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As Snow Piles Up Back East, His Mind Begins to Drift

For the last several days my favorite TV stop has been the Weather Channel. The budget impasse left me cold, but the Blizzard of ’96 warmed me to the gills. I couldn’t stop watching footage of the footage, cursing only when they interrupted to give temperatures around the globe.

It’s not that I’ve enjoyed the weather-related misery of those on the East Coast. To the contrary, as a native Midwesterner with at least three blizzards under my belt (January of ’75, Christmas of ’83, Thanksgiving of ’84), watching the storm unfold and then paralyze the East was like taking a trip down a snow-covered Memory Lane.

It’s been the same with every transplanted Midwesterner or Easterner I’ve talked to this week. Most of us came to California to escape the weather, yet all seemed wistful and a touch prideful as we remembered blizzards past. Like war stories, everyone’s storm was more powerful, more death-defying, more life-altering than anyone else’s.

We’ve swapped stories about trudging through hip-deep snow to buy canned goods and bacon strips. About climbing through windows to get outside because immovable snow was packed against the doors. About hot chocolate and huddling around wood-burning fires and watching the sun glint off the fallen snow on the morning after.

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We’ve agreed on one thing: People who haven’t seen a blizzard’s aftermath have missed something special. What I recall most is the deathly silence. The only sound is the faint whisper of Mother Nature saying, “There, take that.” Only the most unfeeling can do anything but survey with wonder and humility.

Because blizzards often claim lives, though, some call them natural disasters. How crude a description for something so beautiful. Fires, earthquakes, floods or tornadoes--call them disasters if you want. They’re as powerful as blizzards, but when they’re finished, they leave ugliness. A blizzard leaves a still life.

Growing up in Nebraska, I accepted snow as vital, if only as the building material of choice for forts. My paternal ancestors were Swedes, so, who knows, I’m probably part Viking. Whatever, I was a hardy lad to whom brutal weather seldom mattered.

As a boy, though, I don’t remember any blizzards. The first realization that snow kills came as a teen when Dad had to see a chiropractor after hurting his back shoveling snow.

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I waited in the anteroom while the doctor went to work behind closed doors. Dead silence, then a sound--let’s call it a blood-curdling squawk--as though made by an exotic parrot. Moments later, Dad limped out and, after hearing that wail, I could never quite respect the old boy in the same way again.

I was in my mid-20s when the Blizzard of ’75 struck Omaha. If you must know, it was exactly 21 years ago today, and while I don’t remember how much snow fell (let’s go with 11 feet), it began falling in the morning and continued all afternoon. After work, a bunch of us were stranded in the office when a buddy and I decided we’d walk two blocks to a hotel.

From the get-go, darts of snow pelted us with such intensity that we couldn’t tell which direction we were going. My buddy and I thought we were invulnerable to such things (I was a Viking, he was Irish Catholic), but we lost orientation quickly and, even though we were on a sidewalk we had walked hundreds of times, we gave up on our trek and returned to the office. It was then that I realized why most blizzards included the tale of at least one poor guy found dead 10 feet from his house.

The East Coast storm gave me an excuse to call my friend this week and relive our fateful walk. We regaled ourselves with tales of mutual heroism, but just to prove how such moments affect your memory, my friend insists we made it the two blocks to the hotel. I reminded him we didn’t, due in no small part to his whimpering, and that we waited in the office until the snow stopped and then made it home only after someone picked us up in a Jeep. But just to reassure him that we were, indeed, young and foolhardy, I confirmed that our plan that night was to walk the 50 blocks to his house.

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Having set him straight on exactly what happened, I almost immediately wished I hadn’t. He’s probably told his children many a time how we trekked blindly through the snow, utterly fearless and indefatigable, and just when we were about to give up, we clasped hands and made a solemn vow to keep on going and not to cannibalize the other if one of us didn’t make it.

Yes, in fact, the more I think about it, that is what happened. Yes, that’s it exactly.

Dana Parsons’ columns appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at the Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.


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