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Me & Betsy, and the Blizzard of ’77

November 29, 2008

 

 

 

Once again I have a story that fits writing prompts for Slice of Life Sunday, Writer’s Island, and Sunday Scribblings. One of the prompts at Slice of Life Sunday is “Winter Wonderland,” with Writer’s Island featuring “Memories” and Sunday Scribblings offering “A Winter’s Tale.” I hope you will agree, my story just begged to be told with all of these prompts!sunday2

Me and Betsy, and the Blizzard of ’77

 

It has been an unusual Thanksgiving week. Most years we all start singing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” about this time, but for the first time in more than thirty years, we actually had a white Thanksgiving. Granted the covering was not enough to build a snowman, but it was snow nevertheless. My grandchildren were very excited to have snow so early this year. My eighty-two year old father enjoyed sharing memories of Thanksgivings from his youth with his great-grandchildren when “at least a foot of snow” was normal for mid-November and more than eighteen inches covered the ground all winter long.  I too remember as a child having a lot of snow. Like most children, I think I enjoyed the cold, white stuff when I was young. But a time came when the joys of winter turned into a nightmare.

The winter of 1977 was the first of three winters in a row which featured above average snow fall in Ohio. January of 1977 was the coldest month in Ohio history with temperatures being 17° below normal. I picked the coldest winter ever to go into business, as I had purchased an H & R Block franchise in Mt. Vernon just after Thanksgiving. Operating the business required a ninety mile round trip drive each day, six days a week. Of course I was not lucky enough for the trip to be interstate miles, but instead, a scenic state route of many hills and many more curves. In the spring, summer, and fall months of the year, it truly was a scenic route of small towns, farmlands and woods. But in the winter, the drive became the road to hell.

Fortunately, I had a 1968 Pontiac Catalina which I nicknamed “Betsy.”  I know car buffs would understand what I mean about “fortunately.” Pontiac Catalinas are tough cars to begin with, but the 68’s had a 400, 2bbl, V-8 engine which made it the toughest of tough. That car would eat up any highway, with or without snow. And it could corner well for being a larger car. It was the perfect car for the road to hell because it always got me home – well almost always.

The National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning for all of Ohio on Friday, January 28, 1977. I left for Mt. Vernon at my usual time of 6am and heard the announcement on the car radio. The announcer predicted the current temperature of 20° would drop to 10° below zero by noon.  I laughed and patted Betsy on the dash. It had been a very cold winter and many people had trouble getting their cars started. But not old Betsy. She started at the turn of the key. The announcer went on to say high winds of 35 – 45 mph would accompany more than 15 inches of new snow, with some winds gusting to above 60 mph, creating huge drifts and reducing visibility to less than 100 feet. Again, I felt smug knowing I had Betsy, the monster machine. Actually my smugness was due more to my ignorance about blizzards than it was to my knowledge about cars. But, I was about to receive a fast education.

I arrived at work thirty minutes later than usual due to the increasing bad weather the further I drove. My employees were not there, which surprised me. I opened the office and checked the appointment book. The phone rang and the first of four employees called off. Within a half an hour, everyone had called off and I was left to hold down the fort. This proved to be an easy task as no clients ventured out into the blizzard either. I spent the morning getting caught up with checking income tax forms and running copies. At 11:30, I called a local pizza shop to order lunch but received no answer. I tried calling another restaurant I knew delivered, but again no answer. I turned on the radio and learned all businesses were ordered to close due to the wicked weather. I was debating on whether to close up or to wait a few more hours when my husband called. He said I should plan on staying in a motel as the television news reported most roads were impassable. I said I would close up and then check the road conditions to decide whether to stay in town or drive home.

“There’s no deciding to it!” he shouted into the phone. “Just get your ass to the hotel across the street and stay there!” he commanded and hung up the phone.

Now come on, who did he think he was yelling at? A child. I was a woman who was smart enough to own my own business, therefore making me smart enough to decide whether the roads were too bad to make the 45 mile trip home. Of course my decision had nothing to do with intelligence, but everything to do with being a stubborn Virgo. If someone told me I could not do something, I did it just to show them I could. Come hell or high water, or through a blizzard on the road to hell, I was driving home.

