I grew up in the Midwest, born in Chicago, raised on the Southwest Side. We have four seasons. That's true for a lot of people, from a lot of places. Any generation, from any region accustomed to cold and snow in winter, has their own legendary storms.
My recollection of winter during my childhood is like an impressionist painting. I remember it as one whole piece, with broad sweeping statements and romantic generalizations covering the canvas. It seemed we had snow cover by Thanksgiving, a fairly permanent fixture until well into March. It was part of life, and recently I have enjoyed writing about the winter clothes and activities of my youth.
After sixth grade, I moved to a different town, and enrolled in a Catholic school. I had always attended public school. One of the many differences I noticed was how snow days were handled. We enjoyed snow days in public school, but after a certain number, any extra had to be made up. Which meant the last day of school went deeper into June. Not cool.
Catholic school wasn't so strict about counting snow days, but what happened in January 1979 amazed me.
We already had about seven to 10 inches of snow cover when a winter storm started one Friday night. When it finally stopped, sometime early Sunday morning, there was an extra 18 inches on the ground. That's a fair amount of fresh snow in a relatively short amount of time. Everyone struggled to keep up. It was a constant battle to keep your driveway and sidewalk clear. As soon as you'd finish, the plow would come by and bury the driveway again.
Then the temperature dropped, the winds howled and the snow drifted. It didn't matter much where you had put the snow as it all was re-distributed anyway. You literally had to shovel out of your house. I remember having both Monday and Tuesday off. Two days in a row was fairly uncommon, but it was still hard to get to school on Wednesday morning. Everyone was abuzz, sharing their experiences.
Not long after we all settled in, it started to snow again. It came down hard and fast, looking just like the weekend storm. About two hours later, we were all released. It was a good decision. Even another inch of fresh snow would make roads treacherous all over again, and we got more than that. It was a mess, and we had Thursday and Friday off, too.
This wasn't a snow day. This wasn't two days in a row. For all intents and purposes, this was a snow week!
I was still a kid. Sure, I helped shovel a lot of snow, but I had no worries. I didn't have to drive in that mess, or get to work, or grocery shop or anything. I wasn't the incumbent Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic, who was about to lose his office to Jane Byrne due to his mishandling of this blizzard. I was an eighth grader -- and we were rulers of the school, kings of the castle. Even if we had too many snow days, I was pretty sure we'd graduate on time. So I was going to enjoy my snow week.
On Thursday I decided to walk to my girlfriend's house, about two miles away. This was going to take some time. There weren't any sidewalks to walk on, or yards to cut across. The huge piles of snow along the winding streets formed virtual walls. It was best to get out of the subdivision directly, and walk straight along Central avenue. It was a two lane road, with drainage ditches on either side. The snow wasn't piled so high -- about up to my waist. I started down Central, sun shining, happy.
I remembered that it was best to walk on the side with oncoming traffic, so you could see what was coming towards you. There was enough room for most cars to comfortably pass me, and they weren't sliding or anything, so I felt safe.
Until I saw an early '70s General Motors sedan coming towards me. It wasn't so much the width of it that scared me -- I sensed evil. As it drew closer, I saw the smoke and unmistakeable silhouette of frizzy, high school stoner hair-dos. And they recognized an eighth grader from Catholic school.
Our eyes locked, they grinned and the passenger door flew open, blocking what little space remained. I had no choice but to leap into the drainage ditch. I heard Doppler effect laughter as the car passed and I began to claw my way out.
On that particular winter day, I didn't feel so much like a king.