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Blizzard of the Century

In the 70s we were living in Minnesota. At the time I was working for the Cold Spring Granite Company running their construction subsidiary. We were building a house on a small lake about 8 miles from the town of Cold Spring, population 2500.

When I say “building” I mean actually doing the work ourselves; nights, weekends and holidays. I had finished laying up the granite split face fireplace interior in time to get carpet down for Christmas, but the chimney was unfinished. Although we had a wood supply, the unfinished chimney would play a role in January of 1975 on Super Bowl weekend.


As Super Bowl weekend approached the people in Minnesota were hopeful that the Vikes could prevail on their third try at a victory. But…

A troubling storm was forming in the Pacific and came ashore on January 8th. It crossed the Rockies on the 9th where it performed a classic Panhandle Hook and swung south to Oklahoma. There it met warm tropical air coming up from the Gulf and heading for the upper Midwest and intensified. As it approached the Minnesota border the barometer hit a record low of 28.38. After colliding with Arctic air moving southward the snow began.

Mike, our youngest, was 2 ½ at the time and his sister, Karen 4 ½, and our oldest, Tara at 6 ½, the only one attending school. They sent the kids home from school early anticipating the heavy snow and the narrow roads that the buses would need to traverse to get all the kids to their rural farms and homes.


It started to snow heavily on Friday afternoon of the 10th and I decided to head home early. Charlie Krebsbach car pooled with me. He lived on the north of Big Fish Lake, the lake adjacent to our own Watab Lake. These lakes are common in this part of Minnesota due to millions of years of advancing and retreating glaciers.

I drove a ’68 Pontiac, a heavy bodied sedan, that had been further fortified by its previous owner and looked like a reinforced stock car for racing. We called it the “Freeway Flier”.

Image result for 1968 pontiac sedan

The snow started falling heavier as we headed up the narrow two-lane road toward home some eight miles away. The flakes were like duck feathers, the kind that stack up in a hurry. With snow-covered farmers fields on each side and white out conditions, I was really worried about putting the Pontiac in the ditch. Charlie had his nose glued to the windshield picking out the next telephone poles and directing me to “go a little left or right” trying to keep us in the middle of the road. I was staring straight ahead, sweating the sudden appearance of a truck coming the other way.

We made it to Charlie’s place and I headed the mile or so to my turn off. We lived in a small complex of about fifteen homes on an oval-shaped dirt road. Six or so of the houses, including ours, perched on the lake front side. The problem: There was a steep hill to climb to get up to our little complex. I barely made it up and, it turned out, was the last car to do so.

The wind picked up and they were predicting temperatures dropping to 10 degrees below and wind speeds up to 90 mph, meaning it was almost a certainty that we would lose power. I went next door to talk to our neighbors, the Fahrney’s, a couple with two teenage daughters. They were generous Christian people and Bill and I agreed that our family would freeze without a functioning fireplace. He offered for us to move into their house for the duration of the storm. Bill and I would keep his two fire places going 24 hours a day and use his wood pile and mine to feed them.

I went back to our house and drained the pipes and sponged all the water out of the toilets. Our place had electric heat, so without power, our place would get as cold as outside. We also had a central well in our little group of houses, but without electricity, there would be no pump so we would have no water, either!

The wind howled and it snowed heavily throughout Friday night, and we lost power early in the evening. Bill and I fed the fireplaces. The five kids and two mothers huddled around the fires. Bill’s fireplaces were not “heatilators”, the kind that allows cool air to enter at the bottom and to flow around the firebox before exiting at the top as heated air. They are much more effective than simply relying on radiant heat. In addition, the high winds blowing across the chimney caused the heat to be sucked up the chimney and promoted infiltration of the freezing air from outside. But it’s all we had, so we kept the fires roaring.

Dawn Saturday revealed a total white out and roaring winds. You couldn’t see 10 feet. The temperature had dropped to -10. The wind chill reached -80 degrees. When we went outside to get more wood, any exposed skin felt like a blowtorch had been applied.

Without water and nine people in the house, we were soon worrying about the toilets. You can’t flush them without water.

Everyone in the complex needed water so two neighborhood guys who owned snowmobiles made a heroic trip to fetch a generator. From who I had no idea. I don’t know how they found their way either. They told us the landscape had completely changed with huge 20’ snowdrifts and visibility near zero. With the generator we could get the pumps running and get water to all the houses.

The wind and snow continued at the same intensity all Saturday night and into mid-morning Sunday. Then it just stopped. Still cold… maybe zero, but people from Minnesota are used to that. We crawled out of our houses to almost two feet of snow on the level and daunting snow drifts. As we dug through the stuff we noticed black streaks veining the snow, topsoil blown off the plowed fields of the Dakotas and western Minnesota. We called it “snert”.

After all the neighbors finished digging out the cars at the bottom of the hill and manhandling them up the hill so the snowplow could get through it was midafternoon. Wonder of wonders, the power came on minutes before the kick off for the Super Bowl. The Vikings lost to the Steelers 16 to 6.

