Posted by: justawriter | December 29, 2009

Far Afield – Marking the years by the blizzards

Some people mark the passage of the years a little differently than most. I’ve noticed that around North Dakota we tend to accumulate blizzard stories like rings in a tree. The longer we hang around, the more stories that come out whenever an Alberta Clipper or Colorado Low rumble across the prairies.
For my generation the March Blizzard of 1966 will always be the touchstone, the storm all other blizzards are measured against. It was the last five day storm I can recall in the last 43 years. A couple of feet of snow combined with gale force winds created enough stories to last a lifetime. An train between Jamestown and Valley City was stopped when it was drifted over. At Jamestown College undergraduates jumped off the roof of the three story administration building into the snow bank and were able to climb back in the building through the third story window.
We lived just south of town and the school principal lived a mile south of us. That farmstead had a beautiful shelterbelt that proved to be a perfect snow trap. After the storm, a bunch of fellows from town picked up my dad on these newfangled things called snowmobiles and headed south on a rescue mission. When they got there, all they could see of the two story house was the smoke coming from the chimney and the television antenna. The home had been completely drifted over and the residents could hear the rafters cracking from the weight of the snow.
Well, every man there had their aluminum grain shove and got to work. It was hard work, but nothing these farmers weren’t used to. Soon the chimney, then the roof, were located and cleared. As they worked down uncovering the second floor window, the principal shouted, “It’s a boy.” His daughter in Grand Forks was a registered nurse. At the start of the storm she walked to the hospital, partly because she knew they would need the help and partly because she was nine months pregnant. That close to the delivery, she thought, the hospital was probably the safest place to be. She worked several shifts that week and actually helped deliver a few other babies before, as the state began to dig itself out, delivered herself.
My dad had a treasure trove of blizzard stories himself. His touchstone, the storm that all other blizzards were compared to was the 1941 blizzard. Part of the deadly impact at that time was the lack of communications. The day dawned as beautiful, clear and calm as a winter day can be. The first sign my dad had that something was terribly wrong was that he saw a lamb being tumbled “ass over teakettles” by the wind and rolling away. They found it frozen against a fence after the storm.
That wasn’t the most significant storm for my dad. In 1948 a storm hit the state with a glancing blow. The family farm nine miles north of Langdon was pretty much socked in. But in one of those odd twists of fate, the Red River Valley hardly got a lick of snow. That’s where my mother was from, and so all her guests easily made to Langdon – for the wedding. Yes, my father and his best man were two days late for his own wedding. Whenever he told that story he always insisted on adding that his was the first vehicle behind the snowplow when the road was finally cleared and the wedding did take place, eventually.
It always seemed like any significant family gathering between October and April was sure to attract a blizzard. Of course, because we were a family of farmers, most of the weddings too place in the winter because that was the only time it wouldn’t interfere with the farm work. The current generation has mostly pursued other careers, so June, July and August weddings have become more the norm. So far it seems to be working since we haven’t had a honeymoon delayed for quite some time.
As I write this, the news is saying that this will be a “once in a decade” storm. The peak snow forecasts have been creeping up steadily for the last 48 hours from eight inches to a foot and now I am seeing 20 inch accumulations expected in the southeast part of the state. That’s the part of the state I hoped to be traveling to on Christmas day, and now looks to be delayed for a bit. That’s another winter story I will be sharing – another ring on the tree.
If the wind picks up as forecast, this will be one doozy of a storm. I’m sure there will be a whole new batch of stories that will come out of the Christmas Blizzard of ’09. If you hear any good ones be sure to drop me a line. It wouldn’t be a North Dakota blizzard without swapping a few tales about our wonderful weather. And just think, this might be the event that ties together a whole new generation of North Dakotans, who will lean back in their chairs fifty years from now saying, “Yeah, this is a good storm, but let me tell you about back in 2009 …”


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