As I was watching snowflakes accumulating on the front lawn of my house in the city today, my memory took me to the house in the country where I grew up. I thought about the first snowfall of a particular winter many years ago. It was Saturday, November 30, 1974. I was 11 years old and lived with my parents in a modest house on the crest of a forested hill in the mountains of Tennessee. It was surrounded by oaks and maples and birches and beeches, with thick woods in every direction.
The morning had been sunny and mild, but clouds filled the sky in the afternoon and a cold wind started blowing from the north. Guests were expected that evening. My mother’s brother Roy and his wife Mary were driving down from Ohio and we were all excited to see the relatives. It got colder as the afternoon wore on and my father decided that he should split some logs so we could have a cheerful fire in the den as we entertained our guests. He soon had a big pile of firewood.
The hours passed and as the afternoon light gave way to the darkness of evening, the wind picked up and made a whining noise as it whipped through the tall trees all around the house. We kept looking out the windows, hoping to see the relatives arriving, but had to eat our supper without them. About six-thirty, the phone rang. It was Roy using a payphone in Elizabethton, a town about an hour away. He apologized for running late but said they would be there as soon as they could.
An hour later we looked out the windows again… but it was difficult to see. A heavy snow was falling. The flakes were as large as silver dollars and they were falling fast. Within a few minutes, an inch had accumulated on the back porch. It was a wet snow, the flakes big and sloppy, the kind that stick to everything they touch. Soon everything was covered — the lawn, the roof, the street and every tree, from the largest branch to the smallest twig. The snow fell so heavily that it piled up before our eyes, getting deeper and deeper. Within an hour, the tree limbs were bending and soon they were breaking. I’ll never forget the loud reports, like gunshots, as branches split and splintered and came crashing to the ground in thunderous waves of sound. Around nine the lights flickered and went off, submerging us in darkness. But there were occasional bright blue flashes in the sky as transformers were exploding in the distance with loud booms and showers of sparks. With every flash, we could see the heavy fat snowflakes still falling fast. Another hour went by and my parents started worrying about my aunt and uncle. They should have arrived hours ago. In the flicker of the firelight, I could see my mother wringing her hands.
“I’ll have to go out and look for them,” my father finally said. My mother helped him dress in boots and gloves and a long heavy coat, then wrapped a scarf around his neck and put a hat on his head. “Be careful,” she said. “Find them and bring them back safely.”
There was no way he could use the car, as the snow was at least a foot deep, so he started on foot, finding his way in the dark to the end of the driveway and then turning onto the street. It is never totally dark when there is a blanket of snow. Each snowflake captures and reflects even the tiniest bit of light, so the night had an eerie look, with snow-laden trees silhouetted against other snow-laden trees. My mother and I sat in the den, poking at the fire and trying to keep up each other’s spirits. We could still hear the loud cracks as tree limps broke off and fell to the ground, and we were worried that one would crash through the roof.
I looked out the windows often, hoping to see my father returning, but all I could see was snow, lots of snow. A long time passed, perhaps a couple of hours, maybe more when, on one of my frequent trips to the window, I saw the beam of a flashlight at the end of the driveway. I ran to the back door and saw three people making their way toward the house. Dad had found Roy and Mary!
For the next hour we rejoiced as we sat by the fire. Roy and Mary had been making good time after they left Elizabethton, but ran into the snow about 20 miles from our town. It got worse with every mile and soon they were barely creeping, the headlights having a hard time cutting through the heavily falling snow. They finally made it to the city limits, but there were no lights to guide them. The entire town had lost power, so they tried to find our street in the dark, the car barely able to move through the deep snow. They made it to the north end of town where we lived, but the car suddenly stopped, stuck fast in a drift. This was years before cell phones, so they had no way of letting us know where they were, so they got out of their car and started walking, hoping they could find their way. In the meantime, my father had made it to the main highway and although he did see several cars stuck and abandoned, none of them had Ohio plates. He finally managed to catch the attention of a passing snowplow and rode along as the plow cleared the roadway. As the plow was making its second pass, the headlights suddenly illuminated two people trudging slowly along on the side of the road.
My uncle and aunt were overjoyed to see my father step down from the snowplow and he was overjoyed to see them! They were quite close to our street so they all walked the rest of the way, and they looked like snowmen by the time they reached the door.
They had left their luggage in their car, so my mother lent Mary a nightgown and dad found an extra pair of pajamas for Roy. After they had gotten warm by the fire and regaled us with the story of their adventures, they retired to the guest room. My mother and I slept in the main bedroom and my father, bless his heart, stayed up all night keeping the fire going. It was the only source of heat.
The snow stopped sometime before dawn, but the early morning light revealed a world that was unrecognizable. The trees were no longer standing tall but were leaning and bending, many of them completely broken and shattered. Half of an old birch had split off and was blocking our road. I plunged a yardstick into the snow and it finally stopped at sixteen and a half inches.
It was Sunday morning. My father was pastor of the First Baptist Church and it was his philosophy that church services should never be canceled, so once more he started off on foot, having to step over fallen limbs and branches. It took him an hour to get to the church and he told me later that one of the deacons was already there shoveling the front walk. Five people showed up for services that Sunday. Dad preached and even led the small group in a couple of hymns. By the time he made it back home, my mother was frying pork chops in a skillet over the fire. Someone had collected some containers of snow which was melted for water. When the power failed, our running water was cut off as it took electricity to pump water up to our house on the hill. With no electricity and no running water, we were completely separated from the conveniences of civilization. I’m sure it was hard for the adults, but being a boy of 11, for me it was a grand adventure.
Although they were good sports, Uncle Roy and Aunt Mary were eager to leave, and who could blame them. I’m sure it’s no fun visiting relatives who have no running water or electricity! After lunch, we all walked with them back to their car, carrying shovels. After a while the car was released from the grip of the deep drifts and my relatives drove away. They never visited us again when the weather was cold.
My father kept the fire going as best he could and my mother prepared our meals in the fireplace. I remember scrambled eggs and hamburgers and soup. The electricity was finally restored after three days, and the first thing my father did was to convert the fireplace from wood-burning to gas. Never again did he have to sit up all night keeping a fire going.
So, whenever I see the first snowflakes of the season fluttering through the air, I shiver a little as I remember a night long ago when a snowstorm brought my little hometown to its knees.