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WEB EXCLUSIVE: Snowstorm stirs memories of chains on tires, Blizzard of '78

January 29, 2011

I don’t know…I say that a lot these days and I really don’t know, either because I’ve forgotten or I never knew in the first place. I do know that the longer I am around on this earth, the less I know for a fact. And that is good, I think, because it keeps the mind open to all sorts of new possibilities. If I decided that I knew, then what’s the point? I’m done, finished, subject is closed. It’s more fun not to know and hope for advanced knowledge of some sort. Something like that.
What I don’t know today is all about this weather business. I seem to recall when I was a little fellow, there was a lot of snow, piles of snow, and conditions on the roads were such that one made very little progress whether plows came or not. There weren’t that many plows available at the time anyway.
Our house, the house of my early youth, sat all alone on a little hillside in Smithfield. The address was Stillwater, Rhode Island. The house was set apart from the village itself and in the village was a mill, a working mill, and as in all mills of that time there were three shifts and the one that ended at 11 p.m. during a snowstorm was cause for much excitement in our house, but no excitement for the mill workers trying to get home.
This was back in the days when chains on tires were necessary if you were doing any traveling on snow-covered roads. I can recall putting chains on tires and I can also recall that this activity wasn’t much fun. Triple A was not around the corner – I suppose it existed but I don’t remember it coming to our house.
Back to the mill and those that left it at 11 p.m. on a snowy night. The line of cars might not have been more than six or eight but the time it took for them to make it up the hill was cause for us kids to remain glued to a window watching the futile attempts as one by one they slid backwards, perhaps one or two went into a little ditch, perhaps a couple more being pushed by hand by other drivers, all wanting to get to a warm home after eight hours of work. And what did we little fellows do? Giggle and laugh at such excitement. Oh we were bad indeed.
Eventually the chains would come out, one worker helping another, all action illuminated by the single light bulb on the telephone pole opposite our house. Mild curses and still milder oaths were abundant – actually the language was totally appropriate all things considered, nothing like the horrendous stuff coming out of some mouths today. The cars, one by one, would finally disappear up the hill and off to bed we’d go…waiting and hoping for another storm…our amusement came cheap to us in those days.
Stormy weather brings back that day in l978 when the great blizzard struck. There I was in New York’s Pennsylvania Station, determined to get back to Rhode Island and my family – wife and three little boys at the time. I’m sure they could and would have done very well without me, but it was the principle of the thing that drove me, that made me stand for a very long time waiting for a train that would find its way from New York City to Kingston, Rhode Island.
So I waited, as did a great multitude of people. There was light and warmth and plenty of food. But standing was no fun…so I watched people as I always do when given the opportunity and two of my favorites ladies were very apparent as they always were whenever I was in that station’s waiting room. They were a team, the ladies. I thought they might have been sisters…both dressed in long tan trench coats and simple black shoes. I never saw what was under their coats – I certainly never even wondered. It was more their non-stop operation as a team that fascinated me.
I once began writing a story about the ladies – I called it The Pennsylvania Station Ballet – and indeed their performance was like a dance, one unending piece of activity as first one would find a seat and sit while the other would move at a stately pace all around the vast room, checking each telephone booth (no cell phones back then) for any loose change that might have been left behind. Round the area one lady would go, and then return to her “sister” who held a little bag open to receive whatever money might have been obtained. The sitting lady would get up and proceed to do exactly what the other had done, while “sister” number one sat and rested. This procedure went on and was always going on whenever I was in that station and I was in that station every Thursday or Friday evening for six years. I wondered about those women, how they lived, where they lived, what their life was like. I will never know.
As for stormy weather and the great blizzard, it took many hours on a train that evening to get to Kingston, with the train stopping here and there and it seemed in the middle of nowhere at times to let people off to make their way into the snow. One person I remember embarking by foot across a field of white. I suppose he or she made it home.
And what was in Kingston when I finally got there? No one. Not a soul. So I walked to the URI entrance and blocked the road when a car came out the campus drive. It took me to vacant Wakefield where another car took me into silent, snow-piled Narragansett.
I will always remember that seemingly endless walk along Robinson Street from Narragansett Avenue – wind, cold, drifts, blowing snow, but the street lights were on, I could see, and finally our house at the dead end. A very long trip from NY to RI, but worth it. Locked in for the next week. It couldn’t have ended better than that.

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