I finished the paperwork I was working on and called all of my employees to tell them the office would be closed the next day.  I closed up and went out to join Betsy in the drive of our lifetime. True to her past history, Betsy started at the turn of the key despite the flashing -8° on the sign of the bank next door. I had to go back into the office to get a broom to sweep off what I estimated to be over a foot of snow covering her. By the time I had her all cleaned off, or almost cleaned off as the snow kept falling, Betsy was all warmed up.  At 1:45pm, in the middle of the ’77 blizzard we started our journey home.

To say the drive was a nightmare is an understatement. Visibility forecasts of 100 feet were an overstatement. Wind gusts of over 60 mph became the norm and Betsy shuddered in their path. We drove through an average of 10 inches of snow on the road, with many times plowing through snow drifts higher than her hood. Up and down the hills we went, many times going down sideways and sometimes going up the same way. Our only saving grace was no other idiots were on the road. A normal fifty minute drive home turned into more than three hours, and, I did not make it all the way home.

We lived “way out in the sticks” as my mother referred to the location of our home. I was less than three miles away from a hot meal and an “oh yeah, don’t tell me what I can or can not do” when catastrophe struck. Actually, it was Betsy doing the striking. We were on the final straight stretch, plowing through snow drift after snow drift, each higher than the one before, all being higher than her hood, when suddenly we plowed into a snow drift that did not break away. BAM! We stopped dead. The impact threw me over the steering wheel and I cracked my forehead on the windshield. I sat dazed for a few minutes, staring at a sea of white. Everywhere I looked, there was snow. Betsy and I were lodged in a ten-foot bank of snow.

I knew enough to realize I had to shut off the engine immediately. Within minutes I was freezing but at least I wouldn’t die from carbon monoxide fumes. I knew I could not stay in the car. If I allowed myself to get much colder I would go to sleep and then I would die. I had to get to heat, even if it meant struggling through the blizzard without Betsy’s power under me.  I gathered my thoughts and realized I was probably less than a half a mile from the Hanna farm. I could walk that far, I told myself. Yeah, on a summer day wearing a good pair of tennis shoes, it would have been a piece of cake. But this was not summer. It was -10° or lower, without the wind chill of over 60mph winds, more than two feet of snow on the road and I had on fancy, unlined snow boots with three inch heels. My coat was warm but it only came to the top of my thighs, allowing the wind to blow my knee-length dress well above the top of my thighs and leaving my legs protected from the frigid air by only a pair of pantyhose and a silk slip. Dear Lord, could it get any worse than this?

The answer was yes it could. Before I could embark on my presumed short jaunt to the Hanna farm, I had to get out of the car. This proved to be a little difficult as the snow was packed solid around Betsy. I pushed and pushed on the car door, slowly inching it open. I finally got it open enough to squeeze my way out and fought my way out of the snow bank. Once I was out, I realized I forgot to put on my hat and gloves. But there was no going back into the snow bank and trying to find the car door. I had to go on and I started walking. I prayed I was correct about the distance, which I was. Unfortunately, in my fight to get out of the snow bank I lost my sense of direction and started trudging my way through the snow in the opposite direction, away from the Hanna farm.

I have heard the saying “God protects drunks and fools,” and after that night I know one part of that adage is correct. I have done some pretty dumb things in my life, but my decision to drive home in a blizzard ranks number one. It was God’s will that I survived the one mile journey to the Zickefoose farm. I know it was His strength in my nearly frozen hands that dug the snow away from the iron gate to get to the sidewalk, actually snowwalk, leading to their front porch. I know it was His strength because I had none. Once I finally made it their front porch, I collapsed. I could go no further. It was only by God’s grace that the Zickefoose’s dog knew someone was outside. He barked and barked, and continued to bark  until Mr. Zickefoose finally opened the front door and saw me lying on his porch, partially covered by a blanket of snow.

