— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Last week’s observation of the 20th anniversary of the snowbeast that ate Cleveland brought a chuckle, not just to me but to a network of good buddies who remember the escapades it created for one of our good friends and former co-workers.
Not that the “Blizzard of ’93” wasn’t a serious debacle by Mother Nature — this beautiful lady should have known better than to tamper with lifestyles in the Deep South — but the storm’s 21 inches of entertainment, her near gale-force gusts, Antarctic-like wind chills and the subsequent Bradley County whiteout brought many stories of survival. Some were real, some imagined and some ... well ... embellished.
But that’s OK. In journalism, we are licensed for such. But let this serve as warning to all. Don’t try it at home. We are trained professionals.
Before moving ahead, let me clarify for any who question my use of the pronoun “her” to describe “The Storm of the Century.” It just seemed appropriate. Come June 4, I will have been married 36 years — most of it happily, except for those occasions of husbandly blunders created by lack of male vision — so I have vast experience in dealing with times of turbulence.
The close friend and former journalism ally I mentioned earlier is Allen Mincey, vice president of communications over at United Way of Bradley County. Everybody knows him. Everybody likes him. He’ll do anything for anybody without expectation.
The network of good buddies and occasional lunch partners also mentioned earlier includes Joe “Mr. Sports” Cannon, one of the Banner’s very own; Barry Currin, formerly of this newspaper and now an e-Guru of small business; George Starr, sports information director at Lee University; Allen; and me.
Our group shares a bond. As mentioned, in a former day and many years ago, we all worked together here at the Cleveland Daily Banner. As co-workers and confidantes, we developed strong friendships; hence, our reasoning now for the occasional lunch which not only serves as a getaway from the offices, but a chance to look back ... and to laugh.
When any anniversary rolls around of the big blow that blanketed Bradley County, we think of Allen. Back then, Etowah’s former favorite son still worked at the Banner and commuted to and from work each day.
When Paul Barys forecast the first blizzard recorded in Southeast Tennessee history two decades ago, Allen took it to heart. As the story goes, he drove in to work from Etowah early in advance of the white monster, figuring he’d never make it in once the roads faded into anonymity.
And that launched “The Tale of the Century,” one that has been told, retold and then told some more, both in lighthearted conversation and in anniversary reflections by the incumbent reporting staff in this newsroom.
My memory may be slipping here — Allen will correct my errors at the next lunch — but I’m pretty sure his story of survival was relived in newsprint at the blizzard’s fifth anniversary, the 10th, probably the 15th ... and maybe the 17th, 18th and 19th. Like I said, I can’t speak with absolute certainty with good reason. One, I am older. Two, I have slept many times since. Three, by trade I am allotted the right to alter the facts as necessary to tell the tale.
But here’s what I remember.
As the storm’s fury worsened, the city of Cleveland shut down. Businesses closed. Power lines snapped. Roofs became nesting places for fatigued oaks. Lights went out everywhere. And most critically, fast-food restaurants locked their doors because workers were snowbound at home.
Yet, Allen was at work here in this newsroom. Alone. Outside, white flakes the size of cowchips blew sideways. Courageous Allen ventured into the wintry warzone on multiple occasions. Once he hiked up to the interstate to interview stranded travelers. Leaning into gusts of wind that might have neared 200 mph, the ever-diligent reporter tromped his way through chest-high drifts.
His first encounter with an I-75 traveler was a Chicago native headed north for home. Because of weather conditions, the funny-talking foreigner mistakenly thought he was only a couple of miles from the Windy City’s edge. He couldn’t see the road signs and billboards. All were buried in frosted flakes.
It wasn’t until stumbling upon the frightened traveler that Allen discovered he had forgotten his ink pen. But this Grizzly Adams of the written word, who can take a pocket knife and toothpick into the woods and build a mall, took notes with his own blood — drawn from fresh cuts on the knuckles of his right fist. The wounds came earlier in the day when he was forced to crush the glass of a Banner vending machine for a bag of potato chips because he was literally starving.
As I am told, while trudging back to the newspaper from the interstate, Allen saved three lives, delivered two babies (twins, I believe), restored electrical service to three hotels, returned a lost dog to its owner, pushed a tree off a homeowner’s porch, pulled three cars and two pickups out of a 25th Street ditch and rendered CPR to a frozen goat.
To say Allen was a modern-day hero can’t do the story justice. As I understand it, in tribute to his exploits, the much-heralded writer earned “Man of the Year” honors from Mayor Tom Rowland, the Golden Quill Award from the Tennessee Press Association, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for Humanitarian Acts of Valor far and beyond any call of snowstorm duty.
The day The Weather Channel opens the U.S. Meteorological Hall of Fame, Allen is a shoe-in. Speaking of shoes, I forgot to mention. He gave his away to a stranded Floridian who was traveling in flipflops. Weakened from hunger and the Arctic elements, Allen crawled back to the newspaper office in bare feet.
Obviously, very little of the above is true. But it’s always fodder for a good laugh among close friends.
True, Allen did hole up at the Banner offices during the worst of the storm because he’s just that kind of worker who felt the need to be on call. Anything else I’ve written today, well, that’s a product of ... imagination. Even the part about the goat.
I can’t wait for the blizzard’s 21st anniversary ... nor can Allen, I’m sure.