Wherever I’ve gone over the recent weeks, I have found myself engaged in more conversations than I’ve been for months. There are quite a variety of subjects but everybody seems to be talking about the weather these days with good reason. Most conversations open up with questions like, “How are you standin’ the winter?” or “Is it cold enough for you?” and then turn to a statement such as, “I can’t ever remember a winter when it was this bad!” I’ve come to the conclusion that my friends and acquaintances, even practically strangers at the grocery store, have poor memories since, even with some forgetfulness, I can recall some pretty tough times over the years.
My earliest snowy memories were of my first year in grade school, the winter of 1944 and ’45. I was enrolled in the Ninth Avenue School and my dad was contracted to provide rides for my neighbor Clarabelle Lockwood who lived down the hill by the “Arch” and for me. He didn’t drive a bus, but it was his ’40 Ford coupe that got us to school and back. With the first sign of a snowflake, he put tire chains on the car and left them on all winter (or at least, it seemed that way to me). Lots of people used tire chains instead of “mud and snow” tires or all-season radials. And the roads weren’t maintained by the Highway Department as they are today – they just didn’t have the equipment.
When winter really set in that year, the road from our place down over the big Britton Hill began to fill in. On his last trip toward home, my dad made it as far as the Britton farm and ended up leaving the Ford in their barn. The snow drifted off the top of the hill and settled into the cut of the road. The road was closed for weeks, and the only way to get up or down the hill was to walk – and we did. We followed a path that went over the field on high ground and was then tramped solid above the line of guardrails about three feet higher than the road surface. What a way for a little tyke to start a career in school.
From then on, the years slipped by and the memories blended together with some bad years mixed in with some open winters (I think). Then I reached the time of my life when I had wheels of my own and things got more interesting. Like the time when my dad and I started out for town in the ’54 Dodge pickup to get new chains (his favorite winter purchase) and we turned completely around going down that same big hill. My dad got out and walked to the bottom, muttering something about my driving ability.
During the two years that I attended classes at the DuBois Campus as a freshman and sophomore, I had a Sunday paper route all around the outskirts of Brockway and through Lanes Mills, Sugar Hill, and Beechwoods to deliver the Pittsburgh Press and the Sun-Telegraph. During that time, I learned a lot about the snowy winters of the mid-‘50s and how to get around the country without tire chains. I was equipped with a well-used snow shovel, however. I can only recall really getting stuck one time and that was right in downtown Coal Glen in a snow bank that had been plowed up along the road.
Later, when I was a senior at Penn State, I got caught in a big storm while I was home for a weekend. My dad, counting on his favorite winter aid, absolutely insisted that I put a set of rusty chains on my car before leaving for State College on Sunday afternoon. The car jiggled and shook down Route 322 all the way to Port Matilda where I found a back street and de-chained. I wasn’t about to make a grand entrance into State College with a set of jangling chains on the car. After that, I retired them to a secret hiding place hoping never to see them again.
More years passed, some with a lot of snow and some without. Then came the winter of 1976 and ’77. That was the year of heavy snows and drifting around our place. We had “the tunnel” in front of the house – the snow was piled so high on both sides of the road that a person couldn’t see over it on either side. There was just about a “white-out” in the tunnel all the time from snow drifting across the surface and falling over the edge of the snow piles, even on fairly calm days.
I had to go through the tunnel every night to spread the daily load of manure from the dairy barn. In order to make it safer, my wife would climb over the snow piles to the top of the hill and flag down any approaching traffic while I made my run through the tunnel. I also had to break a path through the plowed snow along the road to get out into the field where I could actually drive around with the tractor – most of the snow had blown off the field into the tunnel.
One night, my wife needed the 4x4 pickup for a meeting in town, so my mother and I headed over the hill in our Plymouth Fury to see my dad who was in the hospital. With its standard V-8 power, that car could spin its wheels on dry roads in the summer. I loaded some weight, probably chicken grit (a convenient heavy weight around our place) and headed out through the village of Beechtree. There is one big hill between Beechtree and Beechwoods and, as I approached the top, there sat a truck stuck in the middle of the road.
I had to stop and there was no way to get moving again from there. When I put the car in reverse, it took off down the hill backwards and when I touched the brake it went into a slide for the ditch. I finally made it back to the bottom with a combination of braking lightly with my left foot and spinning the wheels slightly in “Drive” with my right foot to keep on the road. After that experience, I didn’t try the hill again, but elected to take the valley road from Beechtree to Lanes Mills where I could get on Route 219.
Over the years, we have sometimes kept a weather log that often-showed temperatures well below zero with some sunny days but most with drifting snow. Along came Groundhog Day in 1977, and I wrote, “A morning low of 8 degrees, a sunny and nice day, the Groundhog saw his shadow, so we’ll have six more weeks of this!” After being off from school for many days, we finally returned to the classrooms, and on Tuesday, February 8th, at about 10:30 a.m., I received a call from the hospital that my dad had passed away. My weather log recorded a temperature high of 45 degrees on the following Friday for the funeral. The pattern had broken.
Fast forward to 2021 and last Monday morning. Evelyn and I had 8:00 a.m. appointments in DuBois to receive the second round of COVID-19 injections so I had been watching the weather forecast with concern for early morning travel. For many years now, I have kept a 4x4 assistant in the garage to help with winter travel. Several decades ago, I recycled my pickup to one of our sons and began to park an all-wheel drive van beside the car for days like this one.
As the forecast predicted, Monday morning was cold with snow-covered roads. And over the river (Ratttlesnake Creek down from Westville) and through the woods on Beechtree Road stood that same hill as encountered back in ’77 but this time I had no worry – my Buick Enclave had a history of seldom spinning a wheel when the roads ever got a little slippery. I knew Becky (that’s what I call my car) would get us through – and she did! We had a cautious but successful trip to DuBois and had actually received our shots well before 8 a.m. and were ready to head across town to Perkins for a hearty breakfast.
Now, are you creating new memories to add new stories for your own life story? I expect there have been many new and interesting happy, some sad, events from the winter of 2020-2021 and the corresponding pandemic to talk about in years to come. After all, it is the “worst winter that we can remember!” Of course, I haven’t looked for any old tire chains, yet.