“Our Backstreets” #33: Snow Days

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The big news in Chicago and many parts of the Midwest is the cold. As I write, current air temperatures in Chicagoland are -13℉, and this new-fangled measurement they call wind chill puts the temperature down to -38℉ for anyone who gets a kisser full of breeze. Last night, the governor of our neighboring state of Indiana declared a state of emergency and called weather-trained members of the National Guard out to close and patrol roads and rescue any fools who took the car out for a spin before the roadblocks went up. Veteran weathercaster Steve Baskerville tried to cover the story using those new-fangled weather-terror words like “invasion” to describe the cold air coming down from the Arctic and, as usual, fashion trumped safety as the pretty, low-ranking women the TV station sent out to report on what could plainly be seen from any window wore minimal head and no face coverings. (I am reminded of the poor reporter sent to O’Hare Airport, where “many international flights arrive,” to “cover” a shooting at a fast-food restaurant in Australia, wasting valuable resources that could have been used to report on Lindsay Lohan’s botched haircut.)

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As you may have gathered, this lifelong Chicagoan is respectful of the weather but remains cool-headed (actually quite warm in my cozy condo) as the hubby tries without success to terrorize me with the extremity of the situation. As nearly every decent employer in the area has closed for the day—even the mayor of Chicago was shamed into closing the Chicago Public Schools by the ever-wonderful Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union—there really isn’t much to worry about. No fighting blowing snow on the roads, no jamming to get on the only train that has appeared at the open-air platform in the past quarter-hour. Instead, many of us are relaxing, making soup and hot toddies, doing a spot of work remotely from our home computers and phones, or engaging in any number of pastimes, from watching movies to catching up on our reading. This is what as a kid I looked forward to during the winter—a snow day.

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Dad shoveling out after the Big Snow of 1967

During the blizzard of 2011, I told a couple of shell-shocked Californians who were spending their first winter in Chicago—indeed, they moved here in November—that they were lucky to experience something I had only lived through three times before. They thought I was nuts, but I was sincere. My memories of my first blizzard, the Big Snow of 1967, are extremely fond. School was closed for four days, and my brother and I and all the many kids on our Baby Boom block were delirious at the possibilities 23 inches of snow on the ground presented. The wind had cast drifts that reached the roofs of some of my neighbors’ houses. A couple of intrepid children climbed them and then jumped into the snow, but I was too afraid to join them. Snowball fights and building snow forts were more my speed. Our front door was snowed shut, but Dad went out the back door and began the long, slow clearing of a path from the front door to our driveway and then digging out the driveway so that he could get his car off the road. I remember people who had to abandon their cars trying to find them again after the snow had covered them completely. People who hate the time-honored Chicago practice of putting out kitchen and lawn chairs to hold spots people shoveled out for their cars might have a better appreciation for the practice if they could have seen my dad and a lot of other people doing the back-breaking work of moving two feet of heavy snow for hours on end.

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Canyons of snow after the digout

The Blizzard of 1979 was quite a different affair. I was living in the far south suburb of Chicago Heights and commuting on the Illinois Central Railroad to my job at the Chicago Tribune. The aftermath of that blizzard stayed in the area for months, as cold temperatures allowed more snow to accumulate as winter storms continued through the area. I helped a young man push his car out of a rut, and he seemed gobsmacked that anyone, let alone “A GIRL” would help him. I began to understand the very different world I was living in when I went to see a doctor about a very infected ear, and waited in vain for my bus home to arrive. I stood outside for a very long time as person after person leaving the closing clinic refused to give me a lift and my boyfriend’s father refused to come and get me. I would have died of hypothermia had one person not finally agreed to drive me home. I sat in front of the fireplace in my rented house for hours, the chill in my core and my bones so deep I thought I would never get warm again.

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Obviously, I lived to see another cold day—in fact, the coldest ever recorded in Chicago. On January 10, 1982, the air temperature dropped to the current record of -27℉. I was back on the north side of Chicago, and was scheduled to go to the Museum of Science and Industry on the south side to hear my friend Marcia play a concert with the Chicago Chamber Orchestra. Unlike today, the city didn’t shut down, and the concert was on. At the time, my friend had a slavishly devoted boyfriend who would literally do anything she asked. So, he picked me up, and we drove south down Lake Shore Drive, the joints of his car creaking—EVERYTHING creaking—as the remaining snow on the road crunched under his frozen tires. We were nearly alone on the road, but neither he nor I would have dreamed of disappointing Marcia by behaving sensibly. Our nose hairs froze on our first inhale when we stepped out of the car and remained frozen until we entered the mostly empty museum. The orchestra, musicians who would have lost a paycheck if they hadn’t shown up, worked to literally warm up their instruments before the concert, and the show went on. I don’t remember the concert, but I do remember sitting after the concert with Marcia and her beau in the Harris, an all-night diner near her apartment and a hang-out for musicians coming off of late gigs, drinking hot tea and talking not about the weather, but about the concert. Yes, Marcia could be self-involved, but the truth was that none of us found the weather all that interesting by comparison. It gets cold in the winter, and that’s that.

