We’ve reached that time of year when Old Man Winter can play tricks on us. One day, it’s warm enough to take down those now-damaged exterior Christmas decorations you wish you had attacked on a surprisingly mild day earlier in the month. The next day, we might get pounded with enough snow, ice and/or cold temperatures to close schools and make life difficult.
At the risk of further confirming the senior status I’ve achieved, let me take you back 50 years ago this week.
On Jan. 24, 1967, the local temperature reached 66 degrees. The next day, a Wednesday, weather forecasters were predicting “one-quarter to one-half inch of rain or snow in the latter part of the week.”
Instead, the northern half of Illinois was paralyzed with the biggest snowstorm in a generation. Chicago got the worst of it: 23 inches in 24 hours. We got just over a third as much, but it wasn’t so good around here either.
Roads and streets became massive parking lots as vehicles stalled in mounds of snow. Foot travel was pretty much the only — albeit dangerous— way to get around. Gale-force winds took down trees that, in turn, ripped apart power lines and telephone poles. The temperature dropped toward zero. Schools and businesses closed.
And I was returning from Scandinavia. Really.
Illinois Wesleyan, where I was somehow admitted as a student, had initiated a new academic calendar that included a “short term” — essentially reserving the month of January when students would take a single course, opening the door to off-campus experiences, too.
The political science department’s plan to guide students to the Middle East was scuttled when tensions between Israel and its neighbors heightened (ultimately resulting in the Six-Day War a few months later). I wasn't interested in the Middle East seminar. But when IWU quickly substituted three weeks in Scandinavia, I was all over it.
“Why Scandinavia in the middle of winter?” I was asked. Good question. Might have had something to do with a lovely Danish girl I had met when she was a foreign exchange student in El Paso.
It was a good trip. Yes, it was a little cold and sometimes snowy. But the weather news was nothing like what greeted us when we landed in New York on the first leg of our trip home.
“All flights to Chicago are canceled. Major blizzard there.”
We spent the night near the airport, got a flight to St. Louis the next day, and on Saturday boarded a northbound train to Bloomington. It was a daylight trip, but the only thing we saw was towering snowbanks alongside the tracks. When we reached the old train station on Bloomington’s west side, I remember thinking Oslo, Norway had nothing on Central Illinois when it came to winter. A slow taxi ride got us back to campus.
Pantagraph editorial writers philosophized about “the harsh, pleasant messages of a storm.” “Most people are concerned about their neighbors.” “Thousands of people grimly realize that their services are surplus when just important things must get done.” And “Radio — both commercial and amateur — is a vital factor in our communications network.”
It was true. During the storm, WJBC (my eventual employer) firmly established itself as a community resource. With no cellphones, and many landlines down, stranded motorists were using the airwaves to let relatives know they were safe and where they were. Callers offered shelter to people who were stranded. There was even an answer for the guy who called up to ask whether liquor stores were open.
Today, there are multiple communication avenues. Technology also has made possible much more accurate weather forecasts. Even so, we remain at Mother Nature’s mercy and highly dependent on those we entrust with the task of doing what’s necessary in emergency situations.