were taller than me.

Once again, because of the consistent winter temperatures and mini-storms, the snow remained on the ground until nearly April and finally left Jackson on rail cars. But the people there couldn't have been nicer.

While I'm a veteran of blizzards, they don't get any easier to handle, especially as these bones get creakier. And this latest storm -- I could kill that groundhog -- may have been winter's last hurrah. But we won't forget this Blizzard of '13.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at steven.gaynes@yahoo.com.