Cold memories from the Blizzard of '93

Posted 3/11/18

“Wheels and footsteps moved soundlessly on the street, as if the business of living continued secretly behind a pale but impenetrable curtain. In the falling quiet there was no sky or earth, only …

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Cold memories from the Blizzard of '93

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Everybody’s got memories, and more than a few stories — some good, some bad — about a weather event that impacted their lives.

Here’s a good one … certainly not because it paralyzed our community for days and shut down most businesses and schools for what seemed like a fortnight, but because in these parts we had never seen anything like it.

We call it the Blizzard of ’93, and it came with an intensity that rivaled the beloved appearance of balmy spring air just a few days earlier. On Thursday, March 11, I even mowed my yard. 

But on Friday, March 12, the thought of lawn care was the last thing on my mind.

As I recall, the Chattanooga weather guys said it would start moving in Friday night or early Saturday. They were right. They were right about a lot of things on that blustery weekend 25 years ago.

The only uncertainty was depth.

I don’t remember who predicted what. But here’s how I figure it: One way or the other, we got about 21 inches of right or 21 inches of wrong. It depended on where you lived and the intensity of your imagination.

What I do remember is this: Cold. White … lots and lots of white, lots and lots of cold.

For me, it started at about 5 p.m. Friday. Pulling into the driveway of our 4-month-old home, I stepped out of the tan Ford Escort and looked up. The sky was gray, like the hull of a battleship. The late afternoon was quiet and a breeze began to stir.

Something was falling from the low-hanging clouds. The tiny pieces of clear rock, I realized, were sleet. They clinked against the windshield of the Escort, and brushed against cold cheeks as I peered into the sky.

“So this is it,” I mumbled. “It is here.”

Mine was a cozy feeling, one spawned by a strange twinge of excitement. I, like thousands of other folks, found myself caught up in the question, “What if?”

They said it could be bad. What if they were right?

My wife and I spent the next few hours glancing through windows and cracking the kitchen door to check on the storm’s arrival, and then did the same with the back and front doors to check on conditions from those two views.

I can’t remember if we ate out that night. We almost always did on Fridays after work. But blizzards, and rumors of blizzards, will often negate tradition.

In a 25th-year reflection of his own, a Chattanooga news anchor the other day said the real snow started about 11 p.m. But it’s the next morning (Saturday) that I remember most.

The lights went out. So did the heat.

As the giant flakes fell, the gale-force winds continued to gust.

I wasn’t in newspaper work at the time, so I had few cares about sliding into work to publish a Sunday edition. I had abandoned the world of newsprint four years earlier. And yet here I am today, writing this.

Go figure.

Sometime during the day, Love Muffin and I — like schoolkids — bundled up in our bulkiest of heavy coats, scarves, toboggans, gloves and boots, and stepped outside the house to play in what history later recorded to be "The Storm of the Century."

Still with no power and no heat, we figured we might as well be cold in the outdoors. The idea was to get so bitterly frozen outside that returning to the inside would bring with it an illusion of warmth.

As the wind gusted, the layers of snow deepened and the drifts grew. We trudged through the storm’s fury taking pictures, throwing a few snowballs and watching the road out front disappear, as well as the ditches, the pasture across the way and the neighbor’s car.

With red noses and numb feet, we returned to our refuge: Still no power, still no heat.

Throughout the afternoon, we listened to news reports on a Walkman radio, read by candlelight and stared through frosty windows for signs of life. Even sightings of the Abominable Snowman, or Sasquatch, would have come as welcomed relief.

Venturing outside once more, this time to scrape snow off the heat pump in hopes of its reawakening, I also trenched a path with an ACE Hardware snow shovel from our carport to the neighbor’s. I cleaned off their HVAC, as well.

Returning to the house, I found the same: No light. No heat. Just cold.

For Saturday night’s supper, we dined by candlelight at the kitchen table: Chicken salad sandwiches, chips and wine. It was oddly romantic. Earlier in the day, I had removed perishables from the lifeless fridge and buried them in a deepening snow where the patio used to be.

By bedtime, still no power. No light. No heat.

When we awoke Sunday morning, the inside temperature was 40. My wife was freezing. I was frozen.

“Time to do something,” I told her. “I’ll pay. You go get the pizza.”

It was an inside joke we had learned a few weeks earlier from the movie “Alive.” Laughter was good. But in these conditions, it hurt. What we needed was something warm.

Bundling up again to repel the deep freeze of our Sunday morning tundra, I stepped outside, grabbed an ax and lumbered through the backyard drifts. At the edge of the woods, I chopped up a few cedar limbs that had collapsed from the weight of snow.

After clearing two feet of Old Man Winter’s refuse from the patio and emptying an unused concrete planter, I filled the heavy container with pieces of evergreen and fired it up with a match. The flame grew with a crackle and a pop, and its heat brought a tingle to my outstretched fingers.

Bracing an old oven rack across the planter’s rim, the fire flickered through the open spaces separating the heavy-duty iron rods. Retrieving a pot from inside, and filling it with water, I centered it atop the repurposed rack.

 “We’ll be having hot chocolate and oatmeal in 15 minutes!” I yelled in victory through the back door.

Proud of my Nanook of the North instincts, I chuckled at the thought of hot water and the approving smile it would have fetched from Grizzly Adams.

“Not long now!” I shouted to my beloved. 

It was then the first Cleveland Utilities truck powered past our house and rounded a distant curve, crushing rolling peaks of snow that lay like dunes in the path of its giant tires.

 As tiny bubbles slowly rose to the water’s surface, a blinding light seared through the open back door. Looking to my left, I found my wife staring out at me, her smile brighter than the morning sun.

After 27 shivering hours of dark and cold and hidden misery, our electricity had returned.

And the water began its boil.

———

(About the writer: Rick Norton is an associate editor at the Cleveland Daily Banner. Email him at rick.norton@clevelandbanner.com.)

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