The blizzard of ’77 lasted two days all across the state of Ohio. Every business was closed, with employees of hospitals and nursing homes scheduled that Friday morning working through the weekend. Twenty people died during the blizzard. Newspapers and television news programs would report numerous acts of heroism by the Ohio National Guard, police and fire crews, and many ordinary citizens who saved dozens of lives. What was not reported was one dog that saved the life of this fool.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. November 29, 2008 5:44 am

    this was superbly written.. i experienced every frozen twist and turn right with you…

    it was made even more enjoyable for me as i lived in independence ohio at the time,, and spent the two snow days that resulted from that exact blizzard in the kingsize bed of my best friends mom totally inundating the senses in soap operas (we were huge fans of the young and the restless at the time!!) and bed edible snacks!!! what a trip down memory lane this was!!!!!

    ~~I am so happy you enjoyed my winter tale. What a small world it is – you lived in Independence back then. You probably remember the blizzard the following year, again the last week in January. I think we had more snow that blizzard because it lasted serveral days, if I recall correctly maybe at least 4 days. I too loved Y&R. What a great way to ride out a blizzard – I should take lessons!

  2. November 29, 2008 9:49 am

    Oh, this is so well written! You sustain the tension just right and your self-depricating voice livens the story. I’ve never been in an Ohio blizzard but have lived through many NH ones so I could imagine just how horrible the situation was!

    ~~ Hi Linda, Thank you for your kind words. I have always wanted to visit the New England states. I hear it is beautiful in the fall.

  3. November 29, 2008 8:34 pm

    Wonderful story and I’m so glad that you survived to tell it!

    ~~Thank you for stopping by. Yes, I am glad, a bit surprised, that I survived. Needless to say, I am very cautious about driving in winter.

  4. November 29, 2008 8:34 pm

    That was almost as frightening as a horror movie. I think I felt the chill of the minus eight degree weather. Loved it!

    ~~Yes, frightening is a good description of the ordeal. Of course I have to live with the fact the ordeal was all my doing!

  5. November 29, 2008 10:13 pm

    What a well-written and exciting story. I’m glad it had a happy ending and I feel for your poor husband, calling and calling the hotel, wishing to hear you answer.

    ~~ Yes, those were pre-cell phone days and he did indeed call every motel and hotel in the area looking for me. He was extremely angry once he knew I survived.

  6. November 29, 2008 11:27 pm

    Wonderful story. Your Betsy sounds very familiar. My father’s was dark navy blue and we went on lots of trips inside that vehicle. You brought back lots of memories, including Wisconsin blizzards, listening to the radio, hot chocolate, after building snow tunnels and snowmen.

    Thank you,

    Elizabeth

    ~~ You are most welcome Elizabeth. Those were great cars and you could afford to drive them with gas being 25 cents a gallon!

  7. November 30, 2008 12:41 am

    Bone-chilling! Excellent writing. I held my breath the entire time, even though it was fairly obvious you’d survived to tell the tale. Having been one of those fools in another part of the country, I enjoyed reading your story!

    ~~Thank you for stopping by and for the kind words. Isn’t it amazing how we survive stupidity?

  8. December 1, 2008 12:46 am

    You must have been absolutely terrified. I cannot imagine how cold you must have been. You wrote this so well, I was hanging on every word, praying you would make it without getting frostbite. What an incredible tale. And how amazing that you survived the Blizzard of ’77.

  9. December 13, 2008 9:39 am

    I wrote about the same thing for my sunday scribblings…lol…it is neat to read the stories of ’77…each unique and frightening and triumphant in their own way. My story is much simpler (I was only 5 at the time!) We were snowed in for 3 weeks…I love the last line of the dog…LOL…those cars were pretty amazing too…lol…glad you got somewhere safe and got warm! It could have been much worse!

  10. December 17, 2008 12:43 am

    Thank goodness for smart dogs!

  11. December 31, 2008 12:14 pm

    Excellent writing with lots of superb imaging. I enjoyed the story. You are one lucky lady to have survived. I remember the blizzard of ’77 and it was horrific.

    Happy New Year to you.
    Blessings,
    Mary

  12. January 1, 2009 5:02 pm

    Neat story. If you are interested in the stories of a cross section of society from 2 countries with the same Blizzard of ’77 then see my pics, DVd and book excerpts from White Death-the Blizzard of ’77. This book has been selling for over 30 years and no end is in sight. It has become a classic.

    Beware of snowflakes!

    Erno Rossi

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