Once again, everybody seems to be talking about the weather these days. Most conversations eventually come around to, “How are you standin’ the winter?” or “Is it cold enough for you?” or “I can’t ever remember a winter when it was this bad!” I’ve come to the conclusion that many of my friends and acquaintances have poor memories since, even with some forgetfulness, I can recall some pretty tough times over the years.
Although we’ve had some cold and snowy days and nights, the wind on our hill hasn’t been as much of a factor as some years. The local forecasts have often indicated wind, it hasn’t happened enough to interfere with our lives except maybe for last Thursday. Last summer, a farmer friend from Sugar Hill planted corn in the field along the road above our house. After he harvested the grain in the fall, a field-full of corn stubble remained standing; and this has served just like a snow fence. The drifting winds are broken down by the brush and the snow settles among the stalks instead of moving to the road. It must be frustrating to the PennDOT road crews who have always relied on our drifts for overtime work.
My earliest snowy memories date back to my first year in grade school, the winter of 1944 and ’45 when I was enrolled in the Ninth Avenue School in Brockway and my dad supplied my transportation. With the first sign of a snowflake, he put tire chains on his ’40 Ford coupe and left them on all winter (or at least, it seemed that way to me). Lots of people used tire chains instead of today’s “all-season radial” tires or all-wheel drive vehicles. 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 pathetic little tyke like me 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. I jiggled and shook down Route 322 all the way to Port Matilda before I found a back street and took them off. 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. Sometimes it was easier than driving on the road and I learned a lot of driving techniques.
On one trip to DuBois via Beechtree Road, I headed out of downtown Beechtree and up the hill when, as I neared success at the top of the hill, I had to stop for another car in the road. There was no way to get moving again from there, and when I put that high-powered, rear-wheel-drive Plymouth in reverse, it took off sliding down the hill backwards. 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 when the road was bad unless I was behind the wheel of the 4x4 pickup.
I kept a weather log that year, and it listed temperatures well below zero with some sunny days but most with drifting snow. Along came Groundhog Day, 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!” My weather log recorded a temperature high of 45 degrees on the following Friday. After several months, the pattern had broken. We have experienced some of those same breaks already this year, but it isn’t something we can plan or ever expect through the next few months.
Years later, we made plans for a driving trip to California in 1992 during the winter months of February and March. Relatives on the sunny west coast warned that sometimes the passes across the mountains are shut down because of bad weather conditions, and we might be required to have chains to get through. My co-pilot (now the late) Blake Cooper came up with a pair of truck chains and we spent part of an afternoon fitting them on our Chevy van. Fortunately, we made it across the “Grapevine” from Nevada into California without any need for those chains.
We called home from somewhere in Northern California or Southern Oregon and our kids said, “You won’t believe what has happened back home!” They reported that there was about a foot and a half of new snow on top of the old, and everybody was having a great time playing in it with snow shovels and plows. There we were all the way across the country, missing all the fun! When we got back a week later, we first began to see signs of the snow around the Ohio line and the levels kept getting deeper as we neared home. The boys had plowed out our driveway but no one had remembered that our only door key fit the back door, the one on the other side of all that heavy and drifted snow.
Now, do you remember any of those years? What can we expect this year? You can be sure that our friend Wayne Clinger, who has his own maple syrup processing plant at Smithtown, is getting ready for a productive season with perfect weather combinations of warm days and cold nights. Right now, after all, this is the “worst winter that any of us can remember!”