A Texan's plight in the North

... Steve may never go home to Texas. His first year in the North as a college student was a rude awakening.

by Eleanor Jenkins

My son-in-law moved to Melrose, MA in February 1994 and he has established himself in Melrose. I wondered if he had ever thought back to his first year in this state and wondered why he went to college so far north? He had a rude awakening. Someone compared the storm we had in Pennsylvania on February 6th, and I suppose it could include this storm just concluding today (February 11th) to the blizzard of '78 in Melrose. I remember hearing about that one eventually from Karen since she and Steve were both Freshmen at college at that time. She had many years of experiencing snow storms before her first time that far away from home, but Steve had come from deep in the heart of Texas and I would suppose never had seen snow like that before. So I decided to interview him about his recollections of the winter of 1978.

Eleanor:  Steve, I wonder how much you remember of the first snow storm you experienced when you were in college?  

Steve:  Before the blizzard of í78, I had seen snow. I lived in Oregon between the ages of 3 and 7. I vaguely recall playing in snow, but I have no idea how much we got, how deep it was, and how often we had it. We lived in Southern Oregon, in Klamath Falls. It is a dry area, between the deep Northwest forests and virtual desert. We lived a few hours drive from Crater Lake National Park, which I recall visiting. My family has told me different things about snow where lived.  I have been told the snow was light and infrequent, and also that we would have big storms from time to time. Oh, well. There was also disagreement about how cold it got. Some said very, some said not so much.

After Oregon, I lived in Texas with my parents in Victoria, near the Gulf, for a year. We then moved to Houston, where I lived for 10 years, again near the Gulf. Some parts of Texas do get snow, as well as cold. Dallas is always good for a few blizzards each winter, 250 miles north of Houston, and the mountains of West Texas get snow. Along the Gulf, snow is unusual. Sometimes at night the temperature would drop into the 20s, but not very often. During a cold day, it would be in the upper 30s. On the other hand, we would get warm days in winter, warm enough to do yard work without shirts on. In my 11 years after returning to Texas from Oregon, we got snow only one winter.

I think it was the winter of 1973-1974. I was in 8th grade. We got snow three times. The first storm was not predicted, and we got about 2Ē. The schools closed, and most businesses closed. There was no way to plow the streets, and few drivers knew how to drive in snow and ice. Most people stayed home for a day, and the roads were empty of traffic. I remember several snowball fights with friends. There wasnít enough snow to build a snow man,'though we tried. I recall some of my friends using digging shovels to clear sidewalks, but then dumping the snow into intersections. They would then push cars that got stuck for a few dollars. I donít think I participated in this larceny, but I remember finding it amusing.

We found it hard to enjoy the snow. We did not have the right clothes. Few of us had gloves, our coats tended to be cloth and not water resistant, as well as fairly light, and we only had sneakers to put on our feet. After 30 minutes outside we would be quite cold and wet. The snow stayed on the ground for a few days. It was a carnival atmosphere, and the general easy-going nature of Texas made it fun. I do not recall people stressing out. It was more like a big party. Of course, that may have been because I was a kid at the time. Maybe adults were worried, but I donít recall that. The next two snows were less than an inch, and were gone within a day. I donít think that the schools closed for those storms.

When I arrived for college in Boston in September 1977, I had never been east of Louisiana and hadnít been farther north than Dallas since 1967. I did not have proper winter clothes. No gloves, no hat, and my coat was pitiful. I had sneakers and two pair of suede shoes. I donít remember much about the late fall and early winter. I was very focused on my homework and exams.  Other than walking to class and weekend walks around the city, I did not get out much. I thought it was cold, but manageable.

I donít remember much about the late fall and early winter. I was very focused on my homework and exams. Other than walking to class and weekend walks around the city, I did not get out much. I thought it was cold, but manageable.

After a 3 week Christmas break, I returned to Boston. The cold was intense, and there was ice and snow everywhere that I had to contend with. I was miserable.  The wind was awful. I remember dreading going outside. The only time I could get warm was at night in my bed. I finally bought gloves, but I still had Texas footwear and coat. I couldnít understand why anyone would live in such conditions. Next to my 18th floor dorm room desk was a large window. The window leaked cold air. Working at my desk was miserable. I sat on my hands whenever I could. I think it was the wind off of the Charles River which I remember dreading most.

When the blizzard of í78 began, I was on my way back to the dorm from my calculus class. It was my last class of the day. While at college I did not pay attention to weather forecasts, or news in general. I donít recall anyone having a TV, and radios would be changed as soon as anything but music was broadcast. There was no internet, and maybe three computers in the whole building. The only weather that mattered was what was happening in the 5-10 minutes while I was between buildings. It was miserably cold. Whether 30, 20, or 10 degrees, it did not matter. Anything under 40 was uncomfortable. Weather forecasts were not useful to me.

It snowed while I crossed Commonwealth Avenue...not particularly heavy. I am sure I was more cold than thinking about the snow. Back in my room I was working on calculus homework. The snow continued. I was surprised as the snowfall got so heavy that the ďBĒ tower of my dorm disappeared from my view. The wind howled. As the hours passed, the snow kept falling. I donít recall being surprised, I was too focused on getting my math problems done. It wasnít until later that evening that I heard that something remarkable has happening outside.

I was shocked the first time I stepped outside. Of course, I had never seen so much snow before. Walking through the mess was a nightmare. Little snow was cleared the first few days from walkways. The people who did such work could not get to campus. Within a few steps my shoes would be full of snow and my feet would be freezing. My coat soaked up the blowing snow.