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Mayor Bilandic (r.) met his Waterloo soon after this picture was taken.

But lest you think Chicagoans don’t notice the weather, here is the cautionary tale of Michael Bilandic, who took office when Hizzoner the first Mayor Daley died late in 1976. The mayor made one crucial error during the 1979 blizzard that ended his career in the city’s top spot after less than three years in office. City streets, including main arteries, remained clogged for weeks as Bilandic seemed unable to marshall the resources to clear them. But that’s not what cost him the election—he brought out the snowplows to clear the way for some honchos attending a fundraiser at the Conrad Hilton hotel downtown. Chicagoans will take our weather, we’re raised to do that, but we never forget a snub.

  • Pat spoke:
    6th/01/2014 to 3:57 pm

    I love this post, Marilyn. Brings back a lot of memories – growing up in northwest Indiana, I experienced some of these same storms. I think we were off school for a week in 1967 (I was in second grade) and I have some fuzzy but fond memories of extended family members coming to our house when their power went out because we had gas stoves and heat.

    Weather reports seem so much more alarmist now that when we were growing up. Every time it snows, it’s a “storm” requiring a “winter weather advisory” We used to just call it winter and we just dealt with it. “Suck it up, this is Chicago!” is my motto.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/01/2014 to 4:03 pm

    Pat – I hear you. I felt so sorry for Steve Baskerville. He’s an old-school weatherman who clearly has been forced to goose up his coverage to excite the natives. Shane favorite thing to do is scare himself and others, but I refuse to get excited about wind chill numbers and the like. Yeah, winter. It happens.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    7th/01/2014 to 7:31 am

    Yes indeed Marilyn, the arctic weather in your neck of the woods is the overriding business of the last few days, and you and Shane are in the middle of a monumental expression of Mother Nature’s fury. Mind you, we in the northeast are not exactly sipping pina colada under palm trees (it’s 5 degrees right now as I write this inside our school) but compared to what you Chicagoans have had to endure and fear, well we can count our blessings.

    Great piece here. And wonderful photos.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    7th/01/2014 to 9:17 am

    Hi Sam. Back at work today, and for me at least, it wasn’t too bad. I know some bad weather is headed your way, so stay warm and safe.

    I love these old photos. I have one from 1967 in which my white Persian Charlie is standing in the snow. Poor thing, he matched the background – glad we found him before he froze!

  • marlene spoke:
    11th/01/2014 to 4:32 am

    As the cold and snow in Chicago hits the news in Paris, everyone is talking of what they call “my” weather as one of the few representatives of Chicago around. You must understand that any temperature below 40°F (5°C – I’m sitting here with a temperature converter) is grounds for complaint, and 1 inch of snow is declared a natural disaster, with airplanes being grounded and public transport seriously affected. The weather worry of the moment here is that next week it may go down to 35°F (2°C). So?!?

    I loved your account of Chicago snow. I remember the blizzard of 1967: a boyfriend had come from the southside (he used to travel 35 miles to pick me up) for a date, and ended up staying with the family for 3 days. I was never so well-dressed, coiffed and made up consistently for so long ever before (or ever again) as my family let me know as soon as he could get the car out and go home. And the picture of your father in the snow-filled front yard brought tears to my eyes.
    As I remember the news of Bilandic, he had the rich areas of Chicago cleared first, and left the poor to suffer. He deserved to pay for that choice!
    Thanks for the walk down a snowy memory lane

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/01/2014 to 11:25 am

    Hi Marlene – It’s hard for people who aren’t used to harsh weather like this to cope with it, so I understand the Parisian attitude. When Chicagoans are made to get hysterical about it, though, I have no patience.

    That’s a great story about your boyfriend. And Dana reminded me of how Bilandic only plowed the north side. I didn’t remember that.

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