February 8, 2013

February Made Me Shiver

The Blizzard of 2013.  It is coming as
a surprise to no one.
(As this is written, the Blizzard of 2013 is descending on the Northeast.  It is predicted to drop at least two feet of snow on Boston.  The key to the preceding sentence is ‘predicted’.  Computer models suggested a blizzard five days ago and the lone question since that time has been ‘where’ and ‘how much’.  Thirty-five years ago this week, the Northeast was buried by another blizzard.  Incomprehensible in an age of satellite imaging and sophisticated computer modeling, the Blizzard of 1978 came as a surprise.  What was light snow on a Monday morning with a prediction of ‘a few inches’ turned into a two-day-long monster event.  In the absence of anything interesting to write about in gardening, herewith is a record of the Principal Undergardener’s journey through that storm.)

Thousands of cars were 'snowed in'
on Route 128
Anyone who was out of diapers at the time and lived in Boston has a Blizzard of ’78 story.  As the photos of autos stranded on Route 128, rear-view-mirror deep in snow will attest, it was a harrowing storm.

But it was not just an eastern Massachusetts event, though a strip of real estate encompassing the southwestern suburbs got the ‘jackpot’ totals of three-and-a-half-feet of the white stuff (augmented by ten-foot-high drifts).  The whole Northeast got hit. 

I know.  I was there.  This is my story.

The Blizzard of '78 was a regional
event.  Double-click to see snowfall
totals.  Hartford received 24", New
York, 18".
In February 1978 I had accepted a job in New York City.  On the morning on February 5, Betty and I boarded a 7:30 flight at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport for New York LaGuardia.  Our flight time was 90 minutes.  We were told there was ‘some snow’ in the New York area but that we should arrive on time at 10 a.m.  We carried four large suitcases with us.

At a few minutes before ten, we were circling LaGuardia and the ‘some snow’ was getting much more serious.  At one point we were told we were next in line to land.  Then, after half an hour of circling, the announcement came that LaGuardia had just closed due to weather conditions and that we would be diverted to Bradley Field north of Hartford.

We landed at Hartford in blinding snow, the last plane to do so before that airport, too, was closed.  Our airline (I believe it was American) gave passengers the option of being taken by bus the fifty miles to New Haven where we could get the train for New York, or being  put up ‘overnight’ at a hotel near the airport.

My wife grew up in the Finger Lakes of New York state, the land of ‘lake effect’ snow that can drop a foot of the stuff overnight.  She took a look at the snow and said, “We can do this.”  At noon, thirty passengers stowed their luggage on the bus and we headed south.

Fifteen miles south of Hartford in swiftly deteriorating conditions, our bus skidded off the road and – very fortunately – into a guard rail.  It was fortunate because the guard rail was all that was between us a steep ravine.  The bus could go no further.  Miraculously, another bus was dispatched, picked us up, and we slowly made out way down to New Haven.

It took three hours to reach New Haven and we feared we had missed the last New-York-bound train.  But there were people on the platform and so we lugged our four suitcases and waited.  A few minutes later, an Amtrak train pulled in.  It was now 4 p.m.  The train had left Boston at 6 a.m.  It was the only train to make the trek that day and, had we been a few minutes later, we would have been stranded in New Haven for the duration.

There were no seats on the train; we sat on our luggage in one of the passenger compartments.  But at least we were inside the train.  Most of those who boarded at New Haven spent the next several hours in the unheated vestibule between cars.  Pushing snow in front of it, the train made it to Penn Station at about 8 p.m.

I had done one intelligent thing that day.  At Bradley Field, I had called my employer’s Manhattan office and pleaded for someone to walk over to the Statler Hilton and pay for our room, get a key, and leave it with the concierge.

It turned out to be a prescient move.  We arrived to a city that had shut down, stranding tens of thousands of travelers and commuters in the city.  Seventh Avenue was covered with more than a foot of snow with almost nothing moving.  A porter helped get our suitcases across the street to the hotel where we found a mob of people occupying every square foot of sleepable surface.  I went the concierge desk and held my breath.

A minute later, I held up the key for Betty to see.  Twelve hours after we left Chicago, we were in New York.

* * * * *

Our home in Brooklyn, bought
in the aftermath of the blizzard.
The blizzard turned out to be a fortunate event for us.  Two days later, a Realtor met us in Boerum Hill in Brooklyn. “If you can get here, I’ll show you houses,” she told us.  We emerged from the subway to a landscape of unplowed streets, with a police car – immobilized up to its windows in snow – blocking an intersection.  A bus sat abandoned in snow drifts in front of the brownstone we were there to see.

It was the house we had looked for in vain in Chicago.  Betty and I squeezed one another’s hand so tightly I nearly broke her fingers.  We made an offer that day, counter-offered over dinner that evening at the then-newly-opened River Café, and had our offer accepted over dessert.

That was 35 years ago.  It was a time before cell phones or the internet.  The Blizzard of 2013 may leave a lot of snow, but as I listen to the radio this afternoon, the highways are clear because everyone knew to stay home today.  Passengers on the 7:30 flight from Chicago to New York would have been called last night and told there flight was cancelled and they were being re-booked for Sunday.  In short, few dramatic ‘blizzard stories’ will be generated by this year’s storm (apart from ones based on stupidity).

But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  It was an adventure – albeit a harrowing one at the time.  We got through it and we found the house of our dreams, made possible in large part by our perseverance.

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