The Lost Week: A Winter Adventure

   Last month a polar vortex wandered down into the southern regions of the United States, where it met moisture-laden air from the Gulf of Mexico. Together, these two systems dropped a multitude of winter weather on areas that, unlike America’s Heartland, are unequipped to handle ice and snow. My life, and the lives of my family members, were disrupted by this February winter event, which resulted for us in the Lost Week.*

Forecasters warned us well in advance that winter weather was coming. They knew all about the polar vortex, the Gulf moisture, and the winter weather the two would produce. Usually this mix happens further north, in states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri. Those states know how to handle winter weather. But ice and snow are rare in the southern states; when they occur, they usually melt the next day. Prolonged cold temperatures are unusual; prolonged cold temperatures with winter precipitation are even more unusual. Central Arkansas had gone more than one thousand days without measurable winter precipitation before this winter weather event. As a result, states and counties and municipalities invest little money in snow removal and other ways to handle winter precipitation.

On Wednesday February 10th, we were all talking about the upcoming winter event and the likelihood of weather-related closures during the coming days. Some freezing rain fell and hardened on cold surfaces that night and the next morning. In Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri, road crews would have salted the roads and bridges even before the rain began, and all roads would have been open Thursday morning. Instead, for the safety of their workers and of those whom they serve, schools and offices and most other businesses closed for the day that Thursday. Although no precipitation was added Thursday night or Friday morning, the temperature remained below freezing. Some places remained closed on Friday, while others (including my employer) opened late and allowed us to work for a few hours.

Heavy snow was expected to begin some time on Sunday. Meanwhile, temperatures had remained below freezing all day Saturday. As a result, churches canceled their Sunday services (or followed the online protocol they had been using for the past eleven months). Snowfall did not begin until evening, but already closings were announced for Monday. Less than an inch of snow had fallen by Monday morning’s usual travel time, but it continued to snow all day. About ten inches accumulated during that Monday snowfall. The snow was light and fluffy, easily moved by shovel. Interstates were kept open through the day, but side streets and rural routes, having received no winter treatment, were impassible.

I have experienced winter weather driving before. My Driver’s Education in high school took place during one of the snowiest winters of northern Illinois history. A few scattered days of classes were canceled that month, but we were rarely off two days in a row. Some years later I attended a meeting in the northwestern suburbs of Chicago, living at that time in the southeastern corner of the city. It took about an hour to cross the city to get to the meeting. Around lunchtime, snow began to fall. Plows and other weather treatment vehicles were stuck in traffic as they tried to deal with snow that evening. It took me seven hours on the road to return home. At one point, on the Interstate, I saw three eighteen-wheel trucks side by side, spinning their wheels on a slight incline, blocking three lanes of pointing the opposite direction form which I was heading. The total snowfall from that storm was 9.7 inches. When I got home, I thought surely school would be closed the next day, but I was wrong. Overnight they cleaned up the mess, and in the morning all roads were open and life had returned to normal—business as usual.

Two of my daughters shared an apartment on the west side of town. They chose February 17 of this year to move to a new apartment on the north side. Both had recently taken jobs on the north side, and their new apartment is also closer to my house. Therefore, they had packed many boxes and left them in my house to make moving day easier. Both daughters work in the health care field. One, who works in a hospital, saw the forecast and decided to take a motel room Sunday and Monday nights, sharing and splitting the cost with a coworker. The other, who works weekend nights, followed a normal schedule and managed to make it to work Sunday in spite of the beginning snowfall. Monday, she drove from work to the old apartment, but got stuck on a hill about a quarter of a mile from the apartment. She walked the rest of the way and let us know, by text and phone call, about her situation. Since we had cleared much of the driveway Monday afternoon, we volunteered to rescue us from her apartment—and, if possible, to free her car—Tuesday afternoon. Although my car was nearly stuck on another hill near her apartment that afternoon, we managed to free both cars and to bring her to our place, along with three cats and a dog, who were welcomed (with some hospitality and some apprehension) by our two cats. The other daughter then came to our place from work Tuesday afternoon. With more snow forecast for Wednesday, they agreed to postpone their truck rental and put off the bulk of their move for an undetermined number of days.

Eight more inches of snow fell on Wednesday—again, mostly during the day. Streets and roads that had not been cleared now had double the obstruction. Where people tried to drive and spun their wheels, they often created sheets of polished ice rather than clearing their way down to the pavement. Some used sand or cat litter to try to gain traction. (Sand is a good idea; cat litter not so much—it’s mostly clay, which is also slippery once it gets wet.) Others took the floor mats from inside their cars and, putting them at their tires, managed to get their vehicles moving. My daughters managed to get a key to their new apartment and move some of their boxes out of our place, but they and their dog and cats remained refugees staying with us.