One footnote: Once we had all recovered and dug out from the blizzard, including the massive snowdrift that had piled up on the corner of the road, I started to think about how helpless we were during the storm. There was absolutely no way for an ambulance or fire truck to get to us. And, if one of our kids got sick or injured no way for us to find our way to the St. Cloud Hospital over the back roads. There were no snowplows out because they could not see where in the Hell they were going! Anyway, if you were stranded or stuck you would freeze to death in very short order. It was the first and last time I ever felt completely isolated and helpless.

A couple years later, after the blizzard of 1978.


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Alice and the Sword

That title sounds like a Disney movie but it’s not. It is the story of how I came into possession of my Naval Officer’s ceremonial sword.

I came home at 18 from my freshman year at Cornell in 1960 to discover that my mother had run off again. This time to be with the loser who would be husband Number Three. That sounds like something from a stupid TV game show, but it’s not.

She had done it before. She had left Husband Number One, my birth father, when I was 2 or 3 years old. Actually, I don’t know who took off first because Hubby One, Bill Doran, disappeared at the same time. I never saw him again until I was 18 and looked him up. Never did find out where the two of them went.

I was turned over to the custody of my great aunt Lottie and her husband Paul. They were broke and we moved around from one relative and farm to another.

My mother returned when I was in the 3rd grade with Husband Number Two, Clyde Draper, and we moved to a slum in Pittsburgh while he attended watchmaker’s school. We then moved to Woodlawn, NY, an industrial area where we lived in Clyde’s brother’s cheap hotel. Actually, I spent much of my time on my uncle’s farm where my aunt Lottie now lived.

Clyde took my Mother’s departure hard. He ranted and raved and would not stop talking about it. Frankly, Clyde was not an easy man to live with before the divorce. He had been a Marine in the Pacific and participated in several landings. As I think about it now it seems likely that he suffered from PTSD before it had a name or was widely understood. He could hardly be described as a warm man and he was cheap. I had to save my money from my paper route and babysitting jobs to buy my baseball glove and bow and arrow. For my four years at Cornell he gave me a total of $400. Not quite enough. At the end of my Freshman year I quit my job waiting tables to study for finals the last two weeks and that ended my food program. I lived on wheat germ and sugar I stole from the cafeteria. Pete told me years later that if Alice had known that she would have had a fit!

He didn’t beat me at least not physically. It’s just that he wasn’t THERE. Although we eventually had a cottage on Lake Erie I do not remember a time when he took me fishing and he never took me hunting or attended any of my sporting events. That was OK, but now the situation had become miserable and impossible.

A friend of mine, Pete Gannon, and his family lived in a big house in Lakeview and they offered me a place to stay. I had a room on one end of the house all to myself and the Gannon’s home would be my home for the next six years. Pete and I had been good friends for several years in high school and along with another good friend, Bill Vogt, formed what we called “The Constipated Trio”.

Gordon Gannon was a successful attorney in downtown Buffalo back when it was a thriving city. That was before Buffalo deteriorated into a town half the size it was before all the industry left. He was a great golfer and fantastic wing shot. A big gregarious Irish guy with an infectious laugh, he was easy to like.

Alice, his wife was a blunt, hard smoking and outspoken woman who played the role of the socialite and hostess with aplomb. The frequently abrasive façade hid a heart of pure gold. I think she thought of me as another one of her kids. I discovered that somehow she had gotten her hands on the commissioning picture of me in my dress blue uniform and it hung on her wall until her death. Then for years it hung on Pete’s wall. I often wondered where she got it since I didn’t have one myself. I finally figured out that her address was the one I used on all my Navy paperwork. It WAS after all my home address. So it was Alice who got the news release of my graduation from The Basic part of the training.
She sent it to the newspaper.

The plans for Loi and I to be married were proceeding while I was finishing up my training to become a Navy SEAL. The date was set for two weeks after I completed Army Parachute Training at Ft. Benning, GA. I had no role in those plans. Loi’s widowed Mom had little money and neither did I so the festivities were to be modest. Alice played a role as if she were my actual Mother. She called the etiquette writer at the Buffalo Evening News for some advice on how to arrange the seating chart for all my parents who planned on showing up for the wedding. I don’t have a clue who invited them but Bessie and her third husband, Clyde and his new wife and Bill Doran and his wife all planned to attend the “rehearsal dinner” that Alice had set up for the Wanakah Country Club where the Gannons were members. Gordon had been club champion several times. As for Alice’s carefully planned etiquette seating plan….. my various parents blithely ignored it!

For the wedding I planned to wear my dress white uniform that I had never had an opportunity to wear. It had been purchased along with all my other uniforms with my uniform allowance received when I was commissioned. I also planned to wear my dress ceremonial sword that I had received as a gift from Alice when I graduated from what is now called BUDS. She was the only one who showed up at Little Creek for the ceremony. I don’t know where Alice bought the sword but I suspect that her older son had a hand in it. He was an officer in the Marine Corps Reserve. A sword has been a fixture in a Naval and Marine dress uniform for over 500 years.