Classes were cancelled. At first it was day-to-day, later the school gave up and said classes would pick up the next week. Professors, administrative staff, and others could not get to campus. Aside from not having classes, the next biggest impact was dorm food. The cafeteria in my dorm was one of the few on campus that remained open. Kids from other buildings had to trudge to us for meals. Soon, hot dogs became the menu. No deliveries could be made. The kitchen had to make do with what it had, and had to feed hundreds more than was expected. I had hot dogs for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I guess they bought wieners in mass quantities and froze them, and that is what was what was on hand when the streets shut down.

There was little to do with classes cancelled. A few of my classmates resorted to chemical recreations. I had neither the interest nor the cash to amuse myself that way. We had heat, and the lights worked. I donít recall losing power. I did homework. Lots of homework.

At some point I heard that the Red Cross needed help. Several blocks from campus, near Fenway Park, the Red Cross had a building with a large parking lot. Many of us wandered over to the facility. Helicopters landed in the parking lot. We formed human chains between the building and the aircraft, and handed boxes to each other to unload. Large military-style trucks pulled up after the 'copters left and we loaded the trucks. I recall seeing thousands of cots and blankets. I donít know what was in most of the boxes we handled. The trucks and helicopters came and went around the clock.

The Red Cross set up a kitchen.  We could smell all sorts of cooking going on.  While the main motivation for me was to help and be useful, I was also looking forward to non-hot dog meals. However, the volunteers were offered bologna sandwiches.  As many bologna sandwiches as one could eat.  I recall one of my co-ed friends, a particularly attractive and cute young lady. She came with us to volunteer. However, she did not have the upper-body strength for handling the cots and boxes. She was delegated to the kitchen. Her job was to make bologna sandwiches. Lots and lots of bologna sandwiches. To this day bologna will send her screaming. Some of us have monsters in our nightmares. She has bologna in hers. I know this because 30+ years later I can show her bologna and get an entertaining reaction.

I remember the deserted streets. Only authorized vehicles were supposed to be on the road. Plows, fire trucks, ambulances, police, utility trucks, and city vehicles. Some people skied. It was very odd to walk down the streets that normally would have been choked with traffic. It was very quiet. Funny how much noise we make going places. We donít notice until we stop.

Late in the week I took a walk. I walked to and crossed the Mass Ave bridge into Cambridge. I remember sinking to my knees, and higher in the drifts. It was exhausting. The sidewalks were covered with snow plowed off the streets. You had to walk in the street, and had to stay alert for the few cars and trucks that were out. No stores were open. No place to get a hamburger, pizza, bar of soap, cup of coffee.

It would be another week or more before sidewalks were cleared enough to make walking safe. Once traffic resumed, walking became dangerous. There were still many places were one had to climb over drifts and walk in the street. Getting around would be difficult for a while, even after things returned to normal.

At no point was I ever in danger or real discomfort during the storm. Years later I heard stories of people stranded in cars on 128, and stories of families along roads who took others in. Some people along the shore lost their houses.  At the time I did not know anyone who was injured or anyone who suffered major losses.

I did not take any photos. I did have a camera, but maybe I was overwhelmed.  The snow did not seem like something that needed to be documented, just tolerated.

Eleanor:  What was your first reaction to all of that white stuff?

Steve:  Since I had seen snow before, I did not go crazy. Also, I am sure that was an element having to look or be cool. I was already something of a circus act, between my accent and unintentional naivetť.  I thought bagels were awful donuts. There was plenty of other new stuff for me to embarrass myself over.
The last weekend, when the reporters were on the Penn campus, the boys were in the background playing football.

Eleanor:  Did you and your classmates do anything like that?

Steve:  I donít recall ďplayingĒ in the snow. There was little open space on BUís campus. There was a small courtyard in front of the School of Communication, and there some people would throw snowballs, but not a lot. The snow was too deep in the few open areas. It was hard to play sports around BU, even without deep snow. We generally had to walk to public parks and school yards in Brookline and Allston. There werenít any nearby, at least that I knew of. I donít even recall anyone having a football, now that you mention it.

Eleanor:  One last question Steve. I remember hearing stories from my daughter, Karen, about taking walks with a long tall Texan in the Fells. Had you then thought you would be living so close to them as you are now? Did you ever think that you would be spending the rest of your life here in the north? In Melrose?

Steve:  When I was in college, I had no inkling that I would end up living in New England. I expected to be living in Texas, Pennsylvania or in between. During my junior year I felt that Karen and I could have a future together, and began thinking about where we would live if we married. In Boston I was too uncomfortable in the winter. The winter wind would suck the life out of me.  I did think that New England was beautiful and fascinating, but was not attractive enough to compensate for the cold.

Two related memories:

Playing softball in April with my college friends and being cold. So cold that batting was painful, and there would be ice on the ground. I recall thinking that was ridiculous. April was supposed to be warm, becoming hot. Baseball isnít supposed to be a cold weather sport.
One of my first days back in Texas after my first Spring semester, I went to a beach with a friend. It was in late May, and it was already in the upper nineties. I remember lying in the sun and feeling the New England winter being pulled out of me. That was the first time I was warm since the previous August.  Today the thought of lying in the sun on a Texas beach makes me very uncomfortable!

Eleanor:  Thank you for the interview Steve.



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