Meanwhile, my son lives in Texas. Like many other people in Texas, he lost power and water. He endured the deprivation for a few days, but then sought relief from us. After Wednesday’s snow, the main highways were beginning to open, so he grabbed both his cats and some perishable groceries and drove north to our place.

My son is an engineer. Living in Texas, he also heard information that was not shared nationwide and was able to understand what it meant. The power failure in Texas was due to solar power and wind power being disabled by winter weather. Texas utility governments petitioned the federal government for permission to burn fossil fuels using available technology, but they were denied permission because of the danger of carbon emissions and their contribution to global warming. Although other factors played a part in the Texas troubles, the stubbornness of federal bureaucracy played a significant role in worsening the winter weather crisis experienced by residents of the state of Texas.

At its peak, then, our house provided food and shelter for three human refugees along with a total of seven cats and a dog. My workplace was closed all five days of the third week of February. My daughters’ truck rental happened a week later than planned, although they did eventually get themselves, their pets, and their belongings into their new place. My son finally left for Texas yesterday.

It might be years before we face another winter weather event like this in the south. It’s fair to say that no lessons were learned, that no further provisions will be made to successfully cope with ice and snow in the future. Church services were canceled two straight Sundays, and even with all that extra “time off,” I had little success working on writing plans or other special projects. My “to-do” list is longer now than it was a month ago. But the snow has melted, the roads are open again, and life goes on. J.

*The Lost Week is a local joke (which I used at work to satisfying results) referring to the Lost Year of 1958-1959. The Lost Year followed the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, a historic event accompanied by street protests and federal troops. In the summer of 1958, the state government unwisely acted to prevent a repeat of that performance by closing all the high schools in Little Rock. That school year, when high school students had to miss a year of school or find alternate sources of education, is known in Arkansas history as the Lost Year.

Silly groundhog

The legend of the groundhog comes from an old weather tradition attached to the holiday called Candlemas. If the day of Candlemas (February 2) begins bright and sunny, winter is only half-way done; but if Candlemas begins with clouds, winter is over and we can expect an early spring. Tales of the groundhog and his shadow perpetuate this tradition, and the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, has claimed the national groundhog for the United States—only because they said so first.

I have always held that each region of the country has its own groundhog and its own weather predictions. The region where I live began the Second of February with a cloudy sky, although the skies cleared and the sun broke through by midmorning. Although Punxsutawney’s groundhog forecast six more weeks of winter, our local groundhog would have said that winter was over—an ironic prediction, since we had very little winter weather the last several weeks before Groundhog Day. A few times the overnight temperature dipped below freezing and frost had to be cleaned off the car in the morning, but that was it for winter weather. In fact, this region had experienced no measurable snowfall for more than one thousand days—the fourth-longest “snow drought” for this region since people began keeping records of the weather.

It appears that our regional groundhog stayed out for a while on his day and did not stick with the dawn forecast. Winter has arrived with a vengeance. The polar vortex (which would be a great name for a rock band) met moisture from the gulf, producing a layer of ice last Thursday, followed by many inches of snow yesterday and today. More snow is expected midweek. Travel is next to impossible, and most businesses are closed. This snow is like the snows of my childhood up north. But the state and city governments in this region invest little money in snow removal and road treatment. Most snows melt and disappear within twenty-four hours. This winter weather is expected to linger. We even need to leave the faucets dripping to keep the pipes from freezing, as our overnight and early morning low temperatures will be in the single digits and may even reach zero degrees Fahrenheit.

But, in this ever-changing world, snow days are not what they used to be. Rather than proclaiming the closing of schools, internet announcements are declaring that classes will be held only online. Students and teachers will remain at home, but the snow day will not be a holiday. School buildings will be closed, but classes will still be held. Younger children may not be aware of the change, but surely parents and (especially) teachers might resent the disappearance of an old friend—that unscheduled holiday of a snow day when classes are cancelled and young people go outside and frolic in the flakes.

Trusting the forecast, yesterday I dug into the corner of our shed and found our snow shovel. Dust and cobwebs were removed, and it stands by the front door, waiting to be used. The snow is still falling, so I will wait until afternoon before beginning the snow removal. That also was a game when I was young, clearing the path of snow, building a range of ephemeral mountains for imaginary explorers to conquer. Rejoicing in the beauty of snow and finding jollification in its presence helps one remain young at heart, I believe. Old Man Winter might make other people grouchy, but in my household he remains a welcome if a rare and brief guest. J.

