Every year in winter, there's a week like this one where there's tons of coverage of snow. Some of it is literal snow covering the ground and some of it is the local news 'covering' the possible snow to come, snow that is falling and finally snow that has fallen. My wife likes to joke that there's always a run on the store for three popular items; milk, bread and eggs. What are people making? French Toast? Why French Toast?
Inevitably, those of us who are old enough to remember will compare this year's snow to the big blizzard of 1982.
If you're not from here, you might not know that St. Louis is nestled in the middle reaches of the midwest. We are not too far north and not too far south for our winters. If you compare us to Chicago, we seem pretty mild. It's not uncommon for them to get multiple snow storms of 6" or more. And the new falling snow will be coming down before the previous load of snow has melted much. And they know how to handle it well, clearing snow by the ton. Then again, if you compare us to Oklahoma or Texas or somewhere else warmer, we do know how to handle a snow storm reasonably well. We get at least one, rarely two major snow storms each year. But very rarely is it over 6-8". And hardly does it last for longer than a few days before it's melted away or properly cleared.
The most memorable snow storm that fell on St. Louis in living memory took place at the end of January of the year 1982. And as much as all the kids who were my age will regale you with their adventures from that year, I'd like to add an apology up front and note that the heavy snowfall was most likely my family's fault. I'll explain all that, but first a snippet from the recent retrospective on stltoday.com.
For the big snow of 1982, the record book lists 13.9 inches. Only the lucky shovelers remember it that way.
By quirk of nature, Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, keeper of the official gauge, was nestled upon the fringe of a deeper pile of snow to its south and east. Much of St. Louis, south St. Louis County and Jefferson County lay beneath 18 inches or more after the storm on Jan. 30 and 31.
Red Bud and Mascoutah had 20 inches. Two feet buried Greenville, Ill.
The storm's worst ran along Interstate 44 in Missouri and Interstate 55 in Illinois, roughly 50 miles either way. Elsberry to the north and Perryville to the south had but a few inches each.
Yeah, it was more than 14 inches. I was only 5 years old, going on 6. But I can state definitively that the snow was at or above 2 whole feet at our house where I grew up near the corner of I270 and Olive. But let me back up and tell you about the previous Christmas. That year, completely without any prompting, my mother bought my father a snow blower as a surprise present. He hadn't asked for one or anything and it seemed odd. He was grateful, but he commented that we hardly get enough snow most years to warrant a powerful heavy horsepower removal device.
I got tons of Star Wars toys, including an AT-AT Walker from Empire Strikes Back. You see, Episode V had come out the previous year. The main setting in Empire was the ice planet of Hoth. Many an iconic scene takes place with our heroes trudging through the snowy wastes, especially after Luke Skywalker escapes from the Wampa monster and attempts to survive the elements lost and alone.
So, combine the precipitously lucky gift of a highly advanced snow blower with a small child's strong desire to get lost in the snow... and there you have it.
It took days for shovelers, large and small, to dig out of the heavy stuff. The Missouri National Guard rumbled in with front-end loaders to clear downtown streets. Municipal mechanics worked overtime fixing transmissions and broken hydraulic hoses on plow trucks.
Bi-State, the old name for Metro, had to cancel bus routes for two days or more. Amtrak and Greyhound stopped running. Lambert cleared its runways on the first day, but few passengers could get to their flights.
Jim White, now the mayor of Maplewood, was St. Louis County's emergency director that winter. He and his crew spent four day in the underground command center near Olive and Ladue roads. They ate freeze-dried food, answered hundreds of phone calls and napped on cots when they could.
"It was very, very hectic," White said Tuesday, thinking back 29 years. "The phones rang constantly. Lots of people were caught unprepared because we didn't have the warning like we did this time."
The forecast had been for rain turning to four inches of snow. The big worry had been flooding. But when the storm switched to heavy snow, it sat over St. Louis rather than make its usual drift eastward. Snowflakes sparkled to lightning flashes.
That Sunday, only a few hardy souls trudged to church. Many pastors couldn't get to work. Hundreds of motorists simply abandoned vehicles in deep ruts and drifts on highways and streets. Even many trucks were helpless.
For the young at heart in high boots, the reward was a winter wonderland unseen here for 70 years. Not since March 30-31, 1890, when 20.4 inches was recorded, had there been a bigger snowstorm. (The snow of 1982 officially ranks third, behind the 15.5 inches of Feb. 20, 1912.)
My father bundled himself up and gassed up the snow-blower and did his best to clear the driveway, all the while politely fending off eager neighbors who wanted to borrow the machine when he was done. He took photos and video too and I'm hoping to update this post with some of that footage later. I've seen these home movies so many times that I'm not sure how much of what I remember are actual memories vs. memories of the footage vs. some combination. My father narrated as he filmed and you can hear the awe and amazement in his voice as he understood the historic weather he was recording.
The action heroes were civilian owners of four-wheel-drive vehicles, who volunteered by the hundreds to deliver critical medicines, ferry patients to blood transfusions and dialysis, and take police officers where their patrol cars couldn't.
On Interstate 55 near Edwardsville, firefighters David Carnaghi and Capt. Dennis Henson delivered Sharon Miller's 9-pound son in the back of their stranded ambulance. A farm tractor pulled it to Oliver C. Anderson Hospital in Maryville.
"My baby is fine. Those guys were just great," said Miller, safe and warm in the hospital.
On Monday, public officials urged workers to stay home - an easy call to honor, given the state of most driveways.
Criminals were stuck indoors as well, adding few cases to police blotters. One burglar who broke into Garavaglia's Meat Market, 2800 Lafayette Avenue, was arrested by officers who simply followed his solitary tracks home.
At least four people were stricken fatally on the first day while shoveling. Through the week, another dozen would die of storm-related causes, mostly from heart attacks by pushing snow or vehicles.
Five days into the big dig, an exasperated Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr. told reporters about all the ideas flooding City Hall from homebound residents.
"The city has 454,000 residents, and that means the city has 454,000 civil engineers," he said.
Most schools didn't even try to reopen until Monday, Feb. 8.
I played in the snow for what seemed like days. I rolled in it. I built mounds of it. I trudged through it and called out to the distant mirage of Obi-Wan Kenobi's ghost on the horizon. While my father blew the snow off to the side of the driveway, I stood in the path and let it get caked into the layers of scarves and ski masks my mother had tried to protect me with. I was Superman defending the innocent from Lex Luthor's frost beam. I was Luke Skywalker or Han Solo lost and trying to get back to the rebel base. I was Darth Vader hunting rebels as they retreated to their ships. I only came inside when mom pleaded and bribed me with hot chocolate. But once my body was warm and my clothes were dry I'd beg to go right back out there. It was a wintery heaven for a boy like me. "Dagobah system... Ben... Yoda..."
Perhaps it's a stretch to imagine that our family somehow caused the weather with our gifts or our Star Wars imagination. But it's how I choose to see it. If you'd like to reminisce or learn more about that winter, go read A look back • The big snow of 1982. For those of you who enjoyed playing in the snow that year who wish to thank me, you are very welcome.
What was your favorite memory from that year? Leave me your story in the comment box below.