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The Tentacle


February 14, 2006

Snows of Winters' Past

Roy Meachum

When we lived in Park Forest, south of Chicago, the winters came early and stayed late. Chains went on tires about Thanksgiving; they stayed there until sometime in March. The neighborhood tennis court splashed with water then frozen, giving me the excuse for the only ice skates I ever owned; I regularly fell on my kiester, anyway.

From those years linger the vivid memory: Tommy Meachum, age 8, and five-year-old Roy, trekking off to school on 15-degrees-below mornings; both overbundled to the point of near-immobility. Tom gripped his young brother's hand as they set out, but they separated on the narrowly shoveled sidewalk. Only the bobbing balls on their knit wool masks could be seen as they disappeared out of view.

How different from my own childhood.

New Orleans sits roughly on the same latitude as Cairo, where December had consistently brought the Egyptian capital's only annual rainfall, at least when I lived there. On one occasion I recall the corniche along the Nile so deep in water that a Volkswagen Beetle was floated to higher ground by a quartet of young men, needing only to keep the car on-course. At the time I heard about the occasional snow that had always come as a shock. Of course.

That was how we all felt the January morning when I was in first grade and walked to McDonough 10 with fat flakes splattering on my face. Teachers and students alike crowded the high, 19th century windows, oohing and ahhing. We were all much too agitated to tend to business. Fortunately, the powers-that-be sent everyone home to stay, at lunch. Good thing!

By the usual mid-afternoon dismissal bell, the only snow in sight was blown by wind off bushes and roofs. Seven decades later I cannot say whether the sun came out or not. It could have, as on summer days when the usual afternoon deluge was followed by a brilliant clearness that sucked all moisture from the air, leaving sidewalks and streets totally dry.

Winter's days in Arkansas and north Louisiana, staying with grandparents, brought dirty slush that counted little, even in the great Mississippi River flood, the last before the Corps of Engineers opened the spillway to protect New Orleans. The snow that year formed a brackish edge on the raw earth when I was taken to view the trees, houses and dead critters sweeping down from the northern reaches of the mighty river's basin.

The shock and surprise of Katrina's devastation derived from New Orleans' history when floods regularly intruded. McDonough 10, for example, kept the building's first floor totally empty out of respect for the river's power. There was not only an absence of classrooms at that level, but a total lack of storage facilities. The expansion into marshes and wetlands, the places wracked in the wake of last year's hurricane, did not seriously take off until impelled by the death of segregation and white flight.

Not until the Army posted me to Germany did I contend with the reality of four real seasons, although, in fact, those first years of the occupation featured summers that encouraged wearing wool uniforms. Turning the ancient Hoechst castle into barracks, for American Forces Network troops, meant installing radiators that rattled each new day into being.

Wardrobe was a nip and tuck proposition, until Herb Kaplow, later of NBC and ABC, shipped out for home, leaving me a variety of warm coats, everything from tankers' jackets to a parka that could flip sides, for camouflage, forest or snow. Take your choice. The Germans had none; they lived on a modicum of warming coal and a diet of potatoes and carrots, little meat, which made the winters colder.

Winters in Washington set the example for John F. Kennedy's remark about the nation's capital possessing "northern charm and southern efficiency." Especially when D.C. Transit streetcars ran on rails, positively jamming traffic, driving a car on quaint Georgetown and Capitol Hill streets was an exercise in great frustration, which automatically skyrocketed at even the hint of snow. Mr. Kennedy's inauguration may have prompted the remark. The temperatures reached for the depths while a blizzard piled high a mush that quickly turned to ice.

The 1983 weekend of Frederick's lollapalooza, when the skies threatened never to shut down, I came up the pike to real estate agent Steve Good's house; he held a storm party for friends. Out in the kitchen, however, I signed and dotted documents to buy my first home, on East Fourth Street.

Twenty three winters later here I sit. Pushkin, son Roy and I have navigated North Market Street, celebrating how businesses and neighbors have managed to clear the sidewalks. Unfortunately, the English pointer mourned too many locked doors where biscuits normally appear in willing hands.

In the event, Happy Valentine's Day, with the strongest wishes winter may have howled its last with Saturday's blizzard. We'll see.



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