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January 19, 2014

MIKE LUNSFORD: The night the snow fell

The lasting legacy of a storm to remember

You would think that the cold winds and deep snows that we endured two weeks ago would be old news by now, but as I stood in the checkout line at a grocery store just a few days back, a gallon of milk in one hand and a quart of orange juice in the other, a customer just ahead of me appeared to be stocking up to make a run for the Donner Pass, and all she could talk about was the storm.

I’ve listened to numerous tales of hardship and depravation these past few days, at the bank, the local gas station and at a hardware store, where I thumbed through a rack of insulated bibbed overalls, a pair of which I have every intention of owning before this winter is over.

There have been stories of dead car batteries, drifted roads and icy slide-offs, and one friend told me that a few rooms in his place registered 32 degrees after his overtaxed heating unit gave up in its effort to outrun the storm’s fury.

The “Polar Vortex” of 2014 has not only left a trail of burst water pipes, wheezing furnaces and potholes in its wake, it has forced me to finally admit that I am no longer a big fan of winter. This has been a cold season, one that started well before the calendar told it to, one that seems to be about as welcome as uninvited relatives who have little intention of leaving anytime soon. No, this winter has already given me my fill of shoveling snow and cracking fingers and trying to keep my truck between the ditches.

I am, of course, more than old enough to easily recall the “Blizzard of ’78,” the measuring stick that everyone uses when bitter air comes sweeping down from Canada to smack us around. It was, in my humble opinion, a much tougher animal to deal with than this year’s storm, despite the fact that there was nearly a 70-degree difference between the high temperature last Monday and the miserable Monday before. The storm of ’78 lasted longer, dumped more snow and left us isolated here in the country, all cold hard facts that are more palatable now with the proliferation of 4-wheeled drives, cell phone communication and back-up generators. That’s not to say that I wasn’t worried on the nights this storm’s winds blew and its snow fell; I worried plenty.

Joanie and I tried to avoid the shark-invested waters of the supermarket the Saturday before the storm arrived. We got our cupboards stocked a few days earlier, topped off the tanks of our car and truck, made sure the barn cats (one, a big hungry freeloader that appeared on our step two days before the big blow, and who is available for adoption) had a good layer of straw to tuck around themselves, slipped an insulated cap over our outside faucet, changed our furnace filters and hunkered down in the house to wait for things to happen.  

By the time the heaviest snow came — and kept on coming — I had brought wood into the garage if we needed to open our fireplace, and began the trek to our bird feeders, amazed from the very beginning that our feathered friends were managing to get to the supper table at all, considering the brutal winds that raked across our yard like backhanded slaps.

Luckily, we never lost power, and despite a worrisome, but temporarily frozen water line to our refrigerator’s ice-maker, we came through the mess with little more than sore backs from shoveling and the creeping dread of a record-setting electricity bill coming in the mail.

In January 1978, I was doing my student teaching at a rural school just south of Crawfordsville, living in a rented apartment in the quiet little town of New Market. Because I was on a very limited budget — something between abject poverty and canned soup twice a day — I closed off all the rooms in my half of a duplex, using only the living room, kitchenette and ice cube of a bathroom. There was a certain Hugh Hefner feel to the place, since I had to set up my bed in the living room. Sleeping in the bedroom there would have required a ski mask and a sleeping bag suitable for Peary’s assault on the Pole.  

My time in New Market was a mixture of excitement and pure drudgery. Those were the days of long-distance calling, so I used to head to a mom-and-pop gas station/grocery along the main drag in town to call my then-girlfriend, who decided the next year to marry me. Commiserating with my situation, she had spent the previous winter — a terrible one, too — getting her student teaching done in Vincennes, living in a one-room upstairs apartment, where, minus a freezer, she kept her frozen pizzas on the roof.  

I gained a certain confidence in being able to fend for myself that winter, while the kind old lady who lived next door kept me alive with generous care packages of freshly baked cookies. My teaching took a back seat to the 13 days of school we missed, so many days that I was told I had to live on in New Market a while longer, subsisting by then on a steady diet of cornbread that I baked in an old iron skillet (the mix was only about 12 cents a box) and shivering my way through snowy afternoons of watching Phil Donahue on my 14-inch television and reading Shakespeare.  

One memory that will stay will me forever came after I dug my Plymouth out of a massive drift to drive — with the requisite 300 pounds of concrete blocks in the trunk — a few miles north into the country to eat supper with my cousin, Rick, and his family. Coming up over a rise on their narrow road, just a mile from the single flashing light in New Market, I met a National Guard tank as it cleared the road with an enormous blade.

The rumor is that the Vortex is to come calling yet again this winter. If it does, I’ll continue prayers that my power stays on. I’ll be willing to shut off rooms to conserve heat if I have to; I’ll even eat a little cornbread for old times’ sake.

The big advantage now is that I won’t have to call my girlfriend long-distance.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Go to his website at to learn more about his books. He will be speaking and signing at the Marshall (Ill.) Public Library at 6:30 CST Jan. 30.

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