When I tried on my whites a week before the wedding I got a surprise. Since my commissioning and after 8 months of brutal training, I had gained a full inch in my neck and two inches in my chest! No way to tailor the whites to fit so it was off to the tux rental place.

I never got to wear the sword…… then or ever. For over 50 years it has knocked around damp basements and unheated garages accumulating corrosion and weathering. I recently sent it to an outfit near the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD and got it refurbished. I plan to give it to my grandson Malcolm, the only grandchild bearing my name. I am writing this so that when he reads it he will understand that it is a symbol of my affection and respect for the generous woman who gave it to me.


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Uncle Lee

Lee Patterson was a bachelor dairy farmer. He lived with his brother, a divorced father of one, on a 140-acre place about 35 miles from the outskirts of Buffalo, NY. The farm was typical for the late 1940’s. It had no indoor plumbing or electricity. The place was heated by a huge iron stove in the kitchen and a wood-burning furnace. All the farm work required work horses that were both large and evil tempered.
I started spending a lot of time there when I was about eight years old. My Mother had returned with a new husband after a five-year absence, retrieving me from my Grandma and Grandpa. We had moved around a lot in those five years as Grandpa had retired from the railroad with injuries that kept him from working. My new step-father was trying to get his watch repair and jewelry business going in Buffalo, so in the interim, we were living in his brother’s hotel. It was a rough place frequented by employees of the nearby steel mill, alcoholics, and itinerants. From my small room on the second floor, I frequently heard fights and drunken arguments in the hall outside my room. It was clearly not a place for a small child. So, it was determined that I should be carted off to the farm on weekends, holidays, and summers. At that time, Grandma and Grandpa moved to the farm, so it was an OK thing with me.
I had never really had a father figure in my life, my Father being absent and Grandpa seldom moving out of his easy chair. Uncle Lee took on that role. Whether he knew that or not, I can’t say, but he did it admirably.
Lee, a short, barrel-chested man, had little education, but knew a lot of things…. especially how to work hard. In those days, a dairy farm required a lot of work. Not just the care and milking of the cows, but also cutting wood for cooking and heat, tending the garden, and working in the fields. Uncle Lee taught me that hard work is a man’s first obligation and play only begins when the work is finished. Up before daylight, the cows had to be milked and fed before we would eat breakfast. Then it was back to the barn to shovel the manure before getting on to other tasks like cutting hay, plowing, or fixing fences.
A lot of our recreational time was spent hunting and fishing, for the game we killed formed an essential part of our diet. We practically lived on the deer meat that my Grandma cooked and canned. I tagged along after Lee like a faithful puppy. He showed me how to recognize the difference between a squirrel and a rabbit track in the snow, as well as identify a mink, fox, or a skunk track.
We fished for chubs in the creek and then used the chubs to catch pickerel in the lake. From him, I learned how to cast a bass plug and how to shoot a rifle and shotgun. He taught me how to set traps for muskrat and mink and how to sit quietly in the hardwoods and wait for squirrels to come out.
Finally, it was time for me to go hunting for the first time. Although Lee had several beagles he normally used for rabbit hunting, he decided that for our first expedition he would leave the dogs behind and be the dog himself. I guess he was worried I might accidentally shoot one! I carried a 20-gauge pump on that day and with fresh snow on the ground, we set out to hunt rabbits. Soon we jumped a rabbit out of a brush pile and my Uncle took off following the track, howling like a beagle so I could follow his progress. I stood waiting for a rabbit when chased will run in a big circle. Sure enough, the rabbit soon came hopping into view. I shot at the rabbit until the gun was empty and never touched a hare. (Sorry.) Undeterred, my Uncle Lee continued without complaint and chased the rabbit around again. Same result. Lee took off again hooting as before and this time I managed to hit the rabbit. Unfortunately, the rabbit ran up inside a hollow tree.
I thought that was the end of it. But Uncle Lee and I walked all the way to the barn and came back with the cross cut saw. Together we sawed the tree down to retrieve the rabbit.  It took 15 shots and some sweat to chop down the tree, but we had a rabbit for Grandma.

Years later I was hunting with my son who was about 10 at the time. We were walking along a riverbank when a mallard happened to fly by. I shot the duck and it fell on the opposite side of the deep, slow-moving river.  Although it was October, and much to my son’s surprise, I stripped down, swam across the river, and retrieved the duck. Twenty years later, my son reminded me of that incident. “Make every effort to retrieve the game you shoot” means exactly that. I guess that lesson taught to me by Uncle Lee and then passed on to my son showed by example what that actually means.

As the years passed, and I moved on to high school with sports and friends, I visited the farm infrequently. Then it was college and the Navy, marriage and moving to the West Coast. I never saw him again. I think of him often and regret that I never got to thank him for his influence in my young life. It was a difficult time for me and he was a solid presence, patient and blessed with a great sense of humor. I never thanked him properly, but I did honor him by giving his name to our daughter. He was gone by then, but maybe he knows anyway.

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