Wayback Machine: The Great Blizzard of ’78

Given the way that people never seem to tire of talking about snowstorms – anticipating them, experiencing them, remembering them – I thought it might be suitable for me to publish here my journal entry from a time, 38 years ago, when a big storm swept through Connecticut. Today, people tend to tweet back and forth during a storm, and after it, but back in 1978 we took a more contemplative approach and spent a little more time in the writing. Anyway, here is what I wrote about the Blizzard of ’78 as it began to wind down outside my window:

I know this sounds like the perfect commercial for lung cancer, but I ran out of cigarettes today in the middle of this blizzard and I cross-country skied four miles to get a pack. It is still snowing as I write, and for all I know it’s never going to stop. It’s coming down in defiance of all known weather reports as it is. We were supposed to get another inch or so this morning and then it was supposed to stop. Instead, we’ve been hit with seven or eight additional inches and now the sun is going down like an eerie white smudge behind billowing banks of snow clouds. I don’t know how many inches they’ll claim to have had years from now (“And then the economy lurched to a dead stop as if stuck in one of the great snowdrifts the Winter of ’78 produced.”), but I’ve got around 26 inches in my front yard.

x-xountryBack to the cross-country skiing. I got the skis for Christmas four years ago and I haven’t used them much since, but I’ve enjoyed the sport when I have gone out. I can get around on them. So, early this afternoon I sized up the situation. I had five cigarettes left. I knew five cigarettes wouldn’t last me beyond 5 p.m., or maybe 7 if I stretched it. Bad. I looked out at my car and saw a little bit of the grille and some of the front-right door. Everything else was covered with snow. No plow had touched my driveway or the main driveway, and the town plows had made only a couple of passes on the street beyond. Even if I could get the car out I’d probably get tossed in jail, anyway. It had been made illegal to venture out in a car today, except in special cases. I wonder how long it will be illegal. I just heard on the radio that the storm (named “Larry”; too bad the “C” storm wasn’t called “Curley” – then they could name the “M” one “Moe.”) was stalled southeast of Nantucket and it would keep snowing here until Larry got moving again. (That’s why they need Moe.)

I live in Wolcott, Connecticut, by the way. We’re a proud little town. We’re on a ridge on the northeast corner of Waterbury. The people who live in Wolcott are the ones who saved enough money to move to the suburbs of Waterbury, but not onto the rich side of town where Middlebury, Southbury and Woodbury are. These Wolcott residents were once perhaps the most pessimistic of all Waterburians, but the longer they live here the more straightened out they get. And they’re the types who really shine during weather emergencies. You don’t feel bad about going out alone in a blizzard with them around.

And out I went. The first people I met were trudging up the main driveway. They were hard to recognize at first because they were completely bundled up, but they turned out to be two young women who live nearby. They said they’d gone down to the road to see what kind of shape it was in. I didn’t ask why. One dove into the snow and began flapping her arms in and out, making an angel. The other was sitting on the hood of a buried car. “This is the first time I ever sat on a hood and my feet touched the ground,” she announced cheerfully. They wished me well after I told them where I was going. It was good to be out.

The store, named E.Z. Pikins, is 1.9 miles away. I know that because I’ve measured it off in the car so I could give someone exact directions once. The first .8 miles is uphill, but after that things aren’t bad. I’d called a friend (The phone lines are being overtaxed, they say, but I got through on the second try.) who lives practically on the way and told him I’d swing by. The hill wasn’t as tiring as I thought it’d be. The town trucks had cut a plow-wide path down the center of Lyman Road, but even the path was a good 7-inches-deep with snow. I stayed mainly in the smaller, more recent paths that the snowmobilers had been making. There was no traffic and it was still snowing hard, but it wasn’t blowing and it wasn’t unpleasant.

After about a half-mile I came upon a man shoveling out his driveway. He’d made good progress but I noticed he’d shoveled all around the two cars and forgot to swipe the snow off of them. There was about a foot of snow on each car and when he finally did brush it off, he’d have to shovel some more. He wore a dazed expression. “I never expected this,” was all he said. I passed some woods on my right, looking in as I skied by. Way down deep, almost obscured entirely by the falling snow, walked someone in a red parka and also a dog. I watched them walk 10 steps or so (the red so cheery in the black and white) and then the dog suddenly ran ahead and out of sight. The parka disappeared five steps later. Further along, I passed by more houses. All the houses around here have short driveways leading to the garages. Some of the driveways were cleaned out and the cars looked all ready to go. Others hadn’t been touched and looked like they never would be. Apparently, the garages are so full of other stuff that they don’t have room enough to store a car, much less two.

