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Sunday Journal

Warmed by a long-ago blizzard

Published February 15, 2004

One morning last month I awoke to a blinding snowstorm. It came as a shock. I had been spending winters in Florida, and this was my first Wisconsin winter in six years.

Snuggling back under my covers, I thought of another snowstorm that seemed worlds away from Florida - or from the Wisconsin of today, for that matter.

It was the 1930s. I was working for a small medical plant in a rural area 10 miles west of Kenosha, Wis. Those of us who lived in the city were transported to work by company bus. Our bus was a shabby vehicle, and the commute was as bumpy as the stage coaches of the Old West must have been. Laughingly, we often predicted that some day the old bus wouldn't make it. One day it didn't.

That morning I awoke to the whistling sound of a strong wind blowing the snow against my window. Shivering, I quickly dressed in my warmest wool skirt and sweater. It was 6:30, but as usual my bag lunch had been packed the night before, and I added a thermos that my mother had just prepared.

Since we lived on the outskirts of town, I was the last one to be picked up. The bus was late, but it was still dark when I climbed in. After the usual mumbled greetings, no one seemed very talkative. I pulled my skirt down as far as I could so that my legs were well-covered to the tops of my fur-lined boots. (Slacks for women were unheard of then.)

We rode along in silence for several miles. The wind gathered more strength, which caused the snow to dance and swirl madly into circles and build drifts that became bigger and bigger. I could sense a growing anxiety among us as the bus began to slow down, and icy windows were constantly being scraped in an attempt to view the terrain.

It was dawn now, and the road gradually began to disappear. We were in a vast expanse of whiteness that covered and sculpted all things that used to be familiar. The wind and snow had contoured the large trees dotting the landscape and formed ghoulish figures with eerie, outstretched arms.

Suddenly, our ride came to a halt. Our driver, Fred, got out to survey the situation, and when he returned his usual jovial face was serious. He announced gravely, "I am afraid this is as far as we can go. We just ran into a snowdrift."

When someone suggested that we turn around and go back, he shook his head and replied that it would be impossible to turn the bus around, let alone get through the road we had just traveled. He had hoped to get closer to the plant so we could take refuge there.

He added, "For now we will wait awhile to see what the company will do when we don't show up. Otherwise, I will try to find a telephone so that we can get help."

After the first shock of our predicament, we realized that we hadn't had breakfast. Normally, no one ate breakfast at home because of the early hour. Besides, coffee usually was available at the plant. Since we all carried a bag lunch and there were plenty of thermos bottles, we were quickly satisfied. It lifted our spirits temporarily to be doing something.

As it got colder, we huddled together to maintain our body heat longer. We also kept our feet in motion to try to keep them warm.

After drinking the liquids, we knew that sooner or later we would have to relieve ourselves. It was suggested that one person at a time step out of the bus. Some did, but additional cold air rushed in every time the door was opened.

Finally, we came to the grim realization that we had to do something tangible because of the cold. The visibility was almost zero, and there seemed to be no farmhouse in sight. Fred said that he would go exploring, and one of the other men volunteered to go with him.

Surprisingly, shortly after the two men had gone to seek help, there was a knock on the door. A man wrapped in a mackinaw jacket with a wool cap pulled down over his ears, wearing heavy snowshoes, stood there. Standing next to him were our two men, smiling broadly. They had met between the farmer's house and our bus.

Later, the farmer explained that he had noticed our bus on the highway when he went up in the loft of his barn early that morning. After milking, he went in to eat breakfast and listen to the weather report on the radio. He kept thinking about the bus. Later he got out his binoculars and went into the yard at a high point to check if it was still there.

He realized the bus had been sitting there for some time, and the radio reported that the temperature was dropping steadily. So the farmer told his wife he was going down to the road to check on that stalled bus. That's how he met our two men.

Graciously, he invited us to come up to his place out of the cold. The stronger men plowed through the snow on foot; a few of us who were light were carried. Shortly afterward, 10 very cold, grateful people were in that warm farmhouse. We removed our wet, stiff outer garments and hung them in the kitchen to dry.

Fred called the plant and asked that our families be told we were staying at this farm until we could safely leave. Thus began our hiatus from the rest of the world. These wonderful people did everything to make us comfortable and welcome. The food was delicious, and it was abundant.

There were several small bedrooms, and three of us small females slept together in a big feather bed that night. The rest of the group slept in other beds, on couches or even on the floor.

Naturally, we had to sleep in our underclothes. If we wanted, we could take a sponge bath. That was the most uncomfortable part - having to put on the same dirty clothes. Fortunately, it was the Christmas season. The holly and pine incense did a lot to freshen the air in that crowded farmhouse.

We were stranded there for three days.

To pass the time, we sang together, played cards and games, told stories and bonded. Everyone was in good spirits and pitched in to help make us one big happy family. I got to know my fellow lab workers better.

I remember rattling off the first few lines of a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier that a grade school teacher had us memorize. She had said that we would remember them in a heavy snowstorm: "The sun that brief December day/Rose cheerless over hills of gray/And, darkly circled, gave at noon/A sadder light than waning moon."

Early on the morning of the third day, Fred went down to the highway because the radio had announced that roads in our area were being plowed. He was able to get the bus started and, with help, turn it around. And so, after many cheers and hugs (and some tears), we finally were able to leave and return home.

I still treasure the memory of those two people who opened up their home and hearts to perfect strangers in a time of need. Whatever we or the company did for them would never compensate for what they did for us.

My grade school teacher would be happy that I can still recite those lines of Whittier by heart. Meanwhile, I have done a little research on that poem I seem to recall whenever the snow falls. I discovered that Whittier wrote it - the poem actually has 755 lines - about his dear family circle during a winter storm on a New England farm during the 19th century. It is titled Snow-Bound.

- LaVerne Hammond, 90, writes a monthly column that appears in the St. Petersburg Times' Seniority section.

[Last modified February 12, 2004, 11:06:15]

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