A father’s worries (snow day edition)

I do not blog about the members of my family. I respect their privacy, and I figure that they can tell their own stories on social media if they wish. My readers miss some good stories because of this policy, but certain principles need to be held consistently.

Of course there are exceptions.

This account is mostly about me and the way I felt, but there is no way to tell the story without including members of my family.

One day last month, schools and other institutions were closed due to winter weather. Other businesses, including the shopping mall, chose to remain open. I have daughters who work for a fast-food restaurant inside a shopping mall. Their manager figured that the mall would be busier than usual, the schools being closed and all. He texted those who were scheduled to work and asked them to try to come to work. He also called for additional workers, for whoever was available.

Some of our neighbors had already left their homes by car and didn’t seem to have trouble with the local street, so my daughters figured they could get to work safely. They set off by car. I was home—the place where I work was closed for the day. I had no plan to try to travel anywhere.

Then the phone rang.

My daughter the passenger called to tell me that they had slid to the edge of the street and couldn’t get the car moving again. They were well past half-way to the mall, but they were in a low spot between two hills, and two other cars were also stuck in the same area.

While we were talking, I heard my daughter the driver scream, and my daughter the passenger said urgently, “oh no, oh no.” Yet another car had met the same slick spot on the road and was sliding directly toward them. A collision was narrowly avoided, thanks to God’s grace and the skill of the other driver. Imagine my helpless anguish, though, being home on the phone and listening to my daughters in danger, unable to help them in any way.

We stayed on the phone for twenty minutes, and two more cars slid on the same spot straight toward my daughters in their car, and all I could do was listen to their shouts and screams.

Other cars managed to navigate the road. Those drivers chose not to stop to help, and I cannot blame them. Anyone who stopped between the hills was going to be stuck there. I asked my daughters to get out of the car and stand a safe distance away. They finally took my suggestion.

At one point a pickup truck belonging to the city did stop. The driver spoke with my daughters and the other people who were stuck. He said that the sand truck had stopped sanding right at that spot, which is why it was so slippery. He had called for barricades to close the road, and the sand truck would be back as quickly as possible.

From this point, the story is a happy one. My daughters continued to stay in touch by phone, off and on, while they waited for the sand truck. An older couple saw them standing by the car in front of their house and invited them indoors for tea and cookies. When the sand truck had arrived and applied its sand, the gentleman asked them if they would like his help to get the car unstuck. They thought he was offering to push. Instead, he took the keys, got behind the wheel, and maneuvered the car onto a drivable stretch of the street. He got out of the car, they got in, and they headed toward home.

The main streets were good, but they feared the side streets of the neighborhood. Therefore, they stopped at a grocery store, bought hats and mittens and hot beverages, and walked the last mile home. In the afternoon, when the streets were in better condition, I drove my daughter to the store to regain her car.

People say that as children grow, their parents’ worries become larger rather than smaller. I have to say that in my family, that adage appears to be true. J.

 

Hearty skillet recipe

During my one-year internship, when I lived alone in an apartment, I invented a recipe that was cheap, easy to make, satisfying, and easy to rewarm as leftovers. Somehow, this recipe became a default family lunch for snow days. Even if I had to walk a mile in the snow to the grocery store for two or three ingredients, I did so willingly because we all like this lunch.

Here are the ingredients for my recipe: One box of macaroni and cheese (which will require some butter and milk), one pound of cooked meat, half an onion chopped, half a bell green pepper chopped, two cloves of garlic diced, one can of diced tomatoes (14 ½ ounces), one small can of mushroom pieces, two teaspoons chili powder, 1 ½ teaspoons Italian seasoning (or half a teaspoon each of oregano, parsley, and thyme), and half a teaspoon of cinnamon.

Prepare the macaroni and cheese according to the instructions on the package. While waiting for the water to come to a boil, chop the vegetables and cook them in the skillet in two teaspoons of vegetable oil or melted butter. Add the tomatoes, mushrooms, meat, and spices. Stir occasionally. When the macaroni and cheese is prepared, add it to the skillet. Stir and bring to the table.

My usual meat for this recipe is diced summer sausage. We receive summer sausages in gift baskets every Christmas, and summer sausage on crackers is appealing for only a few consecutive evenings. Many other meat choices are possible: cooked chicken, diced; cooked ham, diced; ground beef; hotdogs or bratwurst, sliced; or just about any other leftover meat found in the refrigerator. Fish (at least canned tuna) does not go well into this recipe. A meatless version could easily be made with a cup of beans or corn in place of the meat.

This is a hearty meal that is easy to prepare. I’ve doubled it when my children had friends over to play in the snow. The leftovers store well and are easily warmed for a meal later in the week. J.