As I crested the hill, a snowmobile zoomed past me and its driver gave me a “thumbs-up” salute. I wasn’t quick enough to wave back. The road now sloped down in front of me. It was clear of cars and trucks, but with varying degrees of clarity I could see people out and about. They’d been inside all morning, and all day yesterday for that matter, but now it was time to visit neighbors and talk over the storm. The skiing became easier and I began to pick up speed. I wanted to show these people something. Suddenly, though, I heard the sound of a motor and, a moment later, a car crept out from behind the white curtain, headed toward me. It was a 1962 Volkswagen Beetle, all dented and falling apart. It crawled along in second gear, as noble a machine as I’d ever seen in my life. It stopped as it drew abreast of me and the driver, a dark, mischievous-looking man about 35, asked me how the hill was. I said it didn’t seem to be too bad. He thanked me and drove off. I’m sure he would have proceeded even if I’d told him the hill no longer existed.

blizzard of '78Clear skiing down to the Volunteer Fire Department at the corner. The firehouse driveway had of course been cleared and a number of men were hanging out in the parking lot (also cleared), waiting for an emergency. They all had their vehicles with them, mostly four-wheel-drive Jeeps and pick-ups. The men were watching another man put chains on his tires. Then someone pulled up in a snowmobile and as they turned to greet him, they saw me. For a moment I felt a little insubstantial, flailing along as I was, relatively unprepared to face up to a crisis. But that feeling passed as I swung onto Potucco’s Ring Road and hit my first real downhill stretch. I sped down the grade, nodding casually to a resting shoveler and performed a neat snowplow stop in front of my friend’s house.

The friend, Tom, has a black Dodge pick-up, but it’s not four-wheel-drive, and it was deep in his unplowed driveway, its bed bearing a heavy payload of white stuff. I removed my skis while still on the road, planted them and the poles out by the mailbox and trudged, with great difficulty, toward the front door. Tom greeted me with a glass of wine. He told me his roommate, Rob, had been caught in the storm while driving home from work the night before. He’d abandoned his car and found refuge at a friend’s house in Waterbury. I took off my parka, hat, gloves, shoes and pants and sat down. Tom produced a joint and we smoked and drank and talked about the storm. Neither of us had a very clear idea of what was going on elsewhere in the state or along the East Coast. We’d heard it was worse in Rhode Island and Boston, but that was hard to believe. We tried to imagine under what circumstances one could get stuck in the snow and die. The conversation rambled and the afternoon began to darken around us. After the third glass of wine I decided I’d better go, with the promise of cigarettes and two bottles of ginger ale, for Tom, to be dropped off on the way back.

It seemed sharply colder when I got back out and into the skis again. A wind had sprung up out of the northwest. It was coming on dusk and I decided to ski for speed. Back up the hill and down to Wolcott Road. From the corner, as I turned up Wolcott Road, I could see the lights of E.Z. Pikins. The store, the only one open for miles in any direction, had become a gathering place of sorts. As I skied closer I could see a couple of snowmobiles parked out front and another approaching from the opposite direction. There was also the very odd sight of people walking down the middle of Wolcott Road, usually a very busy state road. The falling snow, the darkening afternoon, and, above all, the remarkable silence blessed the scene with a lovely old-fashioned grace. The walkers moved with the stately ease of strollers on the grounds of a sanitarium. Not a single car intruded. Normal commerce had been all but stopped completely. For this one afternoon, anyway, we had stepped deep into the friendly, unhurried past. It would be a few hours to store away, to remember later and savor when things got back to normal.

I cruised up to the front of E.Z. Pikins, once again removed my skis (happily a simple process) and went inside. The store was crowded, but most everyone was standing around and talking. The place was badly in need of a few chairs and a potbelly stove. There didn’t seem to be any major piece of news (personal tragedy, rescue, remarkable coincidence) being exchanged, so, wanting to get back before dark, I bought my things and hustled back out.

The temperature was dropping very quickly now and the wind continued to pick up. As with many trips, the homeward leg was mere drudgery. I raced back up Potucco’s Ring Road and shouted for Tom, who came out to get his Kools and soda. Then I turned and retraced my tracks back home. The people who had been out before were now back inside, where lights blazed warmly. An occasional whiff of woodsmoke filled me with an indistinct longing. The wind was now in my face and, for the first time, I was feeling tired. They day had suddenly become unpleasant. I skied harder, even poling furiously down the last hill to the main driveway below my house. I pushed up the driveway and into my yard, flung off the skis and ran inside.

For a moment I couldn’t do anything but stand, leaning against a wall, and pant. My head was light, my heart was pounding – it was the closest I’d come to passing out since Bernie Carbo hit that home run in the sixth game of the ’75 World Series. At length, though, I was able to regain my composure enough to sit down, and eventually to write these words.

Now it’s night. I just stuck my head out the front door. The wind is making the only sound. For a moment, because of the blowing snow, it was hard to tell if the stuff was still coming down. Then the wind stopped briefly and I had a chance to check the nimbus of a streetlight down on Lyman Road. It’s still snowing. But they said on the radio that the storm center has just now begun to move away from Nantucket and head slowly for the Maritimes.


3 thoughts on “Wayback Machine: The Great Blizzard of ’78

  1. Chaz,
    Very descriptive piece on that remarkable snow storm. This one this year has rivaled it in some ways, but it will never have the same feel because we never saw it coming.

  2. Beautifully put. I was in Boston at the time where a high tide coupled with the ferocious storm lead to 50 deaths. I was out cross country skiing too but I went a little farther (I had a girl at the end of my trip). Somerville to Jamaica Plains; north of Boston to south of Boston, over the Charles River by the BU Bridge. Ironically, the days that followed the storm were sunny and clear almost as a smug smile from mother nature after all the death and destruction.

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