Blizzard training

 ... a travelogue 

by Russ Priestley

Less than two weeks after our group decided to write, on the 25th anniversary, about the Blizzard of '78, we were upstaged by a storm on February 17, 2003. It was a bigger storm in the amount of fallen snow (27.6" vs. 27.1") but it was not a blizzard. A blizzard must have winds of 70 m.p.h. or more. In addition, in '78 there were high tides driven by that wind. This caused almost constant pounding of ocean waves against the coastline. There was much erosion and seawalls were spread in broken sections on shore roads where many homes were washed away. And the snow was a heavy, moisture-laden variety in '78.

We were alerted more to this storm than we were to the Big Blizzard. In '78 I was at work in my Boston office, but keeping in touch with my radio. When it sounded as if we would get a considerable amount of snow, I packed some work to do at home and departed to get a 2 p.m. railroad train to Melrose. As usual we passengers settled in the seats, with the overflow standing in the aisles and we waited and waited. Everyone had read their usual newspaper or magazine and were about ready to use the rest room. (I can see why the British call them water closets ... that is about the size of it). In this situation I am always reminded of the little ditty which is sung to the tune of "Humoresque." It is,
"Passengers will please refrain from flushing toilets while the train is waiting in the station. We thank you."

The waiting lines were getting longer and the grumbling was more frequent as the crew stayed out of questioning range. Every so often the train would move a bit until we were finally out of the station and in the rail yards where we could watch the little flames designed to keep the switches from freezing. All this accomplished was to prevent anyone from returning to the station for necessary reasons. What we did not realize was they were adding passenger cars to the train. It ended as a 12 car train, not the usual two or three cars.

Unfortunately, the Boston and Maine Railroad was having trouble with the glamorous-looking Budd self-propelled passenger cars. They had to use a diesel locomotive to push or pull them. In addition, they had made an underpass in the Wellington section of Medford and it was believed that the big locomotives could not fit in that underpass with this 12 car train. No problem, they thought. We'll push this long train to Medford, then we'll send a locomotive out on the western branch and back around through Lawrence where it would switch to the southbound tracks of the northern branch. After about 40 miles of travel, it would meet the head of the 12 cars at the underpass, hitch on and pull it on its way. The result was I got home at 10 p.m., eight hours for a trip which normally took 14 minutes.(I understand they went out on a slow day to check whether these diesels would fit through that underpass. "Well, I'll be damned!" said the top dog. "It does fit. We CAN use them on this line.")

Those commuters who traveled along our circumferential highway, Route 128, were much worse off. 3500 vehicles were stuck out there, with many sleeping overnight until rescued by the National Guard next day. That is how intense the Blizzard of '78 was.

After a long night of more of the blizzard, I awoke to the task of shoveling. I tried to open the front door but could not because of the depth and drifting of the snow. The only solution was to go out through a ground floor window with a shovel. We had 27.1 inches of snow on top of the previous record of 21 inches. There was no transportation of any kind for several days.

We lost electricity which made it necessary to eat cold food (electric range unusable) or cook using our fireplace. The telephone was usable. This was fortunate for two of our sons who were in Arizona trying to "find themselves." We received a call, collect of course, from Arizona, requesting money so they could get home. ("Home is where, when you go there, they have to let you in." Robert Frost.) My wife and I had to walk four miles each way to the Malden Western Union office in order to wire money to Sunny Arizona, while we shoveled endlessly and walked through piles of snow to get anywhere.

March 7, 2003

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