A blizzard hovered for two days over the plains. It arrived on Thursday February 21, 2013, in West Omaha at Englewood Drive exactly twelve minutes later than the ETA reported on the weather channel. The airport shut down. Schools and universities closed. Employees stayed home. The family slept in.
One by one the family awoke and looked out onto a white landscape. The dried hydrangea blooms had turned into drooping balls of frozen cotton. The spruce trees looked like ice wizards. Fence posts rose like sentinels from two foot drifts.
Outside it was five degrees; inside 68. They lit the gas fireplace and made pancakes. They wrapped up in afghans and declared a pajama morning. The teenagers’ fingers flew through text messages and online games. The dad hooked into teleconferences and caught up with his email. The mom designed an iPad training session for teachers.
The dogs forged through the snow cover first, the puppy, dressed in a sweater, leaping like a rabbit, and the black lab plowing her way to the fence border. Soon the neighborhood came alive with snow blowers. Before evening the snow plows had cleared the streets.
The water supply didn’t freeze. The pantry remained stocked. The closets contained multiple layers of wool and polartec. A line of furry snow boots stood by the back door; a pile of mittens waited in a basket.
In the infamous blizzard of 1888, sometimes called the Schoolhouse Blizzard, temperatures plummeted forty degrees after an unseasonably warm January 11th. Arctic air swooshed down into the northern plains from Canada. On January 12th many children were either trapped in schools without heat or perished as they struggled against the wind and blinding snow to reach their homes. 238 children died.
Although I grew up in the San Francisco bay area in the 1940’s and 50’s in a temperate zone, I knew about blizzard lore. My dad liked to retell the story of the blizzard of 1888 in Nebraska, told to him by his mother, most likely to keep him from hunting in dangerous weather. In the 1880’s two ancestral families had homesteaded west of Nebraska City. When the blizzard struck, they settled in to wait out the storm. The men tied a rope between the house and the barn, so they could safely tend to their livestock. When their provisions grew low, the men, who were brothers, set out into the storm on their horses for Nebraska City. The women begged them not to go. I imagined silent children watching their mothers tending the fire and listening for the husbands’ return. After the storm abated, the wives discovered the two brothers frozen between the house and the barn. The provisions were in the barn with the horses.
My father grew up on a tenant farm in southeastern Nebraska. One harsh winter during the Great Depression, he and his brother struck out across frigid fields to hunt for rabbits and squirrels to supplement home canned tomatoes, the only food remaining that January. When the sky turned dark and the wind whisked across the empty fields, my grandmother must have felt blizzard lore course through her veins.
My husband was born into the Great Depression on a farm in the Flint Hills of Kansas where weather ruled life’s rhythms. Winter could be arduous. He slept with his brothers in an unheated room. When food ran low, they ate steamed wheat and gravy. Water froze in the kitchen bucket. In winter the boys dressed beside a stove in the kitchen.
In Kentucky when snow fell, my children would beg to go sledding. I remember one winter night when, after papering stairway walls, we went sledding with friends until midnight. Laughter and brightly colored parkas sparkled in the icy air. Our noses tingled, and snow caked our mittens . Afterwards we warmed ourselves by a wood fire and drank hot chocolate. It was 1981, nearly one hundred years from the blizzards of 1888.
We are now five generations distant from the Schoolhouse Blizzard. Weather scientists track storms to the minute. We are not precariously housed. Most of us live within a short drive to groceries. We can work online. Our most dramatic event is a household teasing about which cookies to bake, oatmeal raisin or chocolate chip.
This morning the mom of this Omaha family noticed that her bread pans were lying outside next to an unfinished snow fort. In the night the family puppy had discovered a bag of chocolate candy hidden under an afghan. Pieces of gold foil littered the rug. A sock here, a towel over there, jackets on the floor, magazines askew — the scene is definitely relaxed.
Last night we went sledding in the moonlight. I clung to my grandson as we careened down a steep sled run and over a mogul. The dogs chased us. At the bottom of the hill, my daughter laughed, “Mom, you okay?!” The Big Dipper sparkled in the clear sky above. It was thrilling.
Fact is, we are only inconvenienced when the airport closes, and relieved if we cannot go to work or to school.
The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin
HarperCollins, Oct 13, 2009 – History – 336 pages
Thousands of impoverished Northern European immigrants were promised that the prairie offered “land, freedom, and hope.” The disastrous blizzard of 1888 revealed that their free homestead was not a paradise but a hard, unforgiving place governed by natural forces they neither understood nor controlled, and America’s heartland would never be the same.
The Blizzard Voices by Ted Kooser, Tom Pohrt (illustrator)
Bison Books, September 1, 2006 – poetry – 64 pages
This book is a collection of poems recording the devastation unleashed on the Great Plains by the blizzard of January 12, 1888. The Blizzard Voices is based on the actual reminiscences of the survivors as recorded in documents from the time and written reminiscences from years later. Here are the haunting voices of the men and women who were teaching school, working the land, and tending the house when the storm arrived and changed their lives forever.
Eighteen eighty-eight, a Thursday,
the twelfth of January:
It had been warm all morning,
with a soft, southerly breeze,
melting the snowdrifts back
from the roads. There were bobwhite
and prairie chickens out
pecking for grit in the wheel-ruts.
0n lines between shacks and soddies,
women were airing their bedding–
bright quilts that flapped and billowed,
ticks sodden as thunderheads.
In the schoolyards, children
were rolling the wet, gray snow
into men, into fortresses,
laughing and splashing about,
in their shirtsleeves. Their teachers
stood in the doorways and watched.
Odd weather for January;
a low line of clouds in the north;
too warm, too easy. And the air
filled with electricity;
an iron poker held up
close to a stovepipe would spark,
and a comb drawn through the hair
would crackle. One woman said
she’d had to use a stick of wood
to open her oven door.
Excerpted from Ted Kooser’s The Blizzard Voices